Exactly 75 years ago this week Dr. James Naismith wrote 13 rules of a new game but, aside from rule No. 1 ("The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands"), the game that celebrates its diamond anniversary this week and is one of the most popular in the world bears little resemblance to Dr. Naismith's invention. Changes occurred quickly. The first were those that recognized reasonable innovations by the participants and legalized them—the dribble, for example. More recently, the changes have had a common aim: restricting the effectiveness of tall players. The three-second rule was devised in 1936, the center jump after each basket was eliminated in 1937, goal-tending was identified and outlawed in 1944 and the width of the free-throw lane was doubled to 12 feet in 1956. The pros have since extended the lane to 16 feet and refined other restrictive measures, but despite all of these emendations the good big man can still make his presence felt in basketball far more than the best of the smaller players. Unless tall men are barred from the game—and a number of inane suggestions along that line have been made—this is always going to be the case. Raise the basket, spin it, turn it upside down or inside out, the big man is always going to be closer to it, and he will have an advantage over other players in putting the ball into it and in knocking the ball away from it.
The one sure counter to a good big man is another one on the opposing team, and this year in college basketball there are so many giants around that such match-ups will occur more frequently than ever before. Among the big boys are Mel Daniels of New Mexico, certain to be the first draft choice of the NBA next spring; Westley Unseld of Louisville; Elvin Hayes of Houston; David Lattin of Texas Western, the defending champion; Mike Lewis of Duke; Keith Swagerty of Pacific; Dave Newmark of Columbia; and the young sophomore at UCLA whose stature in the sport, as well as his physical size, exceeds that of all the others, though he has yet to play his first varsity game: Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. (see cover). Already Alcindor is being compared to his most accomplished predecessors, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
The line of the giants began with Bob (Foothills) Kurland of Oklahoma State (then Oklahoma A&M). Kurland, who was just a shade under 7 feet, led his team to national championships in 1945 and 1946, brought into the game and the vernacular the revolutionary "dunk shot," and was personally responsible for the writing of a goal-tending law—just as Chamberlain's suiting up a decade later was impetus enough for widening the foul lanes. Before Kurland, it had been assumed that men his size must be uncoordinated and unhealthy, weak pituitary freaks. When Kurland first played in college, he was permitted to stay in games for only a few minutes at a stretch. But it turned out that in addition to being bigger than other players he had just as much stamina. Both literally and figuratively, Kurland and two contemporaries—6-foot-11½ Don Otten of Bowling Green and 6-foot-9 George Mikan of DePaul—added a new dimension to basketball. Mikan scored 53 points in 1945 at Madison Square Garden; in 1946, a year before Lew Alcindor was born, Kurland made 58 playing against St. Louis U. and a freshman center named Easy Ed Macauley. Two allied cries arose from coaches: a) "Raise the baskets," and, b) "Find me a big man."
They were found: Macauley, Alex Groza, Bill Spivey, Bevo Francis, Clyde Lovellette, Neil Johnston, Walter Dukes, Russell, Chamberlain, Walt Bellamy, Nate Thurmond. The big kids in high school stopped slouching and stood as tall as they could, and proud. Despite the fact that only 1% of American men are more than 6 feet 2⅗ enough big kids in short pants showed up to change the coaches' pleas to: a) "Raise the baskets," and, b) "Find me a good big man."
December 5, 1966
It is significant that when Alcindor takes the floor this Saturday in Los Angeles for his first varsity game, he will be jumping against another 7-footer—Ron Taylor of Southern California. Alcindor, who is 7 feet 1‚Öú", is, in fact, only slightly taller than 50 collegians who are in the neighborhood of 7 feet. (Brigham Young has three.) But great height alone is no longer the fearsome weapon it was in Kurland's day. The game's strategists have effectively spiked it. Lew Alcindor casts a long shadow from a good deal more than size.
