It was almost noon. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a towering rail of a man who plays basketball at night and sleeps late in the morning, opened the door to his new house, beckoned a visitor inside and then disappeared to put on his shoes. “Go ahead,” he said when he returned. “Sit on the fireplace.” He in turn sank among the packing boxes of jazz records and stereo equipment the movers had just brought from Milwaukee to Los Angeles.
Abdul-Jabbar had once changed his religion and his name. He had asked the Milwaukee Bucks to trade him to the Los Angeles Lakers. And now he seems to be undergoing another metamorphosis.
While he has never been garrulous, and there are not many in the world who claim to have heard him laugh, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is smiling these days, more and more. He speaks with greater ease and confidence. He is no longer the giant recluse. Is it possible that the sports world’s most famous scowl is gone forever?
“I didn’t like Milwaukee. That’s no secret,” he says. “But the other part—about me avoiding reporters—is not true. The writers never came around to ask me questions. They’d just rewrite what others had said.”
Kareem these days is generally well-behaved and quiet, with occasional hot flashes of temperament. He was disappointed when the New York Knicks failed to come up with a “responsible bid” before he was traded to the Lakers. A Manhattan boy, he says he still gets homesick for New York, just as he did when he was in college in Los Angeles. There are periods of melancholy, along with bursts of fury when he feels an opponent is leaning too hard on him. The anger is sometimes hard to control; in 1969 he slugged an opposing player during a pick-up game and broke his jaw. Kareem was criticized, too, when he refused to play on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team—”I couldn’t afford the time off from school,” he explained at the time. The real reason was his growing discontentment with the racial situation in America.
His interest in Islam began then—but in the orthodox Hanafi sect, not the Black Muslims, whom he considered racist. In 1968 he converted from Catholicism and three years later adopted the Islamic name. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar means “generous, powerful son of Allah.” “Of course, my parents were dead set against it,” Kareem says. “The name change particularly hurt my father. I am his only child and a junior at that. Now there’s no one to carry on his name. But they see what good it has done me, and they are more understanding.”
Kareem says his prayers five times each day and visited Mecca in 1970. In 1971 he and a fellow Muslim, Janice Brown, a Washington, D.C. school teacher, were married. Now after one child—a 3½ year-old daughter, Habiba—their marriage has soured. Janice, whose Islamic name is also Habiba, lives with her daughter in Washington, not far from the mansion Kareem purchased for members of his church. It was there in 1973 that seven Muslims, four of them small children, were brutally murdered. Although members of a rival sect were blamed for the deaths, no arrests have ever been made. “I have lived around death all my life,” Kareem says, “but never have I seen anything as horrible as those killings. What kind of madmen would order innocent babies killed?” For months after the killings, armed guards escorted Kareem to and from basketball games and stood watch at his suburban Milwaukee home 24 hours a day.
Pro basketball’s super center has discovered that being Mr. Nice Guy pays off. In addition to the $500,000 a year he earns from the Lakers, he is charting his way through a money-green world of product endorsements, television commercials and guest star roles on such TV shows as Mannix and Emergency. “I’m taking this seriously,” he says. “I won’t be in basketball all my life. Five or so more years and I’ll be finished.” Kareem has thus far turned down comedy roles, but was perfectly willing to sing “a sprinkle a day keeps the odor away…” for a new talcum powder commercial. He drinks Tropicana orange juice on TV (Crosby beware) and along with politicians and movie stars has recited one of those Bicentennial “That’s the way it was” minutes.
Kareem, who studied journalism in college, also plans to tune up his writing skills. He is at work on his autobiography and next summer, while running a basketball clinic in Pakistan, he hopes to send back some pieces. “I’d like to have a couple of good clips to show editors I can do something else besides stuff a ball through a hoop. My biggest resource is my mind.”
All this talk of retirement and post-basketball careers is of course somewhat premature. His contract with the Lakers has five years to go, and there’s no one on the courts today with the all-around skills of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
He takes aim on that orange hoop through wrap-around, Plexiglas goggles. He wears them because his eyes have been scratched seriously three times—one such injury last season put him on the bench for 16 games, and Milwaukee later failed to make a spot in the playoffs. The long, spindly fingers of his shooting hand curl firmly around the basketball. He leaps high, extending his arm and the ball up toward the blaze of lights at the top of the arena, a foot or more above the outstretched hands of the frustrated defenders below.
