“I can do something else besides stuff a ball through a hoop. My biggest resource is my mind. It is what makes everything else work.”
“I think the statement that ‘knowledge is power’ is a very succinct way of getting the message across that you have to know what is right, you have to pursue what is right, and the only way that you can know and do these things is to acquire knowledge. Flailing around in the dark does not help anyone.”
“I tell kids to pursue their basketball dreams, but I tell them to not let that be their only dream.”
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was born April 16, 1947 as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr. in New York City, the only child of Cora and Ferdinand Alcindor. The young Lew Alcindor, as he was called then, learned some tough lessons in fourth grade at Holy Providence School.
Reflecting on that early experience, Kareem has recently said in an interview,
“The other kids didn't appreciate the fact that I was a good student, and I was kind of singled out as an egghead, nerd kind of person. The only good thing that happened to me there was I got to play on the basketball team. That was the first year that I played basketball, and basketball was kind of like a refuge for me, but I couldn't wait to get out of there.”
It was natural that his teachers and coaches would steer him towards basketball, although Kareem did not take to the game immediately. But with patient application he mastered the essentials, and as early as fifth grade was developing the soaring "sky hook" that would become his signature shot on the basketball court.
His parents were adamant that he pay attention to his studies as well. He was their only child, and they were determined that he prepare himself for college. His prowess on the basketball court won him a scholarship to Power Memorial, a private Catholic high school.
One particular game his freshman year at Power Memorial High School made a lasting impression on young Kareem, as he has recalled in his own words:
"I was 14 years old and we went to play a team in Brooklyn and got whipped. There was one player on the team that was doing Globetrotter tricks against our team. It was pretty bad. After the game, I came into the locker room and I felt so bad about my performance that I started crying.
At age 14, you can be either more mature than your years or less mature. In this particular set of circumstances, I was less mature - a lot closer to being 12 than to being 16 years old. So I'm crying, and I remember I looked up and all of the other guys in the locker room were looking at me like I had just landed from Mars. crying at a time like that, like a little kid. Well, at that point my maturity level did a leap of maybe four or five years. I realized that I had to leave that childish emotion and self-pity behind and learn how to compete and get with it. It was a pretty intense moment in my life and one that I refer to a lot in terms of focus and determination.”
The national sports press first took note of Kareem when he was 15, playing for Power Memorial. He led his school team to 95 victories in 101 games and three consecutive championships in New York City's Catholic school league. In all three years, he was named a High School All-American.
The top college basketball teams were all eager to recruit the young phenomenon, but he soon chose the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he could work with fabled coach John Wooden.
Coach Wooden expected all of his players to be serious students. As Kareen puts it,
"He wanted us to graduate. He let us know in the recruiting process that he wanted us to go to class and do well. He was just like a parent, a strict parent. He wanted us to do well. He was not someone that was just there to exploit us as athletes, and I have a lot of respect and undying love for Coach Wooden for that reason. He was not just some cynical opportunist. He really tried to show the love and caring that he had for the people that played sports for him.”
Back in the 1960’s, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules prohibited freshmen from participating in varsity collegiate play, but when Kareem became eligible in his sophomore year, he immediately dominated the college game. The Bruins were national champions all three years (1967-69), losing only two games out of 90. To date, he is the only athlete to be named the NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player three times. The sports press and wire services acclaimed him as College Player of the Year in both 1967 and 1969.
Although he enjoyed enormous popularity as a college sports star, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was also an independent thinker, threading his way through the complex moral and political issues of the 1960s. A reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X led him to the study of Islam, a faith he eventually embraced, converting from the Catholicism of his family. Kareem graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in History in 1969.
The last-place Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association won a coin toss with the Phoenix Suns and drafted the college star. In his first season in the pros, Kareem was named Rookie of the Year. At the end of the regular season the following year, he was named Most Valuable Player and the MVP in the finals as well. He was also the league's top scorer for the first -- but not the last – time. Immediately following this first championship season, Kareem adopted the Arabic name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, meaning "noble servant of the powerful One."
