#RespectYourElders: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 73, is a retired professional basketball player who played 20 seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. Outside of being one of the best basketball players to ever play, he’s been an actor, author, basketball coach, political activist, and martial artist.
Abdul-Jabbar was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. in 1947 in New York City. He was always the tallest in his class and by the age of nine was already 5’8″. By eighth grade, Abdul-Jabbar was already dunking basketballs. In high school, he set New York City school records for scoring, rebounds and led Power Memorial Academy to 71 consecutive wins and three city championships. They were named “The #1 High School Team of the Century” by National Sports Writers.
Following Abdul-Jabbar’s historic run at his high school, he enrolled at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA). He began playing under John Wooden, one of the most successful college basketball coaches in history. Wooden worked tirelessly with Abdul-Jabaar to perfect the center’s “sky-hook” shot. The duo and the rest of the team won the national championship three consecutive years — Wooden won four more after Abdul-Jabaar left.
Abdul-Jabbar was a superstar in college, yet he felt lost. Growing up in the 1960s, he said he wasn’t exposed to many Black role models and witnessed the racial tensions of a country struggling with its past, present, and future. As a freshman at UCLA, he read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and it changed his outlook on life. Malcolm X told the journey from a prison cell to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. His story forced Abdul-Jabbar to question his own faith.
In 1969, he was drafted in the first round of the NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. He made an immediate impact on the court, winning Rookie of the Year. Following that year, he won his first MVP Award, won the NBA Finals with the Bucks, and was awarded NBA Finals MVP. Off the court, he was still trying to figure out his identity. He converted to Islam, and, in 1971, he changed his name from Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“The adoption of a new name was an extension of my rejection of all things in my life that related to the enslavement of my family and people,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in an op-ed. “Alcindor was a French planter in the West Indies who owned my ancestors. My forebears were Yoruba people, from present-day Nigeria. Keeping the name of my family’s slave master seemed somehow to dishonor them.”
Abdul-Jabbar faced criticism and backlash for converting to Islam from his fans, but he continued to unapologetically be himself and play good basketball. He stayed with the Bucks until 1975 when he requested a trade. Abdul-Jabbar was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers where he quickly made a difference. Jerry West was hired as the Laker’s coach, and Abdul-Jabbar made his way back to being an NBA MVP and to the NBA Finals. In 1979, the Lakers drafted Earvin “Magic” Johnson and the team continued its dominance. Their team won nine division titles in the final 10 years of Abdul-Jabbar’s career.
At the age of 42, Abdul-Jabbar finally retired. He held the record for most seasons of 1,000 or more points (19), most minutes played (57,446), and most field goals (15,837). In 1995, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Since his retirement, Abdul-Jabbar has stayed busy writing, appearing in films, and staying politically active. During a recent virtual teach-in hosted by the NBA for Black History Month, Abdul-Jabbar advocated for expanded teaching in the impact African-Americans have made in the United States.
“Our history in this country is so much more involved. It’s intricate.” Abdul-Jabbar said. “All of our achievements in the arts and sciences are ignored, so we really have a lot of work to do to let our fellow citizens know that we’ve contributed so much to what makes America great.”