SI's Greatest College Player
This is an article from the April 4, 2005 issue
Who is the best college basketball player of all time? SI asked its writers to weigh in; excerpts from several of their essays appear below. The top 20 will be revealed on a SpikeTV special, The Sports Illustrated 20 Greatest College Basketball Players Ever, at 10 p.m. ET on March 30.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, né Lew Alcindor, was always something more than a basketball player, a thoughtful and articulate (when he chose to speak) young man whose stoic exterior hid a complex individual who never seemed comfortable with his celebrity. And doesn't to this day.
But, oh, what a player. So frightening was the prospect of a New York Goliath towering over the college game that the rulemakers banned the dunk after Alcindor and his '65-66 freshman teammates had so devastated the competition that it was widely believed they could've beaten any varsity team in the country. His coach at UCLA, John Wooden, always said the NCAA didn't make the rule change because of "Lewis," but the evidence is that it did.
He sure didn't need the dunk to score. His footwork was exquisite, his timing sublime, his skyhook the essence of dependable artistry. Something about him--his reserve, the sense that, well, maybe he didn't like us all that much--kept the public from unqualified respect for Alcindor. But this discussion is about basketball, and my first choice is Lewis. And though Wooden would never say it, I have the feeling that he'd agree.
To understand my choice, all you really need to know is that in 1974, when David Thompson won the first of two Player of the Year awards, I was 17. He will forever be the greatest college player in the same way that no woman has ever seemed more dazzling than the girl who sat next to me that year in French class.
On a North Carolina State team bookended by 5'7" Monte Towe and 7'4" Tom Burleson, Thompson, at 6'4", appeared ordinary enough--a kind of midpoint in the variety of human possibilities. Of course, that made it all the more astonishing when he turned out to be anything but. He could leap 44 inches from a standstill, but once he was up in the air, the rules didn't permit him to dunk. Yet the clean, almost decorous way he dropped the ball in the net after fielding an alley-oop pass only caused each saltatorial feat to stand out more in relief. Thompson (right) willed N.C. State to victory in two transcendentally important games: the 103-100 defeat of Maryland in the 1974 ACC tournament final and later the 80-77 double-overtime defeat of UCLA in the national semis. But that's really beside the point. Thompson, you see, simply made the far-fetched seem possible, be it flight or someone other than UCLA winning it all or a meaningful moment with that girl in French class.
Well, all right, Bill Russell wasn't that good a player as a college sophomore, but he was still growing and had barely learned the game. After all, he didn't become a starter until his senior year of high school and had attracted only one college offer, from the University of San Francisco. USF was such a nonentity when Russell joined the team that it didn't have its own gym. The Dons had to use a high school for practice.
But Russell was so dominant in his last two college seasons that he can spot everybody else a year and still be, indisputably, the greatest player in the history of the collegiate game. It wasn't just that he led USF to two consecutive national titles (in 1955 and '56); Russell changed college basketball more than any other player. After his junior season the three-second lane was doubled in size--the so-called Russell Rule--in an effort to diminish his ability to control the game defensively. He was such an offensive force, guiding his teammates' errant shots into the basket, that a year after he left offensive goaltending was banned.
Perhaps more significantly, Russell was the figure most important in establishing the black man's place in the game. He suffered extraordinary prejudice, withstood it and prevailed. In a very real sense it can be said that William Felton Russell changed the game defensively, offensively and culturally.
The greatest player in March Madness history? Let me tell you a little bit about her.
Diana Taurasi (below), who went from Chino (Calif.) to Geno (Auriemma), led Connecticut to four consecutive Final Fours and three consecutive NCAA championships. Taurasi was also a two-time Final Four MVP, a feat that only Alcindor surpassed.
But no one could surpass her love of the game. She possessed the best traits of Johnson (joy), Bird (gamesmanship) and Jordan (killer instinct) every time she stepped onto the court. --John Walters
• For Final Four coverage and the complete essays, go to SI.com/basketball/ncaa.
The Poll Position
Whom should SI name as the greatest college basketball player of all time?
__ Lew Alcindor
__ Bill Russell
__ Diama Taurasi
__ David Thompson