Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a household name in the world of basketball.
To this very day, the man still receives plaudits for his numerous contributions to the game, as he was such a dominant force in the sport from a very young age.
Standing at seven feet and two inches tall, he took full command on the court as a high school player, leading his team to a record of 71-5 and three straight New York City Catholic championships.
And in college, Abdul-Jabbar continued to excel at basketball, leading the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to three straight National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships and earning the title of “Most Outstanding NCAA Final Four” player in all three of those years.
He later turned pro in 1969 and was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, where he won his first NBA championship and the title of Finals Most Valuable Player.
So, you get the picture.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was an outstanding player with immense skill on the court.
But outside of basketball, not many people know the story behind his name change.
Yes, you heard that right!
Kareem Abdul Jabbar was originally known as Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. He converted to Islam in 1968 and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a sign of his faith in the religion. More so, the influence of human rights activist Malcom X also played a part in his decision.
In this article, we will explore the reasons behind Abdul-Jabbar’s decision to change a huge part of his identity and how it has impacted his life and career.
- 1. Developing a personal connection with Islam
- 2. Malcom X's autobiography
- 3. A desire for more personal authenticity
Why did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar change his name and religion?
There are three major reasons, each outlined in detail below:
1. Developing a personal connection with Islam
Abdul-Jabbar explained that his conversion to Islam was a personal choice that he made after learning about the religion and feeling a deeper connection to it.
“I was searching for something that would give me life.” more meaning and direction. Islam provided that for me.”Source – CNN
2. Malcom X’s autobiography
Kareem has also stated that reading “Malcolm X’s Autobiography” proved to be the foundation for his enlightenment and eventual decision to alter his identity.
He felt such a strong connection to Malcolm’s story and realized that he, too, was a victim of institutional racism, which had imprisoned him into an image of what the public expected and wanted him to look like or represent.
This made him examine his upbringing closely and think deeply about his identity as an individual and what he desired for himself and his community.
Islam helped him discover his true self and gave him the courage to face opposition from both black and white people, all while simultaneously fighting for social justice.
3. A desire for more personal authenticity
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made it clear in a candid interview with Al Jazeera that he was introduced to Islam way back in his freshman year at UCLA.
He noted that, with his fame growing at such a great rate, he really tried to keep his personal life as private as possible.
More so, his life was an emotional rollercoaster.
He said that not only did the fame make him weary of his surroundings at all times, but the celebrities with whom he interacted with made him nervous and uncomfortable.
The spotlight was not his favorite place to be, but this life began to make some sense to him, and he realized that the icon the public adored and was constantly celebrating wasn’t his true self, but rather a creation of the public’s expectations and desires.
Some of the reticence stemmed from his realization that the person the world and the showbiz was applauding wasn’t his real self.
Not only did he have the typical adolescent anxiety about becoming a man, but he was also attempting to balance playing for one of the finest college basketball teams in the country.
Don’t forget having to fit in competitive sport with all his school work on top of that!
It was at that moment that he came to the self-actualization that the Lew Alcindor everyone was rooting for wasn’t the one they expected.
They expected him to be a shining example of racial equality.
The poster child for how anybody from any background—regardless of race, religion, or economic standing—could achieve the “American Dream” to them.
When did Kareem legally change his name?
Kareem is said to have secretly changed his name back in the year 1968.
Having been inspired by Malcom X, as previously spoken about in the article, he went about changing a core part of his identity without telling anyone about it first.
The man personally considers religious conversion to be quite a private affair, which demands a lot of one’s desire and input to self-reflection.
For him however, this proved to be a difficult task bearing in mind the fact that he was a famous basketball celebrity.
His conversion to a less popular and accepted religion invited a lot of criticism as well as public scrutiny of of his intelligence and patriotism.
Furthermore, as awkward as it may seem, his sanity too was also in question.
So, you can understand why he decided to keep the name change under the rug for a little while.
It was then three years later when he announced to the general public that Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. was no more, formally changing his name in the fall of 1971.
Here’s an informative video which recounts the name change and explains the purpose of it:
Why is he called Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
“Abdul-Jabbar” means “servant of the most powerful” in Arabic.
From this, you could easily decipher the motivation behind Kareem’s decision to adopt the name.
It sort of signifies the identity of higher purpose beyond what is found on the planet that we call Earth.
Kareem may have felt enough was enough, refusing to submit to the whims of what critics and people in general thought of him.
Instead, he wanted to forge his own path, one of pure intentions that wasn’t corrupted by the world’s needs and often nonsensical desires.
What impact did the name change have on his career and legacy?
His parents certainly weren’t happy!
“My parents were not pleased by my conversion,” the former Lakers center told Al Jazeera America. “Though they weren’t strict Catholics, they had raised me to believe in Christianity as the gospel.”
Because of the conflict, Abdul-Jabbar decided not to invite his parents to his wedding.
It’s taken a decade to heal their rift.
He regrets his approach to conversion in part because of that difficult time.
Abdul-Jabbar wishes he had handled the situation more discreetly for the sake of his family and spiritual path.
On the flip side, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s name change did not hinder his success on the court.
He continued to dominate in the NBA, winning five more championships and earning the title of the NBA’s second best all-time leading scorer.
Off the court, Abdul-Jabbar has used his platform to advocate for social and political issues, including education and race relations.
He has written numerous books on these topics and has received numerous awards and accolades for his activism.
In conclusion, Kareem’s decision to change his name was a personal one that was driven by his conversion to Islam and his faith.
While the controversial decision came with its own set of unique challenges, it hasn’t hindered his success on the court; nor his ability to use his platform to advocate for important causes.
Even though another professional player in LeBron James has beaten his long-standing scoring record, the contributions of the Los Angeles Lakers icon to social justice, cultural acceptance, and political empowerment will never be surpassed.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this bit of insight into the legendary basketball player that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was, then you’d probably also like to go through related posts on our blog.
- The interesting reasons why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wore goggles on the court;
- Why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left the Milwaukee Bucks for the Los Angeles Lakers; and
- The motive behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wearing the number 33 jersey throughout his playing career