"I will be the black rage": this is how Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The legendary center began his career in Milwaukee and there he won his first ring. In Wisconsin he officially changed his name after converting to Islam.


Spanish Television broadcast Cerca de las Estrellas for the first time in 1988: on February 7 and with the tune of George Michael's Faith, Ramón Trecet and Esteban Gómez opened a new era for Spanish sports fans, and they did so with a Boston Celtics -Milwaukee Bucks. That year, the first in which the NBA sneaked onto Spanish televisions and still four after the arrival of the Dream Team in Barcelona and the explosion, from those Games, of the great American League as a world phenomenon, the Lakers won to the Pistons (4-3) in one of the best Finals in history. The Angelenos rallied 2-3, with James Worthy as MVP, in the last great version of Showtime, the team that marveled at its spectacular basketball and dominated the 80s, eight Finals and five rings. Those last Lakers ran to the rhythm of Magic Johnson, who propelled with his passes to Worthy and Byron Scott. And they relied little on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played those Finals at the age of 40, one season away from retiring after losing those in 1989, also against the Pistons in a sweep (4-0) facilitated by the injuries of Scott and Magic. and initialed by the glue of the Bad Boys. In their own way, another legendary team.

It was an NBA still taking off, the first chapter in a journey that took it to the extraordinary situation it is in now, in what was a golden age - not without some contradictions - before the arrival of the pandemic. The League that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, one of the greatest (and most beautiful) rivalries in the history of sports, brought out of a critical situation, the hardships of the seventies. The soulless wards, the contradictions of race, the drugs in the locker rooms and the Finals delayed in the United States. Magic and Bird, Lakers and Celtics, created the road that the Dream Team turned into a highway and Michael Jordan into a space shuttle: the infinite NBA that the last generations of fans have known.

For the former, for those who experienced the landing in places like Spain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a veteran pivot; Hairless, with his iconic glasses, endless wingspan and mechanical movements, slow in a supersonic team and in which he always seemed to take a world to reach the attacks. It was a first and last, or penultimate, look at a legend that was ending; at the decline of an immense, unique player, the best ever before Michael Jordan's enthronement, His Airness. The 23rd. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's resume is, by itself, a tome of the basketball history encyclopedia. He is still the leading scorer in NBA history (38,387 points that LeBron James still sees far behind) because, basically, he spent 20 years (from 1969 to 1989, from his 22 to his 41) scoring 24.6 points on average, from its thunderous beginnings to its regal decline. Kareem still has the most infallible and iconic movement in history, the Skyhook. The hook from heaven that sent rivals home with thirty-something points on top and his neck badly injured by the elbow he released to gain space just before going very far, from his 2.18 and 256 centimeters of wingspan, and connect that hook that is engraved in the collective memory of the NBA. Few images are more powerful and evocative than Kareem suspended in midair as the rival pivot watches helplessly, feet on the ground and staring into the sky.THE NCAA vs. A New Domination

The Skyhook was, if you like, a wonderful side effect, an unwanted (at the time) evolution of the resilient pivot when the NCAA colluded against him. His arrival at UCLA was a whirlwind that threatened to dynamite (those debates have always existed, although we created new ones) the very support of the sacrosanct college basketball: was it so good that it would end the competition? Could the NCAA survive such a player? Those questions were also circulating through the offices of the University League, a center of immense power (even more so then) and the media, wondering if UCLA would lose a game. He lost two, only, in the 1966-69 section. At that time it was not possible to advance the leap to the professional environment (although the anarchic ABA was already entangled with those abusive norms) and the first year could not be played with team A, the official of the university. Kareem spent a season with a second team that was soon called the best on campus, no matter how strong the main UCLA was. With the rookies he won his 21 games, without losses. Also the one who played against their elders, the Kareem aired with 31 points and 21 rebounds.

In the next three years, he won three titles and three awards for Best Player of the Final Four, three for Player of the Year, three nominations for the best All American quintet ... in his first year with the A team, the jump from freshman to varsity , UCLA won all 31 games and the title. In total, Kareem played 90 and only lost two. One against Houston who played injured due to an eye problem that ended up being recurrent due to the slaps of the rivals, the reason why he ended up wearing his iconic glasses. And another against USC, a Californian duel without a shot clock and against an opponent who dedicated himself to letting time pass so that Kareem simply did not have the ball in his hands.Because he was literally unstoppable (in his first game he scored 56 points, in his first season he averaged 29), the NCAA suppressed dunks starting in 1967 (the strange rule lasted at College until 1976). The matter was defended saying that the defense-attack balance was being broken (another debate that already existed, also before the triple era) because there was no one to defend the dunks. They were referring, basically, to the dunks of a Kareem that smelled of race prejudice: the returns to the hoop were, basically, the heritage of the African American player. As he could not do dunks, a Kareem who systematically dismantled double and triple markings with his talent as a passer was dedicated from that moment to evolving and polishing other resources: thus came the Skyhook. Those who wanted Kareem not to dominate so much pushed him to perfect his ultimate weapon of mass destruction. That's life, isn't it?The Tower From Power

Only Bill Walton later, and also with UCLA, questions Kareem's place as the best college player ever. And only Michael Jordan seems clearly at an advantage when talking about the greatest in basketball history. At least until the final promotion of LeBron James. Kareem was a sensation from the high schools of his native New York, where he swept the Catholic tournament circuit with 71 wins in a row at the helm of Power Memorial, the Manhattan institution from which his first nickname: The Tower From Power. Still no one, more than half a century later, has scored so many points (2,607) in the iconic New York high school basketball.

