SI Vault
Curry Kirkpatrick
March 31, 1969
On the day that, traditionally, the swallows come back to Capistrano, a place not far from his California home, Lew Alcindor came back to Kentucky, a place not close to his heart. In Louisville two years ago he was named the Most Valuable Player in the NCAA championship. There again on Saturday he was to win the award a third time. Nobody before Alcindor had ever won the honor three times; maybe no one ever will again.
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March 31, 1969

The Week He Finally Got Rid Of The Yoke

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Just down the highway were Lynn Shackelford and Ken Heitz, in shirtsleeves under the hot Kentucky sun, probing through the brush along a creek looking for frogs. Earlier in the week the two had talked about their three years of basketball. Playing time, it seems, was the big thing. Since Lew Alcindor would be the star of every game, all team members had an obsession with how much time they spent in games. The problem was always a glut of players, said Heitz. "There were just so many of us, all the time, every year. The only thing to aim for was not so much winning—we would win—but playing. If you had a good game you got playing time the next game. There were disappointments. I didn't get much time last season, but that's personal. Lynn got time most of the three years."

"Well, yes," said Shackelford, "but a lot of it has been boring, sitting on the bench or even playing when the other team was obviously weaker. From the start everybody said we would win three championships. That has taken a lot out of the actual accomplishment. I think it's one reason for our businesslike manner on the court. We were only doing what we'd been expected to do.

"I'm glad we won the first year, though," said Shackelford. "Now we'll have three, and a long time from now I can look back and hold that over all the teams to come along. "What have they done?' I'll say. 'Have they done what we did?' "

On Saturday, after it was finally done and the team had regrouped at the motel, Bill Sweek, the cool swinger among them, smiled. "The yoke is removed now," he said. "Let them try and match us."

Alcindor lay on his bed for a while, relating much the same thoughts to some friends and fingering his new NCAA watch. Whenever the subject of pressure had come up during the week, he had pointed to his head and said, "It's mental. It's all up here." Now he was relieved. "I'll just say it feels nice," he said. "Everything was up in my throat all week. I could see ahead to the end, but there was apprehension and fear. Fear of losing. I don't know why, but it was there. Before the other two tournaments it didn't feel that way. This one did. But, wow, today after I came to the bench I was yelling. Wow, I was excited. We just had to bring this thing down in front again where it belongs."

He spoke of Lucius Allen and wondered why he wasn't here. "I think I'll give my watch to Lucius," he said. "He deserved it. He came over yesterday. He'll put everything together soon and be all right. Lucius is always around. He is my man."

Later, after an alumni celebration at the Brown Hotel, Alcindor attempted to get comfortable in the front seat of a car that was making its way through the back streets of Louisville and out of town to a team dinner. ( Allen would be there, he thought, and most everybody else, too.) His right knee was hurting from an old injury, and his father, Ferdinand, sitting in the back, kept inquiring about it.

"It's O.K., Dad, it's fine," said Lewis, becoming impatient with the questions.

"I'll rub it a little," said his father. "I'll treat it. You better watch those things."

The car pulled over, and the two changed seats. "Wow, Dad, I'm all right. Wow," said Lewis, irritated.

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