Since his high school days in New York, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (previously known as Lew Alcindor) was one of the most dominant players of all-time. The talented 7’2’’ center continued his stellar career while playing for legendary coach John Wooden at UCLA.
While dominating for UCLA, he suffered a scratched left cornea on January 12, 1968, while playing against University of California. Tom Henderson of California struck him in a rebound battle. He would then miss games against Stanford and Portland.
After a triumphant college career at UCLA with only one loss on his record, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1969 signed with the one-year-old NBA expansion team Milwaukee Bucks.
Abdul-Jabbar was a dominant force for Milwaukee, helping the Bucks repeat their reign as division leaders for four straight years and leading them to an NBA title in 1971. In 1974, Abdul-Jabbar won his third MVP Award in his five years with the Bucks.
While remaining relatively injury-free throughout his entire NBA career, Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand twice. The first time was during a preseason game in 1974, when he was bumped hard by his opponent and got his eye scratched, which angered him enough to punch the basket support stanchion. When he returned to the action, after missing the first 16 games of the 1974/75 season, he started to wear protective goggles.
The fact is that at 7-feet, 2-inches in height, he was so much taller than other NBA players that he often sustained mostly accidental pokes in the eyes.
In contrast to the NCAA, another new experience for Abdul-Jabbar was the way the NBA officials seemed to tolerate players who poked him just because of his great size. Some players even intentionally aimed at hit his eyes while game officials looked the other way. In order to protect himself Jabbar began to wear protective goggles on the court – like these (still can’t find the actual model, though). The glasses quickly became a part of the Los Angeles Lakers’ new big man’s image.
Years of battling under NBA baskets and often being hit in the face in the process had taken their toll on his eyes and he developed corneal erosion syndrome, where his eyes begin to dry out easily and cease to produce moisture. Once, in the 1986-87 season, he missed a game due to his eyes drying out and swelling as a result.
In his final season, every NBA team gave him presents ranging from a yacht that said “Captain Skyhook” to framed jerseys from his basketball career to an Afghan rug. At the time of his retirement, Jabbar held the record for the most games played by a single player in NBA history, which would later be broken by legendary center Robert Parish.
The Lakers made the NBA Finals in each of Abdul-Jabbar’s final three seasons, defeating Boston in 1987, and Detroit in 1988. The Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in 1989, which was Jabbar’s final season. On June 28, 1989, after twenty professional seasons, Abdul-Jabbar announced his retirement.
In his biography “My Life”, Magic Johnson recalls that in Abdul-Jabbar’s farewell game, many Lakers and Celtics legends participated – every player wore Abdul-Jabbar’s trademark goggles and had to try a sky hook at least once, which led to comic results.