Lew Alcindor is the greatest player in college basketball history.
Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. arrived at UCLA in the autumn of 1965 as the most heralded player in high school basketball history. After leading New York City’s Power Memorial Academy to three Catholic high school state championships and a 71-game win streak, he was coveted by over 60 colleges, ultimately choosing UCLA over St. Johns. In three varsity seasons in Westwood, Alcindor was nearly perfect, going 88-2 while guiding the Bruins to three straight NCAA titles. Alcindor, who missed only two games in three seasons at UCLA, averaged over 26 points a game while shooting nearly 64 percent from the field. His Bruin teams won games by an average of almost 25 points and Alcindor was so dominant that the NCAA outlawed the dunk shot after his first varsity season. Alcindor played in and won three Final Fours, and was named Most Outstanding Player in each. He is the only player in college history to be named Player of the Year three times, and quite likely would have won four had freshman been eligible at the time he played.
The only child of Cora Lillian, a department store price checker, and Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr., a transit police officer, Alcindor was born in New York City April 16, 1947. He enrolled at Power Memorial in 1961 as a skinny 6 ‘10” ninth-grader. Power was an all-boys Catholic high school founded in 1906 by Monsignor James W. Power, who asked the Christian Brothers of Ireland to come to America and teach the boys of the parish, most of whom were Irish immigrants. Prior to closing in 1984 due to lack of funding, the school was a basketball powerhouse, producing future NBA stars Len Elmore, Mario Elie and Olympic Dream Team [Daily Dose, 9/21/15] member Chris Mullin. Power’s undefeated 1963-64 team was named the “Team of the Century” by a vote of national sports writers and later inducted [as a team] into the Catholic High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame. In four seasons at Power Memorial, Alcindor went 96-6 with three state championships and two [mythical] national titles. After setting a New York City high school scoring record with 2,067 points, the “Tower from Power” became the most sought-after player in prep history—forcing Lew Sr. to get an unlisted phone number for the Alcindor home.
Alcindor visited UCLA April 2-4, 1965, where he toured the campus and met with Bruins basketball coach John Wooden. He also met with Arthur Ashe [Daily Dose, 9/8/15], then a sophomore on the tennis team who would go on to become the first black man to win the U.S. Open three years later. While he had been promised the moon by almost every college coach in America, Wooden—who called him “Lewis”—only promised Alcindor an education. Later that month, Wooden flew to New York City to meet Alcindor’s parents, who insisted they meet the coach before sending their son across the country to play for him. Aware of the African-American tradition at UCLA, where Jackie Robinson [Daily Dose, 4/15/16], Rafer Johnson and Ashe had excelled, Alcindor wanted to get out of New York and be on his own. On May 4, at a packed news conference at the Power Memorial gym, Alcindor announced his decision. “I chose UCLA because it has the atmosphere I wanted and because the people out there were so nice to me.”
The Lew Alcindor era began in Westwood in the spring of 1965. “Alcindor Picks UCLA,” blared the headline in the May 5 issue of the Daily Bruin. In the article, Wooden said, “This boy is not only a fine student and great college basketball prospect, but he is also a refreshingly modest young man who shows the results of excellent parental and high school training.” It was an exciting time in Westwood. The Bruins were two-time defending NCAA champions, had just landed the nation’s best player, and the basketball team was moving into a sparkling new arena. NCAA rules prohibited freshman from playing varsity sports, so UCLA opened its season with its annual game between the freshman and varsity teams. In November 1965, over 12,000 spectators packed into the brand new Pauley Pavilion to see the top-ranked team in the nation take on a group of 18-year-olds who had not practiced together much. “Two structures will be unveiled tonight on the Westwood campus,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “One more enduring, but both awe-inspiring.” Led by Alcindor, Lucius Allen, and Lynn Shackleford, the frosh dismantled the defending champs—who had won 58 of 60 games in the two preceding seasons—75-60. Alcindor was brilliant, scoring 31 points, grabbing 21 rebounds and blocking eight shots. His presence in the lane daunted the varsity, who shot 35 percent from the floor. The varsity team was number-one in the country and number two on campus. Despite the loss, they retained their number-one ranking. The Bruin freshman went on to finish the season 21-0, winning by an average margin of 57 points per game.
Alcindor made his varsity debut in December 1966, scoring 56 points on 23-of-32 shooting in a 105-90 win over archrival USC. His domination continued, as he guided the Bruins to a 30-0 record and their third NCAA title under Wooden [Daily Dose, 10/14/15]. After averaging 29 points and 15 rebounds per game, the 7’2” sophomore was named College Player of the Year. The following year, UCLA brought a 47-game winning streak into the “Game of the Century” [Daily Dose, 1/20/17], a much-hyped matchup between the top-ranked Bruins and Houston Cougars, who were ranked number two. Alcindor had suffered a scratched cornea against Cal on January 12 and sat out the next two games [the only games he would miss in his career]. Eight days later, Houston held Alcindor—who was playing with a patch over his left eye—to 15 points to win one of the most-watched basketball games ever played, 71-69. Two months later, the teams would meet again in the Final Four. Playing with two good eyes, Alcindor led the Bruins to a resounding 101-69 victory, and UCLA would go on to capture a second straight national championship.
The Bruins were 25-1 heading into the NCAA tournament in Alcindor’s senior year. After dispatching New Mexico State, Santa Clara, and Drake in the NCAA tournament, UCLA faced Purdue—whom Wooden had led—as a player–to the only national title in school history, in 1932—for the championship. In the final game of his college career, and with his father—who was the son of a Julliard-trained musician—playing trombone with the UCLA band, Alcindor scored 37 points and hauled in 20 rebounds to lead the Bruins to a 20-point victory. It was Big Lew’s third straight NCAA championship and fifth in the last six years for Wooden and UCLA. For the third year in a row, Lew Alcindor was named consensus All-American, Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, and College Player of the Year—a feat that remains unmatched in the history of college basketball.
Lew Alcindor graduated UCLA in 1969 with a history degree. He was introduced to Islam as a UCLA freshman, converted his religion and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar [which means “the noble one, servant of the Almighty] in 1971, at age 24. Alcindor left UCLA as the Bruins’ all-time leading scorer, with 2,325 points. “I talked to him once and I said, ‘I’m sure that we could devise an offense to make you the all-time leading scorer in college history’,” said John Wooden after Alcindor’s departure, ‘but if we do that, we’re not going to win national championships.’ And—I’ll never forget it—he said, ‘Coach, you know I wouldn’t want that’.” Big Lew’s record was surpassed by Don MacLean in 1992. Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. left UCLA as the Bruins’ all-time leading rebounder, with 1,367. Five years later, Bill Walton [Daily Dose, 11/4/16] broke it and remains the school’s career leader, with 1,370.
Following his illustrious career at UCLA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the first pick of the 1969 NBA draft and went on to win six NBA titles. He won six league MVP awards, was a 19-time All-Star, and remains the NBA’s all-time scoring leader. Lew Alcindor is a member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame and Kareem Adul-Jabbar was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995. In 1984, he was enshrined into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame as a charter member.
On this date in 1990, UCLA retired the great Lew Alcindor’s uniform number 33 during a halftime ceremony of a game against DePaul at Pauley Pavilion.