Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Old-School UCLA vs. New-School Kentucky

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“Talented Tommy Heinsohn gets his hook shot swatted into the third row of seats of Madison Square Garden” thanks to Bill Russell. (From the 1956 University of San Francisco yearbook)

I recently examined how good Kentucky’s defense has been this season compared to the best teams in college basketball history. The piece is in SLAM here.

Naturally, the great UCLA teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s (winners of 88 straight! Seven straight national championships!) were part of the analysis. And fortunately two of the best Bruins of this era – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes – provided me with some first-hand insight.

I found out that Abdul-Jabbar considered the best UCLA defense he played with to be different from what UCLA’s media guide indicates. Jabbar’s senior team (1968-69) held all of its opponents to an average  of 37.4 % field goal shooting and 63.8 points a game. Those numbers were at 38.4% and 67.2 ppg the previous season.

And yet it’s Kareem’s junior year, 1967-68, which he considers the best college defense he played on. He explains:

      “That was our most versatile team. The depth and the good athletes made that our best team.  The only loss we had was against the University of Houston because I had a sub par game having spent the previous week in the Jules Stein Eye Clinic with an injury. Everyone counted us out until we had the rematch in the NCAA Tournament and beat them by 32 points.
        I had kept the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Elvin [Hayes] hanging inside my locker for the rest of the season as a reminder and motivator. Since this was the first loss my UCLA teams experienced I didn’t want it to be a repeat occurrence. It must of worked because I only lost two games during my entire college career.”

I’m not one to argue with an authority like KAJ. It’s very possible the ’68 defense was actually better than ’69  relative to how strong its opponents were. Unfortunately, we don’t have the same kind of strength of schedule metric for teams of this era as we do for more recent teams.

The work around, as I detail in SLAM, is to look at how teams performed purely against Associated Press Top 25 foes. Those specific stats often take work to come by, but they are worth it.

Here are other excerpts from my January interview with Abdul-Jabbar, who recently authored the latest installment of his “StreetBall Crew” series for young adults:

Q: I know many rules have changed since the 1960s, but how do you think that [1967-68] defense would have fared against some of the top teams in modern NCAA basketball?

A) I think we would have been just as dominant as we were in the Sixties. I think the fact that our players had to stay in school and could not jump to the NBA enabled them to learn the game in-depth and the one and done players don’t have that type of complete fundamental preparation.

Q) Do you feel like the best UCLA team you played on would have been athletic enough, overall, to beat a modern elite NCAA team?

A) Modern elite NCAA teams do not feature players who have stayed through their junior and senior years and lack the in-depth competence of a team that has upper classmen. I still think we would  have to be considered as one of the best teams that ever played college ball.

Q) On the defensive end, what similarities do you see between the 2014-15 Kentucky team and your best defensive UCLA team? Are there any current Wildcats (or Wildcats on the 2010 or 1996 teams) that remind you of any Bruins on that team (in style of play, physicality or both)?

A) I haven’t seen the Wildcats play recently so I can’t compare them, but I do know that they are dominant team from the way they whipped UCLA and held them to 7 points in a half.

Q) In your opinion, what are the best two or three defensive teams in all of NCAA history?

A) Bill Russell’s 1956 USF team*, John Wooden’s first NCAA championship in 1964 and my UCLA 1968 team are the three best. None of the modern teams would have been able to compete with Bill Russell’s teams or the UCLA teams because they lack the cohesion you get from staying in a program for four years. Bill Russell’s team featured two of the best defensive players that ever played in the NBA, namely Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. The 1964 UCLA team was undefeated – need I say more ?


*I would love to see how this team performed against Top 25 foes. Unfortunately, those box scores appear to be missing as of now. We do know for sure is that USF ’56 was very, very good, holding all foes to 31% shooting and 52 points a game.

Stay tuned for more excerpts from the Jamaal Wilkes interview, and some details numbers from my all-time teams comparison.

Joe Kleine Breaks Down Bobby Portis’ Post Game, Discusses North Carolina

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I had the chance to talk to the Razorback legend for a North Carolina-Arkansas mini oral history which runs on Sporting Life Arkansas today. Kleine, who recently finished his eighth season as an assistant coach with UALR, was pivotal figure in leading Arkansas to an historic 1984 win over No. 1 UNC. I couldn’t help also ask him about what will happen in Saturday night’s second round game between the programs, in which Arkansas has a shot to break into its first Sweet 16 since 1996.

Q: What’s your take on the Tar Heels?

A: I think they’re talented. Especially Marcus Paige –  he’s a really good point guard. Any time you’re pressuring as much as Arkansas does, a really good point guard worries you. Because he gets through there, he can cause a lot of trouble.”

Q: Bobby Portis has had a great season, you agree. In order for him to take his game to the next, where do you think he must most improve?

A: I’m a little leery to critique him because I’m not there, seeing him every day. These are things I’ve noticed just one or two times – in his post play, as with all young post players, he’s got to develop a counter move with his left hand.

I’ve seen him do some things with his off hand but he’s got to get the point where he can put it up over his shoulder with Taken by Marc Henning of marcfhenning.comhis left hand as well as he does on the other side. Still, I love his face up game and his rebounding. He has a tenacity there that is a really, really good sign … He just has to continue to work on his face up game, get to the point where he can drive as well with his left hand as with his right.

Q: Sounds like he would do well to spend a little time in Hakeem Olajuwon’s post-up training academy.

A: I’m 53 years old, and I would be well served by spending time in that academy. That man is simply amazing.

Q: How good can Bobby be?

A: Worst case scenario, for Bobby Portis, I see Joe Kleine – a guy who can play a long time in the league, can spot shoot, can defend. Whether he can be a big time scorer, that remains to be seen. His ability to score against bigger, taller, more athletic guys is going to be indicative of what kind of career he’s going to have.

