[Busy week, so I’m going to make this brief. Here’s an interesting profile of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that was published in Newsday back on February 12, 1972. Joe Donnelly, the reporter and better known for his baseball jottings over 33 years at Newsday, takes an up-close-and-personal look at Abdul-Jabbar. Back then, the public scrutiny that Alcindor-turned-Abdul-Jabbar received for his unfamiliar Islamic faith and familiar outspokenness about race in America was just non-stop and intense. The intensity comes through in this article, though Donnelly is sympathetic to Abdul-Jabbar and his search for peace. It provides a vivid portrait of Kareem as a young Buck.]
He seems almost bored with the pregame ceremony. “And here,” the voice intones, “are your world-champion Milwaukee Bucks!” He trots out with his teammates, and after a few minutes, he moves away from the semicircle of shooters near the basket. He languidly strolls along a sideline of the court.
Actually, he’s far from bored. “I have this hyperactive mind,” he says, “and I have to really concentrate on the event of the moment, in this case, a basketball game.”
There are the visible symbols of his involvement with things other than basketball. “Kareem” is inscribed on the back of his warm-up jacket and “Jabbar” is planted on the back of his warm-up shirt. Once his name was Lew Alcindor, and if he were content with hero worship and wealth ($280,000 a year), it would still be so. Instead, Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He has embraced Orthodox Islam, the face of almost 500 million people around the world. And his faith has made an impact on his attitude and other people’s attitude toward him.
To some, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a rebel. He finds that lack of understanding is often directly related to bigotry. “The genuine Muslim bears witness that there is one God, that His name is Allah, and that all men—Black and White—are brothers,” he has said. “There Is no room in Islam for racial hatred of any sort . . .”
He doubts that many people in the capacity crowds at the Milwaukee Arena know what he’s about. In Jabbar’s eyes, their union is based on basketball. On that basis, it’s a remarkably successful union, a ticket on game day in Milwaukee being a precious commodity. The Bucks sold more than 3,000 additional seats for each game during his rookie pro season (1969-70), and the attention hasn’t wavered as they cheer him enthusiastically. The average crowd in the 10,000-plus Milwaukee Arena is within 200 of capacity.
Last season, the franchise’s third season of operation, Milwaukee won the world championship, and the outcome is likely to be the same this year and for years to come. Jabbar is the dominant big man in a game controlled by big men, and he has developed skills that surpass all the other giants of the game.
“Look at his hands, the quickness in the way he dribbles,” says Wayne Embry, the burly ex-center who has moved into the Bucks’ front office as an administrative assistant. “Look at his moves, look at his passes. You’ll hear people say he wouldn’t be playing pro basketball if he weren’t seven feet tall. Hell, he would be playing this league if he were 5-feet-11.”
For Abdul-Jabbar, the perplexities come off the court. He recalls with indignation the cabdriver passing up the Black woman for the White passenger down the street. His indignation mounts when he speaks about critics who regard him as a hostile militant. “They think because I have wealth, I should be quiet while people I know are getting kicked in the ass,” he has said. “I should be blind to it. As much as this country has to offer, till it’s equitable, it’s not going to mean anything.”
In 24 years, he has been through three points of view. There was his early acceptance of living in a neighborhood with Whites, although he sometimes wondered why his father, a Juilliard School of Music graduate, should be working as a Metropolitan Transportation Authority cop. Then he learned to hate. His one-time best friend, a White boy, called him the N-word, and he had the searing word hurled at him again by his high school coach. And finally, he outgrew being a Black racist.
In a biographical series, Abdul-Jabbar said, “I could no longer believe that the White man was inherently evil and cruel, and Black men inherently superior, as some of the other Blacks are teaching nowadays. That is just the flip side of the old racism. I realized that Black was neither best nor worst; it just was. I could no longer hate anybody. I could no longer afford to be a racist. If racism messed up a lot of people who had to take it, then it must also mess up those who had to dish it out. I did not want to be that kind of narrow man.”
