Happy Birthday, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shoots his famous skyhook shot
Surrounded by Celtics players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still scores for the Lakers. June 8, 1985. Herald-Examiner Collection

On April 16, 1947, Lew Alcindor was born; he would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar is one of the greatest players basketball has ever known; since his retirement, he has focused much of his time on writing.

Abdul-Jabbar's talent was already obvious when he was in high school. In three years of high school basketball in New York, his team had an overall record of 79-2, including a 71-game winning streak. They were national high school champions in Abdul-Jabbar's junior year, and runner-up in his senior year.

Abdul-Jabbar played college basketball at UCLA. NCAA rules required that he play on the freshman team his first year, but when he got to the varsity team, he once again helped lead the team to a tremendous record – 88 wins and 2 losses in three seasons, and three national titles. To be sure, the UCLA team would likely have done well without him. Under coach John Wooden, they were in the middle of an astonishing run. In the twelve seasons from 1963-64 to 1974-75, UCLA won ten national championships. Abdul-Jabbar writes about his long relationship with Wooden in his 2017 memoir Coach Wooden and Me (e-book | e-audio | print); John Matthew Smith looks at the UCLA dynasty in The Sons of Westwood (e-book).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, UCLA's only 7-foot-1 history major, attends graduation. June 15, 1969. Herald-Examiner Collection

After his college career, Abdul-Jabbar was offered a million dollars to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. He chose instead to go into the NBA, and was the #1 draft pick, chosen by the Milwaukee Bucks. In his first season, the Bucks won 56 games, up from 27 the previous year, and Abdul-Jabbar was named the NBA Rookie of the Year. The team got even better in his second season, winning the NBA championship; Abdul-Jabbar was the league's MVP.

He was still known as Lew Alcindor at this point, but on May 1, 1971, the day after the Bucks won that championship, he announced that he was changing his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; the Arabic names translate roughly as "noble servant of the Almighty."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing for Milwaukee

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing for Milwaukee against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers. October 25, 1969. Herald-Examiner Collection

At the end of the 1974-75 season, his sixth with Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar asked to be traded either to the New York Knicks or the Los Angeles Lakers. He always spoke well of his time in Milwaukee and of the team's fans, but wanted to be in a larger city.

Abdul-Jabbar came to Los Angeles for the 1975-76 season. He won his fourth MVP Award that year, but the team failed to make the playoffs. It was in Los Angeles that Abdul-Jabbar began wearing the goggles that became a trademark; he had suffered a series of eye injuries during his career, and the cumulative effect of those injuries caused his eyes to dry out easily.

Jabbar surprises Magic Johnson as he leads a fast break.

Jabbar surprises Magic Johnson as he leads a fast break. June 3, 1984. Herald-Examiner Collection

The Lakers played well for the next few years, usually making the playoffs, but never managing to win the title. That changed with the 1979-80 season, when the team drafted Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson teamed up to make the Lakers a powerhouse, winning five NBA championships in nine years. Abdul-Jabbar wrote his first autobiography, Giant Steps (print), during his time with the Lakers. He published an updated autobiography, Kareem (print), in 1990; and a memoir for young adults, Becoming Kareem (e-book | e-audio | print), in 2017.

In 1989, Abdul-Jabbar announced his retirement after 20 seasons, which was at the time the longest career in NBA history (three players have since played 21 seasons). Abdul-Jabbar still holds the NBA career records for points scored and minutes played. He played in more All-Star games (18), and won more MVP Awards (6), than any player in league history.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. April 15, 1985. Herald-Examiner Collection

Abdul-Jabbar was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995; the College Basketball Hall of Fame, founded in 2006, included him in its initial group of inductees.

Throughout his career, Abdul-Jabbar has occasionally ventured into acting, most notably in the 1980 comedy Airplane (DVD).

Since retiring from basketball, Abdul-Jabbar has been a prolific writer on a variety of subjects. In A Season on the Reservation (print), he writes about the time he spent with the Apache Indians on the White Mountain Reservation in Arizona. Brothers in Arms (e-book | e-audio | print) is a volume of World War II history about an all-black tank battalion. There's more history in On the Shoulders of Giants (e-audio | print), this time focused on the Harlem Renaissance; an accompanying documentary (DVD) tells the story of the Harlem Rens basketball team.

What Color Is My World (e-book | print) is a book for children about African-American inventors and their creations. Abdul-Jabbar's first novel tells the story of Sherlock's brother Mycroft Holmes (e-book | print); the character has been spun off into a series of comic books (e-books).  And in Writings on the Wall (e-book | e-audio | print), Abdul-Jabbar offers essays and cultural commentary on life in an increasingly divided nation.