Two Witnesses to a Cheap Shot, 1969

[When Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar entered the NBA as a Milwaukee Buck, he took his first jump shots during the preseason with cameras flashing and basketball enthusiasts abuzz over his predicted future dominance of the pro game. But Alcindor also heard plenty of chatter during the preseason that he was way too timid on the court. The NBA’s seven-foot brutes would knock him silly until he gritted his teeth and proved his toughness. 

Well, the lumps and the chatter followed Alcindor into the regular season, though not for long. Alcindor started pushing and flailing back with a purpose, and that included this memorable Halloween night in Philadelphia against the 76ers. 

Luke Jackson, Philadelphia’s converted, tough-as-nails center, returned to action against the Bucks having just recovered from a partially collapsed lung, compliments of a wicked Wilt Chamberlain elbow in the season opener. But with Jackson struggling to regain his wind, 76ers’ coach Jack Ramsay called first on veteran Darrall Imhoff to match up with Alcindor. Imhoff, nicknamed “the Ax” for his hard fouls, pushed and shoved and tangled with the taller, but thinner, Alcindor under the boards. In the second quarter, they tangled one too many times for Alcindor’s patience, and the rookie answered with a cheap shot: a premeditated elbow to Imhoff’s cranium. 

I wrote up this game for my book, Shake and Bake, and later cut the account to shorten the manuscript. Today, I got up planning to run the cut material on the blog. Then I had an even-better thought: What about highlighting two of Philadelphia’s finest sportswriters, Jack Kiser and George Kiseda. 

Both were seated at press row that night—Kiser for the Philadelphia Daily News and Kiseda for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Both wrote fantastic articles about Alcindor’s cheap shot heard “around the NBA world.” Both stories remain fun reading.

Let’s start with Kiser, who claimed to be an eyewitness to the assault. Take it away, Jack.]

Everybody’s been saying how Lew Alcindor had better start fighting back or the NBA strong boys with maul him into a Lew Who type. You can’t shy away from flying knees and elbows and make any Hall of Fame, even if you are 7-foot-2 and earn over a quarter-millions dollars a year. Now everybody’s wondering if Mr. A. didn’t overdo the get-tough act. 

****

There were 226 shots taken at the Spectrum last night, and everybody will remember the one Alcindor took in the second period long after they forget the ones that gave Milwaukee a 129-125 overtime thrillfest over the 76ers. 

Lew’s shot was a hard right elbow that connected with the back of Darrall Imhoff’s head. It felled the big 76er center the way an ax fells a steer in a slaughterhouse. W-h-a-m! The force was so great Imhoff was knocked unconscious for a half-minute or so and didn’t completely recover his senses until the third quarter. 

A great majority of the 7,641 paying customers and many of the players didn’t see the elbow thrown. It happened after a loose-ball scramble on the 76ers’ end of the court, and the flow of play was moving the other way. Imhoff and Alcindor, meanwhile, were exchanging tugs and twists at the free-throw line. 

Darrell Imhoff down for the count.

Imhoff spun away from Alcindor to the right, and Lew cracked him hard with a long swing of the right elbow, catching him behind the left ear. Down he went. Hard. He rolled over a couple of times and then lay still. Alcindor took about six-seven steps toward midcourt, then stopped and looked at the fallen Imhoff. His hands were on his hips and a distinct smirk was on his lips. There was no doubt about it being a deliberate swing. 

Alcindor made no move to see how Imhoff was. He just stood there and looked at it all as the Bucks bench yelped its approval and the fans began roaring angry boos in his direction. He still stood there, hands on hips and a semi-smile on his face as Imhoff slowly got up from the floor, shook his head, then charged in Alcindor’s direction. His fists were clenched and he shoved teammate Jim Washington aside, but not too hard. Ref Don Murphy stepped in, and no more blows were thrown. 

That was the way it happened, and films of the game will show it. It happened directly across from the Bucks bench, and I was looking straight at the play. 

Coaches Larry Costello and Jack Ramsay both said they didn’t see what happened, and so did most of the players. “I can’t imagine anybody throwing an elbow like that deliberately. It’s too vicious,” Costello said later. “I don’t know what happened. You’ll have to ask Lew.”

Alcindor’s answers were filled with, “I don’t want to comment on it . . . I have no comment on it. . . .” But he did say, “I wasn’t trying to do anything.. . . I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody . . . It was an unfortunate thing, you know.”

But did you try to hit him? “I have no comment on that, I wasn’t trying to hit him in the head.”

