Big Lew—Already Great, 1971

[I’ve had more technical issues with the blog’s host. That’s why I’ve been slowly trickling out new posts about the young Lew Alcindor. The final installment on the young “Big A” is from the Milwaukee Journal’s Bob Wolf on Alcindor, soon to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, during his sophomore season. By then, he’d answered his critics and was on his way, with Oscar Robertson, to winning an NBA title in Milwaukee. What’s also interesting here is Wolf’s point, echoed by his sources, that Alcindor could be the first “7-foot guard.” That’s just not how I remembered him. But that’s why revisiting these old articles is worth the time. This article appeared in the February 13, 1971 issue of The Sporting News.]

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To watch Lew Alcindor play night after night is to be constantly amazed at his combination of size, coordination, and ability. Here is the 7-foot-2 giant who can do just about anything a six-footer can do and still take advantage of his tremendous advantage. He is the most-dominant force in pro basketball today, and before long he probably will be the best ever. 

As a rookie last season, Big A single-handedly transformed the Milwaukee Bucks from tailenders to genuine contenders for the National Basketball Association championship. And now that the Bucks have Big O, Oscar Robertson, to go with him, they have become downright devastating. They even may threaten the league record of 68 victories in a season. 

Alcindor is so brilliant a basketball player that teammate Greg Smith said recently: “Sometimes we have a tendency to stand around and watch him when we’re supposed to be playing basketball. He’s unbelievable already, and he’s getting better all the time.”

Smith’s last statement is what scares Alcindor’s opponents around the NBA. If he is this great already, what will happen when he reaches his basketball maturity?

Perhaps the most-significant appraisal of Alcindor the basketball player came from his No, 1 rival, Willis Reed of the title-defending Knickerbockers. Reed was voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player last season and made the all-league team ahead of Alcindor, yet he insists that the million-dollar Buck is the best—not just the best center, the best player. 

Said Reed: “When I play against him, I know my game has to be at its very best. If he makes up his mind to score, it’s practically impossible to stop him. It won’t be long before he is head and shoulders above everybody else. 

“No matter what happens, you don’t think of stopping him. You just hope the other guys don’t hurt you too much. Right now, there is nobody in the league who influences a game as much as Alcindor. I admire anybody that tall with such body control, skill, coordination, and mobility. It’s amazing that a guy his size can do what he does.”

Reed’s superior strength has helped him keep Alcindor from running wild. Reed even outplays him on occasion, but the Knick captain said, “Don’t sell him short on that, either. He’s strong. He fights me. When I lean on him, he pushes me off.”

The fact that the Knicks have won three out of four from the Bucks this season is a tribute to  Reed’s ability to contain Alcindor. Reed scored one of his infrequent decisions over Big A when the Knicks won in New York January 26, outscoring the Milwaukee giant by a 35-29 margin. 

But Reed declined to take credit, saying, “Lew had some good shots that didn’t go in. I can’t say it was my defense. A lot of times, he caught me flatfooted with his moves.”

For the season, Alcindor has outdone Reed in head-to-head competition, 121 points to 106. He has an even-bigger edge in rebounds, 78-40. 

“There’s no one way to play him, either,” said Reed. “You have to experiment and vary things. He’s smart enough to know what to do if I keep playing him the same way.”

A prime illustration of Alcindor’s ability to learn from experience occurred in two recent meetings with rookie Sam Lacey of the Cincinnati Royals. The first time, Lacey blocked five of Alcindor’s shots, a feat unheard of this side of Wilt Chamberlain. The next time, the Cincinnati Kid didn’t come close to blocking one. 

The secret of Lacey’s early success was that he refused to be taken in by Alcindor’s practice of faking in one direction and shooting in another. Once Large Lew realized this, Lacey ceased to be a problem for him. 

Alcindor seldom shows his feelings on the basketball court, but on those rare occasions when he registers excitement, he goes all out. When the Bucks beat the Knicks last season for the first time, he flashed a joyful grin, slapped his teammates’ hands, and carried on generally as though the Bucks had won the championship instead of just one game. 

Another time Lew got excited, it had nothing to do with the outcome of a game. When Gus Johnson of the Baltimore Bullets smashed a backboard while making a stuff shot in Milwaukee last month, Alcindor jumped onto a chair on the Bucks’ bench and waved his arms in obvious glee. 

Asked why he had got such a big kick out of a broken backboard, Alcindor said, “It was a thrill. I’ve always been a fan of Gus Johnson. I saw him do the same thing once on television when I was in high school. He gives you that kind of effort all the time.”

As far as his own play is concerned, Alcindor probably derives his greatest enjoyment from his occasional breakaway dashes to the basket. One time he intercepted a pass, faked out Art Harris of the Phoenix Suns, took a couple of giant strides, and loped in for a layup which turned out to be the winning points. After the game, Big A grinned broadly and said, “Sure, I enjoyed doing it. It’s not a common thing for me to do, but it’s the type of thing that a guy has to do once in a while.”

Alcindor introduced an even fancier wrinkle in the All-Star Game in San Diego last month, startling 14,378 fans and a national television audience by dribbling behind his back. “That was the first time I ever did that, except for one time in an exhibition game,” he said. 

Even though he never will be classified as a conversationalist, Alcindor has a knack of making his words count. After a recent game in Baltimore in which Johnson did an outstanding job of rebounding, Lew said of the Bullet captain, “That Gus Johnson could get a job as a hockey puck. He’s a hard man.”

And when a reporter asked him if he had complained to the official when he appeared to be upset by their decisions in the January 26 game with the Knicks, Big A said, “Not really. I could have been talking to someone in California for all the good it did.”

Even though he usually plays more than 40 minutes and sometimes the full 48, Alcindor prefers a fastbreaking type of game. Big A went 45 minutes in a recent game against the Boston Celtics, probably the runningest team in the league, yet said afterward, “I’m no more tired than after a normal game. I enjoy this type of game because it’s less physical. The play is more spread out, so there is less contact, and that compensates for all the running you have to do.”

Fast or slow, the game is usually Alcindor’s. He leads the NBA in scoring with 31-plus points a game, he ranks one-two in shooting accuracy, and he is among the leaders in rebounding. There really isn’t anything he can’t do, and Fred Crawford, a former Milwaukee teammate now with the Philadelphia 76ers, even went so far as to say he could be the first 7-foot guard in basketball history. 

Said Crawford: “I’m not kidding. Lew can dribble and make moves that no big man ever made before. Bill Russell could dribble straight down the floor, but Lew can bring the ball down and handle it and give you fakes. No one his size ever could do that before.”

For the time being, though, Alcindor will settle for being the best center in basketball, and there can be no doubt that he already is. 

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