Mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to most basketball fans and two things come to mind: the championships he won and the shot -- the "sky hook" -- that became synonymous with his name.
Abdul-Jabbar won six rings during his NBA career, which began in 1969 with the Milwaukee Bucks and ended 20 years later with the Los Angeles Lakers. Prior to that, he won three consecutive NCAA titles with the UCLA Bruins. And before that, he led his high school team to a 95-6 record in four seasons with the varsity.
At 7'2" and more than 260 pounds, Kareem had a wiry, strong body that was ideal for basketball. He had an unexcitable demeanor that served him well on the court. And when times got tough, he always had the sky hook, a shot his former coach Pat Riley once described as perhaps "the most awesome weapon in the history of any sport."
To set up the sky hook, Kareem would angle for position along the right side of the key, with his back to the basket. Once set, he could receive a bounce pass, or a high lob pass, and turn over his left shoulder for the shot. The sky hook was delivered in a continuous, almost mechanical, motion, with a final flick of the wrist sending the ball toward the basket. Catch, shoot, swish. Catch, shoot, swish. Automatic.
Kareem gave the impression that he could score anytime he wanted to, a notion enhanced when he averaged a league-leading 34.8 points during the 1971-72 season, his third in the NBA. But Kareem was content to play the team game: rebounding, blocking shots, passing the ball when double- and triple-teamed. He never again led the NBA in scoring. However, owing to his durability, he retired with 38,387 points, most in professional basketball history. When he passed Wilt Chamberlain for the record in 1984, he did it with a sky hook.
Kareem was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. in New York City on April 16, 1947. He grew to 6'8" by age 13, and soon thereafter college scouts began flocking to see him play at Power Memorial High School. His arrival at UCLA in 1965 was greeted with considerable fanfare, and when Lew's freshman team beat the varsity -- the defending national champs -- by 15 points in a practice game, his greatness was confirmed. He was named the college Player of the Year in 1967 and 1969 and was runner-up to Elvin Hayes in 1968.
So dominant was Alcindor that the idea of raising the basket from 10 feet to 12 feet was debated. Dunking was outlawed when he was a sophomore, ostensibly to protect equipment and prevent injuries. It only served to sharpen his hook.
Two teams held Alcindor's draft rights in 1969. In the NBA, the Bucks won a coin flip with the Phoenix Suns for the first overall selection. Meanwhile, the American Basketball Association awarded its top pick to the New York Nets. In order to avoid a bidding war, the Bucks and Nets were asked to submit one sealed contract offer. Milwaukee made the highest offer, and Alcindor chose the Bucks.
Away from basketball, Alcindor studied to become a Muslim. In 1968, he declared his Islamic faith and joined black athletes in boycotting the Mexico City Olympics. He changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971.
Arriving in the NBA a year after Bill Russell's retirement, and with Chamberlain winding down, Kareem instantly became the best big man in the league, winning Most Valuable Player Awards in 1971, 1972, and 1974. He averaged no less than 28 points and 14 rebounds in each of his first four seasons. More important, he added legitimacy to the Bucks franchise. The year before he arrived, Milwaukee won 27 games. With him in the middle of their lineup, the Bucks won 56 games during his rookie season and 66 in 1970-71.
Teamed with an aging Oscar Robertson for the 1970-71 season, Abdul-Jabbar led the Bucks to the NBA championship, sweeping the Baltimore Bullets in the Finals. The next year, he led the league in scoring with his 34.8 points per game and ranked third behind Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld with 16.6 rebounds a game. Milwaukee returned to the Finals in 1974, where it lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games.
The next season, in his sixth year with Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar played out his contract, longing for a change of scenery. The Bucks had no choice but to trade him. In June 1975, he was sent to the Lakers for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, Dave Meyers, and Junior Bridgeman. Only Bridgeman remained in the league past 1983. Kareem continued until 1989, winning three more MVP Awards and five more championships.
He had a marvelous run in Los Angeles. After missing the playoffs in his first season, the Lakers advanced to the postseason the next 13 years in a row with Kareem at center. His scoring and rebounding averages began a steady descent in the early 1980s as Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and others began to assume larger roles on the team. Abdul-Jabbar won the last of his six MVP Awards in 1980, but he remained a dominant figure for another decade, playing in every All-Star Game until his retirement. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1995.