In his first seasons as a pro, he established himself as a dominant figure in professional basketball, but he was notably unlike the star centers who had previously ruled the sport. At 7 feet, 2 inches tall, he cast a long shadow, but he weighed a lean 225 pounds, far less than other players his height. The position of center had traditionally been occupied by large players, who could dominate by sheer strength, but Abdul-Jabbar brought an unprecedented agility to the position. His nimble performance on the court was the product of an intensely disciplined training regimen, far beyond what other basketball players at the time were willing to submit to. He combined his speed and grace on the court with the devastating sky-hook, a shot he could perform with either hand, from the top of his impressive jump. The shot was almost impossible to block, and sportswriters dubbed it "the ultimate weapon."
Despite his fame, Abdul-Jabbar remained a deeply private person, and was visibly uncomfortable with the attention of the sports press. Although a stellar performer in Milwaukee, Kareem felt out of place in a northern Midwestern city with no substantial Muslim community. He requested to be transferred, either to New York, where he grew up, or to Los Angeles, where he had enjoyed such acclaim as a college athlete. In 1975, he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, where his arrival revitalized a faltering team.
In 1976, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took up the practice of yoga to improve his flexibility. He also studied with martial arts master Bruce Lee and made his motion picture debut alongside Lee in the 1978 film Game of Death.
By their mid-30s, most basketball players have retired, but Abdul-Jabbar kept playing, staying in faultless condition through an ever more demanding fitness program. He augmented his practice of yoga and martial arts with meditation to relieve pre-game stress.
On April 5, 1984, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored his 31,420th point, to become the NBA's all-time scoring champion, a record he still holds as of this writing and for the foreseeable future. In the middle of the 1980s, some fans and writers began to wonder if Abdul-Jabbar was finally running out of steam. But, at age 40, Kareem signed a new two-year contract with the Lakers and led the Lakers to one more championship in the 1987-88 season.
Over the course of the decade, Abdul-Jabbar and his teammates had made it to the finals eight times, winning five championship titles. After 20 seasons, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired with nine NBA records, many of which still hold. His scoring record of 38,387 career points (24.6 per game) will probably never be equaled. In 1995, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Since retiring from active play, much of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s time has been devoted to writing. His first book, an autobiography published in 1987, was titled Giant Steps, after a tune by one of Abdul-Jabbar's heroes, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. A second memoir, Kareem (1980), is a diaristic account of his last season, interspersed with memories of childhood and reflections on his life in basketball.
Subsequent books include Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement. It highlight's the lives of a wide variety of African American heroes, including Estevanico, a Moorish slave who discovered Arizona and New Mexico; Cinque, a kidnapped African slave who led a mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad and later won his freedom in the U.S.; and Harriet Tubman, who brought hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Kareem's latest book is On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through The Harlem Renaissance, an examination of the poets, artist, musicians, athletes and activists of the Harlem Renaissance, informed by his own experience growing up in Harlem, a neighborhood historically poor in material resources, but rich in African American history and culture.
In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, Kareem shared his thoughts on what young athletes (and other young people) should know about life.
On What’s Really Important In Life: “Well, off the basketball court, I think that making the world a better place, making my environment a better place, my community, my country. I think that is something that all people should aspire to. If you improve yourself, if you improve your environment, you are contributing to the good of all people, and I think that is a worthy thing for people to aspire to.”
On His Greatest Achievement In Life So Far: “My greatest achievement, I think, has been being a successful parent, sending my kids to school. They are all college grads. They understand who they are, where they are, and have made a good statement with their lives. I think that has been the best thing that I have done.”
On His Advice To Young People: “I think the statement that ‘knowledge is power’ is a very succinct way of getting the message across that you have to know what is right, you have to pursue what is right, and the only way that you can know and do these things is to acquire knowledge. Flailing around in the dark does not help anyone.”
[To read the entire Academy Of Achievement interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, click this link. ]