Lew Alcindor at 16: ‘A Star Has Been Born’

[Today, he’s known as just Kareem. No last name required. One of pro basketball’s all-time greats. But in the mid-1960s, Kareem entered popular culture as Lew Alcindor (his birth name), recognized as the game-changing, sky-hook-shooting, seven-foot giant who roamed the paint for John Wooden’s seemingly invincible UCLA Bruins. 

This article, published in Complete Sports’ 1963 High School Basketball Yearbook, profiles Lew Alcindor before the UCLA mystique transformed him into a larger-than-life public figure. Here, you get to meet Lew as a still-innocent, though extraordinarily tall, 17-year-old. He attends New York City’s Power Memorial Academy, loves riding his bike, and has aspirations of becoming a biochemist, should his basketball thing fail. The article was written by the prolific Sam Goldaper, then with the New York Herald Tribune.] 

School, college, and pro basketball are excited. It’s the kind of enthusiasm that was generated when Wilt Chamberlain was playing for Overbrook High School, Philadelphia; Oscar Robertson at Crispus Attucks, Indianapolis; and when Jerry Lucas was staring at Middletown (Ohio) High. 

New York City has long been a hotbed for collegiate basketball talent. Its high school system has turned out some of the big names of the collegiate and pro ranks—Bob Cousy, Harry Boykoff, Fuzzy Levane, Dolph Schayes, Richie Guerin, and LeRoy Ellis among others. However, these and many other high school standouts were never able to stir the interest or cause the commotion of one—Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr. 

Alcindor is the 16-year-old junior at Power Memorial Academy, an Irish-Christian Brothers institution of learning, on 60th St. and Amsterdam Ave., overlooking the shadows of Lincoln Center. 

Lew is basketball’s new phenom. He happens to be 7-feet and ¼ inch, still growing and New York City’s first seven-foot basketball product with any potential. 

But it takes more than basketball to cause the Alcindor furor. Lew, the only child of a powerfully built 6-feet-2 ½ New York City transit patrolman, is chalking up a scholastic record which could make most colleges forget his basketball ability and welcome him scholastically. This has much to do with the Alcindor experiment—a basketball player with a 90-plus scholastic average. 

During his freshman year, Lew, or “El Cid” as he was tabbed by his classmates, whom he served as class president, maintained a 91 percent scholastic average for a top 10 percent rating in the class of 340.

By the time he reached his sophomore year, the “El Cid” nickname was forgotten, but his popularity in the entire school increased. His scholastic average hovered around 90, and Lew was near the top among more than 300 sophomores. His academic course is a grueling one and during this junior year his major subjects are History, French, Intermediate Algebra, and Physics. It’s not an uncommon sight to see Lew carrying a thick book on Greek tragedies. “He’s a reader,” his school friends will tell you. 

But from the ordinary layman, the question often arises: Can Lew make it big in basketball? Are his 7 feet plus and 220-pound frame coordinated for the game?

The answer to these has met with an emphatic “YES” with Joe Lapchick, basketball coach at St. John’s; Ken Norton of Manhattan College; and Eddie Gottlieb, general manager of the San Francisco Warriors; and a host of others joining in. Some sources even went to a medical doctor for an opinion on the relationship between Alcindor’s height and coordination. 

One local college coach was supposed to have said that the college that gets Lew will ensure the NCAA championship. Lapchick and Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp failed to go that far, pointing out that it takes more than one man, no matter how big, to build a championship team. “Kansas couldn’t do it with Big Wilt,” said Joe, one of the Original Celtics, and Rupp agreed. 

But Lapchick, who watched Alcindor’s progress through two years of Catholic High Schools Athletic Association play, reminds one and all, “He has two more years of high school basketball left.” However, he moves well, is improving his shooting all the time and doesn’t fall when he runs. 

“But, more important,” adds Joe, “he is a lucky kid because he has a coach like Jack Donohue. He won’t let him get out of line. He is strict, stern, and he won’t spoil him. Lew has a chance for greatness. He is better to a team scoring 35 points than Wilt tallying 50.”

It’s well to inject at this point that Donohue has served as the Power Memorial Academy athletic director and basketball coach for five years and his teams have made the CHSAA playoffs four of those years. His overall record is 130 and 29, with the 1962-63 team winning the Catholic League title and finishing with 27 straight victories. 

Much has been written and said about Gottlieb in connection with comparing Chamberlain and Alcindor. But, before giving Eddie’s side of it, it’s fair to remind all that Gottlieb was the owner of the Philadelphia Warriors, while Wilt was playing at Overbrook High. It was there that the Warriors extended their territorial rights to Big Wilt. 

Gottlieb set the record straight on Wilt and Alcindor for this magazine. “I never saw Wilt play in high school. The first time I saw him was in a schoolyard game after he had graduated from Overbrook. I was with Jim Pollard of LaSalle, at the time. 

“As for Alcindor, I watched him for about 10 minutes at Madison Square Garden last December. The kid looked as good or better than any basketball player I have seen at his stage of development.”

New York City went through a 114-day newspaper blackout last basketball season, but the Associated Press and the Chicago newspapers reported this to have happened at a meeting of the Chicago Basketball Writers Association.

Manhattan College was in the Midwest for a game, and Norton spoke before the writer’s group and in passing mentioned Alcindor’s name. The following then was reported to have happened. As Norton spoke, a writer asked him to spell the name, and Norton obliged by spelling it “SINDOR” [Editor’s note: We are sure Ken knew better. Lew comes from St. Jude Grammar School within the parish boundary line of Manhattan]. The name of the school also sounded like “POWELL” to the reporter.

