36 years ago today, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made NBA history, using his signature skyhook to score the 31,420th points of his career, passing Wilt Chamberlain as the league’s all-time leading scorer. And Abdul-Jabbar was far from done, playing five more seasons before finishing with a total number of points that no one has ever come close to touching: 38,387.
One-season Laker Karl Malone was the last true threat, and even he stopped nearly 2,000 points short. Kobe Bryant had the next crack, and may have come closer if not for his Achilles injury, given how well he was playing before it, but ultimately never even caught Malone as a result.
Current Lakers star LeBron James — who recently passed Bryant to become the third-leading scorer in NBA history — is going to get the next chance to pass Abdul-Jabbar, but as well as he’s playing right now, he’s still over 4,000 points short and 35 years old. Who knows if he will (or want to) play long enough to do it.
This isn’t to critique those guys, but more just to show that Abdul-Jabbar’s longevity and effectiveness is literally unparalleled so far in NBA history, even if his scoring number often only earns him brief mention (and not much more than that) in discussions of the greatest players of all time.
But Abdul-Jabbar’s insane point total was about a lot more than just the 20 seasons he played, although playing that long undoubtedly helped. He was a transcendent talent from the moment he entered the league, averaging 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds while winning Rookie of the Year in 1970. The rest of his resume reads like an overpowered create player in NBA 2K. He was a 19-time All-Star, 15-time member of the All-NBA team and an 11-time selection for All-Defensive teams who led the league in blocks (which weren’t even recorded during Abdul-Jabbar’s first three seasons) six times. That’s also how many times he won MVP (still a league record), and he also won Finals MVP twice during his six championship runs.
So why isn’t Abdul-Jabbar given more consideration as the greatest player ever? It’s not that he has a definitive shoe-in case, as LeBron James and Michael Jordan, among others, are obviously incredible in their own rights and deserve discussion as well, but when looking at the numbers, it really seems that Abdul-Jabbar has somehow become the least appreciated great in NBA history, despite literally scoring more points than anyone else ever has, among tons of other accolades. He also has a signature shot no one else has been able to master that helped him get there — the Skyhook — giving him the iconic mental snapshot for anyone to picture when discussing his legacy in the same way as Jordan’s jumpman or Jerry West’s driving motion that became the NBA logo.
Part of it likely has a lot to do with when Abdul-Jabbar played. He retired in 1989, and started to decline over his final few years before that, meaning that many of those who discuss and debate basketball on television and the internet today likely did not see him in his prime. In full disclosure, I was only born in 1991, and am likely prone to such a bias myself when debating who the GOAT is, which is why I wanted to go back and take a look at Abdul-Jabbar’s resume for this story in the first place.
From watching his highlights and reading up on basketball reference, I’m fairly comfortable saying there has literally never been anyone quite like Abdul-Jabbar, before or since. From the grace with which he scored to the unique and iconic shot he used to do so much of it, I don’t know if we’ll ever see a player exactly like him again. He wasn’t quite as seamlessly graceful on defense — who could be? — but as his numbers indicate, he was still plenty effective on that end, too.
So if Abdul-Jabbar has the scoring accolades and the two-way player credentials normally required to get into the GOAT discussion, is it just that we’re all a bunch of lazy millennials that leads to him getting the short shrift in those conversations? Maybe, but I also don’t think it’s quite that simple, even if it’s a factor.
Another thing working against Abdul-Jabbar, as weird as it is to say this in a game that has historically been dominated by the giants among us, is that his size works against him. For whatever reason, wing players have always seemed to get preferential treatment when discussing the greatest players ever, going all the way back to West becoming the logo for the league.
Big men are less relatable than their (comparatively) smaller peers, whether that’s because more of us (out of necessity) played like wings than we did like bigs growing up, or because of the way the game has changed to favor more versatile wings vs. their behemoth forebears. Even during Abdul-Jabbar’s time with the Lakers this worked against him, with Magic Johnson’s megawatt smile and fancy passing drawing a lot more fans than Abdul-Jabbar’s more quietly effective (but still critical) contributions to those “Showtime” teams.
There is also the matter that Abdul-Jabbar has never really seemed as though basketball defined him. When he retired, he didn’t hang around the game, arguing his legacy. He did spend some time coaching, sure, but he also became a bestselling author of 14 books across fiction and nonfiction genres, and was also involved in television and movies as an actor and writer, including recently serving as a staff writer on the “Veronica Mars” revival.
Abdul-Jabbar has also continued the activism he began during his playing career since he’s retired, penning columns on subjects spanning from why college athletes should be paid to the racial implications of Oscar voting, among a diverse array of other topics. He’s additionally served as a cultural ambassador for the United States. It turns out he wasn’t just versatile on the court, as he’s been nearly as accomplished off of it.
None of that should get Abdul-Jabbar discounted in the GOAT discussion, by any means, but it does make it less likely that the public’s lasting image of him is when he was playing. For better or worse, Michael Jordan is mostly frozen in time, mid-leap from the free throw line to the basket, forever “His Airness” because he only rarely comes out to let himself be seen as anything else.
There are surely other factors that lead to Abdul-Jabbar getting discounted, but let’s not get too far afield. That’s not the point of this series, after all. We’re here to appreciate what made him great, and he was, arguably, the greatest. It’s highly unlikely there will ever be a player to come along exactly like Abdul-Jabbar again — even if he says Lakers star Anthony Davis is the closest currently.
But even Davis doesn’t have the type of unstoppable scoring move — the Skyhook — that Abdul-Jabbar did, and that’s no slight to Davis. No one has ever come close to having that kind of singular effectiveness since, and it’s why no one has really ever threatened Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring total. We could choose to remember him like that, frozen in time, mid-way between the free-throw line and the basket, ball curling off his fingertips in an unblockable arc to pile up more points, but it’s a safe bet Abdul-Jabbar wouldn’t want us to.
LeBron James may have coined the hashtag #MoreThanAnAthlete, but Abdul-Jabbar was one of the first to put such a mentality on full display, going all the way back to when he was inspired by Muhammad Ali to boycott the 1968 Olympics “to call attention to the rampant racial injustice of the time,” at a time when society was far less accepting of activism or norm-breaking from basketball players.
Abdul-Jabbar hasn’t stopped calling attention to inequalities since. and he should be appreciated for all of it, both as a scorer and a barrier breaker. He’d likely have it no other way, because whether he lands in his justified spot in the debate over the greatest basketball players in history in or not doesn’t really matter in the end, because that’s just basketball. He has been so much more than that.