Throughout his 20-year career in the National Basketball Association, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s trademark sky hook was virtually untouchable, much like the records he held upon his retirement in 1989.
But since his early years growing up in New York City, Abdul-Jabbar was destined to secure his place among basketball royalty.
In high school, Abdul-Jabbar, known as Lew Alcindor, Jr. before converting to Sunni Islam, led Power Memorial Academy, to a 71-game winning streak, a 79-2 overall record and three consecutive New York City Catholic championships.
At UCLA, under the tutelage of head coach John Wooden, Alcindor would be equally dominant, twice winning the College Player of the Year Award (1967, 1969), earning three First Team All-American honors (1967-1969) and becoming the first Naismith College Player of the Year (1969).
With Alcindor anchoring the middle, the Bruins’ three-year record was an astounding 88-2, and the team would win three straight NCAA Championships with Alcindor as the Most Outstanding Player in each Tournament.
During his sophomore season at UCLA, Alcindor boycotted the 1968 Summer Olympics, deciding not to join the Men’s Basketball Team to protest the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the United States.
When Alcindor’s college basketball days were over, he owned a number of records at UCLA that have stood the test of time, including highest season scoring average (29.0), highest career scoring average (26.4) and most points in a single game (61).
Not surprisingly, Alcindor was the first overall pick of the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1969 NBA Draft and the first overall pick of the New York Nets in the American Basketball Association (ABA) Draft. In addition, Alcindor was offered $1 million to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Ultimately though, Alcindor chose to play for the Bucks, who outbid the Nets for his services after coming off a season in which they finished an abysmal 27-55.
The addition of Alcindor would pay immediate dividends for Milwaukee as the team won 29 more games to lay claim to second place in the league’s Eastern Division. Alcindor was the overwhelming choice for Rookie of the Year, averaging 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds per game.
The following season, Milwaukee added Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson to the roster, which propelled the talent-laden Bucks to 66 victories during the 1970-71 season and their first, and only, NBA Championship. The season would also turn out to be one of individual dominance for Alcindor, winning the scoring title (31.7 ppg), his first of six Most Valuable Player Awards and the NBA Finals MVP Award.
On May 1, 1971, the day after the Bucks won the NBA championship, Alcindor adopted the Muslim name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, its Arabic translation roughly meaning "generous/noble (Kareem), servant of (Abdul) the mighty/stern one (Jabbar) [i.e., of God]."
Over the next three seasons, Abdul-Jabbar continued to be the main reason why Milwaukee remained a perennial NBA powerhouse, all while capturing two more MVP Awards.
However, at his request, the Bucks traded Abdul-Jabbar to the Los Angeles Lakers because, culturally and socially, Milwaukee was no longer a good fit for the generation’s next legendary center.
"Live in Milwaukee? No, I guess you could say I exist in Milwaukee," Abdul-Jabbar said in a early magazine interview.
"I am a soldier hired for service and I will perform that service well. Basketball has given me a good life, but this town has nothing to do with my roots. There's no common ground."
In two out of his first three seasons with the Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar would win his fourth and record-tying fifth MVP Awards, but when the team selected Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson with the first overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, a dynasty began taking shape with Abdul-Jabbar as its centerpiece.
With the tandem of Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson, the Lakers would go on to become the most dominant team of the 80’s, appearing in eight NBA Finals and winning five NBA championships.
Individually, although past his prime, Abdul-Jabbar continued his assault on the league record books, winning his sixth MVP Award in 1980, replacing Elvin Hayes as the all-time leader in games played on Feb. 23, 1986 and surpassing Wilt Chamberlain as the NBA’s all-time scoring leader in 1984.
When he officially retired in 1989 after 20 seasons, Abdul-Jabbar had 19 All-Star Game appearances, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, six NBA championships, six MVP Awards and two Finals MVP Awards under his belt, to go along with career averages of 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.
During his final season, Abdul-Jabbar was given standing ovations in every single game he played, and was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.