In the midst of UCLA’s magical John Wooden-era run, Lew Alcindor and Lucius Allen, frustrated over money and perceived ill-treatment, plotted transfers to Michigan State.
A Los Angeles businessman and UCLA booster, Sam Gilbert, stepped in and provided Alcindor and Allen an easier life. “Gilbert,” writes John Wooden biographer Seth Davis, “provided Allen and Alcindor with more than just a place to put up their feet. He also helped them with their financial worries.”
If the nearly half-century-old story of money in amateur athletics sounds distinctly modern, it shouldn’t. As Davis describes, legendary coach John Wooden, himself a Hall of Fame player, stealthily played in a semi-professional game as a freshman at Purdue. Attempts to circumvent rules proscribing payment for amateurs predate the NCAA.
“Life for student-athletes is no longer the quaint Americana fantasy of the homecoming bonfire and a celebration at the malt shop,” the former Lew Alcindor writes at Jacobinmag.com. “It’s big business in which everyone is making money—everyone except the eighteen to twenty-one-year-old kids who every game risk permanent career-ending injuries.”
The six-time NBA Most Valuable Player details a time-strapped, cash-strapped existence as a student-athlete working summer jobs as a groundskeeper at UCLA and speaking to inner-city kids about the importance of education. He admits scalping UCLA tickets, with the aid of his mentor Sam Gilbert, for spending money.
Surely Kareem, as his recent articles strongly suggest, received something at UCLA that many collegiate athletes miss today: an education. From Jackie Robinson to Kenny Washington to Arthur Ashe to Rafer Johnson, UCLA clearly did more than recruit great athletes. They identified and cultivated great men. As the scandal over phantom classes as UNC-Chapel Hill indicates, elite schools increasingly see dollar signs in athletic recruits. The athletes provide the schools big bucks. The schools provide the athletes little in the way of education. If institutions of higher learning so grossly mock the whole notion of the student-athlete, why, Kareem appears to ask, should the players to continue with the act?
Such a caste system proved barely palatable when the game’s best coach earned a top salary of $32,500 in his last year at UCLA. But there’s something distasteful, Abdul-Jabbar insists, in not paying players when “the ten highest paid coaches in this year’s March Madness earn between $2,627,806 and $9,682,032.”
Kareem sees the decision enabling colleges to pay players a share of broadcasting and licensing fees a step in the right direction, albeit one destined to drag out in NCAA legal appeals for years to come. “In the meantime,” he quips, “the student-athletes continue to play Oliver Twist approaching the Mr. Bumbles of collegiate sports, begging, ‘Please, sir, I want some more.'”
Kareem knows the sky hook. He also knows writing.