Greatest sports figures in L.A. history No. 5: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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Continuing our countdown of the 20 greatest figures in L.A. sports history, as chosen in voting by our online readers, with No. 5, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
No. 5 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (70 first-place votes, 5,203 points)
Few, if any, players in basketball history have come close to replicating the perfect combination of power, size, style and grace that characterized Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s game during his stellar, 20-year NBA career. His sky-hooking, bespectacled image came to personify the Lakers’ ‘Showtime’ era of the 1980s, making him a recognizable figure even outside the basketball world.
For 14 years he treated the Lakers’ fans to an almost otherworldly display of basketball, helping the team win five NBA titles before retiring in 1989 as the league’s all-time leading scorer. His ambidextrous sky hook was virtually unstoppable, his blocking and rebounding superb and his shooting showcased beauty and grit at the same time. ‘He’s the most beautiful athlete in sports,’ Magic Johnson once told Sports Illustrated.
Born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. in New York in 1947, the 7-foot-2 center leaped onto the national stage at UCLA where he led the Bruins to three national titles under coach John Wooden in the late 1960s. He was selected first overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1969 NBA draft and made an immediate impact, averaging 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds per game to earn NBA rookie-of-the-year honors.
The following season Alcindor led Milwaukee to its first NBA title and converted from Catholicism to Islam, taking the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means ‘noble, powerful servant.’
Abdul-Jabbar continued to dominate, guiding the Bucks to the 1974 NBA Finals, but he grew weary playing for a small-market team in the Midwest where he felt people did not share his cultural and religious beliefs. He requested a trade to New York or Los Angeles and the Bucks complied, sending him to the Lakers, along with Walt Wesley, in exchange for Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith and Brian Winters in June 1975.
Abdul-Jabbar captured his fourth NBA most-valuable-player award in his first season in Los Angeles, finishing with a record 1,111 defensive rebounds. He continued to dominate despite the team’s disappointing playoff performances in the latter half of the 1970s.
But the Lakers’ misfortunes changed dramatically following Magic Johnson’s arrival in 1979. Kareem and Magic were arguably the best duo in NBA history, heralding in the ‘Showtime’ era as the Lakers morphed into one of the most successful dynasties in professional sports. The team won five titles in eight Finals appearances during the 1980s as Abdul-Jabbar solidified his legacy as one of basketball’s all-time greats. He captured an unprecedented sixth MVP honor in 1980 and went on to average more than 20 points per game over the next six seasons.
Perhaps his greatest moment in a Lakers’ uniform came during the 1985 NBA Finals against Boston. The 38-year-old Abdul-Jabbar averaged 30.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists and two blocks per game in the Lakers’ four wins, capturing his second Finals MVP honor as the Celtics’ streak of eight consecutive championship victories over the Lakers came to an end.
Abdul-Jabbar helped the Lakers win two more titles over the last four years of his career. Upon his retirement, Abdul-Jabbar was the NBA’s all-time leader in points, blocks, MVP awards, All-Star game appearances and seasons played -- a tribute to his natural talent and his intense workout regime.
He became the fourth player in Lakers history to have his jersey retired and, in 1995, he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame -- not bad for a player who wasn’t particularly enamored with the attention he received during his career. ‘I didn’t really seek attention,’ Abdul-Jabbar said during a 1995 interview. ‘I just wanted to play the game well and go home.’
Abdul-Jabbar went on to become a best-selling author and acted as a coach and scout at various levels in basketball before becoming a Lakers assistant coach in 2005. He worked extensively with Andrew Bynum during his first two years in the NBA, helping the Lakers’ rising star develop into one of the league’s top centers. Abdul-Jabbar no doubt shared some of the lessons he learned on and off the court about life.
‘Take the time to know what you’re doing and have some commitment to it… If you know what you’re doing, you’ll be able to do it well and you’ll find self-satisfaction.’
Your votes are in: The 20 greatest sports figures in L.A. history
— Austin Knoblauch