When the ball was tossed up, he climbed high in the air and tapped it back to a teammate, and went down court in a long, deceptive lope that put him under the basket in seconds. He stood for a moment, jockeying for position, then reached for a pass, dribbled and faked to his right, all with the grace and precision of a small man. The fake carried the defender with it for a moment; he turned and the defender came back and they collided briefly. He waited until he was sure of his balance, then tossed a soft, short shot into the basket for two points and moments later cashed a free throw for another.
Lew Alcindor, in the opening moments of his first game with Milwaukee against professional competition, scored three points, and this three-point play is undoubtedly symbolic of what he will do over the next decade. He was, of course, playing for the Bucks against the Phoenix Suns in the Milwaukee Arena in the first exhibition game of the season for both teams. Some 10,000 people—only a few under capacity—paid to see how well he would do as a pro. If they had any doubts about Alcindor, they were quieted quickly. Alcindor can do anything any big man ever did. He is as close to a meld of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as you can be and remain human.
The Bucks won this game 87-86, and the Suns displayed a talented new player of their own in ABA-transplant Connie Hawkins, but the excitement of the close contest and the virtuoso performance of Hawkins were both lost in the shade of Alcindor's brilliance. He scored 24 points, had 23 rebounds and blocked 11 shots. Hawkins will be one of the best forwards in the NBA—he plays with consummate ease for a man 6'8", shoots beautifully and may be the most skillful passer among all the big men who ever played: he had 19 points and half a dozen assists.
But Alcindor distorts any game by his abilities. The Suns could never drive for the easy shots under the basket because he was there to block them. Once, late in the game with the Suns threatening, he batted away a shot from 10 feet out, came back under the basket and batted down the follow-up, then crammed the ball down a Sun shooter's throat when he tried to tip it in. The next time the Suns came downcourt he batted the ball down, recovered it and tossed a lovely lead pass to a teammate running a fast break, giving the Bucks two big points.
October 5, 1969
On offense, he moves more quickly than Chamberlain ever did and is a much better shot than Russell was. Once he took a pass at the free-throw line, faked the Sun defender and, his long, clean body stretched taut, leaned endlessly and Stuffed the ball through the basket. "He's going to put a lot of people in retirement." Sun Coach John Kerr said after the game. "Russell made the hook shot obsolete. Alcindor's like that."
True, he missed shots he should have made. "But he's great to pass to," said Milwaukee's Guy Rodgers, who used to feed Chamberlain. "He's the most agile big man I ever saw, and the fastest. [In the Bucks' 300-yard preseason trials, Alcindor won in 38.9.] He moves around. You pass him the ball and he can put it down, move on the man guarding him and score. And he's great at the lead pass to start a fast break."
Alcindor was not that happy with himself. "I have a lot to learn." he said. "I didn't shoot well tonight. Maybe it was tension, I don't know. I move because I don't want them to have a stationary target. This is a much faster game than the college game. You have to keep going here."
He played all but a few moments of this game and he never tired. If he showed any weakness at all, it was a lack of aggressiveness under the offensive basket. But as the game wore on he grew more confident there and began to score on tipins. Before the game Larry Costello, the coach of the Bucks, said, "Alcindor is ahead of any rookie I ever saw. I played with Chamberlain, and when he wanted to, he could do everything. Shoot, pass off", play defense, rebound, anything you wanted. But most of the time he was stationary. Russell was a great player, but he was never really a good shot. This kid is a combination. He's not as strong as Wilt, but no one else is either. He's strong enough to fight under the boards and he will fight. And he's a fine shot. When we first got him, in scrimmage, he would go to the basket, make contact with the defense and keep driving. That put him off-balance. Now he has learned to drive, make contact, knock the defensive player off-balance, then gather himself and take the shot. That way he'll score more and he'll get some three-point plays by drawing the foul."
Costello modified the Buck defense to take advantage of Alcindor's skills, and the change paid off against the Suns. They were never able to drive on Milwaukee. "Last year we had to play conservatively on defense," Costello said. "We couldn't gamble and risk someone driving up the middle because we didn't have a big man there to shut him off. Now we're free to take those chances and put pressure on the outside shooters. Alcindor is there."
And Alcindor will be there a long, long time.