On August 16th, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time celebrated his birthday, and outside of perhaps Los Angeles, there was little fanfare celebrating his life or his place in sports lore.
Though we are from a different generation, I did manage to see Kareem play throughout his 10 “Showtime” years in LA along with Magic Johnson, James Worthy and the crew. He was 32 when Magic joined his Lakers and they proceeded to combine for 5 NBA Titles in those 10 years.
I never really watched him play before Magic’s arrival. Prior to 1986 the networks were still showing taped delayed NBA weekday playoff games specially for west coast games. The NBA was hardly on national TV prior to Magic Johnson/Larry Bird revitalizing the Leagues interest and influence.
Though I had not seen Kareem play in high school, college or the first 10 years of his NBA career, my interests in his accomplished career was greater than the normal casual fan. I was raised in the building across the street from where he was raised in Dyckman’s Housing Projects. I went to the same elementary school and my first AAU coach Mr. Couch was his as well. The stories of his exploits were known, but even on his home court I felt his accomplishments were undermined.
Those accomplishments included being perhaps the most dominant high school player ever. Born Lew Alcindor, he entered Power Memorial at 6’7”. “The Tower From Power” led his team to a record of 79-2 during his high school career, which included a 71 game winning streak.
That dominance continued to his 3 year college career (freshman were not allowed to play varsity ball at the time) where the 7’2” big man lead UCLA to a record of 88-2. UCLA won 3 NCAA titles and he was named Most Outstanding Player all 3 years as well as Player of the Year twice. His UCLA team had a 47 winning streak end to the University of Houston (71-69) in college basketball’s first nationally televised game played in front of over 52,000 fans in The Houston Astrodome. He played the game despite still being affected by a scratched cornea and was held to 15 points. In the eventual rematch held that same year in a semifinal (now called Final Four) match of the NCAA Tournament, he held rival Elvin Hayes, averaging 37 per game to 10 points and 5 rebounds as his team avenged the loss with a 101-69 win. His dominance is largely credited with the NCAA’s 9 year ban on the dunk. (Yes college basketball didn’t have any dunking for 9 years).
Alcindor was the number one pick in both the NBA and ABA in 1969, eventually choosing the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, despite the fact that the ABA’s then New Jersey Nets eventually offered him twice the guaranteed money. He went to a Milwaukee Bucks team that was 27-55 the previous year and immediately transformed them into a 2nd place team with a 56-26 record while becoming the league’s 2nd leading scorer at 28.8 ppg and 3rd leading rebounder at 14.5 pg as Rookie of the Year. The next year aided by the addition of the aging, but legendary Oscar Robertson, he lead the league in scoring in scoring at 31.7 ppg and was named league MVP while leading Milwaukee to its first (and only) NBA Championship. Following the championship, he informed the public of his name change to Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He went on to play four more years for Milwaukee, winning two more league MVP’s during that span. His career averages in Milwaukee for six years were 30.4 points and 15.3 rebounds per game.
In a blockbuster move he was then traded to The Los Angeles Lakers. He won two more consecutive league MVP’s upon his arrival to LA and once Magic was added to the team they appeared in 8 NBA Finals in the 80’s, winning 5. He also added a record 6th League MVP to go along with 2 Finals’ MVPs. His consistency is part of his legacy as he averaged over 20 ppg for the next 6 years after his final MVP award, culminating with an average of 23.4 ppg at the age of 38. He retired at age 42 as the NBA’s all time leading scorer with 38,387 points (which is still the current high) as well as its all time leader in field goals made, minutes played, games played and defensive rebounds and of course 6x Champion.
Upon his retirement Kareem has been named to many all time best lists, including the NBA’s own top 50 list as well as having ESPN in 2007 rank him as the games all time top center and #2 player of all time (behind Michael Jordan) in 2015. However, that said I still think Kareem is vastly underrated and unappreciated. In 1968 he boycotted the Olympics, with other athletes, in protest to the United States treatment of African Americans. His conversion to Islam along with a perceived unfriendly, even surly attitude with the press, has, I feel, contributed to him not being given his due by so called basketball pundits. The grudges have seemed to carry over with his difficulty in obtaining coaching positions despite the fact that the best selling author is widely known as one of the brightest and most articulate athletes as well.
I understand that as time passes, younger generations cannot speak with any conviction to the greatness of athletes they have never seen. I have never seen Joe Louis or Sugar Ray Robinson, but I’ve seen Ali. I study enough to know of the greatness of the two former, but Ali is the standard bearer for my generation. In basketball I never saw the Big O, Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlin, but analysts that saw them still vehemently fight for their place in history. Kareem, generally speaking, gets less of the same consideration.
His accomplishments speak for themselves, but for whatever the reasons his accolades are not trumpeted by the media. He was the best player on every level he played for the vast majority of his career. For people infatuated with stats…he possesses them in abundance. For people who like individual awards, he has them all on every level. For people who look at championships he has six. Yes, he played with talent in LA, but every quote you ever read from Magic identifies Kareem as the absolute cornerstone of those teams in no small part due to possessing the skyhook which was undeniably the most unstoppable shot in all of basketball. To the uninitiated for whom Kareem is not universally recognized as the best or minimally in the top 2, today, I give a big shout to the DOAT (The Most DOMINANT Of ALL TIME).