Everybody lives in dreams and fantasies, no matter what his color, and my vision of UCLA was of an idyllic place where I would play basketball, study, go to an occasional beer bust, stroll arm in arm on the campus with the chicks, enjoy long bull sessions in the dorm with the cats and, in general, live the collegiate life that I'd read about and been promised by all those guys I'd talked to on my visit the April before. I wasn't happy about leaving my parents and my old neighborhood, but I had to face the fact that there was prejudice in New York, and there was a semipermanent riot situation in the Harlem that I once loved. Maybe it was better to get away from all that for a while and go out to California, where people were color-blind and a man could live his life without reference to color or race.
Well, right from the beginning I didn't lack for friends at UCLA. Black friends. My pal Kenneth Kelly had come out to Los Angeles with me; the deal was that he would run for the UCLA track team after a year at Santa Monica City College. He couldn't live in the UCLA dorms, as I did, but he found quarters nearby in a fraternity house, and we were together all the time. My roommate in the dorm was Lucius Allen, a very outgoing happy guy and a genius with a basketball, who played on the freshman team with me. Lucius never exhibited any racial prejudice toward me. Of course, Lucius is also black.
I quickly discovered that there is no special breed of people called Californians, with their own culture and background and attitudes. I discovered that most Californians came from other places, where racial prejudice abounded, and some of these Californians had the same feelings about race as their friends back home. To these bigoted people, deep down inside, I was nothing but a jive nigger. Oh, they'd try to overcome their feelings. Once in a while one of them would get up the courage to engage us in conversation, but it was hopeless. Many of these people could not relate to a black man. I realized very quickly that my attempt to outflank the racial wall had failed. I'd first observed the wall at St. Jude's in New York, and now I knew that it extended all the way from Jones Beach to Santa Monica. There was no way to outflank it.
There also seemed to be a special art form in California: the art of seeming to like people that you really don't like. It wasn't long before I realized that certain cats who hated my guts were giving me the big Pepsodent beachboy smile and saying, "Hello, how are you?" The intensity of the smile and the greeting would never vary, even when I was hearing stories about how much they disliked me. I never could get with this kind of behavior. Back in New York City, you knew who liked you and who didn't. You knew where you were. But in California I felt like I was in the middle of the ocean on a raft.
Of course, we were rubbing elbows with whites all the time at the dorm—that was unavoidable—and those kids would do things that I could not believe. Their idea of fun was to flood the floor, take off all their clothes and slide along the tiles bare-butt. Oftentimes they would chase each other down the halls, goosing. They were very big on goosing. I'd just stand there and watch and try to take it all in and understand. But I couldn't understand. Kids around me 20 and 21 years old acting like infants. Wow! And I said to myself that I had to come all the way to California at the age of 18 to find out that I was a very old person. I was very much aware that certain Americans were suffering from hunger and cold and deprivation, and I took all this seriously. Less than a year earlier in Harlem I had watched people shooting, looting, screaming, stealing, trying to kill one another, trying to kill the cops, in a great upheaval of rage and frustration. This meant something to me. But the most amazing thing about these kids sliding all over the tiles was that right here in Los Angeles, just a few months before, something had happened that should have tightened them all up. The Watts riot had taken place. And not only did it mean nothing to most of these kids, but most of them were not even aware that there were hungry people in East Los Angeles. They didn't know because they didn't care to know. They were juveniles, children, babies. I just couldn't warm to people like this, and since they weren't all that crazy about me, I stayed primarily with the black brothers.
Pretty soon I began reading in the local press that I was eccentric. Maybe I was. One thing that frosted the sportswriters was an order by the athletic director, J. D. Morgan, that no member of the freshman basketball team could be interviewed. The press interpreted this as my idea—it wasn't—and after a while they tried to make a career out of sticking it to me. They had expected me to be Stepin Fetchit, and when I turned out to be Lewis Alcindor, then I had to be weird, eccentric, surly. Well, I did my best not to be surly, but sometimes those people at UCLA put me to the test. I hadn't been on the campus three days when Kenneth Kelly and I were walking and heard these white cats talking behind us. One of them said, "Hey, is that Lew Alcindor?" And another guy said, "Yeah, that's him. He's nothing but a big—." I turned around and started wolfing at the guy, and he just strolled off. I wanted to go snatch him, but Kelly talked me out of it. He said we hadn't been on the campus very long; we'd better cool it. There were a lot of incidents of that nature.
Another thing that bugged me was the way the kids seemed to think that they could make any comments they wanted about my height. Now don't get me wrong; I've never been touchy about being tall. I like being tall. The chicks like it; the fans like it. It's fun being this tall. The problem is on the short people. It bugs them no end. They get all disturbed when they see me. They get messed up; I'm not messed up. But I do get bored with hearing about it all the time. Once in a while something does happen that's truly funny, and then you just have to laugh about it. Annoyed as I was by these kids at UCLA, I had to laugh when I found out that a boy and a girl had been tripping on LSD in the lounge of the dorm, and when I came in the door they studied me up and down and decided I must be part of their trip!
It wasn't very long before I fell in with a little group of cats that kind of stood together. Kelly was one of them. Edgar Lacey turned out to be a very thoughtful, sensitive brother, and he was one of us. Sometimes we'd talk with Lucius, but he was still in that stage of trying to get along with the whole world, and Mike Warren was still busy being the great lover, so mostly it was me, Kelly, Lace and a good friend named J. J. Johnson. J.J. was a very heavy brother, very heavy. He was carrying close to a straight 4.0 average, and he's doing the same right now at Harvard Law School. J.J. was proud and glad to be black, and angry at anybody who didn't dig him and his pride. We hit it off right away; he'd take me home and have his mother feed me the real home cooking, and without his comradeship and moral support I would not have made it through the freshman year at UCLA.
The thing that I enjoyed the most was our bull sessions after class. I had just finished reading Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X
, and I was full of serious ideas. I could see the whole transition of the black man and his history. And I developed my first interest in Islam, not Elijah Muhammad's private Islam, but the real Islam, the religion of half a billion people on earth. Me and Kelly and Lace and J.J., we'd walk straight up into the mountains and then sit up there and talk about things like Malcolm X and black pride and Islam. Malcolm X became my star to follow, and I've followed that star ever since. That same year, J.J. put me onto books like Autobiography of a Yogi, and I learned about the third force in the world and the rising tide of black nationalism. I read LeRoi Jones' poems and plays. My head was filled with things, spinning with new ideas. That's the real purpose of a university, not so much to teach you as to get you to teach yourself. UCLA was doing this for me, but it was only because of people like J.J. and a few other black brothers. What an irony.
One Sunday morning I woke up and realized that I hadn't been to Mass since coming to the Coast. All my life I'd been a practicing Catholic, and now suddenly it was over, and I had no regrets whatever. In my mind, I became an apprentice Muslim, reading everything I could get about Islam. The Qu'ran. The sayings of Mohammed. The histories of Islam. The Bible had no further meaning for me. The Bible and its teachings had produced all these hate-filled people that I saw in Los Angeles. It seemed to me that there was nothing in the world as unlike Christ as Christians.