50 years ago, Alcindor and O.J. were both leaving L.A., but their paths quickly diverged

Two huge stars from rival schools in Southern California were drafted by pro teams in the chilly Rust Belt

This is a story of two young heroes, twins in timing and triumph but not in temperament. Fifty years ago, the pair conquered the storyland of Southern California and were moving on.

Their lives were linked in ways both uncanny and coincidental. One was named Ferdinand, the other Orenthal, though neither was ever called by those names. Each had a mother from the South. Both played for legendary college coaches named John, at rival schools. Each was among the most celebrated athletes in his respective college sport. In 1969, Lew Alcindor and O.J. Simpson were set to move from the warm familiarity of Los Angeles to the chilly unknowns of two midsize Rust Belt cities: Milwaukee and Buffalo, New York.

And yet as much as they shared, they were, in many ways, opposites.

In 1969, Lew Alcindor and O.J. Simpson were set to move from the warm familiarity of Los Angeles to the chilly unknowns of two midsize Rust Belt cities: Milwaukee and Buffalo, New York. And yet as much as they shared, they were, in many ways, opposites.

Their impending professionalism invited attention and judgment, even from people close to them. “Of course I’m glad to see Lewis get all he can get,” UCLA basketball coach John Wooden told UPI at the end of March. But, he continued, “No athlete is worth that kind of money, I don’t care how good he is.”

In July, Ron McGrath of The Daily Report  in Ontario, California, wrote that Alcindor and Simpson “are elevated onto pedestals in an endless sea of publicity. … They’ve been reading their own press clippings.” And “when athletes do that they’re headed for more trouble than the proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”

Although the media and public lumped them together, Simpson enjoyed this new world of commerce. Alcindor did not. He told The New York Times,  “A bidding war degrades the people involved. It would make me feel like a flesh peddler … I don’t want to think like that.” But a bidding war commenced anyway. The Harlem Globetrotters offered $1 million. The Milwaukee Bucks, which won the first pick in the NBA draft in a coin toss with the other expansion club, Phoenix, selected Alcindor and offered him $1.4 million for five years. The New York Nets, who had selected Alcindor first in the ABA draft, made an inferior bid.

“The Nets tried to come back,” recalled columnist Peter Vecsey, who was a beat writer covering the Nets at the time. “Alcindor told them, ‘One offer’ — that was it.” Of the second ABA offer, Alcindor told The New York Times, “This is not the way to do business. I gave [Milwaukee] my word. I would not want to welsh on them.”

Simpson was also a No. 1 pick. But he threatened to sue the AFL-NFL, which were entering their last year with separate schedules before officially merging, because he was limited to speaking with one team, the Buffalo Bills. The Bills’ attorney, former AFL Players Association lawyer Jerry Augustine, told Simpson such suits could take years, and, according to Sports Illustrated, he offered to pull samples out of his own file cabinet as evidence.

Simpson asked Buffalo for a figure based on Alcindor’s contract. Bills quarterback Jack Kemp told UPI that “not many teams can afford to give contracts such as … Lew Alcindor in basketball.” When negotiations stalled in May, Simpson asked to be traded, preferably to a West Coast team.

Simpson wanted to be insured for $500,000, rather than the standard $25,000, to play in the annual College All-Star Game against the Super Bowl champion New York Jets on Aug. 1. He and two other star college players eventually chose to skip the game rather than risk injury before signing their pro contracts.

While negotiations were proceeding that summer, Simpson filmed a bit part in a movie, The Dream Of Hamish Mose, about a lost team of buffalo soldiers after the Civil War. He was a guest star on the CBS drama Medical Center, which would premiere that September. During the shoot for the show in Santa Monica, California, he played touch football with extras.

Eventually, he retreated from his challenge of the AFL-NFL draft. His lawyer, Chuck Barnes, told Sports Illustrated in July, “… the more we think about it, the more we’re afraid that it’ll end up making him sound as if he’s challenging church, mother and home. All of a sudden we might have O.J. the bad guy.” When Buffalo convinced him that his earnings from advertisements were at least partially dependent on playing football, Simpson signed a four-year contract worth $350,000.

Lew Alcindor (right) takes a shot for Power Memorial Academy during a game against Archbishop Stepinac High at Madison Square Garden in New York. Alcindor was a national phenomenon in high school, setting a New York City schoolboy scoring record.

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Both Alcindor and Simpson came from working-class families, but they took different paths to college stardom. Alcindor came from New York City. His mom, Cora, who grew up in North Carolina, was a department store price checker and seamstress. At his high school games, she closed her eyes during play. Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr. came from a Trinidadian family and was a subway cop.

