I was born Lew Alcindor. Now I’m Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The transition from Lew to Kareem was not merely a change in celebrity brand name — like Sean Combs to Puff Daddy to Diddy to P. Diddy — but a transformation of heart, mind and soul. I used to be Lew Alcindor, the pale reflection of what white America expected of me. Now I’m Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the manifestation of my African history, culture and beliefs.
For most people, converting from one religion to another is a private matter requiring intense scrutiny of one’s conscience. But when you’re famous, it becomes a public spectacle for one and all to debate. And when you convert to an unfamiliar or unpopular religion, it invites criticism of one’s intelligence, patriotism and sanity. I should know. Even though I became a Muslim more than 40 years ago, I’m still defending that choice.
I was introduced to Islam while I was a freshman at UCLA. Although I had already achieved a certain degree of national fame as a basketball player, I tried hard to keep my personal life private. Celebrity made me nervous and uncomfortable. I was still young, so I couldn’t really articulate why I felt so shy of the spotlight. Over the next few years, I started to understand it better.
Part of my restraint was the feeling that the person the public was celebrating wasn’t the real me. Not only did I have the usual teenage angst of becoming a man, but I was also playing for one of the best college basketball teams in the country and trying to maintain my studies. Add to that the weight of being black in America in 1966 and ’67, when James Meredith was ambushed while marching through Mississippi, the Black Panther Party was founded, Thurgood Marshall was appointed as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice and a race riot in Detroit left 43 dead, 1,189 injured and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.
I came to realize that the Lew Alcindor everyone was cheering wasn’t really the person they imagined. They wanted me to be the clean-cut example of racial equality. The poster boy for how anybody from any background — regardless of race, religion or economic standing — could achieve the American dream. To them, I was the living proof that racism was a myth.
I knew better. Being 7-foot-2 and athletic got me there, not a level playing field of equal opportunity. But I was also fighting a strict upbringing of trying to please those in authority. My father was a cop with a set of rules, I attended a Catholic school with priests and nuns with more rules, and I played basketball for coaches who had even more rules. Rebellion was not an option.
Still, I was discontented. Growing up in the 1960s, I wasn’t exposed to many black role models. I admired Martin Luther King Jr. for his selfless courage and Shaft for kicking ass and getting the girl. Otherwise, the white public’s consensus seemed to be that blacks weren’t much good. They were either needy downtrodden folks who required white people’s help to get the rights they were due or radical troublemakers wanting to take away white homes and jobs and daughters. The “good ones” were happy entertainers, either in show business or sports, who were expected to show gratitude for their good fortune. I knew this reality was somehow wrong — that something had to change. I just didn’t know what it meant for me.