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Exactly 75 years ago this week Dr. James Naismith wrote 13 rules of a new game but, aside from rule No. 1 ("The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands"), the game that celebrates its diamond anniversary this week and is one of the most popular in the world bears little resemblance to Dr. Naismith's invention. Changes occurred quickly. The first were those that recognized reasonable innovations by the participants and legalized them—the dribble, for example. More recently, the changes have had a common aim: restricting the effectiveness of tall players. The three-second rule was devised in 1936, the center jump after each basket was eliminated in 1937, goal-tending was identified and outlawed in 1944 and the width of the free-throw lane was doubled to 12 feet in 1956. The pros have since extended the lane to 16 feet and refined other restrictive measures, but despite all of these emendations the good big man can still make his presence felt in basketball far more than the best of the smaller players. Unless tall men are barred from the game—and a number of inane suggestions along that line have been made—this is always going to be the case. Raise the basket, spin it, turn it upside down or inside out, the big man is always going to be closer to it, and he will have an advantage over other players in putting the ball into it and in knocking the ball away from it.
The one sure counter to a good big man is another one on the opposing team, and this year in college basketball there are so many giants around that such match-ups will occur more frequently than ever before. Among the big boys are Mel Daniels of New Mexico, certain to be the first draft choice of the NBA next spring; Westley Unseld of Louisville; Elvin Hayes of Houston; David Lattin of Texas Western, the defending champion; Mike Lewis of Duke; Keith Swagerty of Pacific; Dave Newmark of Columbia; and the young sophomore at UCLA whose stature in the sport, as well as his physical size, exceeds that of all the others, though he has yet to play his first varsity game: Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. (see cover). Already Alcindor is being compared to his most accomplished predecessors, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
The line of the giants began with Bob (Foothills) Kurland of Oklahoma State (then Oklahoma A&M). Kurland, who was just a shade under 7 feet, led his team to national championships in 1945 and 1946, brought into the game and the vernacular the revolutionary "dunk shot," and was personally responsible for the writing of a goal-tending law—just as Chamberlain's suiting up a decade later was impetus enough for widening the foul lanes. Before Kurland, it had been assumed that men his size must be uncoordinated and unhealthy, weak pituitary freaks. When Kurland first played in college, he was permitted to stay in games for only a few minutes at a stretch. But it turned out that in addition to being bigger than other players he had just as much stamina. Both literally and figuratively, Kurland and two contemporaries—6-foot-11� Don Otten of Bowling Green and 6-foot-9 George Mikan of DePaul—added a new dimension to basketball. Mikan scored 53 points in 1945 at Madison Square Garden; in 1946, a year before Lew Alcindor was born, Kurland made 58 playing against St. Louis U. and a freshman center named Easy Ed Macauley. Two allied cries arose from coaches: a) "Raise the baskets," and, b) "Find me a big man."
They were found: Macauley, Alex Groza, Bill Spivey, Bevo Francis, Clyde Lovellette, Neil Johnston, Walter Dukes, Russell, Chamberlain, Walt Bellamy, Nate Thurmond. The big kids in high school stopped slouching and stood as tall as they could, and proud. Despite the fact that only 1% of American men are more than 6 feet 2[3/5], enough big kids in short pants showed up to change the coaches' pleas to: a) "Raise the baskets," and, b) "Find me a good big man."
It is significant that when Alcindor takes the floor this Saturday in Los Angeles for his first varsity game, he will be jumping against another 7-footer—Ron Taylor of Southern California. Alcindor, who is 7 feet 1?", is, in fact, only slightly taller than 50 collegians who are in the neighborhood of 7 feet. ( Brigham Young has three.) But great height alone is no longer the fearsome weapon it was in Kurland's day. The game's strategists have effectively spiked it. Lew Alcindor casts a long shadow from a good deal more than size.
Lew is smart, strong, remarkably agile and in full command of his vast physical gifts. Still, he is a victim of the peculiar social custom that permits strangers to call attention to and ridicule excessive height, while at the same time it is considered rude to refer to a man's lack of height, his thinness or his obesity. As a teen-ager who grew to 7 feet by the 10th grade, he learned to expect stares as soon as he left his neighborhood, Inwood, in northern Manhattan, in search of basketball games in other parts of the city. "I was about 13, I guess," he says, "the first time I really understood how much people were, uh, impressed with my height. They'd point at me. People are funny. They do strange things. They stop me on the street all the time. No, they don't know who I am—they just seem to think it's acceptable to stop me because I'm tall." He chuckled a bit—not easily, but as if trying it for effect. "You've heard them all: 'Watch your head.' 'How's the weather up there?' 'You must have trouble sleeping.' All that. The one I hear most now"—here Alcindor looks up—"is 'Boy, and I thought I was tall.' "
Holy Cross Coach Jack Donohue, who was Alcindor's coach at Power Memorial Academy in New York City and was accused of hatching all kinds of Machiavellian plots because he would not expose Lew to reporters and recruiters, remembers a typical incident in the Port of New York Authority bus terminal. A little old lady felt it her right not only to make the usual idiotic comments about Alcindor's size but to probe him with an umbrella tip while she mocked him
"I could see Lewie flush," Donohue recalls, "but, like always, he took it. I talked a lot with Lewie over those years. I tried to tell him that he had to believe in what he was, to find pride in himself, because in everything he was in a minority. He was 7 feet. That's a minority for sure. And a Negro. And a Catholic. And he went to a private school. A 7-foot Negro Catholic at a private school. That must be the smallest minority in the world. 'Lewie,' I said, 'let's face it. You're just a minority of one.' "
When he went to the opening game of the season as a high school freshman, Alcindor carried a junior varsity uniform as well as one for the varsity. Only at the last minute did Donohue decide to let him play on the varsity. "And that year he was not a great player," the coach says. "He was just a threat." But in the off season Alcindor played constantly, driving himself to excel. As a sophomore, he was All-America for the first time, and in his last three years Power lost only one game, to DeMatha of Hyattsville, Md. Alcindor habitually represses his emotions, but he was obviously dispirited after the loss. He blamed himself, and Donohue felt obliged to tell him that if he was going to insist upon sole responsibility for the defeat he would have to take full credit for three years' worth of victories.
Unlike many superstars, Alcindor is a fine team player. "I can score a lot of points—I know that," he says matter-of-factly and without vanity. He has had the advantage of playing on a high school team with many other good players and for a coach who was more interested in fostering team success and the enjoyment of participation than in promoting one individual's glory. The same appears to be true at UCLA, where Coach John Wooden plans to fit Alcindor to the team, rather than the other way around. The Bruins have so much talent that they would be a national contender even without Alcindor—except that that would mean Alcindor would be playing on another team, against them.