Skip to main content
Original Issue


Apprehension pervaded the camps of UCLA's rivals at the NCAA basketball championships, inspiring fruitless stratagems and ineffectual performances. The fear was of Lew Alcindor, and it was justified

The moon hung over Louisville, full gold, and at its perigee as round and bright and near as it ever is. It lay in the constellation of Virgo, the Virgin, which was appropriate, since UCLA—only a little closer to earthbound rivals—ended an immaculate 30-0 season with a 79-64 rout of Dayton for the national collegiate basketball championship. So awesome were Lew Alcindor and his teammates and so obvious is it that they are destined for two more titles that the old moon there over Louisville will doubtless suffer the indignity of conquest by mortal man before the Bruins do.

UCLA should lose a game sometime in December 1969, but the possibility of a freak loss before then will continue to nurture hope on campuses and at coaching clinics around the country. After all, only a few people have quit taking baths just because the accident rate is so high around tubs. Despite the odds, one perseveres, in basketball as in hygiene. Practically speaking, however, with regard to the national championship, the next two years offer no more chance for a different outcome than there would have been if the Romans had been asked to repeat the Rape of the Sabines annually.

The UCLA victories over Houston and Dayton were so convincing that the only real question remaining is how much better Alcindor and his mates can become. Next season two potential All-Americas, Mike Lynn and Edgar Lacey, are expected to rejoin the team, and a 6'8" freshman named Steve Patterson moves up. And ain't nobody leaving.

Still, no matter how good so many of the Bruins are and how well they are coached by John Wooden, their game is Lew Alcindor. As a sophomore, he dominates the college sport much more than Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain do the pros—if only because collegians do not often encounter such a phenomenon. Of course, they learn fast enough. It did not take Houston long last Friday night to abandon its plan of attacking Alcindor (opposite) and to move Elvin Hayes farther out for his shots. Against Dayton, Lew was credited with only four blocked shots, but they all came early. Some observers, watching Alcindor for the first time, evinced disappointment at this performance—only four blocked shots, indeed! Presumably they would also have been disenchanted with Aaron Burr for employing only one bullet to make a telling point with Alexander Hamilton. Lew has no more interest in overkill than Bertrand Russell does.

It is doubtful that Alcindor was ever tested fully all season, but the languid, almost bored attitude that he appears to affect on court is misleading. His teammates suggest that this is, simply, his style, and that he is not only alert and ready to assume command when necessary, but that he is feigning indifference to lure the opposition to him. He is not only a smart player but utterly selfless. "We play team," he says, succinctly. "We don't play one man. You lose playing one man." It is significant that when the huge Houston front line was collapsing all over him, when he was also supposed to be in a grudge duel with Hayes, that he still refused to accept such a meaningless challenge. Again and again, holding the ball high, poised, turning, looking, thinking, he would make the right play—shoot or pass to the open man.

Alcindor's influence is so pervasive that it is difficult to determine how good his teammates really are. For instance, Forward Lynn Shackelford made 16 baskets in 29 attempts in the two games, most of them on beautiful, long left-handed jumps. A great shooter? Who knows? Shackelford rarely has to shoot with a hand in his face. True, his shooting took some pressure off Lew inside, but the man guarding Shackelford was always halfway back, preparing to help out against Alcindor.

The other UCLA forward, Kenny Heitz, was assigned to Dayton's Don May. The night before, against favored North Carolina, May had been marvelous. He made 13 straight shots, 34 points and had 15 rebounds. Against Heitz, he missed his first half a dozen shots and was only three for 12 in the first half, when the issue was settled. Heitz said frankly, "May is just a terrific player. So strong—and, more than that, he knows how to use his strength. I know that he was trying to get inside on me, but I could tell all along that he wouldn't take me in as far as he would normally like to because Lew would be there."

Outside, Mike Warren and Lucius Allen gave all appearances of being the best backcourt in the land. They whipped the ball around and popped in the shots, and Allen particularly moved down the middle without the ball for the easy pass and layup. But all this, too, they were able to accomplish without the close defense that other good guards must face.

This is not to propose that Warren, Allen, Shackelford and Heitz are overrated. On the contrary, they may well be better than advertised. It simply indicates that it is impossible to tell how good they are.

At any rate, the excellence of the UCLA, team was perhaps best shown in the early minutes of the Houston match. The Cougars must be the most massive team in the country. Coach Guy Lewis used nine men, all of them well fed; six are at least 6'6" and Don Chaney is a hefty 6'5" guard. With this arsenal of muscle, the Cougars attempted to go strength to strength—right at Alcindor. It was no personal crusade by Hayes, as some observers thought. "No," Lewis said. "All week we just said: 'go to him.' All week that was it." Before the game Johnny Dee of Notre Dame, whose team played both Houston and UCLA, guessed the Houston strategy. "They've got to try to foul Alcindor out," Dee said. "The only way to beat him is to hope for the three Fs—Foreign Court, Friendly Officials and Foul Out Alcindor." It was a good idea, but Alcindor had the fourth F—Forget It. Houston got Alcindor to foul—once, after 33 minutes. Although Lew blocked several Hayes shots and spooked him and his teammates into missing other easy ones, Houston had a 19-18 lead midway through the first half. Overall, the Cougars were playing very well. They were holding the boards, they had given Alcindor only one basket and their floor game was sharp. Using their height, they stuck to crisp overhead passes to chop up the UCLA full-court press, which is, really, only a shadow of its old self. Meanwhile, the Bruins had been hardly impressive. And yet, despite ail this, Houston was only one point ahead. Then Shackelford, unmolested, hit a corner jump, the Bruins stole the ball off the press for the first time that night, Alcindor stuffed in a basket a few seconds later—and quickly it was 29-19. UCLA won by a score of 73-58, for what that matters.

