The school is UCLA.
The number is 33.
The name is Karim Abdul-Jabbar.
The raised eyebrows are inevitable. Even though this Abdul-Jabbar plays football, not basketball. Even though this Abdul-Jabbar spells his first name K-A-R-I-M, whereas the Abdul-Jabbar who led the school to three consecutive NCAA basketball championships in the late ‘60s spells his first name K-A-R-E-E-M. Even though the basketball Abdul-Jabbar was known as Lew Alcindor when he attended UCLA, although he had already privately changed his name.
Coach Terry Donahue admits to raising his eyebrows when his star tailback, the former Sharmon Shah, told Donahue about his name change during the off-season.
“I haven’t publicly taken my Muslim name, but I’m going to do it this year and I want your support,” the tailback told his coach. “From now on, I would like you to address me by my new Muslim name.”
“Absolutely,” Donahue replied. “Out of respect, I certainly will.”
As the conversation was ending, Donahue asked, “By the way, what is your new Muslim name?”
Said Donahue, “I about fell off my chair.”
Donahue’s was the common reaction. But once he realized that Shah was serious, Donahue began using the new name and has made every effort to avoid slipping back.
That’s a long way from the behavior many demonstrated three decades ago when boxer Cassius Clay told the world that he wished to be known as Muhammad Ali.
Some snickered. Many publicly expressed outrage. “What right does he have to change his name?” they wondered aloud. Some in the media refused to recognize the new name. Others speculated that there was some subversive motive behind the change, a connection to Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam war.
When Alcindor became Abdul-Jabbar after joining the NBA as a player with the Milwaukee Bucks, people were more accepting.
“It wasn’t like I was trying to make a political point,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “In my case, it was freedom of religion.”
The name change was a giant step for him, however, one he took gingerly. Alcindor became Abdul-Jabbar privately in 1967, but didn’t go public with the name until 1971.
“I wanted to try living that way before taking a public stance,” he said. “I wanted to make sure this was the way I wanted to live my life.”
The sports world’s newest Abdul-Jabbar has found a far more accepting public, but he has encountered misconceptions unique to his situation about the reason for the name change. It has nothing to do with being named after an athletic hero, he explained. Karim Abdul-Jabbar has never met Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, indeed, had nothing to do with getting his new name. It was given to him in January by a member of his faith called the imam.
When asked if he feels any pressure carrying the name Karim Abdul-Jabbar, the tailback acknowledges that he does, but not for the reason most might imagine.
“The pressure is not because of the basketball player but because of what the name itself means,” he said. “It means servant [Abdul] of the most generous [Karim], the compeller or changer of hearts [Jabbar]. No one can be the Karim. No one can be the Jabbar. That’s the Creator. We can only be Abdul, a servant of. I feel pressure in trying to be that servant, in trying to be what that name means.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar thinks it might have been better if the younger Abdul-Jabbar had been given another name.
“It’s a shame he can’t forge his own identity,” the basketball Abdul-Jabbar said of the football Abdul-Jabbar. “There are a lot of names out there, a lot of attributes. It’s too bad he could not have gotten a name suited to his personality.”
The football Abdul-Jabbar is determined, however, to make sure the name fits.
“Someone can find out what that name means and say, ‘Oh, he ain’t all that,’ ” he said. “Or they can say, ‘He is really is the servant of the most generous. He’s not arrogant. He’s humble.’ ”
To Abdul-Jabbar, humility is a valued attribute in a sport in which the rushing total is often matched by the size of the ego.
“If I rush for 200 yards in a game, you will rarely ever see me talking about myself because I was blessed to do that,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “My faith is my only concrete confidence. If I don’t make my prayers, I don’t feel like anything will go right. I could miss practice for three days, but to miss three days of prayers would be devastating.”
According to Abdul-Jabbar, the name change has been difficult only because it has made him go public with personal matters.
“The Muslim faith is very private, very individual,” he said. “You try not to wear it on your chest. If you’re giving charity, you really want it to be secret. If you were to give away a million dollars, you would want to give it where only you and the Creator would know.”
If there is a plus to this public awareness of his faith, Abdul-Jabbar says, it is the chance to clear up some misconceptions about it.
“People easily fear what they don’t know,” he said. “Muslims may wear turbans, for example, to cover their heads when they pray. You’ll see a movie and there are guys in turbans who are terrorists. So there is a conception that Muslims are terrorists.
“People are naive and they really don’t understand. You get tired explaining it over and over again, but you have to be patient.”
Patience is an attribute Abdul-Jabbar has learned all too well since his arrival in Westwood. He had been a star at Dorsey High, where he rushed for more than 2,500 yards, almost 1,700 in his senior season.
He appeared in seven games his freshman season at UCLA and gained 124 yards, but, in his second season, 1993, Abdul-Jabbar played in only three games before undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. He had had the same operation on his right knee before the start of fall camp.
Enough was enough.
Abdul-Jabbar decided to sit out the season and began to prepare for 1994. It was worth the wait. He rushed for 1,227 yards, averaged 5.8 a carry and scored four touchdowns. It was the highest single-season rushing total by a Bruin in eight years, since Gaston Green ran for 1,405 yards in 1986. It was also the fifth-highest season total in UCLA history.
Abdul-Jabbar reported to camp this summer as the starting tailback. With the subsequent loss of fellow tailback Skip Hicks for at least half the season with a knee injury, and because quarterback Ryan Fien is inexperienced as a starter, the offensive load figures to fall mainly on Abdul-Jabbar, at least early in the season.
He still has areas he must work on. He has yet to demonstrate breakaway ability and his blocking has been inconsistent.
And at 5 feet 10 3/4 and 198 pounds, Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t quite qualify as a big back.
“He plays bigger than he is,” said assistant Wayne Moses, who coaches Bruin running backs. “Guys are surprised when they tackle him. . . . He packs a bigger punch than his size would indicate.”
But Moses is not about to dance around Abdul-Jabbar’s blocking problems.
“When I first saw him, he was a terrible blocker,” Moses said. “Now he’s not such a liability. Most high school running backs don’t have that skill when they first get here. Usually, they were the best back in high school, so they were not blocking.
“I started to send [Abdul-Jabbar] back to Dorsey when I first saw him blocking. Then I saw him run and I thought that he could maybe stay around awhile.”
That he has.
Donahue has gone from calling him Shah to calling him Abdul-Jabbar. But one thing won’t change this season. Whenever there’s a need for crucial yardage, Donahue is likely to call for No. 33.