When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left the game in 1989 at age 42, no NBA player had ever scored more points, blocked more shots, won more Most Valuable Player Awards, played in more All-Star Games or logged more seasons.
His list of personal and team accomplishments is perhaps the most awesome in league history: Rookie of the Year, member of six NBA championship teams, six-time NBA MVP, two-time NBA Finals MVP, 19-time All-Star, two-time scoring champion, and a member of the NBA 35th and 50th Anniversary All-Time Teams. He also owned eight playoff records and seven All-Star records. No player achieved as much individual and team success as did Abdul-Jabbar.
Players 10 years his junior couldn’t keep up with Abdul-Jabbar, whose strict physical-fitness regimen was years ahead of its time in the NBA.
But if others have since emulated his fitness regimen, no player has ever duplicated his trademark “sky-hook.” Although labeled “unsexy” by Abdul-Jabbar himself, the shot became one of the most effective weapons in all of sports. An all-around player, Abdul-Jabbar brought grace, agility, and versatility to the center position, which had previously been characterized solely by power and size.
Despite his incredible success on the court, it wasn’t until the twilight of his career that Abdul-Jabbar finally won the universal affection of basketball fans. He was a private man who avoided the press and at times seemed aloof. “I’m the baddest among the bad guys,” he once told The Sporting News.
But late in his playing days Abdul-Jabbar began to open up, and as his career wound to a close, fans, players and coaches alike expressed their admiration for what he had accomplished in basketball. During the 1988-89 season, his last, Abdul-Jabbar was honored in every arena in the league.
Former Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, who coached Abdul-Jabbar for eight seasons in Los Angeles, once said in a toast recounted in Sports Illustrated, “Why judge anymore? When a man has broken records, won championships, endured tremendous criticism and responsibility, why judge? Let’s toast him as the greatest player ever.”
Abdul-Jabbar was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. in New York City, two years after the end of World War II. He was the only child of an overprotective mother and a strict father whose impassivity, some say, Alcindor grew to resent. Far and away the tallest kid in the Harlem school system, Alcindor was viewed as something of a freak by his schoolmates. After dominating New York high school basketball at the now-defunct Power Memorial, he enrolled at UCLA and played for John Wooden’s powerhouse Bruins.
Alcindor simply ruled the college ranks. After sitting out his first season because NCAA regulations prevented freshmen from playing at the varsity level, he was selected as Player of the Year in 1967 and 1969 by The Sporting News, United Press International, the Associated Press and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. He was also named an All-American and the most outstanding player in the NCAA Tournament in 1967, 1968 and 1969. With Alcindor taking charge in the middle, Wooden and UCLA pocketed three national championships.
The Milwaukee Bucks were only in their second season when they made Alcindor the first overall choice in the 1969 NBA Draft. (The Bucks’ first season had been forgettable, at 27-55 and it won the coin toss for the first selection over the Phoenix Suns.) The time was ripe for a new center to dominate the league. Bill Russell had just left the Boston Celtics, and Wilt Chamberlain, though still effective, was almost 35 years old. With Alcindor aboard in 1969-70, the Bucks rose to second place in the Eastern Division with a 56-26 record. Alcindor was an instant star, placing second in the league in scoring (28.8 ppg) and third in rebounding (14.5 rpg). He handily won NBA Rookie of the Year honors.
During the offseason the Bucks traded for their ticket to the NBA title: 31-year-old guard Oscar Robertson from the Cincinnati Royals. With a supporting crew of Bobby Dandridge, Jon McGlocklin, Greg Smith, and a young Lucius Allen, Milwaukee recorded a league-best 66 victories in 1970-71, including a record 20 straight wins. Alcindor won his first NBA Most Valuable Player Award and his first scoring title (31.7 ppg) while placing fourth in rebounding (16.0 rpg). Milwaukee went 12-2 in the playoffs and dispatched the Baltimore Bullets in only the second NBA Finals sweep in league history. Alcindor was named Finals MVP.
Before the 1971-72 season Alcindor converted from Catholicism to Islam and took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means “noble, powerful servant.” He was certainly a noble, powerful player, enjoying stellar years with Milwaukee. In 1971-72 he repeated as scoring champion (34.8 ppg) and NBA Most Valuable Player, and the Bucks repeated as division leaders for the second of four straight years. In 1973-74 Abdul-Jabbar won his third MVP Award in only his fifth year in the league and placed among the NBA’s top five in four categories: scoring (27.0 ppg, third), rebounding (14.5 rpg, fourth), blocked shots (283, second) and field-goal percentage (.539, second).
Milwaukee returned to the NBA Finals in 1974 but lost to the Boston Celtics, who were led by 6-foot-9 center Dave Cowens and a stable of guards who proved too quick for the 35-year-old Robertson. “The Big O” retired after the playoffs, ending the Bucks’ string of division titles. The team plunged to last place in 1974-75 with a 38-44 record.
Despite his phenomenal success in Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar was unhappy due in part to the lack of people who shared his religious and cultural beliefs and wanted out. He requested that he be traded to either New York or Los Angeles, and Bucks General Manager Wayne Embry complied, sending Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers in 1975 for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith, and Brian Winters. The second Abdul-Jabbar dynasty was about to take shape.
Chamberlain had retired two years earlier, a fact that helped explain the Lakers’ 30-52 record and last-place finish in 1974-75. Abdul-Jabbar helped bring about a 10-game turnaround in his first season in Los Angeles. His contributions (27.7 ppg, 16.9 rpg) won him yet another NBA Most Valuable Player Award, his fourth in only seven years in the league.
