This week’s NBA Legend is a man that transcends basketball. One of the all-time greats, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a dominant force on the hardwood throughout his illustrious career.
To the majority of non-basketball fans, this week’s NBA Legend is perhaps most notable for his hilarious appearance in the 1980 classic comedy Airplane. To those with an interest in basketball however, the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is synonymous with success.
With undoubtedly one of the most decorated and distinguished careers of all time the 7ft 2in center dominated the league for an astonishing 20 seasons and during his reign he won countless individual honours as well as numerous NBA titles.
His NBA total career points of 38,387 puts him ahead of Jordan, Bryant and everyone else as the league’s all-time leading scorer and his offensive game was one of the most effective and uncontainable of any era. Simply put, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a phenomenon.
When he joined the league in 1969, Abdul-Jabbar (who was known as Lew Alcindor until 1971), was somewhat fortunate in the sense that the league’s previously established powerhouses were in a state of flux. The previous decade and a half had seen Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the dominant centers in the league, but with Russell retiring and Chamberlain in the twilight of his career, there was an opportunity for a new star to take over the mantle as the league’s leading big-man. This was an opportunity Abdul-Jabbar grasped with both hands and he filled the role with aplomb for many years.
Immediate Impact in Milwaukee
In 1969, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was selected first by the Milwaukee Bucks, then a franchise in its infancy, and his impact upon the team and the league was instant and impressive.
Following a stellar collegiate career, where Abdul-Jabbar won three straight NCAA Championships with the UCLA Bruins, the likelihood of him becoming a league star was pretty much a guarantee and his rookie season emphasised this.
No rookie, with the exception of Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, has had such a profound and immediate impact as Abdul-Jabbar had with the Bucks. Behind the stand-out performances of their new star center, who averaged 28.8 PPG and 14.5 RPG in his debut campaign, the fledgling Bucks, who were still only in their second year in the league, saw their record jump from 27-55 to 56-26.
While it is not unusual for an individual rookie to transform his team’s fortunes in his first season, to go from second worst record in the league to second best record is extraordinary. The Bucks would be beaten in that season’s Conference Finals by the eventual NBA Champions, the New York Knicks, but Abdul-Jabbar had made his mark and now everyone knew that he was a legitimate star.
The following season saw Abdul-Jabbar joined by fellow future Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, who was acquired from the Royals, and with Robertson’s experience the young Buck continued to excel. He improved his points and rebounds averages en route to a franchise record 66-16 record, and the team simply powered through the playoffs, winning their first NBA Championship and only dropping two games in the process.
Abdul-Jabbar won his first of six NBA MVP awards as well as his first of two NBA Finals MVP awards. In only his second season as a professional he had now established himself as the league’s shining light who, at 24 years of age, had a huge future to look forward to.
Lakers, Magic and the Birth of ‘Showtime’
Abdul-Jabbar never quite managed to lead the Bucks to a second NBA Championship and, after six seasons and three MVP awards; he requested a trade to either New York or Los Angeles, eventually joining the Lakers.
Kareem joined the Lakers in 1975 which, having recently seen both Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West retire; was a transitional period in the franchise’s history. While Abdul-Jabbar’s performances continued to reach a very high level (he won further MVP awards in 1976 and 1977) the Lakers struggled to make any real impact in the playoffs, failing to progress further than the conference finals in any of his first four seasons with the team.
This would all change in 1979 when the Lakers drafted one Earvin “Magic” Johnson. With Johnson now running the Lakers offense a dynasty was in the making and the ‘Showtime’ era was about to begin.
At this stage Abdul-Jabbar had been in the league for a decade and was not quite as dominant as he had been during the 70s. Nevertheless, 1980 would see Abdul-Jabbar win his record sixth NBA MVP award and, with his continuing influence in the low post combined with Magic running the fast and exciting Showtime offense, the Lakers had a newfound system which led them to their first NBA title since Abdul-Jabbar had joined the team.
The 1980s would prove a very successful period for the Lakers and despite the fact that he was beginning to push on in age, (his afro had at this stage been replaced with a bald patch) Abdul-Jabbar maintained an incredible level of fitness and performance.
His formidable partnership with Magic was one of the league’s most dynamic and they continued this partnership right up until 1989 when, at the ripe old age of 41, Abdul-Jabbar finally called time on his remarkable career.
He and Magic had added a further four NBA Championships to their list of accolades and together they had ensured that the 80s was a decade which belonged to the team from LA.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Ryan Giggs-esque career sets him apart as one of the most supremely talented and hugely influential players to ever grace the NBA hardwood. His offensive talents ensured he was one of the most unguardable centers in the game.
In particular, his legendary ‘Skyhook’ shot, which saw him utilise his entire 7ft 2in frame, was virtually unstoppable and remains, to this day, one of the most effective moves in all of basketball.
By the time he had retired he had singlehandedly changed the fortunes of the Bucks, set numerous individual records and was an integral part of the Lakers dynasty of the 80s. During a 20-year professional career he won everything there was to win and for this reason he will go down as one of the greatest players in NBA history.
Brian Bowler, Pundit Arena.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar NBA Career Statistics
NBA Champion x6,
NBA MVP x6
NBA Finals MVP x2,
NBA All-Star x19
Member of the Basketball Hall of Fame