Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born Lew Alcindor) is the NBA's career scoring leader with 38,387 points in the regular season and 44,149 total, including the playoffs. The 7-foot-2 center, known for his all-but-unstoppable hook shot, led the UCLA Bruins to three consecutive NCAA championships before joining the NBA. In a career spanning 20 seasons, Abdul-Jabbar played in 19 All-Star games and won six MVP awards.
Raised in Harlem to an uncommunicative, transit cop/musician father and an overprotective mother, Lew Alcindor went to Catholic schools where he began to play basketball. Kareem writes in his 1983 autobiography Giant Steps that he first tried marijuana at the age of 17, after his friend Neil Chusid challenged his impression that it was a dangerous, addictive narcotic. He canvassed his friends on the subject and found "not one had a bad word for the weed." He then researched marijuana "as if it was an independent study project. I spent time in the library, thumbed through the card catalogue, checked the facts, followed the footnotes. I read the LaGuardia Report, a New York City government-sponsored drug-use study, and damned if Neil wasn't correct; marijuana was not a narcotic, it wasn't addictive. I was astonished. I had figured the street mythology was bullshit and the conventional wisdom was sound. Turned out I'd had it backwards! Of course then I had to try it," Kareem writes, calling his decision to smoke pot "one of my first major individual decisions."
It took a couple of tries before, on Easter Sunday 1965 after hitting a pipe with a friend, "it hit me, this idea like a little chime ringing in the top of my head. Ding. I was definitely high! I stood up and tried to put a record on, and my whole peripheral vision fuzzed up on me, like I was staring down a lucite tube at a living room far, far away." Laughing and running around, then moving in slow motion, the friends had a happy, silly day. "After that I'd get high on the occasional weekend or at parties every chance I could," Kareem writes. One time (only) he got high before school and laughed his way through the pledge of allegiance and biology class. Although he says marijuana didn't improve his basketball game or anything, the summer after his freshman year, he returned to New York, drank wine and "smoked reefer" with his basketball-playing friends.
In Spring 1966, after enrolling at UCLA, Alcindor tried LSD with friends. "It was a gorgeous clear blue day that had shimmered even before we started, now it was simultaneously dead still and shaking like mad," Kareem writes. "There were jet-stream trails behind everything that moved. . . We talked about race, the difference between black and white, cosmic realities, cosmic myths. We were nineteen and I loved it." After four or five trips, Kareem decided what he learned from acid was that he didn't need to take it. He "didn't do much" after freshman year and stopped entirely by his junior year. The "information overload" of it can be frightening, he warned, and the effects last for a long four hours or more. "I found that I'd learn enough just by living in a normal state of consciousness and concentrating, applying my intellilgence to what I wanted to know," he wrote, adding that his change of perspective after reading The Autobiography of Malcom X was "more significant than any mind-altering drug" and Alcindor later became a Muslim and changed his name.
Kareem had plenty to say in Giant Steps about drugs as a public relations problem for the NBA: "Drugs are an open secret on all strata of America society: Stockbrokers are smoking pot after hours; lawyers are snorting cocaine. . . doctors are shooting heroin and hospital morphine. . . .When an athlete gets caught doing drugs, however, all hell breaks loose. Athletes are supposed to be America's heroes. . . we are role models for future grandeur. This is nonsense. . . . Each man and woman, from the most known to the least, should have the confidence and the strength to create and live by his or her own beliefs and not be led blindly by others who may not be qualified for the job."
"The uproar over drugs in the NBA is less about morality than it is about commerce," Kareem continues. "The media makes tremendous money publicizing, analyzing, and criticizing professional sports, and if the product is tarnished, so are the profits. Scandal is good to a degree--it sells newspapers--but there is the constant pressure to maintain the image of cleanliness and not upset the dollar figures. There is also the element of gambling--no doubt about it, millions of dollars are bet annually on pro sports--and an athlete on drugs is more difficult to gauge and make a successful cash determination on than a straight one."
"I don't really care who's doing drugs in the NBA as long as the scene isn't adversely affecting my team and teammates. I've known enough drug users--going as far back as grade school and the streets of New York--not to view them as pariahs or lost souls. I've certainly smoked more than my quota of weed. For a while there at UCLA I didn't want to hang out with anyone who didn't smoke reefer, but that was as parochial a view of the world as any uptight antidoper's, and I got over it quickly." But, he writes, in the NBA, "serious drug use, whether it's pot, cocaine, amphetamines or heroin, will wrestle with your conditioning." And he said he saw an entire team destroyed by freebasing cocaine.
On March 20, 1998 Kareem was arrested at the Toronto airport for carrying a small amount of marijuana. He said at the time that he uses marijuana to alleviate the migraine headaches that have bothered him for years. "I use it to control the nausea which comes with the headaches,'' he said during a book signing the following year, when he said he had a recommendation from a California physician to use cannabis.