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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The Epitome of Excellence


photo by Frank Bryan, 1974, CC Public Domain

No player has accomplished more in the game of basketball than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The NBA’s all-time leading scorer and six-time champion won more MVPs (6) and earned more All-Star selections (19) than anyone in history.


Abdul-Jabbar possessed a rare combination of grace, agility and power at the center position. Dunks, finger rolls, turnaround jumpers, Kareem could score any number of ways, but none more often than his signature sky hook. The shot was arguably the most effective offensive weapon in the game’s history, and certainly the most unblockable.


While Abdul-Jabbar was most well-known for his scoring prowess, he was also an outstanding passer, using instinct, intelligence and touch to find his teammates anywhere on the court. On the defensive end, Kareem was just as dangerous as he was on offense. His length, athleticism and high basketball IQ made him one of the best rebounders and shot blockers of all-time.


 

The 7-foot, 2-inch center’s greatness was evident early on, as the most sought after recruit in college basketball history. The future Hall of Famer led Power Memorial Academy to a 79-1 record and three straight New York City Catholic high school championships in his final three prep seasons. Abdul-Jabbar, who would officially be known by his birth name Lew Alcindor until 1971, set New York City career records for both scoring and rebounding.


In 1965, the young phenom took his talents west, signing with the two-time defending national champion UCLA Bruins. At the time, freshmen were not eligible to play varsity basketball, but Abdul-Jabbar made his presence known anyway. In a game against the varsity team, he had 31 points, 21 rebounds and seven blocks in leading the freshman squad to a commanding 75-60 win.


In the next three years, Abdul-Jabbar dominated the NCAA, averaging 26.4 points, 15.5 rebounds and shooting 63.9 percent from the field. More importantly, the Bruins posted an 88-2 record and won three straight national championships under Hall of Fame coach John Wooden and his young prodigy. To give you a further example of Abdul-Jabbar’s impact, the NCAA banned the slam dunk in 1967 due to opponents’ inability to stop the UCLA superstar. The dunk wasn’t reinstated until 1976.

 

After four years at UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar was once again basketball’s biggest prize. In 1969, the Milwaukee Bucks won a coin flip with the Phoenix Suns, earning the right to select the prized prospect with the number one overall pick. The big man didn’t disappoint.


Abdul-Jabbar’s impact on the NBA was immediate. He averaged 28.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists en route to winning Rookie of the Year. His effect on the young Bucks was even more immediate, as Milwaukee made a remarkable 29-game improvement from 27-55 in 1968-69 to 56-26 in 1969-70.


In 1970-71, Abdul-Jabbar would reach the pinnacle of both individual and team success, winning his first MVP award and leading the Bucks to their first NBA championship. He led the league in scoring with 31.7 points per game, averaged 16.0 rebounds and shot 57.7 percent from the field. In 1971-72, Abdul-Jabbar repeated as both MVP and scoring champion, averaging a career-high 34.8 points per game.


After a third straight season averaging over 30 points in 1972-73, the league’s best player brought the Bucks back to the NBA Finals in 1973-74. In a classic seven-game series against the Boston Celtics, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 32.6 points, 12.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists. Milwaukee came up short of a second championship, but Abdul-Jabbar won his third and final MVP as a Buck.


 

In 1975, Kareem was once again headed west, as a blockbuster six-player trade made Abdul-Jabbar a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. The former UCLA standout picked up where he left off, winning MVP in his first two seasons as a Laker. In 1975-76, he averaged 27.7 points, 5.0 assists, and led the league in rebounding (16.9) and blocked shots (4.1). The next season he averaged 26.2 points, 13.3 rebounds and led the league in field goal percentage at .579.


The Lakers made the playoffs from 1977-79, but it wasn’t until the 1979-80 season that Abdul-Jabbar would return to the NBA’s biggest stage. With the help of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a dynamic 6’9” point guard from Michigan State, the Lakers won the NBA title in a tight six-game series against the Philadelphia 76ers. Abdul-Jabbar won his sixth MVP, averaging 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and a league-high 3.4 blocks. In 15 postseason games, Kareem was even better, averaging 31.9 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.9 blocks.

Over the next decade, Abdul-Jabbar helped create one of the greatest dynasties in the history of American sports, as the Lakers won five championships and appeared in eight NBA Finals from 1980-89. Coach Pat Riley’s “Showtime” Lakers dazzled fans with a wide open style of play led by the flashy Johnson, silky smooth Hall of Fame forward James Worthy and an impressive supporting cast. But none of this would have been possible without the steadying presence of Abdul-Jabbar down low.


From 1981-86, Kareem averaged 23.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. In 1985, he won his second career Finals MVP, averaging 25.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists against the defending champion Celtics. The following season at the age of 38, his 23.4 points per game earned Abdul-Jabbar his 10th career First Team All-NBA selection.


 

After 20 seasons and 1,797 combined regular and postseason games, Kareem played his final game on June 13, 1989. The career numbers are immense. In the regular season, he finished first all-time in points scored (38,387), field goals (15,387) and minutes (57,446), second in games played (1,560), and third in rebounds (17,440) and blocks (3,189). In the postseason, Abdul-Jabbar ranks third all-time in points (5,762), fifth in rebounds (2,481) and second in blocks (476).


Following his retirement as a player, Kareem remains a larger than life presence in American culture. An accomplished author, he has written over a dozen books covering a diverse range of subjects. He has also worked tirelessly to promote youth education and fitness. In 2012, the U.S. Department of State named Abdul-Jabbar a global cultural ambassador, giving the NBA legend a chance to bring his message of education, tolerance and cultural understanding to the world.

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