JOHN WOODEN HAD never seen Lew Alcindor play basketball before he put on a UCLA uniform in the fall of 1965, and scarcely had any Bruins fans. Yet Wooden felt expectations for the 7'2" center who had scored a New York City--record 2,067 points at Power Memorial Academy were already unreasonable. He insisted that Alcindor's mere presence would not guarantee three straight championships. (Freshmen were ineligible for the varsity.) "Anybody who believes that is only displaying his ignorance," Wooden said.
But Alcindor wasn't just tall, he also had a guard's agility, which made him the ideal player to spearhead Wooden's up-tempo attack. What's more, he was a brilliant student who quickly processed Wooden's intellectual teaching methods, a brooding loner who never got swept up in the distractions of campus life and a humble superstar who had learned the tenets of teamwork by watching his father play trombone in a jazz band.
His impact was immediate. Alcindor had 31 points, 21 rebounds and seven blocks to lead his freshman team to a 15-point drubbing of the UCLA varsity—the team that was coming off back-to-back NCAA championships and was ranked No. 1 in the preseason. For his much anticipated varsity debut as a sophomore, Alcindor once again exceeded the hype, scoring 56 points in a victory over USC. Over the next three years, he would lose just two games—once to Houston in the Astrodome on Jan. 20, 1968, in college basketball's version of the Game of the Century, and again to USC at home in his final regular-season game on March 8, 1969. Each of those losses was by a single basket. Those hiccups aside, Alcindor strung together the most spectacular career in history. Unlike Wilt Chamberlain, who failed to win a national title at Kansas, and Bill Russell, who won two at San Francisco, Alcindor did, in fact, lead the Bruins to three consecutive championships, in 1967, '68 and '69—the latter two coming after the NCAA outlawed the dunk because of his mastery of the shot. Of his 12 tournament wins, all but two were by double digits. (That included a 32-point thrashing of No. 1 Houston in the '68 semis, a sweet-tasting revenge that came eight weeks after the loss in the Astrodome.) Alcindor remains the only man to be named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player three times. His final game was a fitting valedictory: 37 points and 20 rebounds in a 92--72 pounding of Purdue, Wooden's alma mater.
Though it hadn't yet been made public, Alcindor converted from Catholicism to Islam before his senior year and had decided to change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by the time he left UCLA. He made the change legal in 1971, shortly after winning the first of six NBA championships. Abdul-Jabbar would retire in '89 as the league's alltime leading scorer (38,387 points), but his dominance was even more apparent during those three seasons in Westwood, and especially in his 12 postseason games. The ignorance, as it turns out, was Wooden's.