This article first appeared in The Sportsman on 05/05/20
Being the number one draft pick in the NBA can be a poisoned chalice: the full-fat meal of hype, prestige, pressure isn’t always digestible. Just ask Joe Smith, who was selected ahead of 15-time All Star Kevin Garnett in 1995. Or Michael Olowokandi, who the Clippers decided was better suited to their cause than future Hall of Farmers Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter and Paul Pierce.
And then of course, there’s the notorious case of Kwame Brown. Picked up by the Washington Wizards, the first number one draft pick to be taken straight from high school produced a dire rookie season, quickly fell foul of teammate and team president Michael Jordan, and became a decision that eventually saw the franchise lose His Airness and ship Brown himself out west after he failed to live up to expectation.
1969 was the ultimate flip side to that coin, the epitome of when the star pick is the star pick, when the maths, stats, experience, and luck all align; when the freshly established Milwaukee Bucks used their number one pick to sign UCLA star center Lew Alcindor.
This was a player who would go on to play 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association. A player who would become a record six-time NBA MVP, a record 19-time NBA All-Star, a 15-time All-NBA selection, and an 11-time NBA All-Defensive Team member.
He was a winner of six championship rings, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, voted certifiably as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History and the man both Isiah Thomas and Julius Erving have called the greatest basketball player of all time. At the peak of his powers, this player would also star in one of the most iconic comedy films of all time, Airplane (1980), and engage in a Jeet Kune Do fight with none other than Bruce Lee.
In 1971, Lew Alcindor publicly announced that he had changed his name.
From then on, he would become known worldwide as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
His name, created on his conversion to Islam, translates as ‘noble, powerful servant’. This serves as an extremely apt description of his contribution to the NBA. In terms of points, Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest player in NBA history. With a total tally of 38,387, he is 1500 clear of nearest competitor, retired Karl ‘The Mailman’ Malone. 35-year-old LeBron James - the nearest challenger to Abdul-Jabbar’s mammoth record still playing - needs over 4000 more to catch up to Kareem.
After a Rookie of the Year award and a debut championship title in Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975, in pursuit of even greater success. His addition made the California club the dominant force in the Western Conference.
“Kareem was the ultimate bail-out guy,” said Pat Riley, coach of the Lakers between 1981 and 1990, and with whom Abdul-Jabbar won four of his six NBA championships. When, on June 28, 1989, he announced it was to be his final season in the NBA, after 20 years, they retired Abdul Jabbar’s number 33 jersey, his teammates also providing him with a $175,000 Rolls Royce (which he later returned).
Alongside the rings, in reaching that unparalleled points tally, Abdul-Jabbar will be forever associated with the beautiful, almost patented, sky-hook that preferred elegance and precision rather than power.
A move when he’d deflect the defensive player side-on with his arm whilst raising his other - the one carrying the ball - further away, ‘swooping’ the ball up and over the player into the basket in one smooth motion. Because of his size - Abdul-Jabbar stood at 7’2”, two inches taller than either Lakers legends Shaquille O’Neal or Wilt ‘The Stilt’ Chamberlain - the ball could leave his outstretched arm at 11 feet.
“Kareem was probably - due to his size and sky-hook - the most dominating force in our league,” said Larry Bird, who faced off against the Lakers on those famed Finals in the 1980s with his Boston Celtics. “Kareem was just awesome,” said Lakers teammate Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, whose own personal ‘Showtime’ style distinctly clashed with Abdul-Jabbar’s aesthetic on the court, “What a beautiful shot.”
It is his mammoth and still prevalent presence away from the court that still resonates Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a key, important figure in NBA history. As a student at UCLA in 1968 - a year before his draft - he boycotted the Olympic Games in Mexico to protest against racial inequality.
It was the same year Dr Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and the publication of the late Malcolm X’s influential autobiography. In his own book, Coach Wooden And Me, Abdul-Jabbar reflected on that decision about a time when he was on the verge of becoming the first player to win three NCAA championships titles whilst also personally winning three MVP finals awards.
“My development as a basketball player paralleled my evolution as a social activist,” he stated, “The more confident and successful I was on the court, the more confident I felt about expressing my political convictions.
“That personal progression reached its most controversial climax in 1968, when I refused to join the Olympic basketball team. This started a firestorm of criticism, racial epithets, and death threats that people still ask me about today.
“But the idea of going to Mexico to have fun seemed so selfish in light of the racial violence that was facing the country.”
As a player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a self-isolating, soft-spoken, shy but extremely studious figure, usually travelling on long-distance flights with a book in his hand and a blanket over his head. His dedication to learning, education, and self-improvement not only led him to Islam, but into the New York studios of one Bruce Lee.
Abdul-Jabbar started training with the martial arts master in 1967 and would later face off against Lee in the film ‘The Game of Death’, in which Abdul-Jabbar plays the final boss, Mantis, the ultimate guardian of the Palsang-jon pagoda. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 7’2”. Bruce Lee: 5’8”.
When he retired from basketball at the end of the 1980s, aged 42, he was still besting players ten years younger than him.
Over 30 years on from his last professional game, and over half a century since that historic number one draft pick, few have still ever come close to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s achievements, both on, and off, the court.