“No,” said Ed Hickey, the Marquette coach. “It’s POWER. When we played St. John’s in the Garden, we worked out in the Power Memorial Academy gymnasium. We had the tallest ball boy we’ve ever seen and his name is Alcindor—Spanish name.”

“What’s his first name? I’ve forgotten,” said George Ireland, coach of Loyola of Chicago, who had six New Yorkers on his varsity and freshman teams last season. 

Of course, Ireland must have been kidding but, “it’s Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Jr.,” broke in Seattle coach Vince Cazetta, who has 6-feet-9 Waverly Davis, a graduate of Power Memorial Academy, on his squad. 

At the sixth annual Kutsher’s Country Club Sports Clinic, which housed 1,000 coaches, more than half basketball coaches, we decided to test Alcindor’s popularity. We went table hopping, and started our survey—confined to all coaches—with the words, “There’s a real great basketball player in New York City.” In no case were we able to complete the statement because they broke in with, “You  mean Alcindor.” Surprisingly, even scholastic coaches from all parts of the nation volunteered comments about the young giant. 

It all proves the basketball coaches have ways of discovering seven-footers, whether they live in New York City or Timbuktu. 

Somehow, whenever Alcindor’s name crops up, so does Chamberlain’s. Everyone seems to want to compare them. Paul Zimmerman, of the N.Y. World Telegram and Sun, took that angle a step further. He wrote a comparison story of the two giants based on their accomplishments as high school sophomores. Zimmerman’s authority on Chamberlain was his high school coach, Sam Cozen, who is now coaching Drexel Tech. 

“Wilt had certain skills and lacked others,” Cozen told Zimmerman. “Wilt [had] never played when we got him as a soph, and he was green as grass. But he did have a pretty close-in hook and fadeaway. And he was a better foul shooter in high school than he is today. 

“He scored in the 20’s and 30’s. We had to teach him aggressiveness. He was 6-feet-10 and, in those days, the biggest boy he’d face was 6-feet-4. He had the narrow center lanes to help him, too. He made All-City as a soph.”

Alcindor averaged 12 points per game in his freshman year and last season he dunked 516 points for a 19.1 average; shot 53 percent from the floor; 66 percent from the foul line; and pulled down 444 rebounds, an average of 16 per game.

He did all that during his sophomore season under Donohue’s policy of bringing him along slowly and discouraging scoring. “We will continue to build our offense around him as he develops,” said Jack. 

Lew was not short of honors. Soon after Power Memorial won its first Catholic basketball title in history, the newspaper strike in New York City ended in time for All-Scholastic teams to be published and Alcindor, of course, made them all. Parade Magazine’s All-America team and this brought him on the Ed Sullivan Show for his presentation and nationwide publicity.

“He’s an average kid,” Donohue tells you. “There was a time he talked about being interested in engineering. Lately, he has switched to the Sciences. He now appears to be interested in becoming a biochemist or a physicist. He changes like most kids. But, unlike most of the teenagers today, he doesn’t go for the fads.

“Appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show is enough to thrill any youngster at 15; but Donohue also tells you that Lew is happiest now that he has the bicycle he always wanted. “Next to basketball, bike riding is his favorite hobby,” says Donohue. “But what made him happiest is that new bike he’s sporting now. It was a deal with his father. Lew had to earn a certain portion of its $100 cost and Pop made up the rest.”

Alcindor wears a 16D sneaker, sleeps in a 7-feet-6 bed, wears a 46 extra-long suit, and eats good-size meals, especially steak, supplemented by an occasional pizza or double order of French fries. 

Mrs. Alcindor tells you that Lew was a 12 pounder at birth and measured 22 ½ inches. “By the time he was three and a half or four, he was bigger than most children,” said his proud mother. “Lew was a six-footer at 11 years old,” she added. 

Lew started playing basketball as a fourth grader. He was 6-feet-7 in the eighth grade at St. Jude Grammar School. “Incidentally, he was lucky in grammar school,” said Donohue. “He had a coach like Farrell Hopkins. When I first saw Lew at St. Jude, he was very clumsy, but Farrell got him jumping rope and lifting weights, and by the time he got to Power at 6-feet-10 ½ , he had the makings of a pretty good player.”

St. Jude has been providing Power with some of its best talent. “We have been getting a standout a year from there,” reports Donohue. Besides Lew, Art Kenney, 6-feet-8, and Tom Kelly, 6-feet-1, are St. Jude alumni. “Next for us is Tom Murray. He’s 6-feet-4 or 6-feet-5. Kenney and Alcindor are next door neighbors, and the youngsters are always paling around together.” 

Donohue’s training schedule for his youthful giant is both hectic during the season and the summer. “During this season, we have Lew drilling both with the little men and big men. All of our big men concentrate on tapping drills. We have a special closed-in basket in the school gymnasium where the ball can’t go through. It helps in the rebounding.”

For Lew, it’s that plus a steady diet of weightlifting and rope jumping. 

Alcindor’s last three summers have been spent at Donohue’s Camp Friendship Farm, Saugerties, N.Y. For the past two years, Lew was a dishwasher. This past summer, he graduated to junior counselor. “Lew  spends most of his spare time at camp on the basketball court, sometimes three or four times a day,” reports Donohue. 

A star has been born.  

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