In NBA Rookie Race, It’s Lew 145 Votes to One, 1970

[Bob Wolf covered sports for the Milwaukee Journal from the 1940s through the mid-1980s. One of his higher profile gigs was writing a weekly NBA column for The Sporting News. The high-profile national exposure made Wolf a real NBA insider when Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, broke in with the Milwaukee Bucks during the 1969-70 season. 

In this brief news article, Wolf offers some nice perspective on the rookie Alcindor. Wolf is clearly a big fan of the seven-footer, though he’s still getting to know him. That’s probably a good thing. There’s no swoon or kissing of you know what in this article. The story ran in the March 28, 1970 issue of The Sporting News.] 

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From the time Lew Alcindor cast his lot with the Milwaukee Bucks last April, the Rookie of the Year race in the National Basketball Association for 1969-70 was over. Not since Wilt Chamberlain came upon the scene 10 years ago had there been as sure a bet for instant stardom. And when the NBA players’ votes for the rookie award were tabulated, the only surprise was that Alcindor didn’t win unanimously. 

The 7-foot-1 3/8 giant from  UCLA received 145 of a possible 146 votes from his NBA rivals. A former UCLA teammate, Lucius Allen of the Seattle SuperSonics, was the only player to cut into Alcindor’s monopoly. The Milwaukee players, who could not vote for their own man under the “all-opponent” setup used in the poll, scattered their ballots, with seven going to Mike Davis of Baltimore. 

So highly regarded was Alcindor when he came into the league that most experts picked the Bucks to rise from the Eastern Division cellar to a playoff berth. The Bucks not only reached the playoffs—they finished a solid second and Alcindor was the reason. 

There were those who doubted that Alcindor had the stamina to hold up under an 82-game schedule, yet he led the NBA in minutes played with an average of 43 per game. He was second to Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with a 28-point average, placed among the leaders in rebounding, and proved such a dominant force generally that observers started talking about a Milwaukee dynasty in the making. 

In a way, Alcindor sounded a warning to his pro rivals with his reaction to his debut performance last October. He scored 29 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and blocked six shots in his first league game, yet he said afterward, “I made too many mistakes. I suddenly discovered there was more to basketball than we learned in high school and college.”

With that statement, Alcindor demonstrated his determination to improve, and his improvement since that day has been remarkable. He’s developed a hook shot that is absolutely unstoppable. And if Lew ever becomes as tough on the offensive backboards as he is at the other end of the court, he will make prophets of those who say he someday will be the greatest player ever.

As Walt Hazzard of the Atlanta Hawks, another UCLA alumnus, said recently, “This league hasn’t seen a big fellow like large Lew.” 

Opposing centers who tried vainly to stop Alcindor find it hard to believe how he could improve any further on his hook shots. Early in the season, he relied primarily on a turn-around jump shot from the left side of the free throw lane, but he gradually gained confidence in his hook shot until it became his principal weapon. He can shoot it with either hand, and with various arcs and deliveries. 

“When he hooks, he’s shooting down at the basket,” said Coach Richie Guerin of the Hawks. “He’s actually above the rim.”

By the same token, some folks have remarked that a layup by Alcindor is really a “laydown.” And when he puts in a stuff shot, something he was prevented by the rules from doing in his last two years of college, he sometimes sticks his right hand all the way past the rim.

On top of taking full advantage of his extreme height, Alcindor has the agility of a man a foot shorter. Once recently, he emulated a swift guard by dribbling 65 feet and sinking a layup. Another time, he dribbled out the clock in a close game and then threw a 40-foot shot that didn’t count. 

Coach Larry Costello of the Bucks said, “He’s going to get much tougher on defense,” but Alcindor’s rivals hope Costello is wrong. By his presence alone, he already intimidates anyone who strays near the basket. 

Tom Van Arsdale of the Cincinnati Royals, one of the talented twin brothers who specialize in headlong dives to the hoop, can’t play his usual game with Alcindor around. “I either have to throw the ball higher or pass off,” Tom said. “He’s a mountain under that basket. Nobody is going to stop him unless some guy 7-foot-10 comes along.”

Willis Reed of the New York Knickerbockers, the players’ choice over West and Alcindor as the league’s Most Valuable Player, said of Alcindor, “Nobody of his age has comparable talents. He has the ability, he has the speed, and he’s agile. Given time, he’ll be the best center in the league.”

Alcindor often gives the impression that he is loafing when he stays behind on Milwaukee’s fastbreaks. But Costello said this is part of the master plan to conserve the big guy’s energy. “He has to play a lot of minutes for us,” said Costello. “He has to get a breather sometime, and the time to get it is when we’re on a fastbreak. When we have to set up to go for the basket, we want him in the pivot.”

Guerin made the statement shortly after Alcindor signed that he might not be able to stand the gaff of regular play in the NBA, and the Atlanta coach is still not convinced that he was wrong. “Remember, Lew hasn’t had to play against the great ones night after night,” Guerin said. “You take out Russell and Chamberlain and Thurmond, and figure that [Walt] Bellamy wasn’t playing with Detroit before we got him, and that constitutes about 20 games—a quarter of the schedule. 

“I know our kids feel worn out after playing against Lew. Zelmo Beaty (now sitting out his option with the Hawks) was really drained after playing against the big guys. As a matter of fact, it looked like Lew got tired the last two times we played Milwaukee. It was just my observation, but I thought he was weary toward the end of both games. Something like that could really tell on a guy if he had to face the good ones on a regular basis.”

Red Auerbach, general manager and former coach of the Boston Celtics, also has remarked that Alcindor got a break when Russell retired and Chamberlain and Thurmond went out with knee injuries. 

Alcindor did face Chamberlain once and Thurmond three times before the veterans got hurt, and he considers Thurmond “the best center I’ve ever faced.” Thurmond outplayed him in two of their three meetings, and Chamberlain had a slight edge in their classic confrontation. 

“I might get another shot at Wilt in the playoffs,” Alcindor said, referring to the fact that Chamberlain had started practicing again and that the Bucks and Lakers conceivably could meet in the playoff finals. 

Asked if he regretted not having had the opportunity to play against Russell, Alcindor said, “not really. That’s one problem I won’t have to face.”

Alcindor is aware that he has come a long way, but he discusses his improvement in typical reserved terms. “I’d like to think I’ve improved in every way,” Lew said. “I’m getting used to what’s going on. As for my hook shot, I didn’t have to use it much in college. Now I hook more because they’re forcing me farther away from the basket.”

Asked if he had expected the Bucks to be as strong as they turned out to be, he said, “I had no expectations either way. I did not want to be disappointed.”

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