So, the day after the Bucks’ biggest win of the year, Abdul-Jabbar was down to talk of himself, his religion, and his team.
Speaking of Islam, which he quickly stated was a faith, rather than a religion, he said, “I started investigating when I was a freshman in college after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He was a Sunni Muslim when he was killed, and his story made it really positive for me to investigate. I saw how he had to have used it to help himself grow.”
Often his religion is confused with the Black Muslims, who preach that the White man is the devil. “It’s annoying because people don’t understand,” he said. “I’m not trying to associate any values with what [the Black Muslims] are doing and what I’m doing, but I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’ll get letters saying, ‘Why do you think Black is superior to White?’ It’s disquieting, because it’s what they read into me rather than me. The way I look at it, everybody alive is a human being. They belong to the human race, and they can accept Islam if they want, or whatever.”
He’s not critical of the Black Muslims—or any Black man. “They’re trying to achieve something for our people and work hard to that end. I’m not critical. If [militancy] is how they seek to do it, then that’s their business.” He has a hard enough time himself guarding against people whom he suspects are prejudiced. “In this country, it’s hard not to have bias,” he said. “It’s deeply ingrained in the whole culture. But you shouldn’t let it affect your judgment. People have their worth.”
Not that he finds Milwaukee easy to accept. “I liken it to being on the edge of the earth,” he said one day last month. His union with the fans ends when he walks off the basketball floor. On it, he can do no wrong. That truth was never more evident than last month when the Bucks broke the Los Angeles Lakers and their 33-game winning streak.
In a game with a playoff atmosphere, Abdul-Jabbar had thoroughly dominated Wilt Chamberlain, the other giant of the game. The Milwaukee center had outscored Chamberlain, 39-15, and outrebounded him, 20-12.
The Bucks had sprinted to an easy win in the second half. But even as Abdul-Jabbar was reestablishing his status as pro basketball’s most-valuable property, there was an unattractive incident. He came into contact with Laker forward Happy Hairston underneath a basket. As Abdul-Jabbar was going up, Hairston fell awkwardly beneath him. Thinking that Hairston was trying to hurt him, Abdul-Jabbar reached down at Hairston, who was on all fours, and planted a right uppercut on his head.
While it was an outrageous action, one that he later admitted was spur-of-the-moment fury and regrettable, it was glossed over in the Milwaukee papers the next day. The crowd didn’t seem to mind either. As long as he continued to win for them, they will have their island of unity. There is this vivid contrast of the aggressor and the peaceful young man who seeks a unity beyond any physical boundaries.
To Ray Patterson, the president and general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, he is an intensely bright young man who is still searching for his path. In Patterson’s office are the artifacts of the championship year—the huge trophy, a team picture, an individual shot of Kareem. In that room, there is also an immense regard for Abdul-Jabbar. It goes back to the contract negotiations and the beginning of the player’s career.
Naturally, both pro leagues wanted the superstar who had led UCLA to three straight national titles. Signing Abdul-Jabbar would have meant instant parity for the struggling American Basketball Association. In fact, he preferred to play in New York, and the ABA had an advantage there because the Nets had the ABA draft rights to him. Through his attorneys, Abdul-Jabbar laid down the ground rule: one bid for each team that drafted him. The Nets’ multi-season bid was $1 million, and Milwaukee offered a reported $1.4 million over five seasons.
Later that week, the Nets upped their offer far above Milwaukee’s, but the player wouldn’t waver from his own ground rule of one offer each. “Nobody has used him, and he remains very much his own man,” Patterson said. “He goes into something with full commitment. I’m sure he’s that way with the Islamic faith. People are fearful of the unknown. He’s the personification of the unknown.
“He’s going to be heard from in a way far beyond basketball. I don’t know what it is yet. I’m not sure he knows yet. If he were to draw a picture of himself on this wall, it would be incomplete. But there is a burden on his shoulders that he’s not going to shift from.”
The burden was apparent from the time he publicly became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His Islamic name was given to him by his teacher, who is supposed to have derived it from his student’s personality and attributes. While it was given to him at the time of his conversion, after his junior year in college, he didn’t have it changed officially until last year.
