The Unbearable Pressures Facing Lew Alcindor, 1970

[Bill Libby was one of the most prolific pro basketball authors of the 1970s, publishing classic biographies of Rick Barry, Spencer Haywood, and Jerry West. Here, the L.A.-based Libby weighs in on Lew Alcindor’s entry into the NBA following his record-setting career at UCLA. A quick point. Libby clearly finds Alcindor enigmatic and inscrutable. That makes him dismissive of Alcindor the person, which is unfair on many levels. Nevertheless, Libby’s article titled The Unbearable Pressure Facing Lew Alcindor, is insightful about the late 1960s NBA and Alcindor’s pro prospects. It’s  definitely worth a second read all these years later. The article ran in the magazine Basketball Sports Stars of 1970].

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“I am playing pro ball not because I’m seven feet tall, but because I’m a basketball player and the pros play the best basketball. Lots of tall men don’t play basketball or aren’t good enough to play in the pros. I want to prove I can play with the pros. After that, I want to do something else. I don’t know what yet, but I know basketball isn’t the only thing I want to do,” Lew Alcindor says. 

He is, of course, unusually tall and skinny, and he stands out wherever he goes, which disturbs him. He wears his hair bushy, African style, and while he is not a member of any Black Power group, Alcindor says he is sympathetic to the militants of his race. He is introverted and sensitive, the least communicative prominent athlete ever to come along. 

Alcindor is measured at 7-foot-1 3/8. The measurer is standing on a chair.

He seldom smiles, and  the expression of his boyish face usually is somber, almost sullen. He seems always to be pouting. Some feel his biggest problems in adjusting to pro ball will be psychological, instead of physical. It is certain that he will have many difficult mental problems to overcome. But few serious students of the game consider these insurmountable. He has succeeded rather well going his own way so far. He should now succeed to superstardom. 

“I don’t know anything about being a superstar,” he insists. “I have gotten a lot of publicity, but that doesn’t make you play any better. I think I’ve played pretty well and improved all along. I think I’ll have to improve more and play better to be something special in pro ball. I think maybe I can. I’ve been on winners all my life, and I hope to be on a winner in pro ball. But it won’t be easy, I know that. I’ll just do my best. As for being a superstar, well, that’ll be for others to judge.”

In recent years, there have been only five superstars in pro basketball—Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson. And this group was reduced by one when Russell retired. West and Robertson are the youngest of those remaining, and both are in their 10th seasons this year. Clearly, it has been a long time since such a star glittered in the NBA. Elvin Hayes and Earl Monroe showed signs last season that they may join this stellar group, but it is a better bet that Lew Alcindor will be the next member, and, more significant, the next dominant performer on the pro circuit. 

To be dominant, the star must be a giant center. Baylor, West, and Robertson rank as superstars and all-time greats, perhaps the most-brilliant players ever. But their teams never won a college or professional championship. Wilt’s teams never won a college crown, either, and have won only one pro title, though it has been overlooked that he has now led three different teams to five pennants in a row the last five seasons. If he cannot carry them all the way, he gets them close. Before Russell, George Mikan’s teams won four pennants and five playoff crowns. Russell’s teams won two NCAA crowns, nine pro pennants, and 11 NBA titles. 

Alcindor has proven himself a winner. In New York, his high school team won 71 games in a row at one point and lost only six games, only one after his freshman year. It won three Catholic city championships in succession. In Los Angeles, his college team won 47 games in a row in one stretch and lost only two games in three years. It won three NCAA crowns in a row. It is one thing to lead a high school team to a title, another to lead a college team to a title, and still another to lead a pro team to the top. But Alcindor is just the sort of player to do it. With the expansion team in Milwaukee, it may take a while, but he may be able to do it, whereas more brilliant men, such as West and Robertson, have been unable to do so. 

There are winners and there are losers. Alcindor is a moody youngster personally who has not yet made a good adjustment to life off the court. But he has made an excellent adjustment to play on the court. At Power Memorial High School, coach Jack Donohue, and at UCLA, coach John Wooden, both stressed unselfish team play. They styled their team’s offense and defense around Alcindor and overlooked it when he lazied back on offense. But still, they insisted that he let his mates share. It would not have worked if he was not willing to make it work. 