Lew is smart, strong, remarkably agile and in full command of his vast physical gifts. Still, he is a victim of the peculiar social custom that permits strangers to call attention to and ridicule excessive height, while at the same time it is considered rude to refer to a man's lack of height, his thinness or his obesity. As a teen-ager who grew to 7 feet by the 10th grade, he learned to expect stares as soon as he left his neighborhood, Inwood, in northern Manhattan, in search of basketball games in other parts of the city. "I was about 13, I guess," he says, "the first time I really understood how much people were, uh, impressed with my height. They'd point at me. People are funny. They do strange things. They stop me on the street all the time. No, they don't know who I am—they just seem to think it's acceptable to stop me because I'm tall." He chuckled a bit—not easily, but as if trying it for effect. "You've heard them all: 'Watch your head.' 'How's the weather up there?' 'You must have trouble sleeping.' All that. The one I hear most now"—here Alcindor looks up—"is 'Boy, and I thought I was tall.' "
Holy Cross Coach Jack Donohue, who was Alcindor's coach at Power Memorial Academy in New York City and was accused of hatching all kinds of Machiavellian plots because he would not expose Lew to reporters and recruiters, remembers a typical incident in the Port of New York Authority bus terminal. A little old lady felt it her right not only to make the usual idiotic comments about Alcindor's size but to probe him with an umbrella tip while she mocked him
"I could see Lewie flush," Donohue recalls, "but, like always, he took it. I talked a lot with Lewie over those years. I tried to tell him that he had to believe in what he was, to find pride in himself, because in everything he was in a minority. He was 7 feet. That's a minority for sure. And a Negro. And a Catholic. And he went to a private school. A 7-foot Negro Catholic at a private school. That must be the smallest minority in the world. 'Lewie,' I said, 'let's face it. You're just a minority of one.' "
When he went to the opening game of the season as a high school freshman, Alcindor carried a junior varsity uniform as well as one for the varsity. Only at the last minute did Donohue decide to let him play on the varsity. "And that year he was not a great player," the coach says. "He was just a threat." But in the off season Alcindor played constantly, driving himself to excel. As a sophomore, he was All-America for the first time, and in his last three years Power lost only one game, to DeMatha of Hyattsville, Md. Alcindor habitually represses his emotions, but he was obviously dispirited after the loss. He blamed himself, and Donohue felt obliged to tell him that if he was going to insist upon sole responsibility for the defeat he would have to take full credit for three years' worth of victories.
Unlike many superstars, Alcindor is a fine team player. "I can score a lot of points—I know that," he says matter-of-factly and without vanity. He has had the advantage of playing on a high school team with many other good players and for a coach who was more interested in fostering team success and the enjoyment of participation than in promoting one individual's glory. The same appears to be true at UCLA, where Coach John Wooden plans to fit Alcindor to the team, rather than the other way around. The Bruins have so much talent that they would be a national contender even without Alcindor—except that that would mean Alcindor would be playing on another team, against them.
Lew's eyes move into hard focus, and he speaks firmly when he discusses his sport. "Yes, I do love basketball," he says. "It's given me so much, and it hasn't stopped giving. And it's a mutual thing, because I know that people get enjoyment out of watching me play. I guess I've always daydreamed about being a star. I guess I was just nutty about the game at a real young age. It's always taken up a lot of my time, but you have to work at something. You have to have something. If you have talent to begin with, and you combine it with hard work, you can make it pay off. But as much as basketball means to me, the most important thing is looking forward to getting a degree. That I plan for. Basketball is only a day-to-day thing. I can't waste time looking forward to beating some team three, four months from now. And I can't worry about security either. I think that if I was ever injured, if I could not play basketball for some reason, I could begin all over again to strive for something else—something literary or musical probably."
Alcindor has thought about journalism as a career. One summer he was sports editor of the newspaper put out by HARYOU-ACT, a Harlem youth organization. "He has a very fertile imagination," says Brother Hendrickson, his English teacher at Power. "When I assigned a composition, I could never predict what Lewie would hand in, but because he was so much of an individual I knew it would be interesting. I think the best one he ever wrote was simply his reflections on the reactions of the people he encountered on the subway."
A child of New York, of the bustle and the grime and the cruel crowds that drove him to self-conscious loneliness right in their staring midst, Lew nonetheless retains his affection for that city. The bright land and legend of California do not touch him. Almost without realizing this, he recently said of Los Angeles, "I wouldn't want to live here. It's just a nice place to visit." He laughed immediately, appreciating his switch of the cliché, but stuck to his opinion. He is amused when Californians accuse him of speaking like a New York gangster. "Maybe I do sound like Frank Nitti," he says—though he does not—"but they've got a nerve. Listen to them. They all talk like hicks. They really do. I was talking to a girl back home the other night, and she said I was starting to talk like them. That really scared me." (For some reason, nearly everybody in Los Angeles—even Wooden—mispronounces Lew's name, accenting the first syllable: Alsindoor. As Lew says it, it is Alsinder.) He plans to major in history, and says there is no reason why he should not stop cutting so many classes and raise his B-minus average a notch. At Power Memorial his average was 84, which earned him a New York State academic scholarship. "I don't know how many basketball scholarships were offered to him," Brother Hendrickson recalls. "How many? Hundreds? But I think the fact that he won the single academic one in a way thrilled him even more."
