In 1967, finding himself out of work after “The Green Hornet” was canceled, Bruce Lee opened a Jeet Kune Do studio in Los Angeles. At the same time, 20-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, was a junior at UCLA and was looking for a martial arts instructor. Jabbar had studied aikido growing up in New York but heard that Lee had come up with his own style and thought he’d give it a shot. The two were introduced and immediately hit it off, forming a friendship that would last until Lee’s mysterious death in 1973.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says that Bruce Lee’s teachings helped him become a better basketball player
When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar first met Bruce Lee in 1967, he was already a phenomenal basketball player. In his first season at UCLA, his sophomore year as freshmen weren’t eligible to play varsity at that time, Kareem had led the Bruins to the national title, going 30-0, and won the first of three consecutive National Player of the Year awards. He was clearly the best player in college basketball but he found that training with Bruce Lee made him even better.
Jeet Kune Do emphasizes efficiency in movement. The less a person moves the better, as long as that movement is quick and explosive, which Kareem took from the dojo to the basketball court, as he referenced in his 2017 book, “Becoming Kareem.”
“I took it to heart. I dedicated myself to preparation by maintaining complete focus during basketball practice and my training with Bruce. As a result, I became stronger, faster and a much more intense player.”
“Bruce was an innovator and caused martial arts to move forward. … The skyhook is the embodiment of an efficient shot that requires minimal movement but sudden speed.”Kareem Abdul-Jabber on Bruce Lee
And that skyhook certainly served Kareem-Abdul Jabbar well. He went on to win two more national titles at UCLA, six NBA titles, six NBA MVP awards and scored more points than anyone in NBA history.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was on his way to see Bruce Lee when he heard the news of his death
Shortly after winning his first NBA title, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was invited by Bruce Lee to star as his adversary in Game of Death, a movie Lee was shooting in Hong Kong. Kareem, of course, happily accepted but admits that the five days he spent shooting his fight scenes were very intense. Unfortunately, the film was never completed in the way it was intended as production was stopped due to Lee taking his most famous role in Enter the Dragon.
The plan was for Lee to do that project and then come back to finish Game of Death. But it never happened. Just six days before the release of the movie that would make him a worldwide phenomenon, Bruce Lee died of cerebral edema. Game of Death would eventually be released in 1978 using outtake footage and stand-ins but it was not put together very well. However, audiences did at least get to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bruce Lee on the big screen together, something Jabbar is still very proud of to this day.
On the day that Lee died, Kareem was actually in Singapore on his way to Hong Kong to see him when he heard the news. In a past interview with ESPN, Kareem spoke on how hard his teacher’s death hit him.
“When Bruce died, I was so saddened by it. He was so young — he was only in his 30s. To see him pass early on was tragic and I miss him. You miss them especially when they leave you so suddenly and so unexpectedly.”Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Bruce Lee
Although Bruce Lee was gone, that didn’t stop Kareem from practicing his teachings, both on and off the basketball court.
How the philosophy of Jeet Kune Do has helped him off the court as well
While the teachings of Bruce Lee helped Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the basketball court, they have more importantly helped inspire him off the court as well. For decades, as Lee was when he was alive, Kareem has been active in the fight against racism and social injustice, which helped earn him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. While he understands that the things he learned under Lee can always apply to sports, he wants people to apply those same philosophies to everyday life in remembrance of his teacher.
“The Way of the Warrior can be upheld and practiced by people not just those fighting physical battles, but just in dealing with their daily lives. He taught people how to prepare and deal with an issue that might arise and succeed, whether that’s in life or in sport.”Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
One has to hope that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will be featured in the upcoming Bruce Lee documentary, Be Water, which premieres this Sunday on ESPN.