Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Coach John Wooden: The Decision to Boycott the 1968 Mexico City Olympics

Lew Alcindor and Coach John Wooden
Lew Alcindor and Coach John Wooden

The 1964 US men’s basketball team had a chip on its shoulder because it was feared they would be the first American team to lose a game in the Olympics, even with NBA champions Bill Bradley, Walt Hazzard, Mel Counts, Luke Jackson and Jeff Mullins, as well as famed coach, Larry Brown. USA took gold fairly handily at the Tokyo Games.

But one could argue, in retrospect, that the 1968 US men’s basketball team had even less star power and a greater chance of losing a game. There were future NBA champions Jo Jo White and Spencer Haywood, but the rest were a collection of (certainly) great athletes, many of whom ended up bouncing around the American Basketball Association.

The person who could have been the center of attention on the team was the UCLA star, Lew Alcindor. Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, led his high school to three straight NYC Catholic championships, and then, from 1967 to 1969, three straight NCAA championships with UCLA.

Abdul-Jabbar was in his collegiate prime, but declined to go to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. In fact, he boycotted the Olympics to protest what he believed to be injustice for black Americans. The now NBA hall of famer and 6-time NBA champion published a book entitled “Coach Wooden and Me“, and explained his rationale, as excerpted in this article from NBC Sports. He wrote that while he wanted to go to Mexico City and play against the world’s best, he felt that it was more important to raise his social activist voice:

…the idea of going to Mexico to have fun seemed so selfish in light of the racial violence that was facing the country. The previous summer had seen two major riots, one in Newark that had lasted five days, and one in Detroit that had lasted eight days. And on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. White America seemed ready to do anything necessary to stop the progress of civil rights, and I thought that going to Mexico would seem like I was either fleeing the issue or more interested in my career than in justice. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I did go and we won, I’d be bringing honor to the country that was denying our rights.

Coach Wooden and Me

The decision to boycott by the great center for the UCLA Bruins spurred “a firestorm of criticism, racial epithets, and death threats.” But he explained that the UCLA administration and his famed coach, John Wooden, did not try to dissuade Abdul-Jabbar from his conviction to protest. And yet, Abdul-Jabbar, then and for many years later, felt in his heart that Wooden did not approve. Although Wooden never voiced his views, Abdul-Jabbar thought, “I just knew that he was very patriotic. He had been a lieutenant in the navy during World War II. I couldn’t imagine him endorsing my refusal to play in the Olympics and bring glory to the U.S.”

But he was wrong.

Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his book that he received a letter from a woman he did not know about a letter that she got from Coach Wooden, in reply to her letter to him criticizing Abdul-Jabbar’s decision to boycott the Olympics.

Dear Mrs. Hough,

The comments of this most unusual young man also disturbed me, but I have seen him hurt so much by the remarks of white people that I am probably more tolerant than most.

I have heard remarks within his hearing such as “Hey, look at that big black freak,” “Did you ever see such a big N—-r?” and others of a similar nature that might tend to turn the head of a more mature person in normal times. I am truly afraid that he will never find any peace of mind regardless or not of whether he makes a million dollars. He may be able to afford material things, but they are a poor substitute for true peace of mind.

You may not have seen or read about the later interview when he said that there were so many things wrong at present of the treatment of his race in this country that it was difficult for him to claim it as his own.

Thank you for your interest,

John Wooden

Wow. To have one’s perceptions flipped 180 degrees in a moment, to realize that such unspoken assumptions, living quietly in one’s bosom for decades, were false, can be both dagger and balm.

I read the letter again. Then again. Oh, Coach, I thought, I wish I’d known how you felt. If only to ease the burden you’d taken on to defend me. I thought back on my own arrogance at thinking I understood the man by reducing him to the kind of easy stereotype, the very thing that I’d been complaining about my whole life when it was done to me. He’d been too humble ever to say anything to me about the letter. Most people would have made a point of telling me how they’d come to my defense. But Coach Wooden didn’t care about receiving credit. A good deed was its own reward. Seeking praise or gratitude would have negated the deed.

I will have to add “Coach Wooden and Me” to my read list.