Commentary

The case for Kareem

Originally Published: August 1, 2002
By Mark Tennis | ESPNRISE.com

Editor's note: This first appeared in the 2002 Student Sports National Boys Basketball Record Book. Student Sports is now part of ESPN RISE.

Taking a look at what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's teams did when he played for them is only the beginning of a strong case that can be made that he should be regarded as basketball's Best Baller Ever, especially if you're basing that claim on high school, college and pro accomplishments put together.

When he was known as Lew Alcindor and stood 6-11, the big fella attended Power Memorial High of New York and led the team to a 71-game winning streak. In 1964, Power Memorial was likely the best team in the nation at 35-0. Included was a victory over Washington D.C. power DeMatha in which Alcindor had 35 points and 21 rebounds.

DeMatha got revenge the next season in 1965 and upset Power Memorial, 46-43, to snap the win streak in what is regarded as one of the greatest high school games ever played. The broom utilized by a DeMatha coach to mimick Alcindor's height in practices leading up to the game is still inside a trophy case at the school.

During his three years at Power Memorial, the school went 95-6 and won three New York City crowns. Alcindor scored 2,067 points but amazingly almost had just as many rebounds with 2,002.

Alcindor weighed college scholarship offers from Michigan, Columbia, St. John's and UCLA before he went with legendary coach John Wooden and the Bruins. He couldn't play as a true freshman on the college varsity in those days, which in a way was a good thing because 1966 was the historic season in which Texas Western (now UTEP) won the NCAA title with an all-African American starting five. If freshmen were eligible that year, UCLA likely would have beaten every college team and the Texas Western story never would have happened.

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In 1967, Alcindor's sophomore season in Westwood, it didn't take long for him to dominate. He averaged 29 points and 15.5 rebounds per game and the Bruins won the NCAA championship. Alcindor followed with averages of 26.2 and 24.0 points per game for 1968 and 1969. UCLA earned NCAA crowns in those years, too.

It wasn't until he was in the NBA when Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He started with the Milwaukee Bucks and in his second season, with NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson as a teammate, he led the Bucks to the NBA title. Kareem averaged 34.8 points and 16.6 rebounds that season and was named league MVP. He also was league MVP while with the Bucks in 1974.

Just after the 1974-75 season ended, Abdul-Jabbar was traded along with teammate Walt Wesley to the Los Angeles Lakers for four players. He was MVP once again for 1976 and 1977, but it wasn't until the Lakers drafted a freakishly talented point guard out of Michigan State, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, that they started winning NBA titles.

With Johnson and Kareem leading the way, the Lakers won NBA crowns in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, and 1988. All told, Kareem-led teams won one national title in high school, three national titles in college and six NBA world titles.

When he retired from the Lakers after the 1989 season, Abdul-Jabbar set the NBA all-time scoring record with 38,387 points. He broke the previous career record of 31,419 held by Wilt Chamberlain, who it should be noted played six fewer years than Kareem.

Ironically, Wilt was a boyhood idol of Kareem's. When Kareem was 15 years old and a rising star in the New York playgrounds and high school courts, he met Wilt for the first time. Chamberlain already was a superstar at the time and took the youngster under his wing. Wilt must have known at the time just how good the kid would turn out to be.

Abdul-Jabbar's NBA career scoring record still stands today it's hard to see anyone getting close to it unless Kobe Bryant or LeBron James play well into their thirties.

Kareem's contributions toward high school basketball weren't finished after his Power Memorial or even his Laker days. During the 1998-99 season, in an effort to connect further with his Native American heritage (Kareem is part Carib and Cherokee), the soft-spoken seven-footer took a job as an assistant coach at Alchesay High in Arizona. He was paid $1 and helped the players learn life lessons both on the court and off it.

Individually, most people will think of Kareem and think of his trademark sky hook or his goofy goggles. But they should think of him as one of the greatest team players in the history of sports. All those championships just can't be overlooked.

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