MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Jackie inspired Abdul-Jabbar, generations at UCLA

Before breaking baseball's color barrier, No. 42 excelled in four collegiate sports

Jackie inspired Abdul-Jabbar, generations at UCLA

The 2015 Civil Rights Game between the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Dodgers will be played tonight on Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium. Check out complete coverage at mlb.com/civilrightsgame.

LOS ANGELES -- Jackie Robinson had no trouble grasping the stakes when he accepted Branch Rickey's challenge to crash through Major League Baseball's racial barriers in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He had passed this way before.

Absorbing all manners of verbal and physical abuse to clear the path was a mountainous task, but Robinson was no novice. He had done his undergraduate work as a pioneer at UCLA almost a decade before he changed American society with his bat, glove, legs and character.

Arriving at UCLA in 1939, Robinson already was an acclaimed athlete for his exploits in nearby Pasadena. There were only about 30 African-American students at UCLA at the time, barely enough to fill one classroom on the sprawling campus.

Reaching deep inside himself with the laser focus that would characterize his trailblazing life, Robinson performed athletic feats alongside storied teammate Kenny Washington that would throw open the doors at UCLA for black athletes of future generations. Jackie's role was groundbreaking in his school's ascent as the national leader in total NCAA championships.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, known then as Lew Alcindor, was a high school sensation in New York when a retired Robinson reached out and made his pitch for UCLA. Abdul-Jabbar, thrilled to hear from his earliest sports hero, reflected on their relationship in the e-book "42," celebrating Robinson's life.

"My first personal contact with Jackie was when I was in high school trying to decide which college to attend," Abdul-Jabbar wrote. "He sent me a letter encouraging me to consider his alma mater, UCLA. I already was aware of his remarkable achievements while at UCLA. He was the first athlete of any color to win varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football and track.

"Of course, I never dreamed of duplicating his athletic success, but it spoke well of UCLA that when Jackie played football there, they had more black players than any other college football team. Taking his advice, I followed in Jackie's footsteps and attended UCLA. I felt proud to be somehow part of his legacy."

Robinson's path to UCLA began up the road in Pasadena, at John Muir High School and Pasadena City College, where his accomplishments were the stuff of legend. Oregon had a recruiting advantage with his brother, Mack Robinson, a popular member of its student body and a silver-medal-winning sprinter in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

When Jackie chose UCLA, it fulfilled a need to be close to his oldest brother, Frank, and his family. Without a biological father in Jackie's life, he had leaned heavily on Frank's advice and support.

Soon after he began attending classes and picking up the credits he needed for football eligibility in the fall of 1939, Jackie learned that Frank had been killed in a motorcycle accident. In what had become Jackie's familiar escape from pain, he retreated inside himself as he tried to come to grips with Frank's death -- and vented in his furious dedication to sports.

Robinson's Opening Day debut

There never has been a superior all-around athlete.

Robinson was Barry Sanders long before Barry Sanders came along. He led the nation in punt returns and yards per carry, sharing the backfield with Washington, and UCLA had its greatest season, going undefeated.

Robinson also starred in basketball, leading the conference in scoring, and was a world-class long jumper. Baseball was his most challenging sport at UCLA. As a senior, he met freshman Rachel Isum at the student union on campus. She would become his wife and his rock for the rest of his life.

Robinson departed UCLA after two years, his great task unknowingly ahead of him. Hundreds of athletes in his wake, including Alcindor before he was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, would strive to live up to his example.

"Jackie Robinson was one of those giants in my life," Abdul-Jabbar wrote. "The next step for me was to emulate not only Jackie's prowess as an athlete, but his actions as a man of color. ... This was the late '60s and Civil Rights still were a volatile issue. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated during my senior year at UCLA, so being black at that time still meant facing racism.

"When dealing with these situations, I remembered how rough he'd had it. The prevailing racial attitude of the day held that blacks lacked the athletic skill, courage, and intelligence to play against whites. Yet every time Jackie took the field, he played with an intensity and skill that immediately set him apart from the average second baseman. Even fans who hated black people were forced to admit that Jackie Robinson was a superior athlete, and every time that happened, another part of the racial barrier crumbled.

"His fierce competitive nature and his ability to intellectually master the game were examples for young athletes like me to emulate. Jackie always was ready to compete."

In the afterglow of the Lakers clinching the 1985 NBA title in Boston, Abdul-Jabbar's first words were about his childhood hero.

"This reminds me of when Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers finally beat the Yankees in the 1955 World Series," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It's the same kind of feeling for me."

Former UCLA chancellor Norm Abrams gave voice to Robinson's enduring impact on the campus and Los Angeles.

"He was the first athlete in UCLA history to letter in four sports in the same year," Abrams said, "but it is his abiding dignity and unshakable conviction that we most appreciate and that made him a true champion. The entire Bruin family treasures his legacy."

Lyle Spencer is a national reporter and columnist for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.