In 1965, Lew Alcindor (to become known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was thought to be the greatest high school basketball player in history. He led Power Memorial Academy, a Catholic high school in Manhattan, to three New York City Catholic championships and the mythical "national high school championship" as a junior, beating the famous DeMatha High School at the University of Maryland.
Over 60 colleges made offers to Alcindor. Originally, he leaned towards St. John's, Columbia, Boston College and Michigan (he also visited Holy Cross, but only as a courtesy, since his high school coach had taken the coaching job there), but he was always aware of UCLA. The Bruins has won the last two NCAA championships, and he liked their style: the pressing and running, but he especially liked the teamwork. Alcindor also liked the Hollywood-inspired image of the sun and fun Southern California lifestyle compared to gritty New York where he had taken notice of racial bigotry as early as the third grade. Alcindor was aware of the African American tradition at UCLA which was the home of Jackie Robinson, Rafer Johnson, Don Barksdale and Arthur Ashe, currently a sophomore at UCLA.
Meanwhile, J.D. Morgan had become the Athletic Director in July, 1963. He visited Wooden in his small office a few days before the 1964 tournament began. Wooden was putting together the team budget for the following season. Morgan threw the papers in the trash - Morgan would worry about the budget and the scheduling from now on. Morgan recognized a great asset, the men's basketball team on the precipice of its second national championship in a row, when he saw it. Pauley Pavilion was coming in the Fall of 1965, and Morgan wanted to keep the train rolling. He was the one who promoted Jerry Norman to assistant varsity coach, and instructed him to recruit aggressively. In 1965, Morgan had to have Lew Alcindor, and made that clear to Norman.
Alcindor had his high school coach, Jack Donohue, call Wooden in the spring of 1964 to tell him that Alcindor was interested in UCLA. Wooden was apprehensive at first. He had never built a team around a big man, and he knew the expectations would go through the roof if Alcindor came to Westwood. After Alcindor visited Los Angeles, his parents insisted on meeting the coach before they sent their son so far away. Though reluctant, Wooden made a trip to New York. J.D. Morgan made sure that Jerry Norman went with him.
In the Spring of 1965, Alcindor flew to Los Angeles, and was met at the airport by Jerry Norman and players Edgar Lacey and Mike Warren, the freshman point guard. They put Alcindor up in a two bedroom suite that was usually reserved for visiting professors and other VIPs. The players took Alcindor to a rock concert in Ackerman and midnight dinner in Westwood. The next day they toured campus, showed Alcindor around town including trips to the beach and the Hollywood Hills. The day ended with a party in one of the dorms.
Knowing Alcindor was interested in journalism as a possible major, Jerry Norman took him on a tour of the Daily Bruin. He also introduced Alcindor to Arthur Ashe, the star tennis player.
Finally, Alcindor met Wooden in his office. Though his initial impression of Wooden was that of a square, bespectacled little old man with a Midwestern twang, Alcindor liked Wooden. He had been promised the moon by almost every college coach in America, but Wooden, who called him Lewis, only promised him a quality education. Wooden told him that was impressed by his grades and that he would do well at UCLA. Alcindor felt respected by Wooden. Everyone said they liked big Lew, but Alcindor thought Wooden was the only one who meant it.
Alcindor made his college decision there and then in Wooden's office. On May 4, 1965, in the Powell Memorial gym, in front of 80 members of the media, Alcindor announced that he would be attending UCLA.
Check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 in this Wooden series based on the Seth Davis book.