Music is Alcindor's other great love. He plunges easily into a modern-jazz discussion, expressing himself articulately and with feeling. He does not tackle subjects with a shotgun approach but seeks out those aspects that particularly interest him and explores them avidly. His goal in basketball, however, is no longer to learn a particular move or to achieve a specific number of successes but to comprehend its total strategy, to appreciate the execution of every player on the team. "That's the wonderful thing about playing with a great team," he says. "They'll teach me the whole game. That's the only way to learn basketball." At times like this, when he is engrossed in a subject, his massive hands seem to flow from his wrists as he gropes for expression, and a large jade ring that he wears on the little finger of his left hand colors the air with a green flash. It is not hard to imagine why his mother tried to harness those hands to a piano. Lew did not stay with that instrument, but recently he has begun to play the saxophone, and he is not satisfied with his progress.
The Alcindors are a musical family. Ferdinand Lewis Sr., who is a transit policeman, studied at the famed Juilliard School of Music in New York and has often played baritone horn or trombone with the Senior Musicians Symphony in Carnegie Hall. He and his wife, Cora Douglas Alcindor, used to sing together in the Hall Johnson Chorus. Mrs. Alcindor is from North Carolina. She is 5 feet 11, and Lew's father is 6 feet 3, but his father was 6 feet 8.
Lew's grandfather came to New York from Trinidad early in this century. Many of the family's relatives still live in Port of Spain, and others remain deep in the mountain jungles, to which they fled to escape from slavery. Grandfather and Grandmother Alcindor were equally fluent in Spanish, English and Yoruba dialect, a hybrid tongue that apparently originated in the runaway-slave enclaves. The Alcindor bloodlines are mixed. Family names as ethnically different as Prince and Gonzalez are found just two generations ago. "Alcindor" itself has a Moorish ring, but on a trip to Trinidad several years ago Lew's father uncovered material that convinced him the family had taken its name from a French planter named Alcindor who brought its forebears as slaves from the Gold Coast to Trinidad. So the Alcindors believe they can trace back to what is present-day Nigeria and, not surprisingly, Lew is extremely interested in African culture and history.
Lew was born on April 16, 1947, and he was big from the beginning, weighing 13 pounds and measuring 22½ inches. He grew up as the only child in the family—which may originally have inclined him toward being a loner. His high school coach's refusal to allow interviews pleased Lew, as did UCLA's similar policy last year, but he is hardly a sulky, moody type. He just likes to spend time with himself. "I simply enjoy privacy, nothing more," he says. "It doesn't matter whether it is for reading or listening to music or practicing. I like privacy."
Lew was popular at Power, and the same is true at UCLA. Both Lucius Allen, an enthusiastic, outgoing type who lived with Alcindor last year, and Edgar Lacey, who has some of Alcindor's reserve and rooms with him this year, say that Alcindor is an easy and entertaining roommate. If Alcindor were a timid soul, it is doubtful he would have selected UCLA, a continent away from his home. But UCLA was what he wanted—a large urban school away from New York that was highly rated in both basketball and scholarship.
Lacey, who was recently declared out of action because of a bad knee, lives with Alcindor in a two-bedroom apartment near campus. Edgar drives a Triumph, Alcindor a 1958 Mercedes that he bought this fall. He has saved the bill of sale in case anyone suggests that the car is an illegal bonus for his attendance at UCLA. "That's ridiculous," he says. "I'm not a big-time guy. People can see that just by my clothes." He dresses neatly but not expensively, and one night last spring on a downtown Los Angeles street a car suddenly backed into him, ripping his pants and breaking the skin on his left thigh. But Alcindor was not hurt, so he just asked the careless driver to pay him for a new pair of pants. Later many people told him that he should have sued, but he shrugs at the idea. Even if a suit were valid he feels it would only have exaggerated a minor incident. There is still an ugly welt on his thigh, but it does not bother Alcindor and he has chosen to forget the whole thing. This is typical of his general attitude of avoiding a public fuss on any matter.
But he is well aware that this year's UCLA basketball team is going to make headlines all season, probably for the next three seasons. Two of his freshman teammates will start with him; a third will be the Bruins' sixth man. All four are shown on the following pages in action photographs that display their versatility. With junior Mike Warren and senior Mike Lynn, they make up the most feared college squad in a decade.
Stuffing comes easy for a man his size. What distinguishes Lew is his speed and agility, though he is a shade over 7 feet I and weighs 230. His teams have lost just one game in four seasons.
UCLA's best shooter since Gail Goodrich, another left-hander, Shackelford is a 6-foot-5 forward. He hit a brilliant 62% from the floor as a freshman and averaged 20.9, third best on the team.
Heralded as the finest player ever developed in the Kansas City area, Allen, a 6-foot-2 guard, often drew greater response from crowds than Alcindor in their freshman year. He averaged 22.4.
Though he played every position in high school, Heitz is now a permanent guard. He is 6 feet 3 and averaged 14.3 while concentrating on defense and drawing the opposition's top scorer.