How Bruce Lee became a muse for Kareem and an All-Rookie guard

Martial arts legend Bruce Lee, who would have turned 77 on Monday, continues to inspire and guide athletes more than four decades after his death in 1973.

Among them are two NBA players unlikely to ever be grouped together. One is a six-time MVP, a six-time champion and basketball Hall of Famer who is the NBA's all-time leading scorer. The other is just starting out -- a blossoming combo guard in his second season with the Denver Nuggets.

The 70-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and 20-year-old Jamal Murray are separated by generations but share the same competitive muse: Bruce Lee, "The Little Dragon."

Abdul-Jabbar recently spoke with ESPN about his bond with Lee.

"I had studied a little bit of martial arts in New York and I wanted to continue to study them when I started classes at UCLA," Abdul-Jabbar said. "My junior year, I started looking for instruction and [Black Belt Magazine editor Mitoshi Uyehara] directed me to Bruce. They said Bruce was doing his own style and I might like that."

Then known as Lew Alcindor, he walked into Lee's Jeet Kune Do studio where the two hit it off immediately. Though he had studied the Japanese martial art aikido in New York City, Alcindor sunk his teeth into Jeet Kune Do and studied for four years under Lee from 1967 to '71.

Then there's Murray, a native of Canada who was reared on the tenets of Lee's teachings by his father, Roger. Roger was a lifelong fan of Lee's having grown up in the '70s watching the kung fu legend's movies, including the iconic films "Enter the Dragon" and "Game of Death."

"Bruce Lee took his craft very seriously, just as my dad took his stuff very seriously. I just loved Lee's attitude," Jamal said.

Lee's Jeet Kune Do melded a number of disciplines to achieve a desired result -- whether that was victory or escape. But the bedrock of the discipline was adaptability and efficiency of movement. He stressed the less movement the better, but with sudden explosion and quickness.

"Bruce created a jambalaya of martial arts, adding and discarding moves that were less effective. No wasted movements," Abdul-Jabbar said.

He might not have realized it at the time, but at Pauley Pavilion, Abdul-Jabbar (he changed his name in 1971) was learning the same thing from UCLA head coach John Wooden.

In Abdul-Jabbar's newest book for young readers, Becoming Kareem, he remembers how both of his mentors paralleled each other.

"I took it to heart," Abdul-Jabbar recalls in the book. "I dedicated myself to preparation by maintaining complete focus during basketball practice and my training with Bruce. As a result, I became stronger, faster and a much more intense player."

"Bruce was an innovator and caused martial arts to move forward. ... The skyhook is the embodiment of an efficient shot that requires minimal movement but sudden speed," Abdul-Jabbar added.

Likewise, many NBA evaluators say Murray has a deceptive quickness that lulls opponents into lax defensive positions, as well as a cerebral maturity that allows him to make quick, sound decisions regarding when he can beat his man, drive to the hoop and dish to an open teammate or step back and drain a 3.

"[Lee's] attitude and his mental preparation and his mental toughness are what I took from him into basketball," Murray said.

But how do you learn that kind of mentality? The NBA landscape is littered with great players who try coaching but can't understand why their players don't perform at the same high level as they did. The "I did it, why can't you?" mentality has felled even the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas.

Abdul-Jabbar said Lee was an extremely demanding teacher who sometimes displayed that same frustration when his pupils lagged behind. However, Lee's conditioning was legendary, which provided Abdul-Jabbar with the motivation to test his limits.

"His focus and dedication made me work harder," Abdul-Jabbar said.

For elite athletes such as Abdul-Jabbar and Murray, Lee's grace under pressure and overcoming of his size differential had clear applications to basketball.

"It doesn't matter who you're playing against," Murray said. "It's what you can do with your ability and what you believe in."

After Murray dropped 31 on New Orleans a week ago, the Pelicans got a taste of his belief and fight.

"You can't go into a game lax and acting like somebody isn't trying to beat you," Murray said in an interview shortly before the 2015 NBA draft. "If you go into a fight [like that], you're going to get knocked out. That's the mentality I have when I'm going into competition."

By the end of the summer of 1971, two years into his NBA career and having just won an NBA championship with the Milwaukee Bucks, Abdul-Jabbar was invited by Lee to be in "Game of Death," which he was shooting in Hong Kong.

Abdul-Jabbar said the five-day shoot was grueling and intense. At 7-foot-2, Jabbar dwarfed the 5-foot-7 Lee, and the sessions were all live sparring. But it was this kind of underdog concept that is at the heart of Lee's appeal to martial artists and conventional sports athletes alike.

"[Lee] was a lot smaller than a lot of opponents but still came out and acted like he was a bigger guy," Murray said. "I just take that into account when I'm playing basketball."

After Lee's death in 1973, Abdul-Jabbar gradually drifted away from the martial arts. No one could adequately motivate him in the medium anymore. Once you learn under Bruce Lee, who else is there? Abdul-Jabbar learned of Lee's death in Singapore on his way to Hong Kong to see him.

"When Bruce died, I was so saddened by it," Abdul-Jabbar said. "He was so young -- he was only in his 30s. To see him pass early on was tragic and I miss him. You miss them especially when they leave you so suddenly and so unexpectedly.

"But the Way of the Warrior can be upheld and practiced by people not just those fighting physical battles, but just in dealing with their daily lives. He taught people how to prepare and deal with an issue that might arise and succeed, whether that's in life or in sport."

Tim MacMahon contributed to this report.