Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 1 October 2020

Newsmaker: Kareem ­Abdul-Jabbar

The retired basketball star is among the most celebrated players ever, but since retiring, the American Muslim, who is in Abu Dhabi this week, has been busy away from the court.
Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

In the 1980 film Airplane!, the basketball legend Kareem ­Abdul-Jabbar plays the co-pilot Roger Murdock to Peter Graves’s captain Clarence Oveur. In one scene of the beloved oddball comedy, a child tells Abdul-­Jabbar’s Murdock character: “Wait a minute. I know you. You’re Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. You play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers.”

“I’m sorry, son, but you must have me confused with someone else. My name is Roger Murdock. I’m the co-pilot,” ­Abdul-Jabbar tells the child.

Back and forth they banter, with the child insisting that the co-pilot is ­Abdul-Jabbar and Abdul-Jabbar insisting he’s Murdock, until the child tells him: “My dad says you don’t work hard enough on defence. And he says that lots of times, you don’t even run down court. And that you don’t really try ... except during the play-offs.”

Finally, Abdul-Jabbar breaks character.

“Listen, kid! I’ve been hearing that ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 ­minutes.”

It’s funny because in 1980, ­Abdul-Jabbar was one of the most instantly recognisable faces in America for his exploits with the Lakers. It still resonates nearly 35 years later, because given his pursuits after basketball, if he had wanted to be a pilot, he probably could have done it.

It takes a truly larger-than-life figure to develop a celebrated public career in acting, writing, advocacy and even statesmanship, all after a basketball career that included more points and minutes played than ­anyone else in the history of the game.

It also helps to stand 7 feet, 2 inches (218 centimetres) tall.

Abdul-Jabbar is in Abu ­Dhabi this week and, in testament to the diversity of interests and causes that have defined him away from the court, his visit has been unrelated to basketball.

He led a diabetes walk in Al Ain on Wednesday, was guest editor at The National yesterday and has been promoting the Walk 2014 diabetes event at Yas Marina Circuit on November 7. He has otherwise spent his time generally advocating healthy lifestyles and fighting diabetes, a cause that he said grew dear to him after watching his mother, Cora Lillian, die of diabetes-related complications.

Fitness and health is yet another subject he has developed expertise in during his 67 years on Earth, after a 20-year playing career absent a major injury thanks in part to his hobbies of yoga and martial arts.

It’s been a life that has undergone reinvention and rejuvenation; a life that has continually found new ways to make an impact; a life that couldn’t be confined to a mere basketball court.

But first, there was some pretty impressive stuff on the court.

Born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr, the young man known then as Lew arrived at the University of California Los Angeles in 1965, where his legend would begin. He was practically destined to arrive there one way or another ­– he had been born in 1947 in Manhattan. New York is a hallowed basketball ground, and he arrived at high school already standing 6 feet 8 inches. Naturally, he set a New York City high-school points record, and his early accomplishments earned him a school scholarship in LA.

UCLA was formative for ­Abdul-Jabbar, physically and spiritually. Under the tutelage of the illustrious coach John Wooden, the towering, fluid centre became an athletic phenomenon. He won 78 of the 80 games he played in, as well as a national championship with the UCLA Bruins in each of his three seasons on the varsity squad. Abdul-Jabbar was so good and so dominant that the NCAA, college basketball’s governing body, briefly banned the slam dunk largely on his account.

This run in college made him one of the most celebrated college athletes in history and the first overall pick in the 1969 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Also while at UCLA, he converted to Islam. He picked up martial arts and studied under Bruce Lee. He refused to represent the United States in the 1968 Summer Olympics because of the racial injustice he saw pervading the country. These were the things that revealed the person he would develop into.

In Milwaukee, he immediately blossomed into a basketball superstar. He made the all-star team in his rookie season. The next year, he won his first Most Valuable Player award and guided the team to what still is their only NBA championship.

It was the day after that title was won that Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

He played four more seasons with the Bucks, and won two more MVP awards, before he arrived in Los Angeles in 1975.

It proved the perfect place for Abdul-Jabbar the basketball player to graduate to Abdul-­Jabbar the cultural icon. In the 1980s, the NBA was dominated by the “Showtime” Lakers, and Abdul-Jabbar, with Earvin “Magic” Johnson, embodied that team. Style. Flair. Celebrity. Outsized personalities and figures.

Abdul-Jabbar, always in his trademark goggles, was the engine at the heart of this, dominating with his array of elegant moves around the basket and his balletic, patented “skyhook” shot that no one has ever properly replicated since.

On the court, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson and the Lakers went to the NBA Finals eight times in the 1980s, winning five NBA titles. Abdul-Jabbar won three more MVP awards and retired in 1989 with a dizzying statistical record: 38,387 points – the most of all-time; 57,446 minutes played – the most of all-time; 3,189 blocks; and 17,440 ­rebounds.

It’s a record that stands against the very best the game has ever seen. He had become a beloved figure in LA – in one famous example, when his house burnt down in 1983 and he lost his cherished collection of jazz albums, fans began sending him albums to replenish it.

“To this day, I’m amazed that me just doing my job, something that I love, can engender that kind of support and affection,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a 2006 interview. “It’s a pretty amazing process.”

Off the court, the late 1970s and 80s also saw Abdul-Jabbar develop his cultural chops. Before Airplane!, he made a handful of guest TV appearances and featured in a martial-arts scene with Bruce Lee in the film Game of Death. He twice made guest appearances on the popular television show Diff’rent Strokes and appeared as himself in the 1985 movie Fletch. Being a basketball star in LA proved a handy in for the Hollywood scene. He published his autobiography, Giant Steps, in 1983 – it made The New York Times bestseller list.

Since the end of his playing career, he has expanded his public visibility in a philanthropic and, at times, philosophical way.

Explaining the motivation behind his activism, Abdul-Jabbar told the Academy of Achievement in Washington in 2007: “I think Islam has given me a moral foundation. It gave me a way of trying to balance your own personal ambitions, what you want and need in the world, with some type of morality and a way of viewing what life is about.”

He has spent much of his post-basketball life focusing on improving the lives of disadvantaged young people, particularly in education, something that he was familiar with growing up in Harlem. It led him to establish the Skyhook Foundation.

Abdul-Jabbar developed a rare form of leukaemia in 2009, but underwent treatment and beat the disease. It led him to working with the organisation Stand Up to Cancer and doubling down on his promotion of healthy lifestyles.

In this latest chapter of his life, he has also developed an authoritative social voice. He was named a global cultural ambassador for the US in 2012. This summer, one of the most racially contentious in recent American history, he used his Time magazine column to offer his thoughts on the events in Ferguson, Missouri (where an unarmed black teenager was shot by a white police officer) and on the owners of the Atlanta Hawks and LA Clippers (where racist remarks led to the sale of both teams).

In Giant Steps, he recalled first arriving at UCLA in 1965 and the hurdles he faced: “Either because I was an athlete or because I was black – probably both – there seemed to be a clear assumption that I wouldn’t be up to the work.”

In 50 years of public life, he’s proven well up to the work.

jraymond@thenational.ae

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Updated: October 30, 2014 04:00 AM

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