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A dominate force

Kareem just kept on winning
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"Kareem was probably, with his size and his sky hook, the most dominating force in our league as far as getting a basket any time you want it,"
says Larry Bird about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

What's in a name? Whether it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (his Muslim name) or Lew Alcindor (his birth name), he was a winner. In high school. In college. In the pros.

As Alcindor, he led Power Memorial Academy to three straight New York City Catholic championships and a 71-game winning streak. Then came three consecutive NCAA championships at UCLA, with Alcindor becoming the only player to win three Most Outstanding Player awards at the Final Four. UCLA went 88-2 in his three seasons, and twice he was named college Player of the Year.

In the NBA, the 7-foot-2 center helped his teams win six championships (one with the Milwaukee Bucks, five with the Los Angeles Lakers). When Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989 after 20 seasons, he left as the league's all-time leader scorer with 38,387 points. He was voted MVP six times and NBA Finals MVP twice.

Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. was born a large baby -- 12 pounds, 11 ounces and 22½ inches -- on April 16, 1947. It wasn't a surprise he was big, since his father, Lew Sr., was 6-3 and his mother, Cora, was 5-10. Lew Sr., unhappy with the way the Harlem neighborhood was developing, moved his wife and their only child to a better neighborhood in Manhattan in 1950.

At age 9, Lew Jr. tried his first hook shot. He missed, but it felt natural. He was already 5-8. As an eighth grader he stood 6-8 and could dunk.

As a sophomore at Power Memorial, he averaged 19 points and 18 rebounds as Power went undefeated. It went unbeaten again in Alcindor's junior season, and it was this year that he came to the apex of his white-hatred period. One day he came home upset and yelled at his mother, who has some white blood in her: "I wish you didn't have any white in you at all! Because I hate every bit of white blood I have in me!"

The next year, for the first time in 72 games, Alcindor and Power lost, beaten 46-43 by DeMatha Catholic High School of Maryland. Alcindor, who had been averaging 30 points, was held to 16. It was his only loss in his last three years. He finished his career at Power in 1965 with 2,067 points and 2,002 rebounds (both New York City records).

Alcindor played for the best college team in the country in 1965-66, but unfortunately for him and his teammates, freshmen were ineligible to compete for the varsity then. In their first game, the first game ever at Pauley Pavilion, the UCLA freshmen whipped the varsity, two-time defending champions and preseason No. 1, 75-60. Alcindor scored 31 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and blocked seven shots. The Brubabes went 21-0 and Alcindor averaged 33 points and 21 rebounds.

In Alcindor's first varsity game, he set a UCLA record by scoring 56 points. Later that season, he scored 61. He averaged 29 points and 15.5 rebounds with a .667 shooting percentage as John Wooden's Bruins went 30-0. They beat Dayton 79-64 in the NCAA final for the first of seven consecutive championships.

"The only way to beat Alcindor is to hope for the three Fs," Notre Dame coach Johnny Dee said. "Foreign court, friendly officials and foul out Alcindor."

As a junior, eight days before unbeaten UCLA's showdown against unbeaten Houston, Alcindor suffered a scratched left eyeball. He missed the next two games, and when he came back against Houston -- before a then-record crowd of 52,693 in the Astrodome -- he shot 4-of-18. Elvin Hayes scored 39 points, including the winning two free throws with 25 seconds left, as Houston snapped UCLA's 47-game winning streak 71-69.

Alcindor gained his revenge at the NCAA Final Four, scoring 19 points with 18 rebounds (while Hayes was held to 10 points) as UCLA rolled to a 101-69 victory over the No. 1-ranked Cougars. Then UCLA routed North Carolina 78-55 in the final.

UCLA lost one game in Alcindor's senior season -- USC used a stall to win 46-44. With Alcindor scoring 37 points (15-of-20 from the field) and grabbing 20 rebounds, the Bruins pounded Purdue and Rick Mount 92-72 in the NCAA final. Alcindor finished his UCLA career with 2,325 points (26.4 average) and 1,367 rebounds (15.5 average).

The most serious competition in the NBA in 1969 was a coin flip. Two first-year teams -- the 16-66 Phoenix Suns and the 27-55 Milwaukee Bucks -- were the two worst teams in the league, and they flipped for the first pick of the draft. The Suns lost, and the Bucks gained the right to choose Alcindor.

With Alcindor averaging 28.8 points (second in the NBA) and 14.5 rebounds (third), the Bucks improved to 56-26 and reached the Eastern Division finals before losing to the Knicks.

The next season was even sweeter. The Bucks had a league-best 66-16 record behind Alcindor, whose sky hook became the most devastating weapon in the game, and newly acquired Oscar Robertson. Alcindor led the NBA with a 31.7 scoring average and was voted MVP. The Bucks didn't stop there, cruising to the NBA title by winning 12 of 14 playoff games. After the Bucks swept the Baltimore Bullets in four games, Alcindor was voted the Finals MVP.

A Muslim since his college days, Alcindor legally changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the fall of 1971. Many fans were outraged. Abdul-Jabbar, moody and aloof before, became virtually unapproachable after the adverse publicity. But it didn't bother his performance as he won his second straight MVP, averaging a league-high 34.8 points.

In 1975, Abdul-Jabbar said Milwaukee was inadequate for his cultural needs. The Bucks traded him to the Lakers for center Elmore Smith, guard Brian Winters and rookie blue chippers Dave Myers and Junior Bridgeman. Despite LA finishing 40-42 and out of the playoffs, Abdul-Jabbar won his fourth MVP after averaging 27.7 points (second in the league) and leading the NBA with 16.9 rebounds and 4.12 blocks per game.

In the 1977-78 season opener, Abdul-Jabbar uncharacteristically lost his temper and punched Bucks rookie center Kent Benson. He suffered a broken hand and missed 20 games while drawing a $5,000 fine from the NBA.

Abdul-Jabbar, who won his sixth MVP award in 1980, and rookie guard Magic Johnson led the Lakers to the NBA Finals that season. But after twisting his ankle badly in Game 5, Abdul-Jabbar couldn't make the trip to Philadelphia for Game 6. Moving to center, Johnson put on a magic show, scoring 42 points as the Lakers won the first of their five titles in the 1980s. After the game, Magic said for Abdul-Jabbar and all of America to hear, "We know you're hurting, big fella, but we want you to get up and do some dancing tonight!"

On April 5, 1984, Abdul-Jabbar became the league's all-time leading scorer on -- appropriately enough -- a sky hook from 15 feet. The basket gave the goggled and balding center 31,420 points, one more than Wilt Chamberlain scored.

When Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989 at age 42, his career regular-season numbers were 24.6 points per game, 11.2 rebounds, 3.6 blocked shots and a .559 shooting percentage. He was first-team all-league 10 times and second-team five times. He also holds NBA records for most seasons of 1,000 or more points (19), most minutes played (57,446), and most field goals (15,837).

On May 15, 1995, he was enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

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