Imhoff, who received treatment in the dressing room at halftime and didn’t make the bench until the third period was two minutes old, had no clear-cut answers. “I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I was lost for a while, my head going around. I didn’t get back with it until the third quarter, Lew told me he was sorry, that he didn’t mean to hit me, and I guess I’ve got to believe him. But Luke Jackson said he saw it, and it was deliberate.”

“You’re dang right it was deliberate,” Jackson said, his voice hot and firm. “I saw the whole thing because I had been watching them pulling and tugging at each other. Darrall had his back turned to Alcindor, and he deliberately threw the elbow at him. I thought it was a dirty bleeping thing. There’s no place in the NBA for a cheap shot like that. It was really bad, ridiculous.”

No 76er came close to attempting a retaliatory shot against Alcindor, not even Jackson, who replaced Imhoff to start the third period. “You can’t go out on the court with the intention of hurting somebody,” Big Luke said. “You bide your time. Then if the opening is there, you nail him. It’s a long season and . . . “

Jackson is anxious to see the game films to see if the camera caught the action. “If it was intentional, there will be repercussions, I can promise you that,” he said. “I don’t know what happened because I didn’t see the play, but you can’t have things like that happen in this league and just ignore it.”

Alcindor wound up with 25 points, 18 rebounds, 10 turnovers, nine assists, six personal fouls, and a lot of mixed feelings. The 76er fans booed his every move after the elbow was thrown, and he reacted with gestures that kept the pot boiling. 

When he was benched early in the fourth period after picking up his fifth personal, he strode off the court, his hands held high and his fingers forming a “V.” Then he raised a clenched right fist and held it there until he sat down. 

“The V was a peace symbol, not a victory symbol,” Alcindor said later. Nobody asked what sort of a symbol [Black power] the clenched fist was. It wasn’t needed. 

Alcindor didn’t take part in the Bucks’ winning surge in the overtime . He had fouled out with 31 seconds to go when Milwaukee seemed to have the decision wrapped up . . . But the big story last night was Lew Alcindor’s shot, the one that will be heard around the NBA world.

George Kiseda (right) escorting Cheryl Curry, the 1970 Miss 76er.

[Here’s George Kiseda’s account of the elbow incident. One quick editorial note. About a month earlier, Kiseda covered a mostly sleepy preseason game in Philadelphia between the Bucks and 76ers. Afterwards, Kiseda entered the Bucks’ dressing room for his first interview with Alcindor. But Alcindor literally turned his back on his inquisitor, mumbling answers to Kiseda’s questions and never bothering to turn and face him. The next day, Kiseda wrote a tongue-in-cheek article about interviewing Alcindor’s back. This explains his lead paragraph. Take it away, George.] 

Lew Alcindor, who had permitted the basketball writers to interview his back on the Milwaukee Bucks’ last visit here, introduced the writers and 7,641 fans to his right elbow, his right fist, and the first two fingers of his right hand at the Spectrum last night. 

The elbow meant war. The fingers meant peace. The fist meant power.

For the lesson in anatomy, Alcindor got a standing boo. Lew Alcindor meet Philadelphia. 

It was a diversified performance for Alcindor: 25 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists, one knockout, two salutes, and a lot of boos. At the end, he walked out a villain, but a victor because the Bucks beat the 76ers, 129-125 in an extra period. 

Alcindor, who had fouled out with 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter, watched from the Bucks’ bench while Lenny Chappell scored six points in the extra period to wind up with 28 points and 16 rebounds, maybe Chappell’s finest game as a pro. Chappell has made more teams than headlines in eight years in the NBA, and still, he didn’t get to hold even a mini-press conference. 

There was too much to talk to Alcindor about. 

In the first quarter, Darrall Imhoff and then Luke Jackson had leaned on Alcindor in the pivot (“that’s how they play me”). They had leaned effectively. Under the boards, there was the kind of shoving that goes on in the guerrilla warfare NBA referees wink at. 

All the while, something was building up in Lew Alcindor, 7-foot-2 of timidity according to basketball writers who have never confronted his elbows. Sure, he is going to be one of the great ones, he already is, they had written, but he has to be meaner, more aggressive. 

There was a missed shot, a rebound, some scuffling. As the ball was cleared away and play headed upcourt, Imhoff shoved Alcindor. Alcindor did not appreciate it. Facing upcourt, he threw his right elbow, threw it with great force. Imhoff was off to Alcindor’s right and behind him. Somehow he had been turned around in the scuffling. Alcindor’s elbow landed at the base of Imhoff’s skull with a sickening thunk, and Imhoff hit the floor. 

“I was out for a minute,” Imhoff would say later. 

