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.
The obstacles to this achievement, as Alcindor knew, were psychologically ordained. For how many men, athletic or otherwise, have ever fully realized their promise? Not many, really. No, Alcindor thought last week, not many. It is probably the nature of man instead to come face to face with his potential and, ultimately, to disclaim it.
Many weird and puzzling things have occurred amidst the Alcindor regnancy at UCLA. Bitterness and disenchantment have not been absent from the scene. Through this difficult time Alcindor, wrongly, has borne much of the blame and always the pressure. He was under suspicion when Edgar Lacey quit and when Mike Lynn was put on probation for possessing a stolen credit card and when Lucius Allen got in trouble over marijuana. "This is not his business," said Coach John Wooden. "Why blame Lewis? How unfair can you be?"
Probably Alcindor's only enjoyable season was his first. He could dunk the ball then, opponents were too intimidated to rough him up and his responsibilities outside the game were few. The second year brought on the best team, perhaps the best of all teams. But it was not the happiest. In this last season, though he was more mature, outgoing and closer to his teammates than ever before, the pressures on Alcindor became harshest. Everywhere he went he was booed.
The inherent strain of the final week was hardly made easier by an article that had appeared on the previous Sunday in West magazine, a supplement of the Los Angeles Times. Written by a former official of the Black Students Union at UCLA, it was a misleading and damaging piece that portrayed Alcindor as a racist bent on separatism and dissatisfied with his school and country.
Alcindor was greatly upset by all this and further disturbed over the use of colloquial phrases attributed to him. He felt he had been made to look foolish and illiterate. On Monday he called his teammates together to explain his side, and on Tuesday he planned to go on KNBC-TV in Los Angeles to refute most of what had been written.
Wooden, however, true to his word about imposing strict silence on all of his players until after the tournament, canceled the appearance. So it was that UCLA's final practice session in Pauley Pavilion, an otherwise proud and portentous time, was disfigured by contentious debate.
"This article was very close to libel," Alcindor said just after he had stormed out of Pauley. "I have to get myself straight with people. Now the coach has said no. He had to put in his two bits. That puts me on the spot."
Wooden later relented, and Alcindor did appear on television. He praised Wooden. "I do my job and he does his," Alcindor said. "This article reads as if the coach is a boor. He isn't. There's no static between us, he's good people."
In Louisville, Wooden's security measures to shield his players from the press offended many reporters. "Maybe I am overprotective," he said one afternoon. "But the three years haven't been easy. I think these boys are taut. We've got just a couple of days left. I don't want some little thing spoiling it all."