Houston was handicapped by outside shooting that has been poor all year and became worse with Alcindor as a distraction. Nevertheless, citing statistics, Hayes insisted afterward that his teammates had "choked" and that he had found Alcindor sadly lacking. Speaking evenly and with obvious conviction, Hayes said: "He's not aggressive enough on the boards, particularly on offense. Defensively, he just stands around. He's not at all, you know, all they really put him up to be." As Hayes went on, patiently cataloging these deficiencies, Alcindor, expressionless as always, moved nearby through the crowd signing autographs. Hayes was undisturbed.

"Hey, Lewis," Mike Warren called. "Elvin wants to see you." Silently, Alcindor turned and headed toward Hayes. He clasped him warmly about the arm, and together, ushered by two stern Kentucky cops, they ducked through the service door and moved off into the night.

The next afternoon Alcindor came to Hayes's hotel room, and they wandered off down 4th Street, looking for a pair of sunglasses for Lew. Easter shoppers—a large number wearing frightful pink hair curlers that set back the image of Kentucky womanhood several years, not to mention a Stephen Foster melody or two—had the nerve to stare to such an extent that the two big men settled for a visit to a record shop, where each bought to his taste. Alcindor: Cannonball Adderley; Hayes: the Supremes. Then they returned to Hayes's room, where the talk turned back to basketball. Alcindor, absolutely unmoved by his friend's public criticism, promised to follow Hayes's advice and build himself up with weights. Lew, tacitly acknowledging the wisdom of Guy Lewis's game plan, encouraged Hayes to go to the basket even more.

At just about this time, a block away, Coach Mickey Donoher called his Dayton team together to talk of UCLA. Donoher, whose Irish green eyes cut through a face that looks as if it once belonged to Wendell Corey, was nervous. Here was his team, unranked and untroubled by fame all year, suddenly about to play for the national title. The night before, behind May, the Flyers had upset North Carolina 76-62. Dayton trailed 9-2 when Donoher substituted Glinder Torain and Torain fired up the team's performance on the boards. May did the rest. At 13-13 he had eight points and so did Larry Miller of North Carolina. Thereafter Miller made five, May 26, and eventually Miller himself had to sacrifice his offensive potential to start handling May.

With neither Miller nor his running mate Bob Lewis hitting, the Carolina attack shifted underneath to big Rusty Clark in the second half. Again and again he scored over the 6'6" Torain. But May's magnificent game continued, and as it became clear that Dayton would win, a good many people began to wonder: if Clark could score like this, how in the world could the Flyers even hope to stop Alcindor the next night?

Donoher, a varsity coach for only three years, would be playing for the championship with a team that had lost to the likes of Niagara and had been cut to pieces twice by Louisville. A few weeks before, just after the Flyers had taken their 13th victory, Donoher had wistfully said: "Only one more to go." Someone asked what that meant. "One more for 14," he said. "They always say if you win 14 they can't fire you. It guarantees you'll be over .500." Now, Saturday, the one more to go was for the national title. Donoher chewed two toothpicks at once. He had gone to bed at 5:30 but by 7:30 was awake, tense and staring.

As it turned out, Dayton held Alcindor reasonably well, but there were mismatches all over the court and expectable gaps in the Flyers' defense. Sophomore Dan Sadlier played against Alcindor, and Sadlier is 6'6". He received help, and that's how the gaps showed. Afterward, the UCLA players said with admiration, and not at all patronizingly, that Dayton was as well coached a team as they had faced. But it had taken five and a half minutes for Dayton to score and it was 20-4 soon after. It was 70-46 when Wooden graciously removed Alcindor and Warren with 5:17 still left, and there was a 29-point spread (76-47) just after Allen, the last Bruin starter, went to the bench.

Kenny Heitz sighed. "We're not very popular, are we?" he asked. He had been booed and cursed early in the game when May had suddenly fallen to the floor, holding his face, after Heitz had dashed by, arm out, trying to block his shot. Heitz insists he did not touch May. May says Heitz hit him with his elbow, but emphasizes it was clearly unintentional. Nevertheless, all the frustrations of dealing with UCLA, of seeing the Bruins win so effortlessly, poured out on Kenny Heitz, who wears glasses and is skinny and is an honors student who wants to go to Harvard Law School.

"You know," he said, only half kidding, "we're even starting to feel hurt. We are not a bully team at all. You practically have to smash Lew in the mouth before he gets tough." He shrugged. "Oh well," he added, "I'm learning to understand these things. I used to root for all the underdogs myself. Now I'm a big fan of Green Bay and Muhammad Ali. See, I even call him by the right name. We all have to stick together."

Besides not being loved, Coach Wooden has an additional problem. This was his third national title in the last four years and he has given a championship watch to each of his two grandsons. He's already run out of grandsons and Alcindor is only a sophomore.



A tower of intimidation confronts Houston's Elvin Hayes as he tries to penetrate the basket area. Later he scored consistently from outside.



Lefty Lynn Shackelford's accurate outside shooting kept Dayton and Houston defenders apprehensive, took pressure off Alcindor.



Ball handler Mike Warren further upset defenses by forcing rivals to be wary of his speedy, elusive drives and short-range Jumpers.



Helping Lew with his chores, 6'2" Lucius Allen was the team's second best rebounder.



Alcindor is greeted by Coach John Wooden and teammate Kenny Heitz as he leaves the final game with five minutes left and victory assured.