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.
Unease with celebrity
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.