When you hear the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you probably imagine one of the greatest big men of all time swishing sky hooks and winning NBA championships. The Lakers legend, however, wasn’t always the big man on campus. In fact, there was a time when he looked up to another dominant center: Bill Russell.
During his time in high school, Kareem, who was then known as Lew Alcindor, had a chance to meet his hero. While the Boston Celtics star wasn’t the most accommodating man around, he still left an impact on the teenager.
Bill Russell didn’t seem excited about meeting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but it was still an inspirational encounter
By the time he reached Power Memorial Academy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had already made a name for himself as a top basketball talent. That reality didn’t mean the teenager didn’t have athletic heroes, though. One of those men was Bill Russell.
Kareem did more than watch the Celtics star from afar. In 1961, he got a chance to get up close and personal with Russell.
“I first met Bill Russell in 1961, when I was a 14-year-old freshman at Power Memorial High School,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote on his Substack. I had just arrived at the school gym for team practice only to find the Boston Celtics practicing instead. I was surprised to see a professional team in our gym, especially the NBA champions for the last three seasons in a row. As I found out later, because our gym was only twelve blocks from Madison Square Garden and near to several hotels, we were convenient for teams to practice.”
Russell was sitting on the bench reading the newspaper, and Kareem tried to duck into the locker room. His coach, Jack Donahue, had another idea.
“Lew, c’mere,” Coach Donahue called to me.
I gulped. Me?
I shuffled over to Coach Donahue, who introduced me to Coach Auerbach. Coach Auerbach gestured at Bill Russell. “Hey, Bill, c’mere. I want you to meet this kid.”
Bill Russell dipped down his newspaper and looked me over with a frown. Then he snorted. “I’m not getting up just to meet some kid.”
I shrank to about six inches tall. I just wanted to run straight home.
Auerbach chuckled. “Don’t let him get to you, kid. Sometimes he can be a real sourpuss.” He grabbed my wrist and walked me over to Russell.
“Bill, be nice. This is the kid who just might be the next you.”Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Eventually, Russell stood up and shook hands with the teenager. Even at that point, though, he wasn’t exactly rolling out the red carpet.
“I stuck out my hand. ‘How do you do, Mr. Russell. Pleasure to meet you,'” Kareem recounted. “He didn’t smile, but his demeanor had softened, just a little. He shook my hand. ‘Yeah, yeah, kid.’ That’s how I met my childhood hero.”
While that might not seem like the greatest encounter, Abdul-Jabbar didn’t seem to mind. He had met his hero, and, for all of Russell’s seeming disinterest, the center showed the teenager exactly what he needed to see.
“They say you should never meet your heroes,” Abdul-Jabbar continued. “That it’s mostly disappointing, disillusioning, or disheartening. But that wasn’t my experience. I was thrilled. He spoke to me. And I thought I saw in his eyes a recognition of someone, like him, who had a passion for the game that burned deep and hot and bright. Or maybe that’s what I wanted to see. Either way, it fueled me to strive harder to be more like him.”
Whether you’re going by his on-court success or his willingness to address off-court matters, it’s safe to say that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did a fine job of following in Russell’s giant footsteps.