Known as Lewis Alcindor Jr. until 1971, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a former professional basketball player who completed 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association. Throughout his time as an athlete, back in the 70s and 80s, he was a strong force in the game and was voted by ESPN in 2007 as the greatest center of all time.
Abdul-Jabbar grew up as an only child in the Dyckman Street projects in Upper Manhattan. From an early age, he stood out as a large and tall boy. By eighth grade, he had reached 6 feet, 8 inches in height and could dunk a basketball with ease. He started playing basketball early and set many record-breaking achievements while in high school. He went on to lead the Power Memorial Academy team to win three consecutive city titles and remarkable 71-game straight wins.
After he graduated in 1965, Abdul-Jabbar was enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). In college, he continued his record-breaking dominance, scoring 56 points in his debut game. Under his renowned coach, John Wooden, he helped lead the UCLA Bruins to three National Collegiate Athletic Association championships, from 1967 to 1969 and lost only two games. Throughout his time at UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar was outstanding both on the court and in his studies. He was the top overall pick during the NBA draft in the spring of 1969, going on to play for Milwaukee Bucks.
During his career in college, Abdul-Jabbar was named Player of the Year in 1967 and 1969. He was honored as the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA championships three times. In 1969, he became the pioneer Naismith College Player of the Year.
Abdul-Jabbar had remarkable success with the Milwaukee Bucks and led them to a win over the Baltimore Bullets in the 1971 NBA championship. The same year, he won the award for Most Valuable Player, the first of the six MVP awards he would eventually attain.
Shortly after the end of the 1971 season, he converted from Catholicism to Islam and proceeded to adopt the name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, meaning “noble, powerful servant.” His religious and cultural views were not widely shared in Milwaukee, and that might have been the reason he requested a move to LA or New York. In 1975, he started playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, and stayed there until he announced his retirement in 1989.
Aside from his career as an athlete, Abdul-Jabbar also followed his interests in writing and acting. He has acted in a number of films after his debut in the Bruce Lee film, Game of Death. He has written several books and worked as a public speaker and a brand rep for many products. In 2016, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then-president, Barack Obama.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s time at UCLA initiated a lifelong relationship with the late UCLA coach, John Wooden. He described the relationship as one that guided his life as an athlete and as a man. From the Manhattan neighborhoods to sports dominance, Abdul-Jabbar’s story depicts resilience—and the idea that success is achievable against all odds.