University of California Los Angeles vs Purdue University, 1969 NCAA Finals

Larger Than Life: Portraits of Kareem at 22

An intimate look at a college basketball legend.

Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

From 1967 to 1969, future NBA Hall-of-Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — then known as Lew Alcindor — was the most dominant player on the most dominant team in college basketball. In those three years, the 7-foot-2 center from New York City led UCLA to a combined 88-2 record (that's not a typo) and three straight national titles — and was named the tourney's Most Outstanding Player three times in a row. In his final game in a Bruins uniform, the Naismith Award winner scored 37 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in a 92-72 rout of Purdue. After the win, when the roaring in Louisville’s Freedom Hall faded and there was no more net left to cut from the rim, photographer Neil Leifer got a chance to tag along with the lanky superstar for an intimate post-game photo shoot.

Mic Drop Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images Mic Drop Lew Alcindor speaks to the media after his incredible final act against Purdue. He converted to Islam in 1971, when he was 24, and took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or "noble one, servant of the Almighty.” Signing Off Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images Signing Off College basketball's biggest superstar, both on and off the court, makes time to sign autographs for fans as he exits Freedom Hall in Louisville. Game Changer Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images Game Changer After a college career that included three consecutive national titles, 88 wins, 2,325 points and 1,367 rebounds, can you blame him for being thirsty? Smooth Operator Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images Smooth Operator Abdul-Jabbar didn't just do everything well, he did it with style, perfecting one of the most gorgeous and unstoppable shots in basketball history — the “skyhook." Buttoned Up Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images Buttoned Up At times a reluctant superstar, Abdul-Jabbar grew more approachable as the years passed ― with fans as well as his teammates. Stretched Out Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images Stretched Out As a child he was often teased for his towering height. After his three dominating seasons in Westwood, there was nothing to be embarrassed about. A Future So Bright... Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images A Future So Bright... Two weeks after his last NCAA championship, Abdul-Jabbar was taken first overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1969 NBA Draft — the start of a legendary 20-year career in which he would win six titles and set the all-time scoring record. He'll Be Back Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images He'll Be Back Despite the strong allure of pro basketball's money and fame, the always-cerebral baller had his priorities straight, and was back on the UCLA campus to receive his diploma later that spring.
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