Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is glad he went to UCLA during an era when college freshmen were not eligible to play on the varsity teams. Instead of “one and done”—the current situation where basketball stars like Kevin Love stick around only in their freshman year and then jump to the NBA—it was “one and ready to roll.” Abdul-Jabbar (then as Lew Alcindor) had quite a roll in the three years he played for the Bruins: An 88-2 record and three NCAA championships. His professional career hardly was diminished—all he did was play 20 years in the NBA and become the league’s all-time leading scorer.
“Getting kids to stay in school is good for their personal development away from the game,” Abdul-Jabbar said last week in a phone interview. “It was a different era with different priorities. You had to go to class, get adjusted to school, and earn a spot on the varsity.” Abdul-Jabbar took the school part seriously. He majored in history, a subject that continues to inspire him. He has written several books with historical foundations, the latest being On the Shoulders of Giants. It explores the cultural flowering known as the Harlem Renaissance, including the story of “the greatest basketball team you never heard of,” the Harlem Rens.
Abdul-Jabbar’s passion for history makes him the ideal guest for the third annual Black History Month celebration of Santa Barbara’s Endowment for Youth Committee. He will appear at the gala event on Saturday, February 20, at the Bacara Resort & Spa. (Tickets for the $150-a-plate dinner are still available; call 730-3347.)
“[The EYC] has the same focus I do,” said Abdul-Jabbar, who supports youth activities through his Skyhook Foundation. “Use sports and academics to help young people do better things with their lives.”
Twenty-one years after he played his last game, the sight of Kareem still brings back memories of Showtime, when the Lakers dominated the ’80s (five NBA titles), with Abdul-Jabbar peering through his goggles as he released his signature shot—the graceful, unstoppable skyhook. He also played on a championship team in Milwaukee early in his career. His brilliance was so consistent that it was sometimes taken for granted.
“The way he elongated his career is a tribute to his conditioning and his approach to the game,” said Bill Bertka, the Lakers’ assistant coach during those years. “He was willing to listen to coaching. He never had any major injuries. The most significant one was probably the sprained ankle in 1980.”
Abdul-Jabbar had to sit out the last game of the NBA finals, when rookie Magic Johnson played center and famously scored 42 points in the Lakers’ victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. But also that night, Jamaal Wilkes, a Santa Barbara High grad, scored 37 for L.A. “He had a career game,” Abdul-Jabbar said. He and Wilkes both played for John Wooden at UCLA. “Coach Wooden gave us an understanding of the necessary fundamentals of the game, starting with defense and passing,” he said.
Now he is a coach himself, a special assistant, working primarily with Andrew Bynum, a young center who was drafted by the Lakers out of high school. Bynum is in his fifth professional season but, as Abdul-Jabbar pointed out, “In my era, he’d just be starting out. This would be his rookie year.”
Abdul-Jabbar is more than a model for aspiring basketball players and students. Three months ago, he revealed that he has chronic myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. “I’m doing very well,” he said last week. “Fortunately, it’s a disease that can be treated and controlled.” It had been diagnosed almost a year earlier, and Abdul-Jabbar said he “wanted to make sure I could cope” before announcing it. Not only has the public embraced him as never before, but he’s also an effective spokesperson for self-awareness. “Be sensitive to the messages your body gives you,” he said. “Too many men are like, ‘Nah …’ A friend thanked me for reminding him to go to the doctor.”
GAMES OF THE WEEK: UCSB has a chance to climb in the Big West women’s basketball standings with home games against Pacific tonight (Thu., Feb. 4), and league-leading UC Davis at 2 p.m. on Saturday. … The Gaucho volleyball team, which upset No. 2-ranked Stanford last week, hosts top-ranked USC on Friday night at Robertson Gym. … Are you ready for some baseball? Major leaguers Ryan Spilborghs and Virgil Vasquez will be among the former Gauchos participating in UCSB’s alumni game on Saturday at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium. Pregame chatter and autographs at 11 a.m., a home run derby at noon, and the game to follow. Admission is $5. … Also on Saturday, the Channel League Wrestling Championships will take place at Dos Pueblos High.