Acknowledged by many players as the greatest basketball player of all time, voted six times the National Basketball Association’s most valuable player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is also one of the most visible Muslims in the American public arena.
The 7′ 2″ native upper Harlem, born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, starred for UCLA before entering the National Basketball Association with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969.
Alcindor later went to the Los Angeles Lakers. He was so dominant in college basketball that “dunking,” at which he excelled, was formally banned from the intercollegiate sport.
As a result, Lew Alcindor developed the shot for which he is personally the most famous the ”skyhook”-which has been called the shot that changed basketball, and with the help of which he was to score more than thirty eight thousand points in regular season NBA play.
When Milwaukee won the NBA title in 1970-71, Alcindor, who was by then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was the acclaimed king of basketball.
Lew Alcindor first learned his Islam from Hammas Abdul Khaalis, a former jazz drummer and founder of the Hanafi Madhhab in Washington, D.C. According to his own testimony, he had been raised to take authority seriously, whether that of nuns, teachers, or coaches, and in that spirit he followed the teachings of Abdul Khaalis closely.
It was by him that Alcindor was given the name Abdul Kareem, then changed to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, literally “the noble one, servant of the Almighty.”
Soon, however, he determined to augment Abdul Khaalis’s teachings with his own study of the Quran, for which he undertook to learn basic Arabic.
In 1973 he travelled to Libya and Saudi Arabia to get a better grasp of the language and to learn about Islam in some of its “home” contexts. Abdul-Jabbar was not interested in making the kind of public statement about his Islam that he felt Muhammad Ali had in his opposition to the Vietnam War, wishing simply to identify himself quietly as an African American who was also a Muslim.
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.
As a follower of the Hanafi Madhab, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar affirms his identity as a Sunni Muslim. He professes a strong belief in what he calls the Supreme Being and is clear in his understanding that Muhammad is his prophet and the Quran is the final revelation. Objecting to having been pushed into the Catholic faith by his father, he insists that his children will be free to make their own choices.
For his part, Kareem accepts his responsibilty to live as good an Islamic life as possible, recognising that Islam is able to meet the requirements of being a professional athlete in America.