Today is May 5, 2015.
Many significant events took place on May 5. It's a date associated with heroes. The date honors the victory of the Mexican Army over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. (It is not Mexican Independence Day, nor is it a date established so that American college students can drink themselves into oblivion.) On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard, a great hero, was the first American to fly into space.
Something happened exactly 50 years ago today that was significant in the life of a young man from New York City. It was also significant in the lives of every Bruin. It was the date on which another hero's decision got announced. Here's the headline from the Daily Bruin on May 5, 1965:
You younger Bruins need to know this stuff. Put it in perspective. We have had lots of great basketball players come through UCLA. But think about that Daily Bruin headline. It could have just as easily said "The Greatest Basketball Player of All Time Joins the Greatest Coach of All Time."
While Kareem is still recovering from his recent heart surgery, we were extremely privileged to conduct a written interview with him to celebrate this special anniversary. Here's the text of our interview:
BN: First and foremost, take care and get well, Cap. We need you.
Moving on: This is a sports blog, but it's first a UCLA blog. What was your first impression of UCLA when you got here initially?
KAJ: My high school had been a renovated old hospital, so when I first came to the UCLA campus in the spring of 1965, I was immediately impressed by the classic northern Italian architecture that was mixed with futuristic ultra-modern buildings. The classic architecture gave it the heft of old wisdom while the modernistic look inspired hope for the future. I was especially impressed with Pauley Pavilion. The floors hadn't been laid down yet, when they gave me the tour, each new room got my heart thumping. They even had a surgical operating room in case an athlete was severely injured.
BN: Laying aside any teachers of basketball, who was your favorite professor at UCLA?
KAJ: Dr. Hoxie, my Western Civilization professor. I had him in my freshman year and he opened up an extraordinary world to me that I've never forgotten. He used his extensive knowledge of art history to illustrate the development of Western culture and politics. When I traveled through Greece in the ‘90s, everything he taught me came flooding back and I was able to appreciate the art and culture much more because of him.
BN: Which of your professors had the most significant impact on you as a person, if he or she is not the same as your favorite professor?
KAJ: My English teacher, Dr. John Lindstrom, taught me an appreciation for the written word. Until his class, I'd dabbled in journalism and essay writing. But when he selected one of my essays as the best in the class, it gave me the confidence to see myself as a writer.
BN: You were on the scene in the mid-60's when the times, they were a-changing. Tell us about how that period impacted you, both at the time and as you matured.
KAJ: The Sixties was a perfect storm of disaffection with political leaders trying to pass off the same old platitudes to maintain the status quo and an unexpected courageousness in the masses of youth. Nothing on this scale had ever happened before in U.S. history and it hasn't happened since. Culture and politics were inseparable, which gave a soundtrack to political awareness and activism. For me, the bold jazz of John Coltrane and Miles Davis reflected the bold attitude in African-Americans finding their political identity and voice. Motown spread the word. UCLA acknowledged this shift by bringing in Alex Haley (the co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X) and Eldridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice) as speakers. But all was not sunshine and Marvin Gaye songs. They also recruited black students as part of a High Potential Program that was meant to bring diversity to the campus. Two of the students that were part of that program were Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter and John Huggins, Jr., both members of the Black Panther Party's Southern California Chapter. In January of 1969, after a meeting to discuss the leadership of UCLA's new Afro-American Program, they were murdered on campus by a rival black nationalist group, the United Slaves Organization. This shook up all the students, black and white, and made us all realize that what we were doing wasn't just an academic exercise, but had repercussions in the real world.
BN: A hardball question, and no dodging it: Why did you leave The Modern Jazz Quartet and the Boswell Sisters off the list of heroes on your website?
KAJ: The only reason is that I hadn't seen The Modern Jazz Quartet perform live and a live performance is often where the real experience of jazz takes place. I'm not familiar with the Boswell Sisters.
BN: How were you able to make "Airplane" without cracking up completely? Or were there plenty of outtakes? Surely you can tell us.
KAJ: We all had a lot of fun making the film, but there weren't a lot of outtakes or cracking up because we all were focused on doing our jobs in a professional manner. I was just starting out acting and wanted to be taken as a professional, not as an athlete doing a cameo.
BN: Aside from any games which you played with only one eye, who was the toughest opponent you played against while you were at UCLA?
KAJ: In 1969 in the NCAA semi-finals against Drake. At halftime we had a two-point lead. We finally defeated them by three points. That allowed us to beat Coach Wooden's alma mater, Purdue, in the finals, winning Coach Wooden his fifth NCAA National Basketball Championship at UCLA.
BN: You have made it clear that you think the "one-and-done" situation is hurting college basketball. Two questions about that: First, how would you fix the one and done problem if you were given whatever power you needed to fix it? Second, in retrospect, do you think you would have been a one-and-done if today’s rules were in place when you came to UCLA?
KAJ: I don't think it can be fixed on the college level. A minor fix would be to pay college athletes, but that's going to be a long dragged-out battle. The NBA could fix it by raising the age limit to 21, but they don't have any incentive to do so.
When I was at UCLA, the Harlem Globetrotters offered me a million dollars to come play for them. I turned it down because my education was just as important as playing ball. The lifespan of most professional athletes is relatively short, and most have no preparation for doing anything after their career ends, which it could in an instant.
BN: What's your take on paying NCAA athletes?
KAJ: I've discussed this in length in several articles. Common decency demands that they should be paid, but the only way it will happen is the same way workers got paid throughout American history, through a strong union.
BN: While you're at it, what one or two or five or more things would you do to put UCLA back at the top in NCAA basketball?
KAJ: I don't presume to second-guess any active coach. It's a difficult job which everyone who owns a TV thinks they can do better at.
BN: Which of your old Bruin teammates did you have the most fun with? Have you kept in touch with any of them? Tell us about it.
KAJ: I've kept in touch with many of my former teammates: Bob Marcucci was our team manager and we bonded over our passion for baseball. Ken Heitz got drafted by the Bucks the same year I did. He went to their camp just for the experience, then dropped out to attend Harvard Law School. I always admired his combination of athleticism and brains. Actor Mike Warren, who was in Hill Street Blues. There are more, but it's starting to sound like a team reunion at Red Lobster. They were a great bunch of guys and we accomplished a lot together. That's something you don't forget.
BN: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Kareem. Our best wishes for a speedy recovery.
Be sure to also check out our article A Look Back: "Alcindor Picks UCLA".