When you’re facing the 7’2″ retired center for the LA Lakers, words like “genteel” and “humble” wouldn’t come to mind. Despite Abdul-Jabbar’s intimidating height and build at age 66, the former athlete and black history enthusiast has contributed generously to the communities and organizations around him. After battling giants in jerseys on multi-million dollar arenas, he defeated leukemia and trusted in his Muslim belief to raise his family and live every day with grace.
Abdul-Jabbar Rises to the Top with the Sky Hook
Anyone who’s ever watched a game of basketball knows that actually playing the game requires a skilled level of nonverbal communication and a repertoire of offensive and defensive plays. But many plays fall short of extraordinary; the pick-n-roll or alley-oops of basketball are just as surprising now as “like, whatever” is to the conversation of any average teenager.
When all these plays become white noise, how does an NBA athlete leave his mark in history? With that one signature move. Michael Jordan had the fadeaway jumper. Boston Celtics Kevin McHale, who now coaches the Houston Rockets, owned the up-and-under. Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs has the teardrop shot. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had the sky hook and has made it so immortal that younger players today are fearful to use it. Why? Everybody knows it’s Kareem’s shot.
The sky hook—which Abdul-Jabbar practiced day in and day out since he was in grade school—helped achieve six championships and six MVP awards. He holds the league record for a career high of 38, 387 points and played the game until he was 42.
To put this in context by comparison, Kobe Bryant is about 12,000 points away from getting anywhere near Abdul-Jabbar—both of whom played for the Lakers. Abdul-Jabbar was, without a doubt, one of the greatest players in the league and coached by the likes of John Wooden and Pat Reilly.
Despite the fame and fortune rushing his way, Abdul-Jabbar looked to his Muslim faith for direction and stability.
From Lew Alcindor Past to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Present
Growing up in the New York during the 50s and 60s, Americans’ perception of black identity was not favorable and branded with both extreme and perplexing expectations. Racism was large part of his life.
In this book Kareem, he says one of his biggest influences was Malcolm X who, likewise, embraced Islam due to their practice of racial tolerance and acceptance of people of all color. Abdul-Jabbar read Malcolm X’s biography as a freshman at UCLA and was so entranced by his journey and life work that it continued to impact the many years to come.
With all the attention and pressure that came with professional basketball, Lew Alcindor—just a few years out of college—continued his journey for self-growth and exploration. In past interviews, later in his career, he shared about how his family was brought over to America by a French planter where they adopted the surname Alcindor. Uprooted from their home country, the Alcindors left everything they knew for something else entirely.
Abdul-Jabbar stated in an interview with Sporting News that when African Americans’ history is distorted and manipulated as it had been, you learn to hold onto whatever part of your heritage you can find. For Abdul-Jabbar, it took some work.
Piecing together what he learned early in his college career, reading literature on black history and identity, with what he could learn from his own family history, Abdul-Jabbar came to understand who he was and who he wanted to be. As an African-American devoted to Islamic practices he made the choice to commit to this new understanding of self and world perception.
He changed his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971, when he played for the Milwaukee Bucks and won its first championship. The name itself means “noble servant of the powerful One.” To Abdul-Jabbar, his Muslim faith has been an anchor by which he leads his family and his life.
Abdul-Jabbar on Black-Islamic Identity
In light of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, being associated with Islamic beliefs was unkind for any Muslim living in the United States. Though Abdul-Jabbar was well retired by this time, any opportunities for coaching fell short with the negative stigma that came attached to his “obviously Islamic” name.
During this time, not only did Abdul-Jabbar fight against this newly violent religious typecast, he also labored against leukemia between 2008 and 2011. Undeterred by the hardships pushing up against him at all sides, Abdul-Jabbar maintained his peace and composure. Though he did not defend radical Muslim Osama bin Laden, he also did not abandon or compromise his Muslim identity.
Abdul-Jabbar learned first-hand. As a Black American growing up in the 60s, African-American communities were judged by the fewer prominent African-American people. As Jackie Robinson’s achievements gave way to stereotype all Black Americans as athletes, the same applied to other successful individuals of any color.
He says in the same interview with Sporting Now, “I carried an extra burden that every black American would be affected in some way by how I conducted myself.” For this reason, even Abdul-Jabbar, as a Black American holding fast to his Muslim faith, works to be conscious of the way he presents himself to the public at large in order to protect both communities, never undermining either his racial or religious identity but constantly providing a way for tolerance, acceptance and understanding.