His new name translates from the Arabic into the generous servant of the all-powerful—Kareem (generous), Abdul (the servant), Jabbar (all-powerful or subduer). All requests for his photo mailed to the Bucks’ office are honored, and while he doesn’t sign the attached form note, the salutation is his choice: “Peace, Kareem.”
Sitting across from him, you suddenly become aware that you’ve forgotten about his height. Most men are dwarfed by his presence, but conversation seems to overcome the feeling. “Other people are more hung up on my height than I am. I get so much of it. ‘Don’t you have a complex?’ I don’t feel that way. I feel that I’ve been blessed with my height. They get cynical and attribute it to some kind of adjustment on your part.”
He bridles a bit at the suggestion that he’s taller than his advertised height of 7-feet-2. “I was measured last September,” he said, “and was 7-feet-1 and five-eights. I’ve grown a quarter of an inch since coming into the pros. A man ought to know how tall he is.” (Somebody who has to do stretching exercises to extend 68 inches wasn’t going to argue with him.)
He admits Milwaukee is a hard place for him to live. “I don’t want to get down on Milwaukee. There’s nice and not nice, and that’s wherever you go. But the atmosphere is not what I’m used to—big city. Milwaukee is Middle America, and the things that are for me and what I am have nothing to do with Middle America.” But sometimes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finds his America off the court in Milwaukee.
Jim Foley, the publicity director of the Bucks, recalls a night when Freddie Hubbard, the saxophone player, was playing Milwaukee’s version of the Palace. “Kareem tore out of our dressing room after the game,” Foley said. “It was one of those nights where I could really see he was happy and with someplace to go.”
“Not enough of it,” said Abdul-Jabbar, shaking his head. “Black America, this is not one of those towns where it’s at.” Actually, about 12 percent, or 105,000, of Milwaukee’s population is Black. Although Kareem was active with ghetto youth groups in New York City during summers away from UCLA, he has not been active with youth groups in Milwaukee. The pro schedule Is demanding, he was married last year, and he hinted at another reason: “It was something I could do then, while I was in college. I think it did me more good than the kids.”
He doesn’t have much use for hero worship and believes that the kids who engage in it are selling themselves short. But unlike Bill Russell, he doesn’t always refuse autographs. “I sign occasionally. It’s kind of dehumanizing. It keeps you in the realm of the unknown. I don’t mind people coming up to me and saying, ‘Hello, how are you?’ I’m a real person. Writing my name on a piece of paper isn’t necessary. Adults ask you so they can say to their kids they met you. Well, that’s silly.”
He remembers his own autograph hunts after New York Giant football games and after games in Madison Square Garden. “I lost them in six months. I didn’t know where they were, and what’s more, I didn’t really care.”
Most of the time he’s with his wife, and he keeps to himself. He and Habiba (meaning “the lovely one”) live in a townhouse in Mequon, a suburb 20 miles north of Milwaukee. “Yes, it’s integrated,” he said. “I know because I’m there.”
They’re expecting their first child in the spring, and he had indicated to Lynn Shackleford, a former UCLA teammate and now a Los Angeles Laker announcer, that it could be twins. “Wow, what a double post that could be!” Shackleford commented. Any children will be born into the Islamic faith. “If they have any choice later,” Abdul-Jabbar said, “it will be their choice to stay within it or leave it.”
His new name is important to him. “It’s making a thing one. I decided I should be that all the time. I knew there would be misunderstanding about it, but it’s more important that I should make myself perfectly clear. Misunderstanding about the name has already prompted a letter from the Bucks to the New York Timespointing out that he should be referred to as Abdul-Jabbar, not just Jabbar, in stories.
The Bucks received a letter from an apparent Arabic scholar in Switzerland, who wrote, “Never should he be called Mr. Jabbar, for that would be blasphemy.” Abdul-Jabbar said that he knew all along that he was to be called either Kareem or Abdul-Jabbar “except the guy that announces the baskets at the game sounds like he works at a carnival, so I wanted to keep it plain and simple.”
