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This excerpt appears in the book The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball by John Matthew Smith. The author spoke with Bill Littlefied on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview and read Bill's book review.)
There was no place to hide. Wherever Lew Alcindor went, reporters poked him with microphones and prodded him with questions, photographers stalked and blinded him with the flash of a camera, and strangers gawked and pointed as if it was impossible to miss a seven-foot black man standing among white Lilliputians. John Wooden recalled that some whites viewed him as an object or some kind of creature, “something rather than someone.” One time, a white woman shouted, “Look at that big black freak!” Wooden tried to convince Alcindor that the woman was startled by his size and that his black skin had nothing to do with her crude comment. Alcindor disagreed. “Do you think, coach,” he asked, “if Mel Counts walked in she would have said, ‘Look at that big white freak?’”
To avoid uncomfortable confrontations with strangers, Alcindor often disappeared from his teammates, skipped out on social activities, and avoided hotel lobbies. Frequently, he retreated to his hotel room until it was absolutely necessary for him to come out. While the team sat at the airport gate waiting for an airplane, Alcindor slouched awkwardly in his seat, avoiding eye contact with strangers. Occasionally, he looked up and watched the planes take off, wishing that he too could fly away.
At times the most visible black college athlete in the country wondered what life might be like if he were invisible. There was a loneliness hidden in his face and an anger disguised behind his soft brown eyes. He was torn by a “double-consciousness,” what African American scholar W. E. B. DuBois described as “this sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” In 1903 DuBois wrote, “One ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Frustrated by black powerlessness, Alcindor searched for an identity beyond the court, a way to assert himself as a black man. His dual existence of being black and being an American was even more complicated by his desire for privacy and a sense of obligation to help less fortunate members of the African American community.
Alcindor was more than a symbol of his times—he helped shape his era in two fundamental ways. As a Black Power activist, he stood at the forefront of more militant black college athletes on campus. Before him, America had never witnessed such a successful college athlete speak out against racism. At the same time, the game’s biggest star helped launch a new era of college basketball on television. For years the major networks showed little interest in the sport, but more and more fans wanted to watch Alcindor and the unstoppable Bruins. Soon producers and advertisers responded to the growing demand.
In the sixties, television brought the civil rights movement into America’s living rooms, and sports became an important part of the networks’ entertainment programming. Television provided a forum for athletes to promote themselves, endorse products, and connect with sports fans and casual viewers. With more basketball, football, baseball, and boxing on television, black athletes became increasingly visible in American popular culture and helped shape the country’s racial consciousness. In July 1968, Alcindor appeared on NBC’s Today show to discuss his involvement with Operation Sports Rescue, a New York City youth program that used basketball clinics to teach kids the importance of education. Although Alcindor intended to discuss his role as a youth mentor, the host of the show, Joe Garagiola, asked him a question that weighed on the minds of viewers. Garagiola wondered why the college basketball star had refused to play in the Olympic Games. For months, newspaper writers, television reporters, coaches, and athletes had criticized Alcindor’s decision. They could not understand why he had supported an Olympic boycott movement in protest against racism in America. Alcindor answered, “Yeah, I live here, but it’s not really my country.” Then Garagiola suggested, “Well then there’s only one solution, maybe you should move.” As the tension mounted, the television station cut to a commercial break. Like the Chicago Defender’s A. S. “Doc” Young, many viewers wondered of Alcindor, “Where is your country?”
Lew Alcindor was not the only black athlete questioning democracy in America. On the early morning of April 28, 1967, a steady mist fell beneath a cloudy, gray Houston sky. A crowd of reporters, photographers, and television cameramen descended on the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station. At around eight, the taxicab that everyone had waited for pulled up to 701 Jacinto Street. When the door opened, Muhammad Ali appeared, and photographers began snapping pictures. Ali immediately noticed SNCC activist H. Rap Brown standing near the crowd of onlookers. The two men acknowledged each other by raising their fists in a Black Power salute. Five other black men demonstrated their solidarity with Ali by burning their draft cards. College students protested outside the induction center, carrying placards that read, “Draft beer—not Ali,” “We love Ali,” and “Ali, stay home.” Hours after the champ entered the building, nearly two-dozen black activists gathered in front of the building. They marched in a circle, singing songs and chanting, “Hep! Hep! Don’t take that step.”
