What initially sounded like frightening news to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — and anyone who has long admired him — apparently will have a happy ending. The Hall of Fame center is being treated for a rare form of leukemia, but doctors have told him that with medication he should live a long, healthy life without drastic lifestyle changes.
It’s good news for a unique basketball personality and talent. I have interviewed Abdul-Jabbar several times — most recently last year after publication of his latest book, “On the Shoulders of Giants” — and he is a bright guy with a refreshing outlook on life.
Got me to thinking where Abdul-Jabbar — known as Lew Alcindor during his days at UCLA — ranks among the greatest college centers in history. Here’s my top-5:
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor), UCLA. His teams won three straight NCAA titles, went 88-2 in three seasons, and he was just beginning to perfect what became the greatest weapon in sports — the skyhook. In 12 career NCAA tournament games, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 25.3 points and 16.8 rebounds.
2. Bill Russell, USF. Before helping to build an NBA dynasty with the Boston Celtics, the McClymonds High grad led San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA crowns in 1955 and ’56. He averaged more than 20 points and 20 rebounds as a college player. Mostly, he made defense cool.
3. Bill Walton, UCLA. Could have — perhaps should have — won three straight national titles, but the Bruins faltered in the national semifinals his senior season. Walton led UCLA too back-to-back 30-0 seasons and contributed to a record 88-game win streak. His stat line in the 1973 national title game: 21-for-22 from the field, 44 points.
4. Wilt Chamberlain, Kansas. Even more dominant as a pro, where he averaged 50.4 ppg one season and scored 100 points in a game. The Dipper averaged 29.9 points and 18.3 rebounds in two college seasons, but his Jayhawks team is best remembered for losing a triple-overtime game to North Carolina in the 1957 national championship game. Wilt managed just 13 shot attempts in the 55-minute contest.
5. George Mikan, DePaul. One of the first great big men, Mikan was a unanimous All-America pick in 1944, ’45 and ’46, averaged 19.1 points for his career (when that was a lot) and led the Blue Demons to the 1945 NIT title (when that mattered).
Honorable mention: Patrick Ewing, Georgetown; Artis Gilmore, Jacksonville; Elvin Hayes, Houston; Dan Issel, Kentucky; Bob Kurland, Oklahoma A&M; Christian Laettner, Duke; Bob Lanier, St. Bonaventure; Clyde Lovellette, Kansas; Shaquille O’Neal, LSU; Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon, Houston; Bob Pettit, LSU; Willis Reed, Grambling; David Robinson, Navy; Ralph Sampson, Virginia; Nate Thurmond, Bowling Green; Waymon Tisdale, Oklahoma; Wes Unseld, Louisville.
Mostly, I’m just grateful we get to talk about Kareem in the present tense.