Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, played 21 seasons in the NBA, retiring as the league’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points. To this day, that record still stands, his patented sky hook shot regarded as unstoppable. A 19-time All-Star, Abdul-Jabbar was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All Time during the league’s 50th anniversary in 1996-97.
Drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks first overall in the 1969 NBA draft, then-Alcindor won the Rookie of the Year and named to the league’s All-Rookie Team, averaging 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds. The following year, he, along with guard Oscar Robertson, led the Bucks to a league-best 66 wins, capped by his first ever NBA championship. In the process, he was named Finals MVP, while nabbing his first scoring title (31.7 ppg) and the first of six regular-season MVP awards. Abdul-Jabbar followed up his rookie campaign with another scoring title (34.8 ppg) and his second straight regular-season MVP award. In 1973-74, the New York native finished among the top five NBA players in scoring (27 ppg, third), rebounds (14.5 rpg, fourth), blocks (3.5, second) and field-goal percentage (53.9, second).
The 7-foot-2 center was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975, along with reserve Walt Wesley. In that first year with the purple and gold, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 27.7 points, while leading the league in rebounding (16.9) and blocked shots (4.1). Again, he was named MVP for the fourth year, although the team failed to make the playoffs. During the 1976-77 campaign, Abdul-Jabbar led the league in field-goal percentage (57.9), tied for first in blocks (3.2), second in rebounds (13.3) and third in scoring (26.2), leading the Lakers to the best record in the NBA, while capturing his fifth MVP award. The Lakers, though, were ousted in the Western Conference Finals, swept by the Portland Trail Blazers.
In 1979, the team acquired first overall draft pick Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and the “Showtime” era had arrived. This paved the way for a Lakers dynasty that won five championships (eight Finals appearances) in the 1980s, including back-to-back-titles in 1987-88.
The team advanced to the NBA Finals behind Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, finishing with a regular-season record of 60-22, tops in the Pacific Division. Though Abdul-Jabbar was unable to play in Game 6 of the Finals, Johnson stepped in at center and carried the Lakers to a 123-107 victory over Philadelphia, tallying 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. The following year, Abdul-Jabbar turned in 26.2 ppg and 10.3 rpg to lead the team to a 54-28 record, despite losing Johnson for most of the year due to a knee injury, and the Lakers failed to make it out of the first round, bumped by the Houston Rockets in a best-of-three-series.
In 1981-82, the purple and gold won the Pacific Division, cruising through the playoffs, and winning nine straight before being ousted in Game 2 of the Finals. Despite this, they recovered to win the title for the second time in three years.
Abdul-Jabbar surpassed former Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list in 1984 (31,419), and the team won the Pacific Division yet again by an NBA-record 20 games. The Lakers made another Finals appearance, but dropped Game 1 to Boston, 148-114, a game commonly referred to as the “Memorial Day Massacre.” In spite of this, Los Angeles captured the next four of five games, with Abdul-Jabbar nabbing his second NBA Finals MVP in 1985, averaging 25.7 points, nine rebounds on 60.4 percent shooting. This series marked the ninth time the two teams had met, but the first time the purple and gold prevailed.
“My favorite memory is when we beat Boston in 1985,” hoops legend Bill Bertka said. “We had a team meeting after the (Memorial Day Masacre) and did some real soul searching. He led us over Boston after all those years of frustration at age 38. That win over Boston and his performance was my favorite memory.”
During his entire career with the Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA championships and six regular season MVP awards (most in NBA history), along with two NBA Finals MVPs. During his 14 years with the Lakers, he led the team in scoring a club-record 11 straight seasons (1975-76 through 1985-86). His No. 33, retired on March 20, 1989, hangs in the rafters of STAPLES Center, one of seven current jerseys retired in franchise history.
He was a 10-time All-NBA First Team selection, 5-time NBA All-Defensive First Team selection and led the league in blocked shots on four separate occasions. Abdul-Jabbar averaged 20-plus points in each of the first 17 years in the NBA and in double figures every year. At the time of his retirement in 1989, “The Captain,” as his teammates called him, was the NBA’s all-time leader in games played, minutes played, field goals made, field goal attempts, blocked shots and defensive rebounds. He finished with career averages of 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.
“Most recognized for his skyhook,” Bertka said, “he was a great rebounder, shot blocker, passes and had the respect of every coach and player. What he did in his career makes him the best center of all time.”
A four-year player at UCLA (one year on freshman team) and three-year player under coach John Wooden, then-Lew Alcindor helped lead the Bruins to a 88-2 record from 1966-69, while being named Player of the Year twice. He won three NCAA titles and was a three-time First Team All-American. In 1969, he became the first-ever Naismith College Player of the Year award winner, given to the top men’s basketball player.
“From high school through college, he was the most dominant at his position,” Bertka said. “He was gifted physically and athletically. Solid coaching at every level – high school, college and pros – made him one of the most skilled in every aspect of the game.”
Abdul-Jabbar has served as a special assistant for the Lakers, and is credited with helping former center Andrew Bynum with his development as a player. Prior to this, he worked as an assistant with the Los Angeles Clippers and Seattle Supersonics, worked as a scout with the New York Knicks and even coached in the United States Basketball League and at Columbia University.
In January 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Abdul-Jabbar accepted a position as cultural ambassador for the United States, becoming the first sports figure to be named during the Obama administration.
“His intellect is obvious by all the things he has done – author, actor and a great humanitarian,” Bertka said.