On November 27th 1965, UCLA opened Pauley Pavilion by pitting the freshman squad led by Lew Alcindor vs. the defending National Champion varsity ranked No. 1 in the preseason. The freshman team won by 15. That varsity team finished 2nd in the then Athletic Association of Western Universities (Now Pac-12) to Oregon State in 1966 and was not eligible to play in the NCAA tournament because it did not win the conference title.
Imagine if Alcindor played as a freshman. Would UCLA have won the National Championship for an entire decade? Probably and if he were allowed to play, the historic National Final between Texas Western’s all-black starters and the favored Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats might not have happened. In 1967, the Bruins went 30-0 and defeated Dayton in the title game. It was the 1st of 7 consecutive titles for UCLA and Alcindor was named the Most Outstanding player. The next season, the Bruins continued to roll and despite losing to Elvin Hayes and the Houston Cougars during the year in the Game of the Century, UCLA dominated the Cougars 101-69 in the Final Four – led by Alcindor’s 19 points and 18 rips. UCLA went on to go back-to-back by defeating UNC 78-55 behind Alcindor's 34 points and 16 boards. He was named MOP for the second consecutive year. Lucius Allen, Alcindor and Mike Warren were consensus All-Americans that season and many consider the 1968 team the best college team ever.
It all came to an end for Lew Alcindor as a Bruin in 1969 when he scored 37 points and snatched 20 rebounds in the National Final as the 28-1 (lost to USC) Bruins destroyed the Purdue Boilermakers 92-72. Alcindor earns his 3rd MOP in his three seasons at UCLA. In almost a most appropriate end to Alcindor’s career, his father Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr., played trombone (graduated from Juliard in 1952) with the UCLA band during the National Final. It is also notable that John Wooden was an All-American and won a chip at Purdue in 1932. In the years Lew Alcindor was a Bruin, UCLA was 88-2. In the six games he played in the Final Four, Alcindor averaged 25.7 points and 18.8 rebounds. He is the only player ever named Most Outstanding Player three times. UCLA throttled opponents by an average of 20.9 points that year and didn’t allow any team to lose by less than double digits until 23 games into a season they started 25-0.
In an interview with Larry King, the now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar explains the origin of the skyhook. “When I was in the 5th grade, some kids that helped my grade school coach Farrell Hopkins, they showed me the George Mikan drill. Great center and he had a drill where he shot with either hand right in front of the basket and it enabled me to use both of my hands, get the footwork down and shoot the ball of the glass. I just took it from there.” He continues: “I knew people couldn’t get to the shot. That was the great thing about it. I could get the shot off. For the guy guarding me, he couldn’t block it and I didn’t have to take a beating.”
The sky hook became an even more pronounced weapon because in 1967 before Alcindor even played a college game, the NCAA outlawed the dunk because of his high school dominance at Power Memorial in New York. In an interview for ESPN, the Abdul-Jabbar opines on why the NCAA took away the dunk: “I would imagine it was to stop me personally because no one else on the team was scoring a lot of dunks. I thought it was an obvious ploy to limit my effectiveness.”
Letters from Ralph Bunche (UCLA guard in the twenties and the first person of color to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace) and baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson had a hand in Lew Alcindor choosing UCLA over Michigan. According to a young Alcindor, former Bruin Willie Naulls was an influence to attend UCLA as well. The Bruins with Alcindor is what transpires when an iconic coach adds an iconic player to an already iconic team. There was Wilt Chamberlain before Lew Alcindor and those two men changed college basketball forever because of their dominance. Wilt would dunk from the foul line on foul shots and the rules were changed. Alcindor changed the college dunk rules. Alcindor as a Bruin had no peer and in 1969, he became the most decorated college player ever. He scored 56 points in his first game and it was John Wooden asking Alcindor after that historic debut if he wanted to be the best scorer or play on the best team. That Alcindor had the temperament to deal with all the obstacles placed before him athletically is a testament to his physical as well as psychological greatness. Without that comfort of self, we might not have known the Bruin career of one Lew Alcindor and the culmination of 1969.