Kareem Abdul-Jabar

Posted: November 28, 2011 in Converts to Islam
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“In my opinion, he is the most valuable player in the history of the game. No player of comparable size and ability was ever as quick and maneuverable, but his unselfish team play has been equally impressive.”

~ John Wooden


“Why judge anymore? When a man has broken records, won championships, endured tremendous criticism and responsibility, why judge? Let’s toast him as the greatest player ever.”

~ Pat Riley

Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. was born on April 16, 1947 in New York. He attained high school    education at Power Memorial in New York, and college education at University of California, Los Angeles.

Lewis Alcindor was a Professional basketball player and rated one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA (National Basketball Association) History. He was NBA’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points; first and only player named NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Basketball Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player three times (1967-69); NCAA outlawed the dunk shot because of his dominance at the center for UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles); practiced yoga and martial arts as part of overall fitness program, including Jeet Kune Do under Bruce Lee and as  a matter of fact he appeared as a hulking foe to Bruce Lee in the film Game of Death; he gave the game the skyhook, the shot that changed basketball with the help of which he was to score more than thirty eight thousand points in regular; worked on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation as an assistant coach; among other films and TV shows, he acted in Airplane! He had played 20 seasons in the league with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers and by the time the 7 foot 2 basketball player retired in 1989, he had won 6 championship rings and was a six-time Most Valuable Player; no one blocked more shots, scored more points, or logged more seasons than him; he’s also a writer, a historian, and a worldwide ambassador for the basketball; on February 18, 2000, Abdul-Jabbar was named an assistant coach of the LA Clippers; he has worked as a consultant for the Indiana Pacers, and in the spring of 2002, he signed on to coach the USBL Oklahoma Storm, an NBA feeder league team. In 1995 Abdul-Jabbar was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

His education background goes back to St. Jude’s parish elementary school, where he also excelled in baseball, swimming, and ice skating. Many of the local New York preparatory schools desired Kareem to join their institutions but he settled with Power Memorial Academy, a private Catholic high school. With the abundance of college offers Kareem heeded the advice of notable African Americans such as Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson, and the then Undersecretary of the United Nations Ralph Bunche to accept the scholarship from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). In 1972 he was studying Arabic at Harvard. His intellectual capacity is manifest in the six bestselling history books Kareem has authored which were intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. Abdul-Jabbar’s books include “Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement”; “Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes”; “A Season on the Reservation,” which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, “On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance.”

Before the 1971-72 season, Alcindor converted from Catholicism to Islam and took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar which means “noble, the noble one, servant of the Almighty.” But why did he change his name after reverting to Islam? The reason is revealed in Playboy magazine where he said:

. . .[I was] Latching on to something that was part of my heritage, because many of the slaves who were brought here were Muslims. My family was brought to America by a French planter named Alcindor, who came here from Trinidad in the 18th Century. My people were Yoruba, and their culture survived slavery . . . . My father found out about that when I was a kid, and it gave me all I needed to know that, hey, I was somebody, even if nobody else knew about it. When I was a kid, no one would believe anything positive that you could say about black people. And that’s a terrible burden on black people, because they don’t have an accurate idea of their history, which has been either suppressed or distorted.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a book titled Kareem, wherein he gives us a glimpse on how he was gravitated towards Islam:

(Growing up in America,) I eventually found that . . . emotionally, spiritually, I could not afford to be a racist.  As I got older, I gradually got past believing that black was either the best or the worst.  It just was.  The black man who had the most profound influence on me was Malcolm X.  I had read “Muhammad Speaks”, the Black Muslim newspaper, but even in the early sixties, their brand of racism was unacceptable to me.  It held the identical hostility as white racism, and for all my anger and resent meant, I understood that rage can do very little to change anything.  It’s just a continual negative spiral that feeds on itself, and who needs that . . . . Malcolm X was different.  He’d made a trip to Mecca, and realized that Islam embraced people of all color.  He was assassinated in 1965, and though I didn’t know much about him then, his death hit hard because I knew he was talking about black pride, about self-help and lifting ourselves up.  And I liked his attitude of non-subservience . . . . Malcolm X’s autobiography came out in 1966, when I was a freshman at UCLA, and I read it right before my nineteenth birthday.  It made a bigger impression on me than any book I had ever read, turning me around totally.  I started to look at things differently, instead of accepting the mainstream viewpoint . . . . (Malcolm) opened the door for real cooperation between the races, not just the superficial, paternalistic thing.  He was talking about real people doing real things, black pride and Islam.  I just grabbed on to it.  And I have never looked back.

In an Interview with TalkAsia, a program aired on CNN, Kareem was asked about the importance of his spiritual journey and he said:

Well as a spiritual journey, I don’t think I would have been able to be as successful as I was as an athlete if it were not for Islam.  It gave me a moral anchor, it enabled me to not be materialistic, it enabled me to see more what was important in the world.  And all of that was reinforced by people, very important people to me: Coach John Wooden, my parents, all reinforced those values.  And it enabled me to live my life a certain way and not get distracted.


Stan Grant, the CNN interviewer then asked: “When you embraced Islam, was it difficult for other people to come to terms with that?  Did that create a distance between you and others?” The response was:


For the most part it was.  I didn’t try to make it hard on people; I did not have a chip on my shoulder.  I just wanted people to understand I was Muslim, and that’s what I felt was the best thing for me.  If they could accept that I could accept them.  I didn’t . . . it wasn’t like if you’re going to become my friend you have to become Muslim also.  No, that was not it.  I respect people’s choices just as I hope they respect my choices.