At the apex of his leap, Kareem flicks his middle three fingers, and the ball floats toward the basket. Even before it settles into the net, he has turned away and loped downcourt, confidently, instinctively knowing that the ball has found its mark. Two more points.
Despite Milwaukee’s poor showing last year, Abdul-Jabbar had a scoring average of 29.9 a game. His career average of 30.4 is the highest of any player in the National Basketball Association—either active or retired. His field-goal average of 55 percent is the best in NBA history.
In six seasons as a pro, Kareem’s soft “sky hook,” as his unblockable shot has come to be known, helped earn the Bucks their first championship in 1971. Now, back in Los Angeles where he spent four years at UCLA, the 28-year-old star has been called the best player active today—and perhaps the best player of all time—and few dispassionate observers would demur.
It is a reputation which had its origins in the playgrounds of upper Manhattan, an area that has produced more than its share of outstanding players. Kareem was known as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., a kid with more than height; up there in the clouds he had brains. Although he lived in the midst of poverty, Lew’s childhood was culturally rich. His father, a 6’3″ transit police lieutenant, is a graduate of Juilliard School of Music and plays a skillful trombone. (During college, Lew took up the flute to relax before games, and now beats the conga drums.) Mrs. Alcindor was determined that her only child would get an education.
Lew attended Power Memorial Academy, a New York parochial school, on scholarship. Like so many kids who show early signs of sprouting into coordinated giants, basketball became Lew’s obsession. “At 10 or 11 my father recognized that I was going to be taller than normal, so he refused to allow me to play football,” Kareem recalls. By 14 he stood a towering 6’10” and wore size 15D shoes.
Of course, there were taunts because of his size and skinniness, but as his game improved they turned to cheers. “Sure I wondered what it would be like to be more normal, but my father was always very positive about it. He’d tell me to stand tall.”
There were times when it wasn’t easy. Midway through what should have been an easy game, Power Academy was ahead by only six points and coach Jack Donohue was upset. In the locker room at halftime he blasted each member of the team, finally turning on his center. “You’re acting just like a nigger,” he yelled at Alcindor. Although Donohue said later he had only wanted to fire the boy up, the harsh words left Lewis crushed for weeks. Only the steadying influence of his mother kept him from dropping out of school. But in the end he was three times a high school all-America and an honor student as well. When he wasn’t shooting baskets (he led his team to 71 consecutive victories and three city championships), he read and re-read the classics. At graduation his test scores earned him a New York State Regents academic scholarship.
As the most celebrated high school basketball player of his time, Lew had athletic scholarships pressed upon him by every college where basketball counts. He decided upon St. John’s University in Queens. Just before he signed up, however, the basketball coach who had recruited him retired, and Alcindor switched to UCLA and its now-famed coach, John Wooden. During his three years of varsity basketball there he helped win three consecutive national championships.
“There was warm, mutual respect between Wooden and me,” Kareem says. “But because I was black, there was never the father-son thing he had going with Bill Walton. He couldn’t put his arm around my waist and introduce me as his boy—we didn’t look very much alike. He could do it with Walton. Now I think that John regrets it. Walton has turned out to be such a crybaby because he got away with murder then. It was so bad that Walton once said he wouldn’t show up for practice unless he was allowed to smoke grass in the locker room—that’s where Wooden drew the line.”
Kareem lives alone in a low-slung ranch house in Stone Canyon above the UCLA campus. He bought the house, worth an estimated $150,000, because of its cathedral ceilings (a blessing to anyone so tall) and its paddle-tennis court. He plans to install a ball machine so he can work on his tennis ground strokes. There is a pool too, of course. As Kareem unpacked the movers’ boxes not long ago, carpenters were at work raising the transoms on the doors. “I’d do this even if I weren’t tall,” Kareem says. “The high doors really open up the place.”
Officially, Kareem is 7’3″, but since adolescence he has detested questions about his height. His opponents swear he is taller than he admits, and in a world designed for human beings who average 5’10”, Kareem is an astonishing sight, on court or off.
“Actually I get by pretty well in a standard-sized world, but some people act like I just got my height yesterday. They tell me to watch my head. I do—all the time. Then there are those who think I should feel negative about my height. Why? I have to have my clothes tailormade. But I sleep in a regular, king-sized bed (diagonally) and drive a standard Mercedes.” And, not above gilding the lily, Kareem loves to add an inch or so with two-toned platform shoes.