Why did Kareem wear goggles? His height advantage at 7’1” forced shorter players to reach up when guarding him and they frequently poked him in the eye. After missing a long stretch of games due to an injury indirectly caused by an eye poke, Kareem began wearing goggles in games in 1974 and never stopped until his retirement in 1989.
What was Kareem known for?Embed from Getty Images
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was known for four things in his playing days.
One was his incredible longevity. He played twenty years in the NBA after going to UCLA for four years and playing for three (freshmen were not allowed to play then).
Another thing Kareem was known for was winning. He won one NBA title with the Milwaukee Bucks and another five with the Lakers, giving him an amazing six NBA titles.
That puts Kareem in a four-way tie for 10th most NBA Championships in league history. He is tied with some pretty decent players – Celtic great Bob Cousy and Bulls teammates Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
A third thing Kareem became famous for was his unblockable skyhook. Few players in the history of the league are as closely associated with one move as Kareem is with the skyhook.
Finally, Kareem was known for his goggles. When you picture Kareem on the court, you see him wearing those goggles. They are as big a part of Kareem’s look as the shaved head was for MJ.
Why did Kareem start wearing goggles?Embed from Getty Images
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a serious height advantage over most opponents – even when he played in the NBA.
That was even more true as a high school student at Power Memorial High School in New York City, when he was still known as Lew Alcindor and at UCLA.
As a 7’1” center, Kareem was taller than most everybody on the court. Those players, especially when he was younger, were always reaching their hands up to guard him.
A natural consequence of his height advantage was that players accidentally poked him in the eye a lot.
While I am certain it hurt every time, the first time Kareem missed games because of getting poked in the eye was at UCLA.
On January 12, 1968 Kareem, then Lew Alcindor, had his cornea scratched by an opponent while playing against the University of California (Berkeley).
He missed the next two games recovering from the injury. But Alcindor did not start wearing goggles quite yet.
When did Kareem start wearing goggles?Embed from Getty Images
Kareem won the first of his six NBA titles playing alongside the Big O, Oscar Roberson, for the Bucks in 1971. He was not yet wearing goggles.
Even though he had serious eye-poking incidents while at UCLA, Kareem did not start wearing goggles all the time until his last year playing for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1974.
Later, doctors would say the many eye pokes Kareem took before finally adopting goggles full-time led to him having scarring on his corneas. The scarring actually forced Kareem to miss time much later in his career when he was wearing goggles at all times.
During a Bucks preseason game in 1974, Kareem was poked in the eye again. As someone who had experienced it many times, he was incredibly frustrated and punched the support stanchion for the basket.
The punch broke his hand and made Kareem miss the first 16 games of the season. The team, who had lost in the NBA Finals the previous season, went 3-13 without him.
Kareem saw then that he needed to protect his eyes in order to be available for his team.
What kind of goggles did Kareem wear?Embed from Getty Images
He started out wearing a scuba type mask that looked funny and had to be difficult to play in.
He then found a French company named Herslof that made a better-looking pair of goggles. These became the goggles you associate with Kareem and he wore them the rest of his career.
These are the goggles you probably think of when you think of Kareem. They are the type he wore in winning five more titles alongside Magic Johnson, Big Game James Worthy and the rest of the Showtime Lakers.
The goggles became such an iconic part of Kareem’s legend that during the heart of the lockdowns brought about by the global pandemic of 2020, Kareem donated 900 pairs of eye protection equipment to the UCLA medical center.
He said “”I would like to do my part, so I’m going to use my influence and have my team source quality medical products such as protective eyewear goggles. … You guys should have all the best equipment while you’re on the frontline. Thank you for all you do, and good luck.”
Summary: Why did Kareem wear goggles?
Kareem was regularly poked in the eye by shorter players throughout his career. After he punched a basket because of an eye poke in 1974, Kareem missed 16 games. He then began wearing goggles because it happened so often and he did not want to miss games.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.