He was asked whether his reverting to Islam was an intensely political decision as it has been for a lot of black Americans and Kareem answered:

That was not part of my journey. My choosing Islam was not a political statement, it was a spiritual statement.  What I learned about the Bible and the Qur’an made me see that the Qur’an was the next revelation from the Supreme Being – and I chose to interpret that and follow that.  I don’t think it had anything to do with trying to pigeon hole anyone, and deny them the ability to practice as they saw fit.  The Qur’an tells us that Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Muslims are supposed to treat all of them the same way because we all believe in the same Prophets and heaven and hell would be the same for all of us.  And that’s what it’s supposed to be about.

Stan Grant ended the interview with this question: “If you had to impart one piece of knowledge to someone, something that helped you in your career that you could pass on, what would that be?” And Kareem said: “Knowledge is power. Take the time to know what you’re doing and have some commitment to it. And it will not ever be a disappointment and if you know what you’re doing you’ll be able to do it well and you’ll find self satisfaction.”

Abdul Khaalis, a former jazz drummer and founder of the Hanafi Madhhab in Washington, D.C., was one of Kareem’s influences to Islam.  Kareem had been raised to take authority seriously, whether that of nuns, teachers, or coaches. Hence Kareem would attentively take the teachings of Abdul Khaalis, a man who is credited to have given Alcindor the name Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem undertook his own study of the Qur’an, for which he learnt basic Arabic. In 1973 he travelled to Libya and Saudi Arabia to get a better grasp of the language and to learn about Islam. He stated clearly that his name Alcindor was a slave name, literally that of the slave-dealer who had taken his family away from West Africa to Dominica to Trinidad, from where they were brought to America. Kareem is a Sunni Muslim who adheres to Hanafi school of thought.

In a different occasion with a different host, an interview with Kareem went like this:

Interviewer: You were raised Catholic, you went to Catholic schools, and you made a decision in the early ‘70s to become a Muslim. How did that come about?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: My interest in Islam started when I was a freshman at UCLA and I got the opportunity to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and it really made me understand that there was a lot more to monotheism than what I knew being raised as a Roman Catholic. I found in Islam that I certainly had a limited view of what monotheism was about, and it made me curious enough to read the Koran and see that it probably was something that I needed to investigate more completely. I was won over by the arguments. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church was greatly invested in the slave trade did not help me want to remain Catholic, and because of that, I changed my affiliation.

Interviewer: What has it meant to you to be a Muslim?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: I think Islam has given me a moral foundation. It gave me a way of trying to balance my 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. It certainly doesn’t help, at this point now, that there are so many problems with the Islamic world. But I think those have to do with politics, and the Islamic world’s reaction to colonialism and being exploited, a lot more than really is based on religious belief. Because all of the religions that come from Abraham basically have the same message. Not very much difference if you can study it objectively, but that is hard to do in this day and age when there is so much politics and nationalism and resentment for things that have gone on centuries ago. It’s kind of hard to overcome.


In a TIME Room, someone asked Kareem the question: “. . . how difficult has it been to be a Muslim in America and that, too, being African-American?” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar begun:

Well, I think race has been a burden for black Americans, a heavy burden. Being Muslim has also been a challenge because so many people do not understand Islam. I feel that there has been progress made since I was a boy on matters of race, but we have a long way to go. I think more people today understand what Islam is about. To make distinctions about radical people bent on terrorism — those people come from every background and every religious group.

Despite being one of the most visible Muslims in the American public arena, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is also a tireless worker for various philanthropic causes and has devoted a large amount of time to helping children and steering them towards getting a good education. He has participated in initiatives that helped fight hunger and illiteracy.

Some of his notable quotations include:

“You can’t win unless you learn how to lose.”


“I’m not comfortable being preachy, but more people need to start spending as much time in the library as they do on the basketball court.”


“One man can be a crucial ingredient on a team, but one man cannot make a team.”


“I try to do the right thing at the right time. They may just be little things, but usually they make the difference between winning and losing.”


“Black people don’t have an accurate idea of their history, which has been either suppressed or distorted.”


“I can do something else besides stuff a ball through a hoop. My biggest resource is my mind.”


“I saw Islam as the correct way to live, and I chose to try to live that way.” [Response to the question; Why did you choose to be a Muslim?]


“I tell kids to pursue their basketball dreams, but I tell them to not let that be their only dream.”


“I think race has been a burden for black Americans. Being Muslim has also been a challenge because so many people do not understand Islam.”


“I think that the good and the great are only separated by the willingness to sacrifice.”


“I would suggest that teachers show their students concrete examples of the negative effects of the actions that gangsta rappers glorify.”


“I’m still my parent’s child, I’m still me, but I made a choice. I evolved into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I think it has to do with evolution.”


“My choosing Islam was not a political statement; it was a spiritual statement.”


“Your mind is what makes everything else work.”


Abdul-Jabbar was married to Habiba Abdul- Jabbar (nee Janice Brown), and they had three children Habiba, Sultana and Kareem. They were divorced in 1978. He has another son Amir with Cheryl Pistono. Adam is yet another son of Abdul-Jabbar.

Contact Information:

Agent: Amsel, Eisenstadt & Frazier,

5757 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 510,

Los Angeles, CA 90046.





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[References:  Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem.  Kareem.  Random House, 1990. (Hardcover: 233 pages); Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed.;From Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Lothrop 1973); “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar –Interview.” TalkAsia. CNN. 2 July. 2005 <http://edition.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/asiapcf/07/08/talkasia.jabbar.script/index.html>; Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-Online Interview.” Time.com 25 Feb.1999. <http://www.time.com/time/community/transcripts/1999/022599jabbar.html&gt; Smith, Jane. I. Islam in America. Columbia University Press, 2000. (Paperback: 355 pages); Sean Gregory “10 Questions For Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.” Time Magazine 24 May 2004.]

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