Lew was willing. He averaged 30 points a game when he could have averaged much more, concentrated on 15 rebounds a game, passing off, and blocking shots.  

The rookie Alcindor maneuvers on Boston’s Henry Finkel

A smaller and less-talented player Wes Unseld led Baltimore to a pennant and was proclaimed Most Valuable Player in the league in his rookie year last season for just such contributions. Unseld was not the best player on the Baltimore team, but he was the one who made the difference as it rose from the bottom to the top. Alcindor can do more, but will have less help. There are no Earl Monroes or Gus Johnson in Milwaukee. But coach Larry Costello does have good guards who can handle the ball or shoot from outside in Flynn Robinson, Jon McGlocklin, and Guy Rodger, and a couple of fair forwards in Len Chappell and Fred Hetzel to compliment Alcindor up front. 

Alcindor will fill the 11,200-seat Milwaukee Arena regularly, as well as most of the arenas he visits. Alcindor drew 10,482 fans at $3 a head to an intrasquad game in mid-June in Milwaukee that, under other circumstances, would have been played before only friends and family. He scored 35 points, collected 23 rebounds, and blocked eight shots. He was enormously impressive. But then he was playing against a weak team. Of course, he was playing for one, too. 

Afterwards, Coach Costello admitted he was deeply impressed. “We have to learn to use him better. When we can isolate him more, it’ll take quite a player to stop him one-on-one,” the coach said. “He needs experience and polish, but he looks like a great one.”

Alcindor feels that in some ways pro play will be easier for him than college ball. For one thing, he points out the zone defense, which is often used in college play, is illegal in the pros. The pros may sag off on him a lot, but he will not be double- and triple-teamed as regularly as he was in college play and will get more one-on-one opportunities. For another thing, stuffing the ball, which was ruled illegal in college play, is permissible in pro play. 

“The no-dunk rule actually helped me because it made me concentrate more on my overall game,” Lew said after the Milwaukee trial, “but I don’t think it was good for college basketball, and I do think it will be good for me again now that I’m a pro. When a player my size gets the ball directly under the basket, it is hard to stop a stuff.”

There are some who have reservations about Lew. Alcindor is only 22. He is listed at 7-foot-1 3/8, though you only have to see him against other giants to assume he is possibly as tall as 7-foot-3. However, he does weigh only 230 pounds, which is not much spread over that height. By contrast, the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain weighs 275 pounds. 

Atlanta coach Richie Guerin, whose center Zelmo Beaty stands 6-foot-9 and weighs 235 pounds, and whose clubs play like football teams, says, “Alcindor is going to have to put on weight and add strength and get tougher if he is going to survive to real stardom in the NBA. He is too skinny and not aggressive enough to take advantage of his talent right now. He could be pushed right out of plays.”

Alcindor, himself, says, “I believe I will have to build myself up, though, as I get older, natural maturity should take care of some of that.” He concedes that for some curious reason, few college foes tried to rough him up. However, in a fun game in an L.A. high school this summer, Dennis Grey, a slender 6-foot-8 center for the Los Angeles Stars, an ABA team, did mix with him. Alcindor hit Grey with the right-hand punch that broke his jaw in two places and required two hours of surgery to set.

Grey has filed a million-dollar lawsuit against Alcindor. No one can afford freely to give out that kind of money, but Alcindor can come closer to it than most, having received $1.4 million to sign a long-term contract with Milwaukee. Still, he is going to have to learn to push back and hang tough without throwing punches that land him in court cases, if he is going to get along nicely in the pro game. 

Alcindor should have been able to embarrass a guy like Grey with his skill instead of trying to discipline him with his fists. Had there been a referee on hand, such might not have been necessary, of course. The Alcindors are protected. Chamberlain, for example, never has fouled out of an NBA game. 

At least one astute pro observer thinks Alcindor will not need muscle to make it in the NBA. The Lakers’ Jerry West says, “Alcindor will be the next dominant player in this league. Size and strength are important, but overrated. Quickness and agility are more important. Even in centers. Alcindor is not powerful, but he is quicker and more agile than other centers. He’s also a much better pure shooter than any center we’ve had so far. In fact, Alcindor has more all-around talent than any big man I’ve ever seen.”

