Some athletes live swaddled in their greatness, and that is enough. Others not only master their sport but also expand the possibilities — in competition and away from it — for generations to come. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did just that, including for LeBron James, who has laid claim to the N.B.A. career scoring record that Abdul-Jabbar had held so tight for nearly 39 years.
It is easy to forget now, in today’s digitized world where week-old events are relegated to the historical dustbin, how much of a force Abdul-Jabbar was as a player and cultural bellwether. How, as the civil rights movement heated to a boil in the 1960s and then simmered over the ensuing decade, Abdul-Jabbar, a Black man who had adopted a Muslim name, played under the hot glare of a white American public that strained to accept him or see him as relatable.
It is easy to forget because he helped make it easier for others, like James, to trace his path. That is what will always keep his name among the greats of sport, no matter how many of his records fall.
Guided by the footsteps of Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell, Abdul-Jabbar pushed forward, stretching the limits of Black athlete identity. He was, among other qualities, brash and bookish, confident and shy, awkward, aggressive, graceful — and sometimes an immense pain to deal with. He could come off as simultaneously square and the smoothest, coolest cat in the room.
In other words, he was a complete human being, not just the go-along-to-get-along, one-dimensional Black athlete much of America would have preferred him to be.
James has run with the branding concept that he is “More Than an Athlete.” Fifty-plus years ago, Abdul-Jabbar, basketball’s brightest young star, was already living that ideal.
“He is more than a basketball player,” a Milwaukee newspaper columnist wrote during Abdul-Jabbar’s early years as a pro. “He is an intelligent, still maturing man, who realizes some of the individual and collective frailties of human beings, including himself.”
James’s ability to make a cultural impact off the court is the fruit of the trees Abdul-Jabbar planted decades ago.
As a star at the basketball powerhouse U.C.L.A. in June 1967, a 20-year-old Abdul-Jabbar was the only collegian with the football legend Jim Brown at the Cleveland Summit, a meeting of prominent Black athletes who gathered in support of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.
The next year Abdul-Jabbar shunned the Summer Olympics to protest American prejudice. “America is not my home,” he said in a televised interview. “I just live here.”
In those days,Harry Edwards, now a University of California, Berkeley, sociology professor emeritus, led a new wave of Black athletes in protests against American racism. Abdul-Jabbar was a vital part of that push. He also converted to Islam to embrace his Black African heritage, and changed his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem (generous) Abdul (servant of Allah) Jabbar (powerful).
“You have to understand the context,” Edwards told me recently. “We’re still arguing over whether Black lives matter. Well, back then, Black lives absolutely did not matter. In that time, when you said ‘America,’ that was code for ‘white folks.’ So, how do those folks identify with a Black athlete who says I am a Muslim, I believe in Allah, that is what I give my allegiance to? They didn’t, and they let him know.”
Edwards added: “What Kareem did was seen as a betrayal of the American ideal. He risked his life.”
Black athletes still face backlash for standing up to racism, but their voices are more potent, and their sway is mightier now because of Black legends like Ali, Robinson, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar.
You saw their imprint when James wore a T-shirt that said “I Can’t Breathe” for Eric Garner, or a hoodie for Trayvon Martin, or when he joined an N.B.A. work stoppage for Jacob Blake. When right-wing pundits attack James and his peers for protesting, remember that Abdul-Jabbar has been in the hot seat, too.
The message here isn’t “Been there, done that, don’t need to hear it anymore.” No, that’s not it at all.
What I am saying is this: No one rises alone.
In this moment of basketball celebration for James, think about what he shares on the court with the 7-foot-2 center whose record he is taking: a foundation of transcendent, game-changing talent.
Nowadays, a younger generation might know Abdul-Jabbar mainly as the sharp-eyed commentator and columnist on the internet — or simply as the guy whose name they had to scroll past in the record books to get to James’s. But his revolutionary prowess as a player can never be diminished.
He led U.C.L.A. to three national titles in his three years of eligibility, his teams accumulating a scorched-earth record of 88-2. Along the way, the N.C.A.A. banned dunking, a move many believe was made to hinder his dominance, and U.C.L.A. came to be known as the University of California at Lew Alcindor.
Soon, there he was, dominating the N.B.A. with his lithe quickness and a singular, iconic shot: the sky hook. Athletic beauty incarnate.
The balletic rise from the glistening hardwood;the arm extended high, holding the ball well above the rim;the easy tip of the wrist, as if pouring tea into a cup, while he let the ball fly.
In his second professional year, he was named the N.B.A.’s most valuable player — the first of a record six such awards.
That season, he led the fledgling Milwaukee Bucks to the 1971 N.B.A. championship. It would be the first of his six titles, two more than James.
The pressure he was under as a player was immense for most of his career.
He said he faced death threats after boycotting the 1968 Olympics.
A phalanx of that era’s reporters, almost all of them white men, failed to understand Abdul-Jabbar and took to pat, easy criticism. He did himself no favors, responding by essentially turning his back, often literally, on many of them.
He also absorbed blow after blow on the court. Fights were frequent then. Sometimes it was too much, and he snapped.
He contained the multitudes, all right. Aggressive frustration included.
As the years passed, Abdul-Jabbar evolved. He was grew happier, less strident, more content and more open. His advocacy came to focus on human rights for all who are marginalized.
And ultimately, fans who once held him with disregard began to warm up.
LeBron James now holds the crown as the league’s greatest scorer. Well earned. He remains something to behold at age 38. Still, his Lakers are so disjointed they would need Abdul-Jabbar in his prime to make a serious run at an N.B.A. title this year.
Then again, Abdul-Jabbar at 38 would work. That Abdul-Jabbar, in the 1985 postseason, took his championship series lumps during a Game 1 loss to Boston and then came back as if launched from a Bel-Air springboard.
He ripped off a string of the finest games of his career, grabbing the championship trophy and the finals M.V.P. Award.
There has never been a finals series run like that from a player with as many miles on the legs.
It was just another way that Abdul-Jabbar stretched the meaning of greatness in the N.B.A., leaving the next generation and James to expand it even further.
Sheelagh McNeill and Jeff Roth contributed research.