I’m not a big fan of pro basketball these days. There was a time though, especially in the late 70’s and early to mid 80’s when all you heard was about Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics battling it out with Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA Championship. The games were great. Hard fought, pretty close contests in which both teams gave it their all and left the court spent. All though Magic got most of the accolades and publicity for the teams accomplishments and Michael Jordan would come along later and just about re-write the record books, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stands pretty tall, if not the tallest, when it comes to talking about NBA greats of the game.
The quiet giant, originally named Lew Alcindor, was born in New York City on April 16, 1947. He want on to star at Power Memorial High School and during his time there, the team went an amazing 91-6 including winning an astounding 71 games in a row. For his efforts, Alcindor was named All-City, All American and a Consensus All American for each of the years he played.
The College Years
Naturally, big time colleges were drooling over each other to get Alcindor to grace their hardcourts. Alcindor decided to head to the left coast and opted to play for the University of California, Los Angeles (aka UCLA) under the tutelage of legendary coach John Wooden.
So what did he do while he was there? How’s this. Considering that he only played three years (freshman were ineligible to play varsity ball in those days way back when!). the team went 88-2 and won the NCAA Championships all three years. Individually, he was named National Player of the Year twice, First Team All American three times, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player three times and he left school as the most prolific scorer in UCLA’s history. His resume for the pro’s was starting to look pretty good.
The two sorriest teams in the NBA entering the 1969 season were the Phoenix Suns who finished the previous year with a stellar 16-66 record. Right behind them were the cellar dwelling Milwaukee Bucks who limped home with a 27-55 record. A flip of the coin would determine which one of these franchises would pick first in the upcoming NBA draft and have the right to choose Alcindor. As it turns out, Milwaukee won and NBA history was about to be made.
It’s often said that no one man can turn around a team, that it often takes years for an athlete of any sport to make the transition from college to the pro’s. Lew Alcindor proved to be an exception to the rule. In his first season, Alcindor averaged 28.8 points a game, 2nd in the NBA and also grabbed 14.5 rebounds a game, 3rd in the NBA. The Bucks themselves saw their record go from an abysmal 27-55 to a stunning 56-26. They made their way to the NBA Eastern Finals but got eliminated by the New York Knicks, the eventual NBA champions that year.
There’s a term many of us familiar with sports have heard throughout the years. The term is called the “sophomore jinx”. It refers to a player who has an amazing first year only to fall flat their face the next. Maybe it’s caused by a player’s lack of ambition or maybe because opposing players have grown familiar to one’s style of play. Lew Alcindor would not suffer through the “sophomore jinx”.
The next year, the Milwaukee Bucks acquired Oscar Robertson (who once averaged a triple double in a single season) in order to bolster their play-off chances. It turned out to be a wise move. Robinson was able to take some of the pressure off Lew and Alcindor responded with a career year. In only his second year, he led the league in scoring with 31.7 points per game and was voted the leagues Most Valuable Player. It didn’t stop there. The team finished a league best 66-16 and cruised their way through the NBA playoffs by winning 12 of 14 games. Alcindor was also named the Play-Off MVP.
What’s in a Name?
As we enter the 1971-72 season, Alcindor was going through a crisis of faith. Born into Catholicism, he never quite embraced the faith. He decided to convert to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When translated, those words mean “noble, powerful servant.” (fellow noder, mr100percent mentions that when translated, the name means Servant of the Compelling One]. A fitting description to say the least. During that year, Alcindor, (now Jabbar) repeated as the league's scoring champ at 34.8 points per game and garnished his second MVP award. The team won the division title for the second straight time but lost in the play-offs. The next year, Jabbar won his 3rd MVP award in his first five years in the league. He finished 3rd in scoring, fourth in rebounding, second in blocked shots and second in field goal percentage.
California Here I Come
Even though Jabbar was a huge success in Milwaukee, he wasn’t happy. I guess Milwaukee isn’t a Mecca for those who shared his faith in Islam and he was looking to be around more people who fit in with his cultural and religious values. He requested that management trade him to either New York or Los Angeles.
The Lakers were a struggling franchise. Wilt Chamberlain had retired a couple of years earlier and they were looking for a big man to fill his shoes. They wound up shipping four players off to Milwaukee in exchange for Jabbar. What they got was a bargain.
In his first year, Jabbar engineered a turnaround of sorts. The Lakers record improved and Jabbar averaged 27.7 points per game along with 16.9 rebounds per game. He won the league MVP for the 4th time in seven years.
His second year was a charm. The Lakers made it to the NBA Finals but were swept by the Portland Trail Blazers and Bill Walton in four games. Jabbar, already fast becoming a legend, was named the NBA’s MVP for the fifth time in eight years. That tied a record held previously by another NBA legend by the name of Bill Russell.
The next couple of years saw the Lakers mired in mediocrity. Even though Jabbar played well, the lack of a supporting cast and injuries all combined to take their toll That is until…
Welcome to “Showtime”
In 1979 the Lakers drafted one Earvin Johson and added him to their roster. The face of the NBA was about to change. The Lakers developed a fast break style of basketball that left their opponents in the dust. Even though Jabbar was no longer the centerpiece of the team , he still averaged over 20 points a game during the next six seasons. The play-off games against the hated Boston Celtics that pitted Bird and company against Magic/Jabbar and co. are some of the most memorable games in NBA history.
The Final Tally
When all was said and done and Jabbar decided to call it quits in 1989, he left with some pretty impressive numbers. To put it in perspective, here’s some of the more astonishing ones.
NBA all-time scoring leader (38, 387)
NBA record for Most Valuable Player Awards (6)
NBA most All- Star Games (19)
NBA most blocked shots (3, 189)
Member of 6 NBA Championship Teams
Rookie of the Year
Twice the league leader in scoring
Most seasons played (22)
Named Five times to the NBA All Defensive Team
On a personal note, I watched Jabbar play throughout the years and I never saw a player conduct himself with such dignity and outright class. Perhaps one of his coaches, Pat Riley said it best when asked about Jabbar…
"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."