How Bruce Lee And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Became Friends

He was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., and by the time he was in eighth grade he had grown to 6'8". Nor did he stop there. The professional basketball player, a six-time MVP winner, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, eventually stopped growing after reaching 7'2". All the more study in contrasts with his teacher and friend, martial artist and film star Bruce Lee, who was about 5'8" as an adult. It's not unusual for a student and a teacher to go on to become friends and even colleagues. Athletics, no matter the area of endeavor, requires certain fundamental commitments to discipline, improving, learning, growing, reaching — whether basketball, or jeet kune do.

Part of Alcindor's growth was a conversion to Islam in 1971, per Biography, when he took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — "noble, powerful servant." In a physically demanding, even punishing, sport, Abdul-Jabbar played professional basketball until he was 42, with relatively few injuries. That aspect of his success came in part, he believes, from his work with, and eventually friendship with, his martial arts instructor, Bruce Lee.

Abdul-Jabbar wrote about their friendship in The Hollywood Reporter in 2019. "Bruce Lee was my friend and teacher," he states simply, yet powerfully. The basketball superstar had started studying martial arts growing up in New York, and when he was a student at UCLA sought to continue that growth.

Lee taught Abdul-Jabbar "the discipline and spirituality of martial arts"

Lee, he said, "taught me the discipline and spirituality of martial arts, which was greatly responsible for me being able to play competitively in the NBA for 20 years with very few injuries." Abdul-Jabbar wasn't the only basketball superstar to benefit from Bruce Lee's philosophy. The South China Morning Post quotes Kobe Bryant this way: "I really looked up to Bruce. The one thing, among many, that I learned from him is the philosophy of jeet kune do is being able to adapt. Having the fundamental skills available to you so that you can react to any situation.... (Lee) hoped that he could inspire someone, not to learn how to fight, but through the art of fighting, learn how to be a better person." In 1973, Abdul-Jabbar filmed a fight sequence for what would prove to be his friend's last movie, Game of Death, released posthumously five years later.

"I was in public with Bruce several times when some random jerk would loudly challenge Bruce to a fight," wrote Abdul-Jabbar. "He always politely declined and moved on... He felt no need to prove himself. He knew who he was and that the real fight wasn't on the mat, it was on the screen in creating opportunities for Asians to be seen as more than grinning stereotypes."

Bruce Lee "was a wonderful human being," said Abdul-Jabbar. "It was a pleasure to know him."