It says something about the scale of the accomplishments of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that, more than 30 years after he retired from playing basketball, he remains a regular presence in the public sphere.
In February 2023 the six-time NBA MVP and six-time NBA champion graciously handed a ceremonial basketball to Lebron James to commemorate James breaking Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA all-time scoring record, which had stood since 1984. Abdul-Jabbar was also a central character in the HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty that debuted in 2022 and has been renewed for a second season (and which Abdul-Jabbar, like many other former Lakers, has criticized for its inaccuracy). Abdul-Jabbar has also gained notice an author and also as an opinion writer, expressing his insights on race and other societal issues.
It was evident that he was not a typical athlete when LIFE profiled Abdul-Jabbar in its Feb. 17, 1967 issue. At that point he was 19 years old and a sophomore at UCLA, and he was still known by his birth name of Lew Alcindor (he would change it after converting to Islam in 1968). This was also before he began wearing his familiar goggles on the court, a protective measure he took after suffering a scratched cornea. It was also before he would lead UCLA to three NCAA championships and a record 71 consecutive wins.
The mood of the LIFE profile is captured by a quote from the young star, “The world wasn’t made for people over six foot two.” (The story gives his height as 7’1 3/8″, though the NBA lists it as 7’2″). The story presents him as a loner who values his privacy and is not at all comfortable with the spotlight. The photos by Bill Ray show a basketball star who, in the course of trying to live an ordinary life, can’t help but stand out because of his size. Abdul-Jabbar towers over his then-girlfriend as they walk around campus. His visit to a music store has the feel of a scene from Gulliver’s Travels. “I wish I could become a musician,” Abdul-Jabbar told LIFE. “That’s the one thing in the world that I would really enjoy.”
Perhaps the most eye-grabbing of Ray’s photos show Abdul-Jabbar shopping for clothing, and getting measured for a pair of dress pants (length: 51 inches). The tailor—who, it must be noted in fairness, seems to have been on the shorter side—needed to stand on a chair to get the Abdul-Jabbar’s measurements. The shop manager quipped to LIFE, “The only pants longer than these are for a redwood tree.”
It’s the kind of not-very-witty joke the cerebral basketball great must have heard a thousand times in his life, and it gives a sense of why, at such a young age, he was already cherishing his privacy.