The Milwaukee Arena announcer now says, “Basket by Abdul-Jabbar,” and the only break in the pattern is the “Jabbar” stitched to the back of his uniform shirts. Until they put shoulder pads on basketball players, it will be difficult to get the full name across.
On the subject of protectiveness, it seemed appropriate to ask him about punching Hairston. “That happens. It’s not the first time it happened with me. Right after you do it, you say, ‘Wow, what am I doing?’ You feel kind of foolish. I’d much rather have been able not to do it.”
Larry Costello, the Bucks’ coach, is amazed that his big man does not lash out more often. He thinks that Abdul-Jabbar’s superior height is too often used by rivals as a license to drape themselves against him and impede his movement. “It seems there’s more of it this year,” the coach said. “He gets a lot. All I know is there’s a rule that says impede progress. To me, they don’t enforce it.”
Another insight into Abdul-Jabbar comes from Lucius Allen, his Milwaukee teammate and freshman roommate at UCLA. “I think now he’s a lot more sociable and less withdrawn,” Allen said. “He was more hostile to the press then, harder to get to know. I was the young Christian from Kansas City, and he was deeper into things. Basketball brought us together. It takes time to become his friend. He’s very selective.”
Allen tells a story of a bright roomie who had his nose in a book most of the time but who also became angry quickly. He understood the Hairston incident. “He loses control when he thinks somebody is trying to hurt him. We had this guy, Joe Something-or-Other at UCLA. Kareem chased him around the court for five minutes one time and finally caught him. It was a good thing the coaches came at the same time. Kareem is Aries. Their sign is the fire, and they just explode when angered. Five minutes later, he’s sorrier than anybody that he went off.”
The public doesn’t see Allen’s friend. They remember the big man putting the slug on the man who was down—on national television. The biggest kid on the block, or man on the court, doesn’t come off very well in that context. The good-natured Allen went on about his teammate.
“He had this Jones about potato chips. He can’t eat pork, as it’s against the diet of his religion, and he follows his religion to the letter. So many of the breakfast things are pork. We get up for so many of those early morning flights to the next city. We’ll be eating breakfast, and Kareem will be eating potato chips. Basically, he’s a fun guy, but you have to get to know him. He’s so intense a lot of people fail to realize his sense of humor.”
There was the time Kareem came bursting into the visiting locker room in New York followed by a cop with a club, “That’s him, officer,” he yelled, pointing at a startled Bob Boozer. “That’s him.” Then Abdul-Jabbar broke into laughter, handing the officer an envelope and saying. “Here are the tickets for mom.” Or the time the Black sailor tried to hitch a ride with the Milwaukee team bus from the Atlanta arena to the airport. “Man, you better call the USO,” Kareem told him.
Abdul-Jabbar once told a reporter his goal is “harmony with the universe . . . The public can twist your personality, if you let it. Sometimes, I have felt like two people, the real me and the me the public imagines is real. But I have come to realize that I’m just an athlete doing my job. I can thrive on competition and find satisfaction in success. And if the public can accept me, fine.”
Those who know him best accept him. Cora Alcindor, his mother, is a soft-spoken woman. She and her husband live in Queens, and she admits there are times she slips and calls him Lew. “I guess because we’re not used to it. He’ll always be Lew Alcindor to me, but I respect his wishes to be Kareem. He’s very determined. He respects our judgment, but he ends up doing what he wants. He always seeks our blessing. He didn’t change his name until after he was 21.”
She as well as Ray Patterson and the others who know Abdul-Jabbar imagine that he’ll be doing something interesting after his basketball career. Still, it’s a long way off, and he’ll be spending the intervening time finding himself. “He has the capacity to be anything he wants to be,” she said. “He’s always been successful in school as well as sports. But I don’t know what he wants to be.”
She remembers not to cook pork when he’s home. And she recalls with pleasure last December 5. It was her birthday. No, the Bucks weren’t in town. They had the day off. But her son flew home—” the nicest present I could have had.”