Others agree. Boston manager Red Auerbach says, “Alcindor is not yet offensively as good as Chamberlain or defensively as good as Russell. However, you can turn that around, too. He is better defensively than Chamberlain and better offensively than Russell. He can become a better all-around player than previous centers. However, he still has to show he has the competitive desire and ability to come through in the clutch that a man like Russell demonstrated.”

Los Angeles manager Fred Schaus says, “Alcindor still has to prove himself against pros, but he is more graceful, has more moves, and is a better shooter than any center yet. He is more advanced as an all-around player than Russell and Chamberlain were at comparable stages in their careers.”

Off court, Alcindor is quiet and reluctant to mix with fans or talk to reporters. In New York, Donohue refused reporters and recruiters permission to talk to Lew. In L.A., Wooden did the same. In both cases, this was only possible, of course, with Alcindor’s consent. As a result, Alcindor has not made the transition to adult society that most prominent young athletes manage. He is years behind his fellows and may have been permanently sunk into a shell. 

If he is inarticulate, he is not stupid. He maintained good grades in his college major of history and seems a thoughtful young man. He has a fondness for history, especially African history. He seems to have a deep feeling for Black people and obviously would like to do something for his people. He clearly is his own man and will do things his own way, however. When it was suggested that by joining the ABA he would guarantee that circuit’s survival and a great many jobs for black basketball players, he withdrew as though being blackmailed. 

Alcindor, whose father is a subway policeman, was raised on the fringe of Harlem and says he remembers having gone hungry once and not liking it. He lived simply at UCLA and probably will continue to do so in Milwaukee winters and New York summers as it is his way, although he now, suddenly, has a great deal of money. He does not seem to have settled on a single girl and shows no signs of being ready to settle down to family life. 

Like Wilt, he is a single swinger, who swings discreetly, which is a difficult thing for a seven-footer to manage. He loves jazz, but haunts secret spots and plays only private parties. He detests the spotlight. It is not an easy thing being a seven-footer, no matter your skill with the basketball, and Lew hates it and all the stale jokes about his height. He is more sensitive to his unusual size than most who have such a problem. 

When he first attended UCLA, he ridiculed college students and complained about Southern California. He found it all “unreal,” and admitted he regretted his decision to go to school there. However, unlike Wilt, who quit after his junior year at Kansas, Lew stuck it out and his attitude seemed to soften with the years. Still, he is one of those New Yorkers who is hypnotized by the magic of the big town, and he may never be happy anywhere else. 

Now he will have to adjust to Milwaukee, which is not New York and is not Los Angeles. Of course, he will be traveling the big time, but with hardly time to take a deep breath. The pros’ traveling schedule is brutal, and it is for all rookies. He seldom seems to hustle oncourt, and the need to produce at a top level 80 to 100 times a season may put great stress on him. He is not used to losing, but his team will lose more games in his first month as a pro than he has lost in the last seven years. 

There is no way he can avoid the spotlight, and it will be harder for him to avoid speaking to reporters or dealing with fans. There is no way he can avoid having to play pivot against Wilt Chamberlain, Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Zelmo Beaty, and Willis Reed, too, for that matter. And wherever he goes, people will be expecting marvels from him. All the time. Whether one is for or against him, personally, and so far he seems to have drawn more antis than lined up sympathizers on his side, it is clear that he must contend with abnormal pressure. 

There are many marks to his credit. He did well in college. He never has been soiled by scandal. He handled his pro contract negotiations with a good taste that was uniquely impressive. He got two UCLA graduates to advise him and decided to hear just one offer from each league. The NBA made it, through Milwaukee, and Lew took it. The ABA then screamed bloody murder, claiming they hadn’t believed him, and begging another chance to up the ante, but by then nobody believed them. Lew never really was interested in them, anyway. Nor in the Harlem Globetrotters. Clowning is not his style. 

It is almost impossible that he will not make the psychological adjustments necessary to success in pro ball. He is a loner, but he is also a winner, and as long as he wins, he never will be left alone. Immortality seems his fate. 

Milwaukee will not win a pennant or championship this season. But next season or the season after, the Bucks will be boosted to the top by the first truly dominant force to move into professional basketball in a decade. If Lew Alcindor wasn’t born to be a pro basketball superstar, God didn’t make little green apples. 

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