On the day that, traditionally, the swallows come back to Capistrano, a place not far from his California home, Lew Alcindor came back to Kentucky, a place not close to his heart. In Louisville two years ago he was named the Most Valuable Player in the NCAA championship. There again on Saturday he was to win the award a third time. Nobody before Alcindor had ever won the honor three times; maybe no one ever will again.
The obstacles to this achievement, as Alcindor knew, were psychologically ordained. For how many men, athletic or otherwise, have ever fully realized their promise? Not many, really. No, Alcindor thought last week, not many. It is probably the nature of man instead to come face to face with his potential and, ultimately, to disclaim it.
Many weird and puzzling things have occurred amidst the Alcindor regnancy at UCLA. Bitterness and disenchantment have not been absent from the scene. Through this difficult time Alcindor, wrongly, has borne much of the blame and always the pressure. He was under suspicion when Edgar Lacey quit and when Mike Lynn was put on probation for possessing a stolen credit card and when Lucius Allen got in trouble over marijuana. "This is not his business," said Coach John Wooden. "Why blame Lewis? How unfair can you be?"
Probably Alcindor's only enjoyable season was his first. He could dunk the ball then, opponents were too intimidated to rough him up and his responsibilities outside the game were few. The second year brought on the best team, perhaps the best of all teams. But it was not the happiest. In this last season, though he was more mature, outgoing and closer to his teammates than ever before, the pressures on Alcindor became harshest. Everywhere he went he was booed.
The inherent strain of the final week was hardly made easier by an article that had appeared on the previous Sunday in West magazine, a supplement of the Los Angeles Times. Written by a former official of the Black Students Union at UCLA, it was a misleading and damaging piece that portrayed Alcindor as a racist bent on separatism and dissatisfied with his school and country.
Alcindor was greatly upset by all this and further disturbed over the use of colloquial phrases attributed to him. He felt he had been made to look foolish and illiterate. On Monday he called his teammates together to explain his side, and on Tuesday he planned to go on KNBC-TV in Los Angeles to refute most of what had been written.
Wooden, however, true to his word about imposing strict silence on all of his players until after the tournament, canceled the appearance. So it was that UCLA's final practice session in Pauley Pavilion, an otherwise proud and portentous time, was disfigured by contentious debate.
"This article was very close to libel," Alcindor said just after he had stormed out of Pauley. "I have to get myself straight with people. Now the coach has said no. He had to put in his two bits. That puts me on the spot."
Wooden later relented, and Alcindor did appear on television. He praised Wooden. "I do my job and he does his," Alcindor said. "This article reads as if the coach is a boor. He isn't. There's no static between us, he's good people."
In Louisville, Wooden's security measures to shield his players from the press offended many reporters. "Maybe I am overprotective," he said one afternoon. "But the three years haven't been easy. I think these boys are taut. We've got just a couple of days left. I don't want some little thing spoiling it all."
Just down the highway were Lynn Shackelford and Ken Heitz, in shirtsleeves under the hot Kentucky sun, probing through the brush along a creek looking for frogs. Earlier in the week the two had talked about their three years of basketball. Playing time, it seems, was the big thing. Since Lew Alcindor would be the star of every game, all team members had an obsession with how much time they spent in games. The problem was always a glut of players, said Heitz. "There were just so many of us, all the time, every year. The only thing to aim for was not so much winning—we would win—but playing. If you had a good game you got playing time the next game. There were disappointments. I didn't get much time last season, but that's personal. Lynn got time most of the three years."
"Well, yes," said Shackelford, "but a lot of it has been boring, sitting on the bench or even playing when the other team was obviously weaker. From the start everybody said we would win three championships. That has taken a lot out of the actual accomplishment. I think it's one reason for our businesslike manner on the court. We were only doing what we'd been expected to do.
"I'm glad we won the first year, though," said Shackelford. "Now we'll have three, and a long time from now I can look back and hold that over all the teams to come along. "What have they done?' I'll say. 'Have they done what we did?' "
On Saturday, after it was finally done and the team had regrouped at the motel, Bill Sweek, the cool swinger among them, smiled. "The yoke is removed now," he said. "Let them try and match us."
Alcindor lay on his bed for a while, relating much the same thoughts to some friends and fingering his new NCAA watch. Whenever the subject of pressure had come up during the week, he had pointed to his head and said, "It's mental. It's all up here." Now he was relieved. "I'll just say it feels nice," he said. "Everything was up in my throat all week. I could see ahead to the end, but there was apprehension and fear. Fear of losing. I don't know why, but it was there. Before the other two tournaments it didn't feel that way. This one did. But, wow, today after I came to the bench I was yelling. Wow, I was excited. We just had to bring this thing down in front again where it belongs."
He spoke of Lucius Allen and wondered why he wasn't here. "I think I'll give my watch to Lucius," he said. "He deserved it. He came over yesterday. He'll put everything together soon and be all right. Lucius is always around. He is my man."
Later, after an alumni celebration at the Brown Hotel, Alcindor attempted to get comfortable in the front seat of a car that was making its way through the back streets of Louisville and out of town to a team dinner. (Allen would be there, he thought, and most everybody else, too.) His right knee was hurting from an old injury, and his father, Ferdinand, sitting in the back, kept inquiring about it.
"It's O.K., Dad, it's fine," said Lewis, becoming impatient with the questions.
"I'll rub it a little," said his father. "I'll treat it. You better watch those things."
The car pulled over, and the two changed seats. "Wow, Dad, I'm all right. Wow," said Lewis, irritated.
"I'm just trying to be a father now, son," said Ferdinand. "I'm concerned."
"I know it, Dad," said Lewis. "I appreciate it."
The restaurant was crowded and dark. A band was playing. The team members sat around, their emotions on the table now, and reminisced about the season, the game and all the games, ever. Someone telephoned Allen as Alcindor obliged the autograph-seekers.
"Signing and signing is O.K. for a while," he said softly. "But you know something about autographs? You know where they end up? Under the couch, in the desk drawers, stashed away in files and between letters and odd stuff. That bothers me."
Alcindor kept looking for Allen. Nobody knew when he was coming. "You know, I was going to dunk there at the end," Alcindor said. "I came out of the game before I could do it, but I really wanted to dunk one, especially for the rules committee. Lucius should be here. I bet he doesn't feel right."
Finally the night grew short and fatigue set in. Lucius Allen never arrived. Still the men of UCLA sat there, all of them, the three championships won, the yoke removed, the tension at last falling away. Lew Alcindor drank champagne, and the band played Days of Wine and Roses.