Reference Entry

Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem (born 1947), Basketball Player, Celebrity

Marty Dobrow

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem (born 1947), Basketball Player, Celebrity

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basketball player, was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, the son of Ferdinand Lewis “Al” Alcindor, a police officer with the New York Transit Authority, and Cora Alcindor, a department-store price checker. The almost thirteen-pound baby arrived in Harlem one day after the major league debut of Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn; as with Robinson, fiercely competitive athletics and the struggle against racial injustice would define much of his life.From a young age, Alcindor was introspective and intense. He had an artistic sensibility, drawn in part from his father, a stern and silent cop who played jazz trombone and held a degree from Juilliard. An only child in a strictly Catholic household, he moved from Harlem at age three to the Dyckman Street projects on the northern tip of Manhattan, a racially mixed, middle-class community. In third grade he was startled to see a class photo that featured him not just towering over his classmates as expected, but standing out by the color of his skin. “Damn, I'm dark and everybody else is light!” Alcindor recalled thinking years later (Abdul-Jabbar, Giant Steps, 15). In fourth grade, his parents shipped him to an all-black boarding school outside Philadelphia, where he was taunted for his intellectual leanings. But in his one year at Holy Providence School, he developed street toughness and also launched his first hook shot, a weapon that would become his aesthetic and athletic trademark.Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, after setting a new NBA regular season scoring record of 31,421 points, acknowledges cheering fans during a game against the Utah Jazz in Las Vegas, Nevada, 6 April 1984. (AP Images.)Back in New York from fifth grade on, Alcindor began to grow into his coordination. By eighth grade, he was a sinewy six feet, eight inches; by tenth grade, he was a seven footer with astonishing agility. At Power Memorial, an all-boys Catholic school where his teams lost only one game in his final three years, Alcindor never fit neatly into the jock stereotype. He read widely, joined the debate team, and began to frequent New York's jazz clubs. On the court, though, the Renaissance man reigned. His game was at once graceful and ferocious. Coach Jack Donohue opened up the world for his sensitive star, bringing him to NBA games at Madison Square Garden. There the coach pointed with particular reverence to the inspired and unselfish play of the Celtics center Bill Russell. Donohue's influence was not completely positive, however. At halftime of an unusually lethargic performance during Alcindor's junior year, the fiery coach tore into his prodigy, telling him he was acting “just like a nigger!” (Sports Illustrated, 27 Oct. 1969). The wound from that remark festered for many years.That summer Alcindor's growing awareness of racism sharpened when he participated in the journalism workshop of the Harlem Youth Action Project. At one point he covered a press conference by Martin Luther King Jr., a moment commemorated in a photograph in Jet magazine. He also witnessed five days of rioting in Harlem after a white policeman shot a black teenager. “Right then and there I knew who I was and who I had to be,” he said in a Sports Illustrated profile (31 Mar. 1980). “I was going to be black rage personified, black power in the flesh.”The summer of 1964 also proved defining in his association with Wilt Chamberlain. Eleven years Alcindor's senior and established (along with his rival Russell) as the dominant big man in the NBA, Chamberlain took the high school kid under his considerable wing. He loaned Alcindor jazz albums, invited him to his apartment to play hearts, and ferried him in his Bentley up to Saratoga to watch Chamberlain's prize thoroughbreds run. At one point the two played a memorable game of H-O-R-S-E, a matchup of trademark hook shots by Alcindor and fadeaways by Chamberlain that would have been captured on film in a better world.After another scintillating high school season, Alcindor enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), winner of the last two national championships. Although NCAA rules then forbade freshmen to play varsity sports, Alcindor served immediate notice by scoring thirty-one points and leading the freshman team to an emphatic fifteen-point victory over the storied varsity. The next year, under the dignified tutelage of the coaching legend John Wooden, Alcindor launched a collegiate career for the ages. In his very first game he broke the school scoring record with fifty-six points. He earned three consecutive All-America honors, leading the Bruins to three straight national titles and a glittering record of 88–2. Having reached his full height of seven feet, two inches, Alcindor had become a complete player. A menacing shot blocker, he intimidated on defense, and his devastating hook shot and ferocious inside moves were almost impossible to stop. So powerful was his impact on the game that the NCAA outlawed the dunk after his freshman year (though it was reinstated ten years later).Never satisfied with a one-dimensional life, Alcindor broadened his horizons by studying martial arts with Bruce Lee, and by reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Having dismissed what he considered to be the repressive Catholicism of his childhood, he developed a deep connection to Islam. After his junior year in the summer of 1968, he studied in a New York mosque and became a devout follower of Hamaas Abdul-Khaalis. That same summer, Alcindor decided to boycott the Olympic Games, refusing to play for a country that, he felt, denied fundamental rights and respect to black people. He publicly supported