The following season Jerry West was hired as the Lakers’ coach, and he guided the team back into first place with a league-best 53-29 record. Abdul-Jabbar (26.2 ppg, 13.3 rpg, .579 field-goal percentage, 261 blocks) was named Most Valuable Player for the fifth time in eight years, tying Celtics legend Bill Russell’s record. But the Lakers were swept in the conference finals by the championship-bound Portland Trail Blazers, who had a fearsome big man of their own in Bill Walton.
Despite Abdul-Jabbar’s best efforts, the Lakers finished in the middle of their division in each of the following two years. He continued to put up big numbers, although he missed 20 games in 1977-78 after breaking his hand in a fight with Milwaukee’s rookie Kent Benson in the season opener. Young players Jamaal Wilkes and Norm Nixon looked promising, but Los Angeles nevertheless wallowed in mediocrity.
In 1979, using a first-round draft pick obtained from the Utah Jazz, the Lakers selected a 6-foot-9 point guard named Earvin “Magic” Johnson from Michigan State. Johnson’s arrival marked the beginning of a decade that would bring Abdul-Jabbar five more championship rings. With a blitzkrieg fast break that came to be known as “Showtime,” the Lakers won nine division titles in the final 10 years of Abdul-Jabbar’s career.
Abdul-Jabbar continued to average at least 20 points for the next six seasons. His rebounding average dropped to between 6 and 8 as years of pounding and battling for position began to take their toll. But he remained in remarkable shape, even in his late 30s when he was trim, muscular, and able to play 32 to 35 minutes per game at an age at which the vast majority of players had retired.
“He’s the most beautiful athlete in sports,” Magic Johnson told writer Gary Smith. In the final years of his career, Abdul-Jabbar’s fitness program became more important than ever. He practiced yoga and martial arts to keep his arms and legs strong and limber, and he meditated before every game to reduce stress.
On April 5, 1984, in a game against the Utah Jazz played in Las Vegas, Abdul-Jabbar had perhaps his finest moment. Taking a pass from Magic Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar whirled and launched his trademark sky-hook toward the hoop. The shot drew nothing but net, giving Abdul-Jabbar career point No. 31,420, which vaulted him past Wilt Chamberlain as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
The Lakers reached the NBA Finals eight times in the 10 seasons between 1979-80 and 1988-89. They won five titles, beating Boston and Philadelphia twice each and the Detroit Pistons once. The 1985 series against Boston was perhaps the most satisfying for Abdul-Jabbar. At age 38, the league’s senior center was thought by many observers to be washed up. In Game 1 it looked as though they were right — Abdul-Jabbar had only 12 points and three rebounds in his matchup with Robert Parish. The Celtics romped to a 148-114 win in what became known as the “Memorial Day Massacre.”
During the next two days Abdul-Jabbar watched hours of game films and took part in marathon practice sessions that included over one hour of sprinting drills. Repeated attempts by Riley to persuade Abdul-Jabbar to take a break failed.
In Game 2, Abdul-Jabbar recorded 30 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists and three blocked shots in a 109-102 Lakers win. Los Angeles went on to win the series in six games. In the Lakers’ four victories, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 30.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.0 blocks. In one memorable sequence, Abdul-Jabbar grabbed a rebound, drove the length of the court and swished a sky-hook. He even dove for a loose ball. “What you saw,” Riley told Sports Illustrated, “was passion.” Abdul-Jabbar was named Finals MVP.
Jabbar has said that the 1985 championship may have been the sweetest of his six. It was won on the floor of the Boston Garden and vanquished the ghosts of the arena and the Celtics, the team that defeated the Lakers just the year before and many other times during Russell’s reign.
In 1986-87 the Lakers again beat Boston for the NBA Championship. Although Abdul-Jabbar played respectably, series MVP Magic Johnson was the star. During the regular season Abdul-Jabbar dipped below 20 points per game (17.5 ppg) for the first time in his career. At age 40 he signed a contract to play two more years. The following year the Lakers’ victory over Detroit made them the first team since the 1968-69 Celtics to repeat as NBA champions.
In 1988-89, Abdul-Jabbar’s final season, the Lakers returned to The Finals in a rematch against the Pistons. Abdul-Jabbar tallied season highs in Game 3 with 24 points and 13 rebounds, but with Johnson and Byron Scott both nursing injured hamstrings, Los Angeles was swept. In his final game, Abdul-Jabbar recorded seven points and three rebounds. During the regular season he shot below .500 from the field for the first time (.475) and averaged a career-low 10.1 points.
Abdul-Jabbar’s retirement marked the end of an era for the NBA. He left the game as the games all-time scorer, which may never be surpassed, with 38,387 points (24.6 ppg), 17,440 rebounds (11.2 rpg), 3,189 blocks, and a .559 field-goal percentage from a career that spanned 20 years and 1,560 games. He scored in double figures in 787 straight games.
Several years after he retired Abdul-Jabbar told the Orange County Register, “The ’80s made up for all the abuse I took during the ’70s. I outlived all my critics. By the time I retired, everybody saw me as a venerable institution. Things do change.”
Since retiring, Abdul-Jabbar has authored several books, worked in the entertainment business and served as a “basketball ambassador,” working in various capacities such as a coach and broadcaster as well as helped to fight hunger and illiteracy.
In 1995, Abdul-Jabbar was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and in May of 2021, the NBA created the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Award. The new annual honor recognizes a current NBA player for pursuing social justice efforts — something Abdul-Jabbar did throughout his playing career and life.