The reign of Lew Alcindor in the age of revolt
When black collegians debated boycotting the Olympics in 1968, he emerged as the most prominent face on campus
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is known as one of the greatest basketball players in history. During his 20-year professional career with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, he appeared in 19 All-Star Games, won six championships and collected six MVP awards. In retirement, he has become a prominent cultural commentator and writer, a leading voice on the intersection between sports and politics. Recently, he published a memoir about his collegiate career at UCLA, Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court.
Fifty years ago he was the most dominant college basketball player America had ever seen. Between 1967 and 1969, he led UCLA to three consecutive national titles and an 88-2 record. Yet, his legacy transcends the game; in the age of Black Power, he redefined the political role of black college athletes. In 1968, when black collegians debated boycotting the Olympics, Lew Alcindor, as he was then still known, emerged as the most prominent face in the revolt on campus.
Why did Alcindor refuse to play in the Olympics? To answer that question we have to return to Harlem, New York, in July 1964, the first of many long, hot summers.
The death of James Powell, a 15-year-old black youth from the Bronx, outraged Alcindor. On a sweltering July day in 1964, outside an apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Lt. Thomas Gilligan, a white off-duty cop, shot and killed James, piercing the ninth-grader’s chest with a bullet from a .38 revolver. Conflicting accounts grayed a story that many saw in black and white. Gilligan, a 37-year-old war veteran, claimed that James charged at him with a knife, but bystanders insisted that James was unarmed.
Two nights later, on July 18, in the heart of Harlem, a peaceful rally organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) turned into a march against police brutality. Demanding justice for Powell, hundreds of demonstrators surrounded the 123rd Street precinct, some threatening to tear the building apart “brick by brick.” Incensed by decades of racial profiling and violent policing, the angry crowd began hurling rocks and bottles at officers. Suddenly, a scuffle broke out and the cops rushed the protesters, cracking their nightsticks against a swarm of black bodies. In a matter of minutes, violence spread through Harlem like a grease fire in a packed tenement kitchen.
That same night, Alcindor, an extremely tall, rail-thin 17-year-old, emerged from the 125th Street subway station, planning to investigate the CORE rally. Climbing up the steps toward the street, he could smell smoke coming from burning buildings. Angry young black men took to the streets and tossed bricks and Molotov cocktails through store windows. Looters grabbed radios, jewelry, food and guns. The sound of gunshots rang like firecrackers. Trembling with fear, Alcindor worried that his size and skin color made him an easy target for an angry cop with an itchy trigger finger. Sprinting home, all he could think about was that at any moment a stray bullet could strike him down.
For six days, Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant burned. The “Harlem race riots” resulted in 465 arrests, hundreds of injuries and one death. When the smoke cleared, Martin Luther King Jr. visited New York and encouraged black residents to demonstrate peacefully. But Alcindor, like many black youths, had grown impatient with King’s pleas for nonviolence and began questioning the direction of the civil rights movement. That summer, writing for the Harlem Youth Action Project newspaper, he interviewed black citizens who were tired of segregated schools, dilapidated housing, employment discrimination and wanton police violence.
The Harlem uprising fueled his anger toward white America and convinced him more than ever that he had to turn his rage into action. “Right then and there, I knew who I was, who I had to be,” he said a few years later. “I was going to be black rage personified, Black Power in the flesh.” Silence was no longer an option. In the future, he vowed, he would speak his mind.
If there was a moment that awakened Alcindor’s political consciousness and his gravitation toward Black Power, it happened in Harlem in July 1964. Three years later, when he was the biggest star in college basketball, he made good on his promise.
When Alcindor joined the UCLA varsity team as a sophomore for the 1966-67 season, he was already the most publicized college player in America. Hundreds of schools recruited him, including segregated Southern teams that were willing to break the color line for his services. As the most coveted prospect since Wilt Chamberlain, he garnered national magazine features in Sports Illustrated, Sport, The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, Time and Newsweek. Photographers treated him like an object, Rex Lardner of The Saturday Evening Post wrote, “stalking him as though he were a skittish giraffe.” Sensitive and self-conscious, the introverted basketball prodigy sought privacy, but his talent could never afford it. Soon, he would realize too, his desire for privacy conflicted with his inclination to become more active in the Black Power movement.
He arrived in Westwood, California, carrying unprecedented expectations. Rival coaches and sportswriters predicted that the Bruins would never lose a game with him. Anything less than perfection would have been considered a failure.
Immediately, Alcindor proved an unstoppable force on both ends of the court. He cut an imposing presence: “long, long legs raddled with whipcord muscle; a looming torso,” and, a Newsweek reporter wrote, “a lordly head with soft brown eyes that peer calmly well above other men’s line of sight.” Towering over Lilliputians, he controlled the space near the basket, swatting basketballs into the stands. Smooth and agile, he possessed a unique array of skills, balance and quickness. Alcindor tossed hook shots into the hoop the way ordinary men flipped a wad of paper into a wastebasket. No single player could guard him alone. Opponents tried double-teaming and triple-teaming him, but Alcindor, a deft passer, hit open teammates for easy buckets. So defenses pushed, pulled, tugged, elbowed and kneed him, sending Alcindor to the brink of explosion.
Yet he exhibited poise and grace under pressure, leading the Bruins to an undefeated season (30 straight wins) and the school’s third national championship in four years. Throughout the season, coaches complained that Alcindor was too good. As long as he reigned at UCLA, the college basketball season would end with predictable results. No other school could imagine winning the national title. Some coaches even suggested raising the basket to neutralize him. The Saturday Evening Post asked the one question weighing on the minds of coaches everywhere: “Can Basketball Survive Lew Alcindor?”
The NCAA didn’t think so. A few days after UCLA beat Dayton for the national title, the NCAA’s National Basketball Committee banned the dunk. The committee argued that too many players got injured stuffing the ball through the hoop or trying to block a player attacking the basket. Coaches were concerned, too, about players breaking backboards and bending rims. Curiously, the committee also claimed, “There is no defense against the dunk, which upsets the balance between offense and defense.” But the truth was that Alcindor threatened the sport’s competitive balance. He upset the balance between offense and defense.
Immediately, critics deemed the dunk ban the “Alcindor rule.” In a time of white backlash against black advancement, the UCLA star interpreted the rule through the lens of race. He could not help but feel like the lily-white committee had targeted him. “To me the new ‘no-dunk’ rule smacks a little of discrimination,” he told the Chicago Defender. “When you look at it … most of the people who dunk are black athletes.”
During the 1960s, as black athletes became more visible on college basketball teams, dunking appeared to be a largely black phenomenon. At the same time, college basketball reflected the power structure of America: It was an institution controlled mostly by white men — coaches, athletic directors, administrators and boosters. Not only did the growing presence of black players threaten whites’ place within the game, but so too did the way they influenced the sport. Coaches imposed a rigid, patterned style of play, discouraging improvisation, plays that undermined their authority or attracted individual attention. “Showboating” was strictly forbidden, and that included dunking. But in the age of Alcindor, as black players increasingly ruled the sport, they gained greater power on and off the court. For them dunking became an expression of strength, authority and freedom — an act of defiance. Dunking on a white man could embody a politics of resistance.
Not even the dunk ban could stop Alcindor from dominating the game. In fact, the new restriction made him even better. It forced him to expand his offensive arsenal and develop a devastating signature move: the “skyhook.”
He made it look so easy. With the cool confidence of Miles Davis, Alcindor transformed his game. The skyhook became an innovative expression of individuality and empowerment, a reflection of his intelligence and creativity, an active mind that could see the ball falling through the net like a raindrop the moment the leather sphere touched his fingertips. Over and over again, he pivoted toward the basket, extended his arm toward the sky and gracefully flipped the ball over the outstretched arms of any player who dared to guard him. “Of all the weapons in sports,” Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith wrote of his skyhook, “none has ever been more dependable or unstoppable, less vulnerable to time, than that little stride, turn, hop and flick from far above his head.”
Alcindor refused to let the white world define him as a basketball player and as a man. He no longer considered himself a “Negro.” He was black and proud. As he became more politically self-aware, he identified with the most successful, outspoken black professional athletes in America: Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Jim Brown. He admired their political activism and their courage to confront white supremacy.
In June 1967, Brown invited Alcindor, Russell and six other black professional athletes to Cleveland to meet with Ali, who had recently been stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing induction into the U.S. military. They met at the headquarters of the Negro Industrial Economic Union, a black empowerment organization founded by Brown to determine whether they would support the champ’s protest against the Vietnam War. Some of the men in the room were military veterans who disagreed with Ali’s position, and they wanted to understand why he objected to fighting for his country. Facing intense scrutiny from the press and charges of draft evasion, Ali convinced the group that he was sincerely opposed to what he viewed as an imperialistic and racist war.
The summit proved an important turning point in Alcindor’s life and in the revolt of the black athlete. In a demonstration of Black Power and solidarity, it marked the first time that black athletes unified across various sports to rally behind a single cause. It also inspired Alcindor to see himself in the same light as Ali, Brown and Russell. Although he was the only college athlete who attended the meeting in Cleveland, he realized that day that he too had a responsibility to use his platform to speak out against racism and injustice, even at a cost. Years later, he wrote in Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court, “Being at the summit and hearing Ali’s articulate defense of his moral beliefs and his willingness to suffer for them reinvigorated my own commitment to become even more politically involved.”
Alcindor’s coach, John Wooden, disagreed with Ali’s anti-war stand. A Navy veteran, Wooden opposed anti-war demonstrations, believing that such protests undermined the military’s efforts in Vietnam. For the conservative coach, social order, loyalty to country and national unity trumped civil disobedience. And he certainly didn’t want “Lewis,” as he called him, to get caught up in any controversy with Ali. “It’s a privilege, not an obligation, to fight for your country,” Wooden said. “Can’t he see he’s hurting the country?”
Yet Alcindor also opposed the war. And like Ali he was inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X. Although he never met the Muslim minister, Malcolm’s autobiography influenced him more than any other book. A voracious reader, he absorbed Malcolm X’s every word, discovering a model of self-determination, the archetype of Black Power. Internalizing Malcolm X’s message of racial pride, self-help and political independence, Alcindor searched for an identity outside of basketball.
Los Angeles, 1967
Alcindor belonged to a new generation of black college athletes, one who believed they had an obligation to contribute to the freedom movement beyond their athletic achievements. They had come to realize that civil rights legislation had not cured the country’s disease of racism and that their accomplishments in the sports world had done little to change the conditions in black America. For a variety of reasons, previous generations of black collegians were controlled and constrained, prohibited and discouraged from speaking out or engaging in political movements. But in 1967, Alcindor, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and dozens of other black amateurs questioned the ideals of integration and the value of Olympic participation.
In Los Angeles, on Thanksgiving Day, San Jose State University professor Harry Edwards organized a workshop on the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). A skillful and provocative orator with a sharp mind, Edwards emerged as the architect of an Olympic boycott movement designed to protest racism in America and apartheid abroad. He argued that the sports establishment, including the U.S. Olympic Committee, exploited black athletes as symbols of democracy while the masses of black folks were relegated to second-class citizenship. He also understood that black athletes possessed real power in America and collectively they could challenge the status quo.
During the meeting, Alcindor expressed support for boycotting the Mexico City Games, giving what Edwards later described in The Revolt of the Black Athlete as “perhaps the most dynamic and moving statements in behalf of the boycott.” Standing in front of about 200 people at the Second Baptist Church, Alcindor said, “Everybody knows me. I’m the big basketball star, the weekend hero, everybody’s All-American.” But on the streets of Harlem, he said, he was just another black man who could easily become the victim of police brutality. He didn’t want to become another Cassius Clay, who returned home to segregated Louisville, Kentucky, wearing a gold medal around his neck but was still denied service at a lunch counter. “Somewhere each of us has got to take a stand against this kind of thing,” Alcindor declared. “This is how I make my stand — using what I have. And I take my stand here.”
His powerful speech elicited a standing ovation. After the meeting, Edwards told the press that black athletes in attendance had unanimously voted to boycott the Olympics. But the following day, when reporters pressed Alcindor about his plans, he seemed less committed about the boycott, claiming that he was not bound by anything Edwards said. “I haven’t made up my mind,” he explained to a Los Angeles Times reporter. “All I can say is that everybody agreed that it would be a good idea to boycott,” but, he insisted, “there is no boycott as of now.”
Alcindor suddenly found himself at the center of a national controversy. Critics called him a disgrace, unpatriotic and much worse. If he did not play for the U.S. Olympic team, then UCLA should revoke his scholarship, they charged. Many white Americans opposed the boycott because they believed that sports were meritocratic and immune to racism. But their objections also revealed discomfort with assertive black athletes who challenged the power structure of American sports, a plantation culture that valued black bodies more than black minds. New York Times columnist Arthur Daley couldn’t imagine Alcindor thinking for himself and suggested that Edwards was exploiting the UCLA star’s fame for personal gain. “I think that charge is sheer idiocy,” Edwards told the San Jose Mercury News. “How can you manipulate anybody like Lew Alcindor?”
But Alcindor was his own man, and his revolt emanated from the deep history of African-American activism and the burgeoning Black Power movement on campus. What the sports establishment failed to recognize was that his experience in Harlem, his identification with Malcolm X and his connection to Ali had transformed the way he viewed protest, patriotism and American sports. How could he stay silent while police brutality, poverty and prejudice afflicted the black community? How could anyone expect him to represent the United States when the moment he confronted the nation’s racism bigots deluged him with hate mail and death threats? How could they expect him to love America when America didn’t love him back?
New York, 1968
Alcindor had made up his mind. He wouldn’t play for the USA. Although the boycott movement lacked widespread support and ultimately stalled, he and his UCLA teammates Mike Warren and Lucius Allen refused to attend the Olympic trials. His explanation, however, complicated his image as a Black Power hero. Alcindor said that if he participated, then he would miss class and delay his graduation, which was true, but only part of his rationale. He also told a reporter from Life magazine that he and his UCLA teammates “don’t want to get caught in the middle of anything.” He had principles, but discussing them publicly only brought more stress. It was much easier to distance himself from Edwards and the OPHR.
In the summer of 1968, he worked for Operation Sports Rescue, a youth program in New York City. Leading basketball clinics, Alcindor mentored African-American and Puerto Rican youths, encouraging them to get an education. In July, he appeared on NBC’s Today show to promote the program. Co-host Joe Garagiola, a former professional baseball player, began the interview by asking Alcindor why he refused to play in the Olympics. During a heated exchange, Alcindor said, “Yeah, I live here, but it’s not really my country.” Then Garagiola retorted, “Well, then, there’s only one solution, maybe you should move.” It was a common reply among white Americans who demanded accommodation and gratitude from black athletes — a refrain that still exists today.
Alcindor’s comments echoed Malcolm X, who said, “Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American.” If black people were Americans, he argued, then they wouldn’t need civil rights legislation or constitutional amendments for protection. Alcindor recognized that while he was fortunate because of his basketball ability, he couldn’t celebrate his privileged status as long as racial inequality persisted. Only when black citizens enjoyed true freedom could he call America his country.
Although we remember the 1968 Olympics for John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s demonstration on the victory stand, Alcindor was the most famous athlete who avoided the games. More than any other college basketball player, he defined his times, proving also that black athletes could speak their minds and win. No one could tell him to shut up and dribble.