If The Cap Fits…
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s one-of-a-kind game granted him access to the KICKS Hall of Fame.
Ever since KICKS 3 (summer 2000), each issue of the annual sneaker mag—KICKS 10 not included—has contained two or three new inductions into the KICKS Hall of Fame, where footwear legends past and present are honored. This may not be fresh material for those of you who’ve been copping the mag since before the new millennium hit, but for the younger heads, we’re posting the entire HOF online over the course of the next few weeks. (It’ll be archived under the KICKS tab above.) Enjoy, and don’t forget: KICKS 14 is on sale now! —Ed.
by Russ Bengtson / @russbengtson
All you really need to know is this: Whatever your favorite player has done or will do, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it first. And that’s not even getting into the things that he did that no other basketball player will likely ever do: get the NCAA to ban the dunk, master the sky hook, score 38,000 NBA points, win six MVPs, win two Finals MVPs 14 years apart, be named to 19 All-Star teams in a 20-year NBA career. Ah yes, and fight Bruce Lee on film.
He was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor in Manhattan, the only child of two working-class parents. He attended Power Memorial High School, where he scored over 2,000 points and won 79 of 81 games, including a little streak of 71 in a row. In the age before the internet and ESPN and the 24-hour news cycle, word of the dominant seven-footer spread the old-fashioned way, all the way to the West Coast, where he came to the attention of John Wooden at UCLA.
UCLA was a rising power at that point, led by the old-school Wooden and his pithy aphorisms. In 1964, the Bruins became just the third team in NCAA Tournament history to finish the season as undefeated national champions. The following year they won again. In the fall of ’65, however, the UCLA varsity suffered a terrible, 15-point loss. Fortunately for their pre-season No. 1 ranking, if not for their pride, the loss came at the hands of the UCLA freshmen. Alcindor scored 51 points. That season, they wouldn’t make it back to the NCAA final.
As it turned out, ’66 would be just a minor blemish on UCLA’s record. Once Alcindor qualified for the varsity as a sophomore, they were untouchable. Alcindor won more NCAA titles and Most Outstanding Player Awards (three) than he lost games (two). He was the no-brainer first overall pick of both the NBA and the ABA in ’69. The Harlem Globetrotters offered him a million dollars to skip out entirely, but he chose the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. NBA defenses were about as successful as the New York schoolboys and NCAA men in stopping him, as he went on to average 28.8 ppg and 14.5 rpg (good for second and third in the League respectively), led the Bucks to 30 games above .500 (after they finished 28 under the year before) and win Rookie of the Year.
As it happened, Alcindor’s emergence in the NBA coincided with that of another giant. German sneaker company adidas, best-known for its track spikes and soccer boots, had introduced a revolutionary leather hightop called the “Pro Model,” and in ’69 were ready to change the game again. The result was a low-cut version of the Pro Model called the Superstar—and what better superstar to introduce it to the basketball-playing universe than Lew Alcindor?
If there were any doubts, they should have been swept away in ’70. Teamed with Oscar Robertson, Lew won his first NBA scoring title, his first MVP, his first NBA championship, and his first Finals MVP. Not bad for someone who was yet to turn 25 years old. The day after the Bucks won the title, having converted to Islam, he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The following year, he repeated as NBA scoring champ and MVP.
Other than his numbers, Jabbar was hardly the ideal endorsee. He was often aloof and could be hot-tempered on the court. He missed 20 games of the ’77-78 season after breaking his hand punching Bucks rookie center Kent Benson—in the season opener. But none of it deterred adidas from pushing him as their face of basketball. It didn’t hurt that, following the ’74 season, he was traded to the L.A. Lakers. Eventually, of course, Cap mellowed. He discovered the benefits of yoga and meditation, even poked fun at himself in a small role in Airplane! Perhaps he was most transformed by the arrival of a buoyant young point guard in 1979, one Earvin “Magic” Johnson. And the championships continued.
Over the course of Jabbar’s career, adidas’ basketball supremacy waxed and waned. He received signature shoes when Michael Jordan was still in high school, was the Muslim-American face of a German company. As for the end of his career, when Cap wore L.A. Gears—well, your favorite player probably won’t do that, either.