Lew's eyes move into hard focus, and he speaks firmly when he discusses his sport. "Yes, I do love basketball," he says. "It's given me so much, and it hasn't stopped giving. And it's a mutual thing, because I know that people get enjoyment out of watching me play. I guess I've always daydreamed about being a star. I guess I was just nutty about the game at a real young age. It's always taken up a lot of my time, but you have to work at something. You have to have something. If you have talent to begin with, and you combine it with hard work, you can make it pay off. But as much as basketball means to me, the most important thing is looking forward to getting a degree. That I plan for. Basketball is only a day-to-day thing. I can't waste time looking forward to beating some team three, four months from now. And I can't worry about security either. I think that if I was ever injured, if I could not play basketball for some reason, I could begin all over again to strive for something else—something literary or musical probably."
Alcindor has thought about journalism as a career. One summer he was sports editor of the newspaper put out by HARYOU-ACT, a Harlem youth organization. "He has a very fertile imagination," says Brother Hendrickson, his English teacher at Power. "When I assigned a composition, I could never predict what Lewie would hand in, but because he was so much of an individual I knew it would be interesting. I think the best one he ever wrote was simply his reflections on the reactions of the people he encountered on the subway."
A child of New York, of the bustle and the grime and the cruel crowds that drove him to self-conscious loneliness right in their staring midst, Lew nonetheless retains his affection for that city. The bright land and legend of California do not touch him. Almost without realizing this, he recently said of Los Angeles, "I wouldn't want to live here. It's just a nice place to visit." He laughed immediately, appreciating his switch of the clich�, but stuck to his opinion. He is amused when Californians accuse him of speaking like a New York gangster. "Maybe I do sound like Frank Nitti," he says—though he does not—"but they've got a nerve. Listen to them. They all talk like hicks. They really do. I was talking to a girl back home the other night, and she said I was starting to talk like them. That really scared me." (For some reason, nearly everybody in Los Angeles—even Wooden—mispronounces Lew's name, accenting the first syllable: Alsindoor. As Lew says it, it is Alsinder.) He plans to major in history, and says there is no reason why he should not stop cutting so many classes and raise his B-minus average a notch. At Power Memorial his average was 84, which earned him a New York State academic scholarship. "I don't know how many basketball scholarships were offered to him," Brother Hendrickson recalls. "How many? Hundreds? But I think the fact that he won the single academic one in a way thrilled him even more."
Music is Alcindor's other great love. He plunges easily into a modern-jazz discussion, expressing himself articulately and with feeling. He does not tackle subjects with a shotgun approach but seeks out those aspects that particularly interest him and explores them avidly. His goal in basketball, however, is no longer to learn a particular move or to achieve a specific number of successes but to comprehend its total strategy, to appreciate the execution of every player on the team. "That's the wonderful thing about playing with a great team," he says. "They'll teach me the whole game. That's the only way to learn basketball." At times like this, when he is engrossed in a subject, his massive hands seem to flow from his wrists as he gropes for expression, and a large jade ring that he wears on the little finger of his left hand colors the air with a green flash. It is not hard to imagine why his mother tried to harness those hands to a piano. Lew did not stay with that instrument, but recently he has begun to play the saxophone, and he is not satisfied with his progress.
The Alcindors are a musical family. Ferdinand Lewis Sr., who is a transit policeman, studied at the famed Juilliard School of Music in New York and has often played baritone horn or trombone with the Senior Musicians Symphony in Carnegie Hall. He and his wife, Cora Douglas Alcindor, used to sing together in the Hall Johnson Chorus. Mrs. Alcindor is from North Carolina. She is 5 feet 11, and Lew's father is 6 feet 3, but his father was 6 feet 8.
Lew's grandfather came to New York from Trinidad early in this century. Many of the family's relatives still live in Port of Spain, and others remain deep in the mountain jungles, to which they fled to escape from slavery. Grandfather and Grandmother Alcindor were equally fluent in Spanish, English and Yoruba dialect, a hybrid tongue that apparently originated in the runaway-slave enclaves. The Alcindor bloodlines are mixed. Family names as ethnically different as Prince and Gonzalez are found just two generations ago. "Alcindor" itself has a Moorish ring, but on a trip to Trinidad several years ago Lew's father uncovered material that convinced him the family had taken its name from a French planter named Alcindor who brought its forebears as slaves from the Gold Coast to Trinidad. So the Alcindors believe they can trace back to what is present-day Nigeria and, not surprisingly, Lew is extremely interested in African culture and history.
Lew was born on April 16, 1947, and he was big from the beginning, weighing 13 pounds and measuring 22� inches. He grew up as the only child in the family—which may originally have inclined him toward being a loner. His high school coach's refusal to allow interviews pleased Lew, as did UCLA's similar policy last year, but he is hardly a sulky, moody type. He just likes to spend time with himself. "I simply enjoy privacy, nothing more," he says. "It doesn't matter whether it is for reading or listening to music or practicing. I like privacy."
Lew was popular at Power, and the same is true at UCLA. Both Lucius Allen, an enthusiastic, outgoing type who lived with Alcindor last year, and Edgar Lacey, who has some of Alcindor's reserve and rooms with him this year, say that Alcindor is an easy and entertaining roommate. If Alcindor were a timid soul, it is doubtful he would have selected UCLA, a continent away from his home. But UCLA was what he wanted—a large urban school away from New York that was highly rated in both basketball and scholarship.
Lacey, who was recently declared out of action because of a bad knee, lives with Alcindor in a two-bedroom apartment near campus. Edgar drives a Triumph, Alcindor a 1958 Mercedes that he bought this fall. He has saved the bill of sale in case anyone suggests that the car is an illegal bonus for his attendance at UCLA. "That's ridiculous," he says. "I'm not a big-time guy. People can see that just by my clothes." He dresses neatly but not expensively, and one night last spring on a downtown Los Angeles street a car suddenly backed into him, ripping his pants and breaking the skin on his left thigh. But Alcindor was not hurt, so he just asked the careless driver to pay him for a new pair of pants. Later many people told him that he should have sued, but he shrugs at the idea. Even if a suit were valid he feels it would only have exaggerated a minor incident. There is still an ugly welt on his thigh, but it does not bother Alcindor and he has chosen to forget the whole thing. This is typical of his general attitude of avoiding a public fuss on any matter.
But he is well aware that this year's UCLA basketball team is going to make headlines all season, probably for the next three seasons. Two of his freshman teammates will start with him; a third will be the Bruins' sixth man. All four are shown on the following pages in action photographs that display their versatility. With junior Mike Warren and senior Mike Lynn, they make up the most feared college squad in a decade.