That Kareem was later, at the end of his path and in the first meeting with him for many, the player with glasses, no hair and a running pace that could barely keep up with Magic Johnson and his bright smile. But before it was 33rd for the Lakers, it was 33rd for the Milwaukee Bucks. And before he was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar he was (at the Power Memorial, at UCLA, still in the Bucks) Lew Alcindor, the name he was born with (April 16, 1947) in New York, the city he always haunted but in the that never got to play. When he made the leap to professionalism, the Bucks drafted him No. 1 (1969) after winning a coin toss from the Phoenix Suns. In New York, the ABA Jets thought they had it sucked because Alcindor wanted to play in the Big Apple, go back East: home. But the player, who already smelled bad almost everything around him, only accepted one offer from each side. And he signed with the Bucks for $ 1.4 million because the Jets fell too short. When they returned later with 3.25 million, Alcindor recalled that he was not going to accept bids because "they degraded human beings" and because this was not going to be "a mobile meat market." Later, when he left Milwaukee, the Knicks were always ahead of the Lakers on his list of preferences. But it ended up in LA And the rest is history.

Bucks and Suns, rivals in the 2021 Finals, came to the NBA together in the 1968 expansion. In their first season, the former won 27 (27-55) and the latter 16 (16-66). It was an NBA that was advancing towards its modern age, whose beginning is usually located, if a date is necessary, in the merger with the ABA (the merger of 1976). The arrival of the Bucks and Suns put the League into fourteen teams (two Divisions, East and West) at a time when No. 1 in the draft was still decided by coin toss among the worst on either side of the country. That's how it was between 1966 and 1984, and that's how the fate of Kareem (Alcindor), Bill Walton, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon (and, in his wake, Michael Jordan) was decided ... The Suns didn't hit the coin, and in both following seasons they stayed at 39 and 48 victories. On the rise, but without stepping on a Final until 1976. They lost that one against the Celtics and the one in 1993 against the Bulls. Those of 2021 are only the third in its history. The Bucks took Alcindor (Kareem) and went from 27 to 56 wins and from 56 to 66 and the 1971 title. In his third season in the NBA. Then they lost the 1974 Finals, against the Celtics (like the Suns) and did not return to the title fight until 2021. In 1975, an Alcindor and Kareem headed to LA after a divorce that encouraged saying that life in the Midwest it did not fulfill their "cultural aspirations" .

After losing the 1974 Finals, the Bucks did not renew Oscar Robertson, the legendary Big O, who was a 35-year-old free agent and whose arrival in 1970, a year after Alcindor, was key to the formation of that legendary team. (66 victories, 20 in a row, records at the time) and the materialization of the 1971 title. Days after Robertson's official withdrawal, in October, Kareem asked to go to New York or Washington. The Lakers were only his third option. In the preseason, Don Nelson's hands again caused a corneal abrasion. Fed up, he broke his hand for punching the basket post and missed the first 16 games of the 1974-75 season (thirteen Bucks losses). On March 13, 1975, the legendary Marv Albert announced that Kareem wanted to leave now, and that his roster had been narrowed down to Knicks and Lakers. A day later, the pivot confirmed it publicly. On June 16, after a few months on loan (38-44 for the Bucks 74-75), Kareem was traded to the Lakers for a return that will forever have a bitter taste in the Bucks' memory: he and his substitute, Walt Wesley, they go in exchange for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers and some money.

"I live here but it's not my country"

During his years at Milwaukee Bucks (1969-75) Kareem was Rookie of the Year (eye: 28.8 points, 14.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists per game), three times MVP, Finals MVP (1971, of course), six times all star (of 19 total in his career), two Top Scorer, four members of the Best Quintet, one of the Second, two of the Best Defensive Quintet and two of the Second. And he went, of course, from Lew Alcindor to Kareem-Abdul Jabbar after making his conversion to Sunni Islam official, which came from his years at UCLA, and adopting a name that means noble servant of the almighty. On April 30, 1971, he had been proclaimed NBA champion with the Bucks (the first of six rings, later won five with the Lakers) and on June 3, he asked to be called Kareem Adul-Jabbar. He had just traveled to Africa with Robertson and his coach, Larry Costello. It was the definitive transformation of a player who was much more than a player, who was targeted by the media, determined to seek connections with the controversial Nation of Islam. And that he was never comfortable in his land, of which he said, adapting an idea from Malcolm X, that "I live here but this is not really my country."Neither are the social struggle and the combat of sport against prejudice, racial segregation and police brutality against minorities are precisely new concepts. Now, at least and luckily, they are much better seen than in times when they generated outlaws: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali or the Bill Russell to whom neither all the rings nor support on his shoulders the greatest dynasty in history , they were worth to him to receive the love without asterisks, without colors, of great part of the complicated Boston of the sixties. The city with which he took so long to reconcile, which he himself had defined as a "flea circus of racism." The place where one of the greatest legends in the history of sports returned home to be just a black man who found everything destroyed, the walls painted with insults, the beds stained with excrement.