The referees, headed the other way, didn’t see it. Jack Ramsay, the 76ers’ coach, didn’t see it. Larry Costello, the Bucks’ coach, didn’t see it. 

Slowly, Imhoff began to gather himself. From a face down position, he raised himself to all fours, shaking his head, blinking his eyes like a fighter trying to beat the count. 

Alcindor had started upcourt and was 20-25 feet away. As Imhoff tried to clear his head, a crazy look came into his eyes, and it was obvious what he was going to do. He was going after Alcindor—if he could find him. Still dazed, he was looking around, searching for a 7-foot-2 guy with a goatee. 

When he spotted Alcindor, Imhoff charged, but teammate Jim Washington headed him off. Imhoff tried to brush past Washington, but referee Don Murphy and the Bucks’ Flynn Robinson intercepted him. 

Alcindor stood beyond the top of the key, his hands on his hips, a half-grin, half-smirk on his face. 

Afterward, Alcindor said he did not want to discuss it. “There’s no need to create bad feelings,” he said. “I didn’t intentionally try to hit him in the head.”

Imhoff was blurry about what happened. He stayed in the game for a while but needed medical attention at halftime and did not come out of the dressing room until two minutes of the third quarter had gone by. 

“He apologized to me,” Imhoff said. “He said he didn’t mean it. I gotta believe him.”

“When did he apologize?”

“When we were jumping center at the start of the second half,” Imhoff said. 

“You weren’t in the game then,” Imhoff was told. 

“Yes, I was,” he said. “. . . Wasn’t I? I guess it was the fourth quarter.”

Alcindor seemed to be more aggressive going to the boards after the incident, and the 76ers seemed to be more careful about pushing him around. He was getting the ball in better position and was driving across the lane to shoot hook shots. He and Chappell and John McGlocklin carried the Bucks to 14-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter, but the 76ers’ three-guard zone press wiped it out. The Bucks had to use three guards in self-defense. 

When Alcindor fouled out with 31 seconds left, the Bucks still led by two points—and Alcindor thought it was a safe lead. When the fans cheered and booed his departure, he gave them the peace sign—two fingers up raised in a V. Winston Churchill used to do that and draw cheers. Alcindor did it, and it only made the fans angrier. Alcindor closed his fist and held it aloft—the symbol of Black power. They booed some more. 

“The people got on me for some reason,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m just playing the game . . . Like I said, I wasn’t out trying to hurt nobody. It was unfortunate, but, other than that, I have no comment.”

After Billy Cunningham’s layup with 12 seconds to go sent the game into an extra period, the 76ers led briefly, but they could not handle Chappell any better in overtime than in regulation time. 

The Bucks fled to the dressing room with their fingers raised in V-signs, and the fans yelling nasty things. Darrall Imhoff had a pain in the neck—like a whiplash, he said—and an apology. He said he was willing to forgive Alcindor. “That’s part of the game,” he said. 

Jack Kiser

Bonus coverageThe Milwaukee Bucks returned to Philadelphia for a game on December 1, 1969. Jack Kiser wrote this pregame tidbit:

Darrall Imhoff picked up his easy-to-hold [Philadelphia] newspaper and turned to the sports section. The lead story was a column about Lew Alcindor and the headline barked out a “Long Way from Greatness” message. 

The veteran 76er center quickly read down to the paragraph that said Alcindor “is a leading candidate for the most-overpaid, most-overpublicized player in NBA history.” He let out a wail of anguish and called his perky wife Susan. “Honey,” he said sadly, “you better pack my crash helmet. I think I’m going to need it tonight.” 

The Bucks returned to Philly one more time on March 20, 1970. Big Luke Jackson was waiting. Here’s Jack Kiser again on Alcindor, or Mr. A.:

Mr. A. scored 41 points in 39 minutes and only missed two shots all night. The 7-foot-1 3/8 (going on 7-foot-5) center was dumped hard to the floor in the fourth period while going for a layup, and the slam brought loud cheers from the sadistic crowd (announced as 11,327 but more like 8,327). Then Alcindor picked himself up from the floor, and the cheers stopped . . . 

“I’m not sore physically,” said Lew. “I’m sorry mentally for putting up with the sort of stuff.  I don’t think Luke tried to hurt me; he apologized for putting me down. But it doesn’t seem like the way to play basketball. You can either fight back with your fists or you can fight back by tearing them up in the game.”

Alcindor tore them up, but good. He attacked the basket like it was his most-bitter enemy . . . “It’s a big mistake to get the Big Guy angry,” said Lenny Chappell. “He can kill you.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: