I used to be 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 change of heart, mind, and soul. Mine was not just a simple conversion, but also a spiritual transformation.
I used to be Lew Alcindor, 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 openly debate.
And when you convert to an unfamiliar or unpopular religion, it invites intense scrutiny, not of one’s conscience, but 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, in my personal life I tried hard to fly under the radar.
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. 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 1966-67 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 wanted me to be. 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 become an American Success Story. To them, I was the living proof that racism was a mythological beast like the Minotaur.
I knew better. Being ‘7’2’ 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 louder rules. Rebellion was not an option.
Still, I was discontented. Growing up in the Sixties, I wasn’t exposed to many black role models. I admired Martin Luther King, Jr. for his selfless courage, and I admired 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 they were 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 should constantly show gratitude for their good fortune. I knew this reality was somehow wrong. That something had to change. I just didn’t know where I fit in.
Much of my early awakening came from reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X as a freshman. I was riveted by Malcolm’s intimate story of how he came to realize that he’d been the victim of institutional racism that had imprisoned him long before he’d landed in an actual prison resonated with me.
That’s how I felt. Imprisoned by an image of who I was supposed to be. The first thing he did was push aside the Baptist religion that his parents had brought him up in and study Islam.
To him, Christianity was a foundation of the white culture responsible for enslaving blacks and of supporting the racism that permeated society. His family had been attacked by the Christianity-spouting Ku Klux Klan and his home burned by the KKK splinter group, the Black Legion.
Malcolm X’s transformation from petty criminal to political leader inspired me to look more closely at my own upbringing and forced me to think more deeply about my own identity.
His explanation of how Islam helped him find his true self and gave him the strength to not only face hostile reactions from both blacks and whites, but to fight for social justice led me to study the Quran.
This decision set me on an irrevocable course to spiritual fulfillment. But it definitely wasn’t a smooth course. I made serious mistakes along the way. Then again, maybe the path isn’t supposed to be smooth. Maybe it’s supposed to be filled with obstacles and detours and false discoveries in order to challenge and hone one’s belief. As Malcolm X said, admitting he’d made mistakes along the way:
“I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost.”
I paid the cost.
As I said earlier, I was brought up to respect rules—and especially those who enforced the rules, like teachers, preachers, and coaches. I’d always been an exceptional student, so when I wanted to know more about Islam, I found a teacher in Hamas Abdul-Khaalis. During my years playing with the Milkwaukee Bucks, Hamas taught me his version of Islam and it was a joyous revelation. Then in 1971, when I was 24, I converted to Islam and became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (“the noble one, servant of the Almighty”).
The question that I’m often asked is why I had to pick a religion so foreign to American culture and a name that was hard for people to pronounce. Some fans took it very personally, as if I’d firebombed their church while tearing up an American flag. Actually, I was rejecting the religion that was foreign to my black African culture and embracing one that was part of my racial heritage (20-30 percent of slaves brought from Africa were Muslims).
The adoption of a new name was an extension of my rejection of all things in my life that related to the enslavement of my family and people. Alcindor was a French planter in Trinidad who owned my ancestors. My ancestors were Yoruba people, from present day Nigeria. Keeping the name of my family’s slave master seemed somehow to dishonor them. His name felt like a branded scar of shame.
From that year to this, I have never wavered or regretted my decision to convert to Islam. When I look back now, I wish I could have done it in a more private way, without all the publicity and fuss that followed.
Many people are born into their religion. For them it is mostly a matter of legacy and convenience. Their belief is based on faith, not just in the teachings of the religion, but in the acceptance of that religion from their family and culture. For the person who converts, it is a matter of fierce conviction and defiance.
Our belief is based on a combination of faith and logic because we need a powerful reason to abandon the faith of our families and community to embrace the beliefs foreign to both. Conversion is a risky business because it can result in losing family, friends, and community support.
Some fans still call me Lew, then seem annoyed when I ignore them. They don’t understand that their lack of respect for my spiritual choice is insulting. It’s as if they want me to exist only as an idea of who they want me to be to decorate their world. Like a toy action figure.
Kermit the Frog famously complained that “It’s not easy being green.”
Try being Muslim in America. According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. public has the least regard for Muslims, slightly less than they have for atheists, even though it is the third-largest faith in America. The acts of aggression, terrorism, and inhumanity committed by those claiming to be Muslims have made the rest of the world afraid of us.
Without really knowing the peaceful practices of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, they see only the worst examples.
Part of my conversion to Islam is accepting the responsibility to teach others about Islam. Not to convert them, but to co-exist with them through mutual respect and support.
One World does not have to mean One Religion, just one belief in living in peace.
Excerpted from the author’s Facebook page.