A dominate force
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"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,"
--Larry Bird about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, July 23, 10:30 p.m. ET).
Abdul-Jabbar, the only athlete to win six MVP awards in the three most popular professional team sports, was voted No. 26 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
At 38, Abdul-Jabbar still was a standout, though not the dominant player he had been in his prime. But his inspiration off the court and perspiration on it led the Lakers back from a 34-point waxing in Game 1. He climaxed a fearsome five games by hitting 12-of-21 shots in scoring a team-high 29 today and leading the Lakers to a 111-100 victory in the Game 6 clincher. He was voted the MVP of the Finals. He had won three championships in high school, three national titles at UCLA and three previous NBA crowns. But this one was special because he helped the Lakers end 25 years of frustration to Boston. For the first time in nine Celtics-Lakers Finals, L.A. won. Not usually given to outward displays of emotion, even when the situation called for it, Abdul-Jabbar was overcome with feelings of joy.
"Because it was the Celtics," he said. "Boston has never lost the championship in the Garden. They never lost one to the Lakers. And they never lost one to a team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on it."
Odds and ends
Alcindor became the first sophomore to make Parade's high school All-American team.
While in high school, Alcindor met Wilt Chamberlain at the Rucker Tournament in New York and was befriended by the NBA star.
An honor-roll student at Power Memorial, Alcindor scored 625 in English and 528 in math on his college boards.
While being recruited for college, Jackie Robinson, a former UCLA star, wrote to Alcindor, urging him to attend the school.
On his recruiting trip, Alcindor was fascinated by coach John Wooden.
After UCLA went undefeated in Alcindor's sophomore season (1966-67), the NCAA instituted a no-dunking rule, a backhanded compliment to Alcindor. Dunking was made legal again in 1976.
In a five-year period (his last three seasons at Power Memorial and his first two at UCLA), Alcindor's teams went a remarkable 126-1. The only defeat came when DeMatha snapped Power Memorial's 71-game winning streak in January 1965.
Over seven years, tacking on his final two seasons at UCLA, his teams went 184-3 and won all six titles they were eligible for.
At UCLA, Alcindor read Alex Haley's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and developed his first interest in Islam. Malcolm X "became my star to follow," he said.
When Alcindor said he would consider boycotting the 1968 Olympics as a racial protest, he was deluged with hate mail and was called "an uppity nigger." He did boycott the Games. That summer, he distanced himself from the anger and rage that accompanied the Nation of Islam. He realized that black was neither best nor worst: it just was. He learned that the real Islam judges a man by his acts, and his acts alone. Campus conditions about racial matters almost caused him to transfer to Michigan. One incident involved Alcindor and a white girlfriend receiving grief over their relationship.
At UCLA, Alcindor was befriended by Sam Gilbert, a wealthy booster who allegedly made sure that Alcindor didn't have financial problems.
Preferring to play in New York, the Nets of the ABA had the inside track on signing Alcindor. But "they blew it," said Alcindor, who signed with Milwaukee.
He was named the Pro Basketball Player of the Seventies, easily beating runner-up John Havlicek in voting by the Pro Basketball Writers Association of America.
In 1980, Abdul-Jabbar appeared in the movie "Airplane."
In 1983, a fire caused $1.5 million in damage to his 7,000-square foot Bel-Air home and another $1 million in loss of its contents. Gone were 3,000 jazz albums, expensive Persian rugs and irreplaceable college and NBA memorabilia from his career.
In 237 playoff games, he averaged 24.3 points and 10.5 rebounds.
In 18 All-Star Games (13 starts), he averaged 13.9 points and 8.3 rebounds in 25 minutes.
Abdul-Jabbar has five children - three with his former wife and two with two other women.
Since retiring in 1989, he has worked as an actor, a film and TV producer, and written books. But most of his earnings come from cashing in on his name - giving speeches for large fees, signing autographs at card shows and endorsing products.
In March 1998, he was arrested at Toronto's airport for possession of a small amount of marijuana. He was fined $500.
He lobbied hard for an NBA coaching job, even as an assistant, in 1998. When nobody hired him, he helped coach Alchesay High School in the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona.
-- Larry Schwartz