Very few Muslims have excelled in their line of work like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has. Born as Lew Alcindor in 1947, his exceptional height and skill allowed him to dominate on the basketball court from a young age. He led his New York City high school team to a 71-game winning streak and a championship. In his very first college game at UCLA, he scored 56 points and broke UCLA’s single-game record. This was the first of an impressive collection of accolades that he earned in his three years at college (1966-9).
It was also in these years that Kareem began to demonstrate his intention to make an impact beyond the basketball court. In his first year of college he had begun to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and study the history of slavery and racism in the United States. In 1968, he deliberately avoided playing for the US national team at the Olympics as a protest against the treatment of African-Americans. He also chose not to open himself to be drafted directly into the NBA, instead choosing to complete his degree in history, study martial arts under Bruce Lee, support Muhammad Ali as he faced banishment from boxing―and embrace Islam.
In 1969, Kareem had begun his legendary career in the NBA, initially playing for the Milwaukee Bucks. He led them to a championship in 1971, and the day after they won he came out publicly about his conversion to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In 1973, he travelled to Libya and Saudi Arabia to study Arabic, as he wanted to be able to study the Qur’an on his own.
In the meantime, he continued to excel on the court, and by his retirement in 1989 he had become a 6x NBA champion, 6x NBA MVP, 19x NBA All-Star, and the league’s all-time leading scorer (among many, many other records and accolades). Abdul-Jabbar is widely considered to be one of the greatest basketball players ever, and his graceful move, the “skyhook”, one of the most effective offensive weapons ever unleashed in the NBA.
However, Kareem hasn’t been idle since his retirement. He has mentored many younger NBA players. He has played roles in many movies and TV shows, produced a documentary, and is a columnist and writer who has authored more than a dozen books. He is a regular commentator on issues relevant to the African-American and Muslim communities, and has served as cultural ambassador for the US. In his personal life, he has successfully fought against cancer and raised awareness for cancer research.
The true scale of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s accomplishments extend beyond the scope of this brief article. He has earned his place at the top of the mountain in the world of basketball, and has left his mark on so many other fields.
‘You can’t win unless you learn how to lose.’ – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar