REACT: Who is the greatest college player of all time?
Sports Illustrated asked its writers to weigh in with their picks for the greatest college basketball player of all time. Read through their selections and then tell us yours.
When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, né Lew Alcindor, decided to attend UCLA in the fall of 1965, he became the first transcontinental college basketball star. (Wilt Chamberlain had made it only as far as Kansas.) Alcindor did not create the tradition of championship UCLA basketball -- John Wooden had won his first two NCAA titles in '64 and '65 -- but he most assuredly kept it going. With Alcindor, Wooden transitioned from a guard-oriented power (Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich were the stars of the first title teams) to a center-dominated juggernaut (Bill Walton idolized Alcindor and followed him to Pauley Pavilion).
Alcindor had been the prize of an epic recruiting battle that included pitches from Bruins alums such as Ralph Bunche and Jackie Robinson. He was always something more than a basketball player, a thoughtful and articulate (when he chose to speak) young man whose stoic exterior hid a complex individual who never seemed comfortable with his celebrity. And doesn't to this day. But, oh, what a player, clearly the best in college history to this pair of eyes. So frightening was the specter of a New York Goliath towering over the college game that the rulemakers banned the dunk after Alcindor and his '65-'66 freshman teammates had so devastated the competition that it was widely believed they could've beaten any varsity team in the country. Wooden always said the NCAA didn't make the rule change because of "Lewis," but the evidence is that they did. Alcindor never said much about it, probably never thought much about it. Defensively, the injunction against the dunk only made Alcindor more potent. His one weakness (and the word is used loosely) was that he could be overpowered down deep. But under those rules he was free to swat away anything in his path. He was always underrated as a defensive player (even later in the NBA), a master of positioning rather than a ferocious shot-blocker.
And he sure didn't need the dunk to score. His footwork was exquisite, his timing sublime, his skyhook the essence of dependable artistry. Alcindor averaged 26.4 points per game but would've scored 40 in another system. He never made fewer than 61 percent of his shots in a season. He got 15 rebounds a game. And he was MVP in each of the Final Fours ('67, '68 and '69) he was in, all of which resulted in UCLA championships.
Something about him -- his reserve, the sense that, well, maybe he didn't like us all that much -- kept the public from unqualified respect for Alcindor (and later Abdul-Jabbar). But this discussion is about basketball, and my first choice is Lewis. And though Wooden would never say it, I have the feeling that he'd agree.