How St. John’s lost Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and altered basketball forever

That morning, outside the Dyckman Street projects in Inwood, the kid had tried to do what had been impossible for him for years: stay invisible. Blend in. But Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr., though blessed with many things, was never granted the privilege of anonymity. Not at 7-foot-1.

So as he made his way to the subway for the daily trip south to Power Memorial High School, Alcindor saw a yellow taxi cab stop dead in the street.

“Hope you’re staying home!” the driver said.

As he passed a saloon, a member of the night-shift drinking crew popped out of the door and shook his hand.

“Where are you going to play?” the man asked.

“I’m not sure yet,” the kid said.

But Alcindor did know, even if he kept it locked inside his suit jacket pocket as he waited for the lunch-hour press conference he would hold inside Power’s gym at 161 W. 61st St. For three years, he had been the biggest basketball star in New York, much bigger than the rag-tag Knicks, bigger than the kids at St. John’s or NYU or Fordham.

For three years the biggest question in New York basketball had been this: Where would Lew Alcindor play college basketball? And on this day — May 4, 1965, 55 years ago Monday — that would be revealed at last.

“You knew,” Lou Carnesecca told me a few years ago, “that whoever got him was gonna be some kind of program. And whoever coached him was gonna look awfully smart.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, goes up for the shot in traffic against Rice on Feb. 11, 1965.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, goes up for the shot in traffic against Rice on Feb. 11, 1965.AP

Carnesecca was the newly named coach at St. John’s in that spring of 1965. Joe Lapchick, the school’s legendary basketball boss who’d just led the Redmen to the NIT title, was being forced to retire having reached 65. The Redmen were in play. So was NYU. So was Michigan and Boston College. And so was UCLA, which had just won its second-straight NCAA title.

Howard Garfinkel, later the founder and proprietor of the Five-Star Basketball Camp, was then a bird-dog scout who’d drafted a handicapping chart of where Alcindor would go; St. John’s was his prohibitive favorite, at 6-to-5. Garf listed UCLA at 3-to-1.

Alcindor had just completed the greatest high school career in New York’s history. He’d scored 2,067 points and grabbed 2,002 rebounds. Take a look at a YouTube video posted a few weeks ago by RawSports.tv, which shows Alcindor getting 32 points, 22 rebounds and 10 blocks in the ’65 Catholic League final, a 73-41 rout of Rice at Fordham’s Rose Hill Gym. He was not yet 18; he looks as polished as a 10-year pro, sky hook and all. Two hundred schools inquired. Most had seen him play every game his senior year.

John Wooden, the UCLA coach, hadn’t seen him play once. It was school policy to only recruit out-of-state players when the player called first. But Alcindor visited UCLA in April. The process lasted another month, but he’d made up his mind the moment he walked onto the campus, soaked in the sun, met Wooden, seen newly built Pauley Pavilion.

And at 12:33 p.m. on May 4, in the cramped Power gym, with dozens of reporters and photographers and classmates and teachers crowding the room, Alcindor said, “This fall I’ll be attending UCLA.”

They were the first words he’d ever spoken on the record; his high school coach, Jack Donohue, had kept him away from the press, and had coordinated much of the recruiting. Alcindor was charming, handling every question expertly, including the ridiculous ones. He was asked, “Are there any liabilities to being tall in basketball?”

“None that I can think of,” he said.

It was hard to know it, of course, but something changed forever in New York City that day. Other top-flight city players had found exile elsewhere, many playing for Frank McGuire at North Carolina, but Alcindor was different. He loved New York. And for most of his time at Power, he assumed he would choose St. John’s.

The former Lew Alcindor with coach John Wooden.
The former Lew Alcindor with coach John Wooden.Reuters

But he was disappointed when Lapchick was forced to retire. Before hiring Carnesecca, there had been talk that Donohue would get that job; he didn’t, going to Holy Cross instead (and there was little chance Alcindor was going to pick Worcester, Mass., over New York or Los Angeles).

A few years back, Alcindor — known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar since 1971 — told me, “I’d known Coach Lapchick since grade school. It was nothing against Coach Carnesecca, I just didn’t know him at all.”

To which Looie later quipped with a laugh: “I would’ve loved to get to know him better.”

Their paths would cross once: Dec. 30, 1968, finals of the Holiday Festival at the Garden. St. John’s kept it close for a half. Alcindor scored 30. The Bruins won 74-56. It was the first genuinely electric night in the New Garden, which had opened 10 months before, New York recognizing one of its own.

And pondering, no doubt, what might have been.