(Reuters) - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is often overlooked in the debate over who is the greatest NBA player of all time as names like Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant dominate the discussion.
Abdul-Jabbar, however, undoubtedly deserves his place in the pantheon of the game’s greats.
His inscrutable nature, which led him to shun the spotlight early in his career, made it easy for some to discount his jaw-dropping on-court production.
Yet when he retired in 1989 he had etched his name into Los Angeles Lakers folklore as the league’s all-time leading scorer who won six championships and a record six MVP titles.
Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. was born on April 16, 1947 in New York City and, as a shy fourth grader, began practicing what would later become his unstoppable “skyhook” shot.
The 7-foot-2-inch (2.18m) center gained national recognition in college, where he scored 56 points in his varsity debut at UCLA en route to a 30-0 season and a national title. That led the NCAA to ban the slam dunk in an effort to contain him.
The rule change only made him better, as he perfected the “skyhook” and won three consecutive national titles.
In 1968 Alcindor stirred controversy when he boycotted the Olympic Games in an anti-racism protest, converted to Islam and privately changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which means “noble one, servant of the Almighty”.
He was selected first overall in the 1969 NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks and in his rookie season averaged an astonishing 29 points and 15 rebounds per game, an unthinkable feat for any first-year player in today’s game.
In only his second season he led the Bucks to a championship, was named the league MVP and the finals MVP.
Abdul-Jabbar was traded to the Lakers in 1975 and had one of the greatest seasons in NBA history in his first year with the team.
He averaged 28 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks per game and won the MVP award despite the Lakers missing the playoffs that season.
Once paired with point guard Magic Johnson, the duo became one of the most electrifying tandems in NBA history as the “Showtime” Lakers made eight finals appearances and won five titles while dominating the league in the 1980s.
Abdul-Jabbar also became more outgoing, making a memorable turn as the co-pilot in the 1980 comedy “Airplane!” and appearing in other television shows and movies.
Since retiring he has remained politically active, speaking out on the issues of race and inequality while becoming a best-selling author and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’s highest civilian honor, in 2016.
Yet despite all of his accomplishments, Abdul-Jabbar remained largely overlooked, even by the Lakers.
While statues of other sports luminaries were placed over the years outside Staples Center, including one of Johnson, the Lakers did not bestow the honor on Abdul-Jabbar until more than 20 years after his retirement when he said he felt slighted by the oversight.
After his comments, the Lakers moved quickly and in 2012 a statue of Abdul-Jabbar, shooting a skyhook, was erected in downtown Los Angeles, ensuring the Hall of Famer would not be overlooked again.
Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Toby Davis