the “black power” salutes of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium in Mexico City, earning him a mound of hate mail when he returned to UCLA for his senior year.In 1969, shortly before he graduated with a BA in History, Alcindor polished off his college basketball career with a 37-point, 20-rebound performance in UCLA's victory over Purdue in the NCAA championship game. He became the first pick in the NBA draft, selected by the Milwaukee Bucks, an expansion team that had managed a grim 27–55 record in its first season. For six years he toiled in Milwaukee, a period marked by brilliance on the court and tumult off it. Averaging 28.8 points per game, he won Rookie of the Year honors in 1969–1970 and sparked the Bucks to a dramatic turnaround with a 56–26 record. Perhaps never before or since has one person's impact on a professional team been so profound. The next year, teaming with the newly acquired Oscar Robertson, Alcindor led his team to an NBA championship. Though criticized by the media as an aloof giant, his impact on the game was undeniable. He averaged 31.7 points and 16 rebounds per game, and earned the first of six Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, a figure unmatched in NBA annals.His connections to Islam and Abdul-Khaalis became increasingly public. The religious mentor chose Alcindor's bride in 1971 (Habiba Brown) and the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (meaning “generous and powerful servant of Allah”), which became legal a few months later. In one off-season, the NBA's most dominating player studied Arabic at Harvard; another year he traveled to the Middle East. In 1972–1973 he was followed by NBA security guards after six of Abdul-Khaalis's relatives, including four of his children, were murdered by Black Muslim extremists. (A few years later Abdul-Khaalis was sentenced to forty years in jail for his involvement in a hostage-taking incident, during which a reporter was killed.)On the court Abdul-Jabbar's excellence was undiminished (MVP awards again in 1972 and 1974), but off-court strains were evident. He separated from his wife shortly after the birth of his first daughter in 1973, though they later had two more children. (He subsequently had two additional children with other women.) Abdul-Jabbar had a falling out with Chamberlain over the latter's claim in an autobiography that black women were sexually inferior and his public support of President Richard Nixon. Then in the 1974–1975 season, Abdul-Jabbar got poked in the eye and responded by slamming his fist into a backboard support, breaking two bones in his hand, and taking him away from the game, his oasis. At year's end, the Bucks accommodated his demands for a trade, shipping him to the Los Angeles Lakers in return for four players.Abdul-Jabbar's first years back in California were marked by more of the same: overpowering play (MVP awards in 1976 and 1977) coupled with a brooding court mien that earned him few friends. In the first game of the 1977–1978 season, he was widely criticized for responding to an elbow by Milwaukee's Kent Benson with a devastating punch that sidelined Benson with a concussion and Abdul-Jabbar with another fractured hand. Increasingly, the game's best player was regarded as an outcast. “No man is an island,” opined the legendary Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray, “but Kareem gave it a shot.”In time, though, Abdul-Jabbar found his way back to shore, an American life that had a decided second act. In 1979–1980 the Lakers added the rookie point guard Magic Johnson, whose on-court exuberance was contagious. That year, with Abdul-Jabbar again earning MVP honors, the Lakers captured the NBA title. The Lakers became the dominant team of the 1980s, winning five titles with a stylish, fast-breaking brand of basketball known as “Showtime.” In various ways Abdul-Jabbar seemed to soften. He displayed a deft comic touch in the 1980 movie Airplane, which opened up film and television roles for him in coming years. In 1983 he was visibly moved when fans around the country sent him jazz records after his treasured collection was destroyed in a house fire. Later that year he published Giant Steps, an unusually candid and cathartic autobiography. On the court he seemed almost impervious to age. In 1983–1984 he became the league's all-time leading scorer, eclipsing Chamberlain's record, appropriately enough, with his trademark shot, now widely known as a skyhook—“the most beautiful thing in sports,” according to Bill Russell (Time, 20 Feb. 1989). Abdul-Jabbar seemed downright exuberant in 1984–1985 as the Lakers defeated the Celtics in the NBA Finals. Even pushing forty, bald and begoggled, he remained a force, helping the Lakers become the first repeat champions of the NBA in nineteen years in 1987 and 1988. So durable was he that when he played in his nineteenth and final All-Star game in 1989, he was older than seven of the twenty players in the accompanying NBA Legends Classic. When he finally retired a few months later, he had played more games, scored more points, and blocked more shots than anyone in league history. “In my opinion,” the regal John Wooden said, “he is the most valuable player in the history of the game.”In his retirement, Abdul-Jabbar took to writing, including a highly reflective account of his final season, Kareem, and a history book, Black Profiles in Courage (1996), written with Alan Steinberg. He started a jazz label and remained involved in television and motion pictures. He initially professed a desire to stay away from basketball, but in a variety of broadcasting and coaching roles, including one year as an assistant coach for a high school team on an Apache Indian reservation and a return to the Lakers as an assistant coach in 2005, he began another long, graceful arc to the hoop.

Reference Entry.  1929 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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