Has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Religion Affected His Legacy?

Buckus ToothnailContributor IIIAugust 17, 2010

WESTWOOD, CA - JUNE 26, 2010: Former UCLA and NBA player Kareem Abdul Jabbar watches the memorial service for former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden on June 26, 2010 at Pauley Pavilion on the University of California Los Angeles campus in Westwood, California. Wooden coached the Bruins basketball team for 27 years and won 10 NCAA championships.  (Photo by Brian van der Brug - Pool/Getty Images)
Pool/Getty Images
Arguably the greatest Laker to have ever donned the purple and gold, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar remains an enigma for many of today's casual championship-loving Lakers fans. 
Ask the children at your daughter's birthday party at the Riviera Country Club who's the greatest Laker that ever lived and they'll scream in unison, "KOBE BRYANT!" 
Talk to a few regulars at Katsuya across from Staples while waiting for your toro, uni and amaebi and they might offer "Magic Johnson" in between bites of Kobe Beef Sliders and Lobster Dynamite.
Speak to the guys that are waxing your car at the Malibu Auto Detail and inevitably one will say "Ron Artest".
Only when you are doing your Christian duty and volunteering at the soup kitchen or the old folk's home around the holidays does it seem anyone will mention "Kareem".
Why is that?
When you look at Abdul-Jabbar's career accomplishments, it's easy to conclude that not only was he the greatest Laker ever, but he was one of the greatest NBA players ever, period.
Abdul-Jabbar scored 38,387 points in his career, the highest ever in the league.  In comparison, Bryant, who is still active, has scored 25,790 points, roughly 67% of Abdul-Jabbar's total. 
That means Bryant still needs almost seven seasons in scoring his career average of 1,842 points a season to make up the 12,597 points needed to reach Abdul-Jabbar. 
Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA MVP awards, more than any other player in league history including Michael Jordan and Bill Russell.  
Abdul-Jabbar was a NBA All-Star a record 19 times which means Bryant would need to appear in every NBA All-Star Game until 2017 to match him.
In addition to winning two scoring titles in his career, Abdul-Jabbar won five championships with the Lakers including two Finals MVP awards, and another championship with the Milwaukee Bucks, equaling Jordan in his number of rings.
So why hasn't Abdul-Jabbar's legacy lived up to his accomplishments?
Very few people will dare to say it, but it's likely Abdul-Jabbar being Muslim has altered the public's perception of him for the worse since the tragic events of 9/11.
Now no one has out-rightly accused Abdul-Jabbar of being a terrorist, but since 2001, would Abdul-Jabbar still be able to land a role as an airline pilot in a major Hollywood film like "Airplane"?
Despite having promoted tolerance amongst people of different religions, including between African-Americans and Jews, would there be any other NBA legend besides Abdul-Jabbar that would be featured in a children's coloring book titled, "I Don't Want To Blow You Up!"?
Abdul-Jabbar has long expressed a desire to be a head coach in the NBA, and has taken assistant gigs around the league including with the Knicks, SuperSonics, Clippers, and now the Lakers to "work his way up".
But really, when you have Abdul-Jabbar's player's resume and tutelage under all-time legendary coaches like John Wooden and even Pat Reilly, is "climbing the ladder" even necessary?  
Especially when you consider guys like Mike Brown, the Van Gundy brothers, and Lawrence Frank have landed plum head coaching gigs all without ever stepping in between the lanes of a NBA court as a player.
In fact, the only head coaching job that Abdul-Jabbar has had was in the USBL, guiding the Oklahoma Storm to the championship in 2002. 
After leaving the league, he was even turned down for the head coaching job at Columbia University, hardly a NCAA powerhouse.
Of course, no NBA front office would ever admit religion has anything to do with their hiring, but how many people with conspicuous Muslim names have you seen as a NBA head coach?
Now it can be argued that Abdul-Jabbar has had a reputation for being frosty and aloof throughout most of his career until his latter years with the Lakers when he "opened up" to the public and the press considerably. 
It may be argued that his reputation as a pot smoker has hurt his chances at landing a head coaching job in the NBA. 
It can also be argued that there are other Muslim players in the NBA that haven't suffered a hit on their popularity because of their religion, in particular Shaquille O'Neal, who during his prime was one of the most popular players in the league.
But when considering Shaq, how many casual basketball fans even know he's Muslim?  And "Shaquille O'Neal" is hardly an obvious Muslim name like "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar". 
When considering players like Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and Nazr Mohammed, these have never been the most popular players with the fans, and even opposing announcers sometimes had trouble pronouncing their names.
Now it's difficult to pinpoint exactly why Abdul-Jabbar's legacy hasn't blossomed in the public's mind as his accomplishments would merit, and it's doubtful that Abdul-Jabbar's religion is the only factor. 
He certainly doesn't have the extroverted happy-go-lucky persona of Johnson or the competitive assassin-like qualities of Bryant. 
He definitely doesn't possess the outer "god-like" aura of Jordan. 
But when a well-known misanthrope like Russell or an egoist like Wilt Chamberlain can be beloved by generations of sports fans long after their time in the game, the religion of a self-described "mild-mannered and cheerful" legend like Abdul-Jabbar not enjoying the same level of adulation as his legendary peers might just be the elephant in the room.