Lew Alcindor was a misfit young man, because of his color and height. Insecure, prone to depression and isolation. Surely there was no other if you were a black man who at age nine was 1.73 and at fourteen, 2.03. By then, he was already training those dunks that the NCAA later censored. Before going to UCLA he ended up confronting Jack Donahue, the high school coach who called him a nigger. At UCLA he befriended his legendary coach, John Wooden, who was a conservative veteran who had a hard time understanding a few things about Alcindor: “Serving your country is an honor, not an obligation. I don't know how they don't see that this is how they hurt the United States, ”he said during a troubled stretch in a troubled country, when Ali refused to join the army and Kareem boycotted the 1968 Olympics, his definitive trip to America's target. . The new superstar on the court, the devil out of it. The contradictory years in which the scale and power of the African-American athlete were redefined while their social mobilization was repudiated. Joe Garagiola told him on the NBC Today Show that if he didn't feel America was his country, what he had to do was move (everything, everything, has happened before). Kareem had already decided not to be in the '68 Games and the insults, public debates about his antipatriotism, letters full of angry attacks and death threats only reaffirmed his position: “Each one has to exert force in his own way. This is mine. ”

From a flight in Harlem to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

A Kareem marked him deeply, according to a wonderful article in The Undefeated published in 2018, his meeting in Cleveland, in the summer of 1967, with Ali, Russell and Jim Brown. A few days of meetings and talks, with followers and detractors, and in which he listened to the legendary boxer explain and defend his moral beliefs, the rejection of militarism that cost him a heavyweight belt. In the times of the Black Power, of the tremendous social fracture that the Vietnam War opened, Kareem was clear about what his place had to be: "It was going to be black rage personified, black power made flesh." Black rage, Black Power. The social and cultural dimension of a player who grew up learning martial arts in New York and then followed Bruce Lee in Los Angeles, but was always a tall black man who hardly fit in anywhere ... except on the courts of basketball.

In 1964, he ran through Harlem like the devil's soul as gunshots buzzed around him. So tall, and so black, he felt like a human target as the mobilizations unleashed violent clashes in a climate of extreme social tension after the death that summer of James Powell, a 15-year-old African-American youth, at the hands of an off-duty police officer. . Kareem (Alcindor) was 17 years old at a time of collapse of collective patience, in which many were beginning to tire of following the peaceful path of Martin Luther King. When injustices were such that silence could not be an option. Those riots left one dead, 465 detainees, and Lew Alcindor absolutely aware of who he was and where he was: “There I knew who he was and who he had to be,” recalls that article from The Undefeated signed by Johnny Smith.

Alcindor was already Kareem when there was a totally black NBA team, the 1979 Knicks, generated media debates about the economic and social convenience of breaking an informal but real quota protocol. Years before it was said that you had to put a black in home games, two away and three when you wanted to win. Bill Russell spoke publicly about quotas and when commissioner Walter Kennedy asked him what the hell he was doing, the Lord of the Eleven Rings sent him off the hook: “If I'm lying, throw me out of this League. If not, go to hell ”. Alcindor played with Robertson, another key figure in the fight for the rights of African-American athletes, one whose battles (which led to his name, the Oscar Robertson Rule) facilitated the arrival of the first free agent market (still very precarious, but an essential first step), the improvement of wages, working conditions and medical ... It is often said, in fact, that without an Oscar Robertson before there would have been no afterwards a LeBron James. The legendary point guard, the only one who had averaged a triple-double until Russell Westbrook arrived, led the legendary Crispus Attucks team that was the first to win a state championship with an all-African-American roster. His feat, in the heart of the sacred basketball of the state of Indiana, was worth a prize a parade of champions that did not touch the main areas or the busiest streets. Just in case.

At the University of Cincinnati, Robertson went to play a game in North Carolina despite having letters from the Ku Klux Klan threatening to shoot him if he showed up. And he, the extraordinary Big O who now sits next to Kareem in the first final of the thunderous Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee in the 2021 NBA Finals, perfectly explained why they, Bill Russell and so many others were defined as players of a sour character. Antisocial, misfits: “That's what they said about smart black people. That's how it was if you didn't just say thank you and say yes to the whites ”. In that America, on that idea, the character was forged that turned Lew Alcindor into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. For many years, and luckily for everyone who followed, a complicated star. Forever, one of the greatest in sports history.

Photos from as.com
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