Q: Overall, who do you expect to win on Saturday night?

A: You could make an argument either way. You’ll have two good teams playing on edge, that have a lot to lose, with a lot of emotion. It’ll bring out the best in both of them … I’m a fan of Arkansas – that’s gonna push me toward them. I wouldn’t want to make a living having to pick the outcome of that game.

Q: UALR head coach Steve Shields was just let go. It’s hard for me not to ask: What are your plans now?

A: I want the job. I’ve thrown my name in, I’ll put that way.

Malik Monk vs Corliss Williamson, Keith Lee & Willy Cutts

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwXLU29B8Y8&w=560&h=315]

Malik Monk’s 35 points per game average so far this postseason is on track to likely be the most impressive in state history.

I looked at the post season performances of Joe Johnson, Ronnie Brewer, Corliss Williamson and KeVaughn Allen for Sporting Life Arkansas and found none of them have come close to the sheer, terrifying scoreboard deluge Monk is currently unleashing. Big Nasty came closest in his senior year at Russellville by pouring in 29.7 ppg in the state tournament.

Out of burning, insatiable, Arkan-nerdified curiosity, I also want to know how the old-school greats compare here. The closest comparison I could find to Monk, in terms of pure scoring ability, was Willy Cutts, a McDonald’s All-American from Bryant by way of Conway by way of Little Rock. Cutts played on one of the first Arkansas Wings AAU teams, and once dropped 66 points on a north Louisiana squad led by future NBA All-Stars Joe Dumars and Karl Malone, according to Billy Woods’ indispensable “60-0: The West Memphis Basketball Dynasty.”

In the 1980 state tournament, Cutts, as a sophomore, averaged 33.5 points in his two games before bowing out to West Memphis. Keith Lee and Michael Cage were West Memphis’ headliners and the main engines to their historic 60-0 run. Lee was the more polished scorer of the two, but never had to be the postseason scoring monster Monk has become.

Among scorers at the highest classification who lead their teams to the title game, it appears LR Central’s Fred Allen is Monk’s closest all-time parallel. In the 1972 state tournament, the 6’2″ scoring guard racked up 28 points against Jonesboro, 36 points on North Little Rock, 31 points on Parkview and 30 points against El Dorado for the AAA-AAAA crown.

Based on the official AAA records, it’s unlikely any big schooler has averaged above Allen’s 31.25 ppg in a three-game-or-more postseason run. All the more impressive given the top shooters of this era didn’t have the three point shot.

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Honorable mentions goes to Allen’s top rival of the era: Parkview’s Dexter Reed.

Reed was a force of nature in his own right and as a sophomore in 1971 averaged 29 ppg in a four-game postseason stretch – including a then-record 43 points in a state title game against Helena. He doesn’t appear to have topped that in his next two postseasons.

Perhaps I missed some all-time great scorers here. For instance, it’s possible big schoolers like LR Catholic Chris Bennett or Scipio Jones’ Eddie Miles deserve mention, too. I just haven’t been able to find their postseason numbers.

Give me hell if I’m missing someone obvious.

 

** Above, I didn’t look at the schools that haven’t been in the state’s top two largest classifications. Most postseason scoring records do belong to players from smaller schools.

N.B. Sidney Moncrief was an outstanding prep baller – averaging 19.2 points and 14.1 rebounds his senior year in high school – – but he didn’t explode for 30 points often in the postseason. Hall’s 6’9″ center Gary Tidwell also led the team in scoring a lot. Also, I haven’t forgotten about Ron “Boothead” Brewer and Marvin Delph. They are coming soon…

 


 

*Statistical Lagniappe!*

Keith Lee / West Memphis

 

1980 state tournament (as a junior)

West Memphis 60; Jacksonville 43 (15 points)

West Memphis 83; Conway 63 (30 points)

West Memphis 57; Forrest City 49 (21 points)

[West Memphis played two additional postseason games to win the now-defunct Overall State Championship between each classification’s champion]

 

1981 state tournament (as a senior)

West Memphis 55; Russellville 37 (18 points)

West Memphis 66; Hot Springs 47 (15 points)

West Memphis 79; Conway 58 (27 points)

Ludacris to Play an Arkansan in Upcoming Movie about the NBA’s Jackie Robinson

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 An upcoming major motion picture about Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, the first African American to sign an NBA contract and play in an NBA game, will have strong Arkansan roots. Clifton, who grew up near England, Ark. in Coy in the 1920s, starred with the New York Knicks in the 1950s and was posthumously inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame alongside Nolan Richardson last summer.

 The character of native Arkansan Louis Jordan also features into the plot for “Sweetwater.” Jordan, who grew up in Brinkley, Ark., was one of the towering entertainment figures of the 1930s through early 1950s, a star in the music and film businesses with wide appeal across all races. He briefly attended Arkansas Baptist College before heading north, where he ultimately landed in New York City. There, he fell into the same circles as Clifton and Clifton’s mistress, an aspiring blues singer, according to Martin Guigui, the movie’s writer and director.

  Rap superstar Ludacris will play Jordan. Guigui said last summer he discussed the project with Ludacris, a veteran of multiple movies such as Fast and Furious 6, and the entertainer told him he wanted to be involved any way he could. Guigui decided Jordan’s character was the best fit for Ludacris’ talents. Ludacris will also be involved in the not-yet-made “Sweetwater” soundtrack, which may feature contemporary hip hop music as well as updates to Swing Era classics.

  Actor Wood Harris, perhaps best known for his role as Avon Barksdale in the HBO series The Wire, will play Clifton.