Across two decades in the National Basketball Association, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was an enduring example of sporting excellence.
He set an NBA record for points scored and his 1,560 games, over 20 seasons, ranks second on the league’s list.
In addition to skill and size, which accounted for his record points total of 38,387, he was a paragon of healthy living.
During and after his basketball career, which ended at age 42 in 1989 with six championships and six Most Valuable Player awards, he was known as a practitioner of yoga and martial arts, avoided tobacco products and kept his weight under control.
It is, perhaps, no surprise that one of sport’s renaissance men, a published author and respected social critic, should promote healthy lifestyles among his many interests.
“It’s a part of what I do. It’s a very important part of me,” Abdul-Jabbar said ahead of his arrival for Wednesday’s diabetes walk in Al Ain, an event being organised by the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre.
It will be the highlight of a visit that includes helping promote the Walk 2014 walkathon at Yas Marina Circuit on November 7, among other clinics and appearances the American will make to support the fight against diabetes, to advance sport and promote his larger lifestyle philosophy.
“I like to promote diabetes [campaigns], with how much a problem diabetes is,” said the former Los Angeles Laker. “Promoting diet and exercise and healthy living, you kind of really make it possible for people to have more productive and healthier lives.”
Over the course of his career at the University of California Los Angeles and in the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar was a larger-than-life figure, at 2.18 metres, on the basketball court.
He won three national championships at UCLA, where he played under his birth name of Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, and was the first pick of the 1969 draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. After his conversion to Islam, he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971. He was traded to Los Angeles in 1975, where he later teamed with Magic Johnson on the “Showtime” Lakers. He was chosen to play in the NBA’s all-star game 19 times and was voted to the All-NBA first team 10 times.
A man who accomplished nearly everything in basketball said he was excited to use the sport as one tool to encourage lifestyle shifts.
“I’ll be doing basketball. We’re going to go to a three-on-three tournament and oversee that,” he said. “It’s interesting how they’ve got it set up; I’ll be promoting the sport of basketball and just generally good health by staying active.
“This is great because the whole idea of promoting health through sports works in the long term. To tie sport into getting people healthier, you can’t lose.”
His fluidity around the rim and unparalleled ability to score were hallmarks of his career, as were the eye-protecting goggles he wore while playing.
He is the only player to perfect the “skyhook”. It was a piece of carefully timed performance art, which would see him turn his left shoulder towards the basket and lift his long right arm to roll the ball off his fingertips. It was a shot nearly impossible to defend.
The shot remains his trademark, 25 years after he stopped playing. When he left the game, the shot left with him.
“It’s an easy shot to learn and use it and do well with it. Not a whole lot of guys have used it that much and that has kind of mystified me,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I’m sure somebody else is going to figure it out and take a stab at it.
“LeBron James once said he was thinking of bringing it back. I think he’d be able to be very effective with it. I’d love to see him give it a try.”
Over time and away from the court, Abdul-Jabbar also became well known as a cultural figure.
He did a scene with Bruce Lee in Game of Death, in 1978, and had a role in the comedy movie Airplane! in 1980.
His books include an autobiography, Giant Steps, he has touched on social issues in his column for Time magazine, and he has been an official cultural ambassador for the United States.
He also has beaten leukaemia, worked with the Stand Up 2 Cancer organisation and, while here, plans to tackle diabetes.
“I myself am a cancer survivor. I know how these issues can come up at various points in your life and I want to do something about it. It makes sense, using my prestige as a successful athlete to promote these things in order to give some back.
“We’re going to fight diabetes.”
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