Inside, Ali met forty-five other men who had been called for induction. “You all look very dejected,” the champ said. “I’m gonna tell you some jokes.” It was classic Ali. He was about to make the most important decision of his life, one that could send him to prison, cost him his boxing title and millions of dollars, yet he could not resist channeling his nervous energy into making people laugh. He cracked about how if “he went into the Army and the Viet Cong didn’t get him, some red-neck from Georgia would.” When the proceedings finally began, an induction officer instructed the inductees to take one step forward after he called their names. A step forward meant accepting induction into the armed forces. One by one, the names were called. When the induction officer called “Cassius Marcellus Clay,” Ali refused to step forward. His name was called two more times. Again, he did not move.
Ali refused induction, claiming conscientious-objector status on religious grounds. He defended his position as a Muslim, maintaining that the Nation of Islam eschewed wars of any kind. As the Vietnam War escalated in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson increased American draft calls. Needing more ground forces, the military lowered its mental aptitude requirements, which now changed Ali’s draft classification from 1-Y (not qualified for draft) to 1-A (qualified for draft). Before he became eligible for the draft, Ali had never given any serious thought to the Vietnam War. But after learning that he was eligible to serve in the military, Ali was forced to take a position. When he refused to be inducted into the military, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his heavyweight title; soon, other commissions followed suit. In Ali’s view, the Vietnam War was a war of oppression, an imperialistic conquest that benefited white people. He wondered, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?”
Whereas most whites disagreed with Ali’s decision, African American reactions varied. Initially, Jackie Robinson felt that Ali was “hurting the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam,” but later applauded him for refusing to “stay in his place.” Joe Louis, who raised money for the government with boxing exhibitions during World War II, said he was “ashamed” of Ali for turning down a similar path offered to him. In June former Cleveland Browns football star Jim Brown invited eight black athletes, including the Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor, to meet with Ali in Cleveland. Sportswriters speculated that they would ask Ali to reconsider his draft position and enter the army, but no one actually asked him to fight in Vietnam. At a press conference, Brown explained that the athletes supported Ali and that they discussed the problems confronting black America. Although the meeting seemed inconsequential, it was the first time that black athletes unified across various sports to rally behind a single cause. The Nation of Islam’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, observed that it demonstrated “a growing unity among outstanding figures of the black athletic world.”
It was an important moment for Lew Alcindor. As a teenager, he admired Bill Russell because he was intelligent, politically aware, and uncompromising in his principles. And now, as a young man, he stood beside Russell and some of the most important black athletes in the country. “I remember being very flattered and proud to be invited to the meeting,” Alcindor later reflected, “because these were professional athletes and I was just in college. And I was one hundred percent behind Muhammad’s protesting what I thought was an unjust war.” For many African Americans, Ali was an inspiring symbol of black liberation. Although he may have been the only college athlete at the meeting, Alcindor’s presence revealed his growing identification with politically conscious black professional athletes. In Cleveland Alcindor realized that as a prominent college athlete, he shared a responsibility with Brown, Russell, and Ali to challenge the status quo.
Alcindor spent the rest of the summer in Harlem, working as a youth mentor for Jim Brown’s Negro Industrial and Economic Union and the New York City Housing Authority. He conducted basketball clinics for inner-city youths, encouraging them to stay in school, support community action groups, and take pride in their racial and ethnic heritage. Sporting a “natural” Afro, his message conveyed the importance of black pride and black self-determination. In the rhetoric of Ali, he told a group of youngsters that “black is beautiful, don’t ever forget that.” African American sportswriter Howie Evans praised his grassroots activism, comparing the basketball hero to Father Divine, Daddy Grace, and Malcolm X. It was a rewarding experience, a reinforcement of Brown’s emphasis on self-help and community leadership among black athletes. In an interview with Sport’s Phil Pepe, Alcindor explained that he identified with the kids as much as they did with him: “I’m one of them. I was born and brought up on 100th Street and Seventh Avenue. These are the guys I grew up with. They’re my people. I’m responsible for them.”
From The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball by John Matthew Smith. Copyright 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the University of Illinois Press.
This program aired on November 2, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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