"On defense you play differently with him in there. He's no Russell yet, but Russell was the greatest defensive player who ever lived. The Celtics depended on him so much that the other players didn't play defense as well as they could. K.C. Jones could have been even better than he was, but in Russell he had the Great Eraser behind him and he could take risks he wouldn't take normally. That's what we have in Lew. We take chances because we know Lew is there."
Gambling on defense may not make the Bucks better individual players, but the tactic can drive a rival team to distraction and to neglect of its normal style. On offense, each Milwaukee player also has an added edge over his defender because of Lew—every opponent has to give part of his attention to the big man. And when he is double-teamed, Alcindor hits the open Buck, often with a pass thrown like a baseball.
The problem of how to handle Alcindor has spread headaches around the league. The Lakers do as well as any team, but not because they have their own 7-footer, Mel Counts, to play Lew man-for-man. Laker Coach Joe Mullaney makes no secret of his strategy, possibly because it is only occasionally effective. "We try to keep their guards coming down the middle of the floor," says Mullaney. "If you let them come down the sidelines, with Lew playing a low post on one side or the other, you're dead. Once the pass gets in to him, it's two points. So we make them come down the middle, put Counts in front of Lew and keep him from getting the ball. And we give Counts help."
In a recent game, against this strategy, Lew gave Counts a quick fake one way, rolled the other way with two swift, mincing steps, took a pass from a teammate and went up to dunk the ball. The move was deceptive and graceful. When he is allowed to take the pass from a guard at the sideline, his move is just as quick and deceptive. Then he lifts himself easily and shoots a surprisingly soft, accurate hook that comes from so high that no one can block it.
"I got caught in a switch once under the basket when he shot that hook," says Crawford. "I looked up to see where the ball was, and Lew's hook looked like it was coming down from outer space."
When he is moving to the basket Lew's power is a weapon in itself. Last week, against Baltimore, he received a pass behind Wes Unseld and went in for a stuff shot, and Kevin Loughery rashly decided to get in his way. As Lew leaped, his right knee—drawn up—slammed into Loughery's rib cage. It was five minutes before Loughery recovered sufficiently to be helped out of the Arena. He spent four nights in the hospital with three broken ribs and one cracked rib.
In the same game Baltimore's Ray Scott, who is 6'9", got off a jump shot over the outstretched hand of Milwaukee's Don Smith, also 6'9". As the ball cleared Smith, Alcindor was five feet further away from Scott but he soared straight up and blocked the shot. And he did it with so much force that he knocked the ball from the free-throw area back over the midcourt line.
So far this year Alcindor has played nearly 150 minutes longer than anyone else in the league. It is an indication of his stamina and ability to take constant battering, despite the fact that centers, traditionally, have impressive playing-time records. Milwaukee Coach Larry Costello explains: "It's easier for a center to last. They come down the middle of the court and they don't move as much as guards or forwards. They're only about half as active. But Lew is different. He's probably the most active center in the game. He moves from a low to a high post, from one side of the lane to the other. He brings the ball downcourt when he has to. He exerts far more energy than most big men. Even when we get the ball in to him on the post, he herky-jerks around and uses moves—not just muscle—to work in. But he doesn't get tired. You know a funny thing? He's gained weight during the season."
Possibly because of the hectic pace, Alcindor has yet to evaluate the impact pro basketball has had on him. "I came into it with an open mind," he said the other day in a hotel room that looked undersized for his 7-foot-plus, 230-pound frame. "I didn't think I'd be able to play as much as I have, but that was because I believed what I had heard about how tough it was. I don't know if it is as much fun as college ball—I'll have to reflect on the season when it is over before I can decide. Right now it's hard work. I didn't expect to be able to take the pressure day in and day out. I've already played almost as many games this year as I played in all three years at UCLA, but I'm not tired. I've learned to take a breather now and then and get back into the flow of the game. I took those notes from Bill Russell. I used to watch him, and sometimes he wouldn't even come downcourt when the ball changed hands. He knew the game very well.
"I wish I could have played more against a guy like Nate Thurmond. I played against him three times, and it was like a laboratory. I didn't pick up much from him, because he doesn't play the same way I do, but I learned things about my own game—the good things and a few faults—and the mistakes I make against a player like him.