From Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Race, Religion, and Representation in Basketball, 1968-1975


From 1968 to 1975, Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar traveled a turbulent personal path toward self-discovery. His journey had profound implications for the larger cultural landscape of race, sport, politics, and religion. As he became professional basketball's chief superstar, he was framed by the press as sullen and solitary, and he served as the villain in a media-driven storyline informed by popular prejudices. Yet for many African Americans and other progressive fans, he exemplified the ideals that made black power uplifting and affirmative, rather than threatening. His conversion to Islam and his name change further shaped new cultural and political territory for the black athlete. It highlighted a personal struggle within Abdul-Jabbar - he sought a kind of personal freedom, even as he revealed a tendency to subsume himself before strong authority figures. He nevertheless stood, in this period, as the nation's most prominent face of classical Islam. His religious conversion further distanced him from much of the American public, but over time he presented an effective, progressive narrative about the place of Islam in American life.

Publication Title

Journal of American Studies