Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ’69

Image from personal blog

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ’69 returned to the hills of Westwood in June to speak at UCLA's 2007 commencement ceremonies. For his speech, Abdul-Jabbar drew from many of the themes in his sixth and most recent book, On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance.

The book focuses on the achievements of an all-black tank battalion during the Battle of the Bulge. Abdul-Jabbar’s other works include New York Times best sellers Giant Steps, co-authored by Peter Knobler; Kareem; and Black Profiles in Courage, co-authored by Alan Steinberg. He also has appeared in several films, including Airplane and The Stand, and he produced The Vernon Johns Show.

An avid scholar and community activist, Abdul-Jabbar serves as an international speaker and lecturer, presenting on topics including his secrets of success on the court and a program which looks at the achievements of African Americans and heavily draws on Black Profiles in Courage.

Another project took Abdul-Jabbar to the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, where he served as the volunteer coach of the reservation’s basketball team. He wrote a book about his experiences, A Season on the Reservation: My Sojourn with the White Mountain Apaches.

Although today he is a writer, actor, producer and philanthropist, Abdul-Jabbar originally gained fame as a basketball legend. He is the all-time leading NBA scorer with 37,639 points. When he left the game in 1989 (he was 42) he had won more MVP awards, played in more All-Star Games and blocked more shots than any other player in the NBA. His awards include Rookie of the Year, six-time NBA MVP, and 19-time All-Star. He holds eight playoff records and seven All-Star records. Perhaps most remarkable is the span of his career: he was a member of the 35th and 50th Anniversary All-Time Teams.

His trademark move, the “skyhook,” was deemed practically unstoppable due to his height and ability to use either arm to sink the shot. He developed a reputation of being somewhat unapproachable, but he eventually opened up to fans, players and coaches. He was named Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year” and has appeared on the cover of the magazine 27 times.

During his time at UCLA, Lew Alcindor, as he was then known, distinguished himself on the court and in the classroom. He studied history and played basketball during the legendary Wooden Era. During the NBA draft at the end of his senior year, he was the top pick. Before the 1971-72 season, he adopted the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar which means “noble, powerful servant,” an indication of his change of faith from Catholicism to Islam. Although he enjoyed tremendous success with the Milwaukee Bucks, leading them to victory in the NBA championship in 1971, he asked to move back to Los Angeles or possibly to New York due to the few number of people in Milwaukee who shared his religious and cultural views. In 1975, he began playing for the Lakers and remained with the team until his retirement.

Abdul-Jabbar was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. in New York City. Growing up in Harlem, he was often teased for his height (7 ft., 2 in.). From the concrete courts of the ’50s Harlem to center court in the ’70s and ’80s, Abdul-Jabbar’s story serves as testimony that odds can be overcome and dreams can be realized.

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