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Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

With his performances in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, Kevin Love cemented his inclusion in the discussion of great UCLA centers. Of course, that discussion includes Hall of Famer Bill Walton and begins with the greatest college basketball player of all time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

This month in SLAM Magazine , Dave Zirin reminds us that Kareem - then known as Lew Alcindor - was more than just a great player on the court. He was also a brave and principled man off the court.

Though all of our focus is on the upcoming game with Western Kentucky, we pause a moment to reflect on our championship legacy and the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.


SLAM Magazine does many things well and a few not so well.

One of the best things they do - or have - or whatever - is run Dave Zirin's brilliant Louder Than a Bomb Column. Zirin - a journalist, author, blogger - writes about hoops and culture. His work, like his book about Muhammad Ali , takes no prisoners, offering smart (street smart, intellectual smart, just plain smart), tough takes about life and sport.

Unfortunately, one of the things SLAM doesn't do so well is get their website in line with their print magazine. Both are a worthwhile read, but (I'll get to the friggin' point now) Zirin's column is either non-existent online or so hard to find it might as well be.

Which makes it tough to blog about, since blogging sort of has a link-to-the-story mandate.

So, I've never blogged about Zirin before.

This time is different.

In the May 2008 issue (SLAM has a problem with dates, too, since it's only March 22 and I've had the issue for a week) Zirin's Louder Than a Bomb column is about one of Bruins Nations' own, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The column is titled, The Weight. It begins like this:

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the incendiary 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. These games are etched in our collective consciousness by track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos and the immortal black-gloved fists they raised to the heavens. But the '68 Games was more than a moment; it was a movement called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. It was also a movement `called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. It was also a movement that involved the finest basketball player on earth. His name was Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor. The goal of OPHR and Lew Alcindor was nothing short of organizing every African-American athlete to boycott the 1968 Olympics, as a defiant act of anti-racism.

Zirin's piece continues, outlining the OPHR's goals. My own disinterest in typing out the entire article (remember: no link that I can find) - not to mention some pesky copyright laws preclude me from presenting the whole story. In a nutshell, the organization's mission was to not allow the United States to exploit "a few so-called Negroes" in the Olympics, only to have them return to a nation that oppresses them due to the color of their skin. There's much made of race traitors and racist whites.

Zirin continues:

This is what Alcindor signed on to, with the same calm demeanor and fierce courage he displayed on the court., even though he had everything to lose. "Big Lew" was the most prominent college athlete in the US, the center for John Wooden's dynastic UCLA Bruins teams. He was in the middle of an unprecedented run where he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four for three years in a row. His size, agility and grace forced the NCAA to outlaw dunking. Alcindor was expected to lead the '68 Olympic Team to Gold. He joined the Black Athletes revolt instead. As he said to Sports Illustrated "I got more and more lonely and more and more hurt by all the prejudice and finally I made a decision ... I pushed to the back of my mind all the normalcies of college life and dug down deep into my black studies and religious studies. I withdrew to find myself. I made no attempt to integrate. I was consumed and obsessed by my interest in the black man, in Black Power, black pride, black courage. That, for me, would suffice. I was full of serious ideas. I could see the whole transition of the black man and his history. And I developed my first interest in Islam."

DZ writes that Alcindor spoke at the first OPHR conference and that the UCLA student recounted how even though he was a big basketball hero, he was almost shot and killed by a racist cop in Harlem during the summer. Zirin reveals that the boycott fell apart and that is why our memory of those games is that of Lee and Smith standing on the victory platform, with their black-gloved fists raised during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.

But the man who would eventually change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stuck with his principles and refused to play in Mexico City - Zirin says that Lee and Smith had "a 7-2 ally standing with them." Kareem would, as we all know, would go on to become one of the greatest, maybe the greatest, NBA player of all time, with a fistful of World Championship rings, a mantel full of MVP trophies and more points than anyone else ever scored. The four-letter-network recently named him the greatest college basketball player of all time. He's now an author of history books (his latest is called On The Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance.

Zirin concludes with this, a sentiment I couldn't express better myself:

On this, the 40th anniversary of 1968, we should proudly stand on the shoulders of Kareem and this forgotten example of an athlete who put principle before glory. One thing about standing on Kareem's shoulders: We know he can take the weight.


Keep your browser aimed at Bruins Nation all week for our continuing coverage of the Bruins quest for Banner 12.