John Wooden died Friday. He was 99. Wooden was the legendary coach of the UCLA basketball team. His teams won seven consecutive NCAA national championships, 10 in 12 years. He was called the Wizard of Westwood, Westwood being the section of Los Angeles UCLA calls home.
He was a great coach, made more unstoppable by the procession of great high school players who chose his college program. Dominant among them all was Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In the mid-1960s, Alcindor played for Power Memorial High School in Manhattan. All of his games drew frenzied crowds. Everyone wanted to watch the seven-footer play. Power Memorial had a hard time finding quality scrimmage opponents, an even harder time finding neutral courts that wouldn’t turn every practice into a media event.
Enter Bernie Kirsner, coach of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Falcons, but more importantly, for this story at least, also coach of the Erasmus High School Dutchmen, a basketball powerhouse in its own right, city champions in 1965 and second in 1966. Kirsner had a keen eye for talent. It was he who cut short my basketball career, not even granting me a spot on Flatbush’s junior varsity squad. He saw right away I couldn’t dribble and drive to the basket. In all truthfulness, my jump shot wasn’t too dependable back then, either.
Kirsner arranged for Power Memorial to play Erasmus on an undisclosed date on a neutral court—the gym of Yeshivah of Flatbush. The afternoon of the game only Flatbush students could gain entry into the gym. My classmates even shared the locker room with Alcindor as he dressed for the game. They said he was “really big,” in more ways than one, if you get what I mean. They said the game was great fun to watch, really competitive.
They said a lot more, but as you’ve probably noticed by now, I keep deferring to what my friends said rather than giving my own version of the event. That’s because I wasn’t there—I cut school that day. Wasn’t sick. Just cut school. Who knew that I would choose to cut school the one day I could have watched Lew Alcindor up close and for free?
Years later, Gilda and I watched the now Abdul-Jabbar play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. After the game we saw him walking on Seventh Avenue. Gilda remarked how tall he was (7’2”), that she could probably walk through his legs without hitting her head. Recalling what my friends said some 10 years earlier, I suggested that probably couldn’t happen.