There is no way I could have played as long as I did without yoga," says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, not retired after an extraordinary 20 years in pro basketball. Many consider Abdul-Jabbar to be the greatest center, maybe the greatest player, in basketball history. "My friends and teammates think I made a deal with the devil. But it was yoga that made my training complete," he says.
Abdul-Jabbar first discovered yoga in 191 when he was a nearly 7 foot tall 14-year old high school student named Lew Alcindor. He came across a book on the subject and immediately saw how this Eastern discipline's emphasis on suppleness, concentration and breathing rather than sheer physical strength could benefit him. Particularly the breathing: "Basketball is an endurance sport, and you have to learn to control your breath," he says. "That's the essence of yoga, too. So I consciously began to use yoga techniques in my practice and playing."
When he got to UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar read more books as his interest in yoga grew. By 1978 he was routinely employing yoga exercises as part of his training program. Since 1984 he's studied with Bikram Choudhury--the "Yogi to the Stars" and a former amateur world weight-lifting champion--at the Yoga College of Beverly Hills.