Keith Drum, a close friend of mine who is a scout for the Sacramento Kings, called me yesterday.
“Did you really write that Michael Jordan was the best college player you ever saw?” he said. “Tell me you didn’t write that.”
Well, I didn’t write that exactly. I wrote that I told Pat Riley he was the best college player I’d ever seen—which I did, in part because I was angry, in part because I was making a point and in part because it wasn’t entirely untrue. Jordan, as a North Carolina junior, was an absolute sight to see.
“Come on,” Keith pointed out. “You saw David Thompson.”
True, I did. And Thompson was, without doubt, a more dominant offensive player while at North Carolina State in the 1970s than Jordan was while at Carolina in the 80s. Part of that had to do with Dean Smith’s offensive system which rarely allowed one player to dominate the ball. But Thompson WAS an extraordinary college player.
Jordan went on to have arguably the greatest NBA career in history while Thompson’s career was short-circuited by drug problems. I think you could argue Jordan-Thompson no the college level in a lot of different ways. Certainly Thompson’s offensive numbers were better. Without question, Jordan was a better defender although Thompson’s block of Bill Walton in the 1974 Final Four is still one of the most amazing plays I’ve ever seen. Both had a lot of talent around them and both won a national championship. Certainly there would be a lot more spectacular Thompson highlights if the dunk had been legal when he was in college.
Having said all of that, I don’t think either Jordan or Thompson was the most dominant college player I ever saw. That would have to be Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). His UCLA teams were 88-2 and easily—I mean easily—won three straight national titles. It would have been four if freshmen had been eligible. Think about that for a second: if Alcindor had been eligible as a freshman the famous Texas Western-Kentucky game never would have happened.
I first saw Alcindor play when he was in high school. In those days, there was often a high school game played in Madison Square Garden prior to Knicks games and I saw Alcindor play for Power Memorial High School several times. He simply couldn’t be guarded, not just because he was 7-1 (listed, I think he was more like 7-4) but because he was so athletic and quick around the basket. He didn’t have the sky-hook then but he didn’t need it.
When he went to UCLA I was disappointed because there were stories in New York that he was going to stay home and go to St. John’s. He DID come back to New York as a senior to play in the Holiday Festival in the Garden. In those days the festival was truly a big deal: eight teams—four games the first day, four games (two consolation) the second and a tripleheader the third.
That year—December 1968—UCLA played as did North Carolina, Villanova, Princeton (which was a national power) St. John’s and Holy Cross—which was coached by Jack Donahue, Alcindor’s high school coach.
During the third place game between Carolina and Princeton (St. John’s had upset Carolina in the semifinals) the UCLA players, all in jackets and ties, sat in the stands and watched during the first half. I got every autograph—including that of a young broadcaster named Dick Enberg—finishing with Alcindor. Do I still have any of them? Nope. If I hadn’t lost all the autographs I collected as a kid I probably could have retired at 40.
I never rooted for Alcindor’s teams—especially in college. I didn’t dislike him or anything, I just preferred underdogs. I still remember seeing Houston and Elvin Hayes beat UCLA during Alcindor’s junior year when Alcindor was playing with blurred vision because he’d been poked in the eye.
Many years later, after Abdul-Jabbar retired, I needed to talk to him for the book I was writing on Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich (The Punch) since he had been involved in the initial skirmish that led to Washington almost killing Tomjanovich.
I called Abdul-Jabbar’s production company several times, left messages and heard nothing back. Finally, I got lucky: I ran into Josh Rosenfeld, who had been the Lakers PR guy when Abdul-Jabbar was there. “Let me give him a call,” Rosenfeld volunteered.
The next day the phone rang: It was Abdul-Jabbar. He was very forthcoming and honest about the incident and how he felt about it. I was grateful. I was even more grateful when the book came out and he called again. Usually when you get a call from someone who has been involved in a book or a story it’s to complain.
“I thought you did a very good job with a tough story,” he said.
Class act, I thought.
And, looking back, with all due respect to Jordan and Thompson, the best college basketball player I ever saw. He wasn’t a bad pro either, come to think of it.