What’s in a name? Quite a bit of money, according to NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has sued Miami Dolphins running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar because the football player’s adopted Islamic name too closely resembles his own.
The fact that Kareem is 16 inches taller, 27 years older and gained fame for playing a different sport than Karim does not matter to the older, taller, Abdul-Jabbar. If the shorter, younger Abdul-Jabbar does not change his name, it could cause Kareem “irreparable harm” in his attempt to trade off that name in the form of commercial endorsements, licensed products, speaking engagements and book deals, according to the lawsuit filed last month in Los Angeles.
Both spell their last names the same, but the first names are spelled slightly differently - Kareem (basketball) vs. Karim (football). And there are other similarities in their lives. Their jersey numbers are the same - 33. They played collegiately at UCLA, where they also accepted the Hanafi school of Islam.
When Karim was born in 1974 in Los Angeles to a Muslim family, his name was Sharmon Shah. He went through “a religious affirmation of some importance at UCLA,” in 1995, according to his Los Angeles attorney, Amy D. Hogue.
On the other hand, Lew Alcindor had been Kareem Abdul-Jabbar since 1971 and had helped the hometown Los Angeles Lakers win five NBA titles.
Karim declined an interview for this story, but he has told reporters in the past that while he knew the name would raise eyebrows, there was nothing he could do about it. His Islamic name was chosen by an imam, or Islamic prayer leader.
Hogue said Karim “is very disappointed that another Muslim brother is filing suit over a religious name … This name was chosen by his imam. Both (Abdul-Jabbars) are part of the Hanafi line. As the basketball Kareem should know, it would be very, very disrespectful and disobedient and improper to refuse a name which an imam in the Hanafi line had selected for him.”
Kareem’s suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles and alleges trademark infringement and deceit. Under U.S. law, names cannot be trademarked, but trademarks can be registered for the use of a person’s name on specific goods and services.
Kareem’s attorneys contend in the lawsuit that licensed products bearing his name and various trademarks registered to him, as well as endorsements, have generated sales of more than $100 million in the past 10 years. Those sales produced an annual income of at least $1 million for Kareem, who since leaving the NBA has become a speaker, actor and author.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff wrote a letter to Karim a month after becoming aware of the name change in 1995. He asked the football player to select another Islamic name - or, if he kept Abdul-Jabbar, not to exploit it commercially after leaving UCLA.
Otherwise, Kareem alleges, it would cause “irreparable harm” to him and his solely owned company, Ain Jeem Inc. Ain Jeem (pronounced Iyn Jeem) are the Arabic initials for Abdul-Jabbar.
Two brands of Dolphins replica jerseys bearing “Abdul-Jabbar 33” are on the market; according to the lawsuit, an unspecified sporting goods company requested unsuccessfully in April that “Kareem not challenge the use of ‘Abdul-Jabbar 33.’ “
A hearing on Kareem’s motion for a preliminary injunction prohibiting Karim from commercially exploiting the name is scheduled Jan. 26 before U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie in Los Angeles. In addition to an injunction, Kareem is seeking treble damages to be determined by the court.
Barry West, a Los Angeles-based attorney who is representing Kareem, said neither he nor his client wished to comment for this article. “The lawsuit speaks for itself,” West said. “We don’t want to litigate in the media.”
For Kareem’s lawsuit to proceed to trial, he will need to show there is a likelihood that the public will be confused by commercial use of the two names, according to Jerry Samuels, former assistant commissioner for trademarks at the U.S. Office of Patents and Trademarks.
Mohammed Nimer, director of research at the Council of American Islam Relations (CAIR), said a Muslim “is at liberty to change his name” and that “the whole thing is very subjective.” He said the first name Kareem “is not an uncommon name,” but that Abdul-Jabbar “is not very popular” - less popular, for instance, than the name Bill Clinton.
Nimer referred questions about the role of an imam to Aminah McCloud, a professor of Islamic Studies at DePaul University and author of “African American Islam.”
“In some communities, a person will ask an imam to choose (a name) for him based on some combination the imam will think is a personality trait or attribute of God or something that is praiseworthy,” McCloud said in a telephone interview. “But it’s not how people get Arabic or Muslim names. Usually, they choose them.”
Hogue, Karim’s attorney, said her client grew up as a Dallas Cowboys fan and “idolized Tony Dorsett,” who wore the number 33 during his days at the University of Pittsburgh and with the Cowboys. She said that, as a result, her client started wearing No. 33 when he began playing high school football in Los Angeles.
He had to give up the number as a UCLA freshman in 1992, because No. 33 had been assigned to a returning player. A UCLA spokesman said Sharmon Shah received No. 33 the following season when the player who had it left the team.
“The football Karim is not in any respect trying to trade on the accomplishments of the basketball Kareem,” Hogue said. “We don’t believe that anyone who follows athletics would be confused between a football player and a basketball player, particularly one of different generations.”
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