Simpson was born in San Francisco. His father, Jimmy Simpson, was a chef and bank custodian from Arkansas. His mother, Eunice Simpson, had grown up in Louisiana and raised four children on a nurse’s aide’s pay after Jimmy Simpson left when Orenthal was 4. Willie Mays had helped steer 15-year-old Simpson from delinquency after he did a stint in a youth detention center. “I was you know, goofing off a lot, loafing around, not busy enough. I … got in some trouble. If things hadn’t been different … I might still be standing on a corner,” Simpson told Life magazine in 1967. He married Marguerite Whitley shortly before he turned 20. She told the magazine that Simpson was “a terrible person” in high school. His response: “My wife, she’s very religious, she put me back on track.”

A juco transfer, Simpson didn’t burst into national prominence until he got to USC, coached by John McKay. He set team records for rushing in his junior and senior years, played in two Rose Bowls and won the Heisman Trophy his senior year. He was also an All-American sprinter, helping USC set a world record in the 440-yard relay in 1967.

Alcindor, by contrast, was a national phenomenon in high school, setting a schoolboy scoring record in New York. In an era when freshmen didn’t play varsity ball or leave early for the pros, he led UCLA to three national championships and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player each time.

USC running back O.J. Simpson gives the victory sign as he is carried off the field by hundreds of cheering fans in 1967. Simpson scored two touchdowns as USC beat UCLA, 21-20, in Los Angeles.

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The public thought of Simpson as jovial (a reputation cemented by his ads for Hertz, which showed him running through airports). On campus, Simpson told Life, “Yeah, I find students now stopping and staring at me. I guess I like it, though.”

Because of his early fame, Alcindor, even as a teen, interacted with celebrity athletes: Wilt Chamberlain loaned him suits. He trained with Bruce Lee. Jackie Robinson recruited Alcindor to his alma mater UCLA. As a college student, he joined Jim Brown, Bill Russell and other professional athletes at the famous Cleveland Summit in 1967 to discuss Muhammad Ali’s opposition to the draft.

Yet Alcindor was seen as aloof, a reputation fueled in part by the school’s athletic director, who had forbidden the entire freshman squad from communications with the media. And Alcindor found most UCLA students closeted bigots who couldn’t relate to black people. In the 1969 Sports Illustrated cover feature My Story, Alcindor wrote, “It wasn’t long before I realized that certain cats who hated my guts were giving me the big Pepsodent beachboy smile and saying, ‘Hello, how are you?’ ”

Fame brought expectations, especially when it came to social justice. According to Sports Illustrated, Simpson told USC’s Black Student Union that “I don’t have to go through any changes to prove I’m black enough. I am black, I knew it the day I was born.” When hundreds of athletes decided to boycott the New York Athletic Club track meet that was scheduled to open the new Madison Square Garden in February 1968 because the club was exclusively white, Simpson joined their ranks. He told Sports Illustrated, “I wouldn’t run that weekend if my mother was holding the meet.”

But Simpson rebuffed 1968 Olympic boycott organizer Harry Edwards, telling The New York Times that organizers tried to “use” him. “I’m not … enlightened on the situation. I don’t know … what they’re trying to do.”

When a reporter from the Daily Trojan student newspaper asked his opinion of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s raised-fist protest during a 1968 Olympic medal ceremony, Simpson said, “I respect Tommie Smith but I don’t admire him … I think they’re going about the boycott the wrong way. You can’t change the world until you change yourself. All this is going to do is make some Negro kid in high school football who isn’t playing first string quit, saying, ‘This guy isn’t treating me right.’ ”

Being perceived as militant would ruin the bigger picture. During a night out with Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times in the summer of ’69, he famously told the writer that whites didn’t see him as black, but as O.J.

Alcindor did boycott the Olympics. But he wasn’t naive about the result, telling the Los Angeles Times in March 1969, “Most black nationalists don’t know yet what it really means to run a nation.” Not long after the 1969 Final Four, Alcindor visited Trinidad. “The West Indies was the best trip I’ve ever taken,” he told the Times reporter. “Like the president is black. The cops are black … and you don’t feel no tension.

Lew Alcindor (left) accepts congratulations from his father, Ferdinand (right), after winning the 1969 NCAA championship at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Purdue 92-72 to win the title, Alcindor’s third.

Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

In August, Alcindor had his first experience of pro ball at the annual Maurice Stokes Benefit Game at Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskills in upstate New York. Bucks owner Wes Pavalon tried to fly in for the game, experienced turbulence and missed it. Alcindor dunked on Chamberlain early, made 6 of 11 shots, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked 4 shots. Ira Berkow later wrote in The New York Times that Pavalon asked former NBA player Jack Twyman, who founded the Stokes game, how things went. “Wes,” he responded, “your boy made some moves you just wouldn’t believe.”

In his last year as a college student, the Los Angeles Times reported that Alcindor lived in a yellow bungalow behind a modest townhouse at the end of a winding driveway in Encino, California, shadowed by sycamores. In Milwaukee, Alcindor was looking at a luxury apartment complex called Juneau Village. He settled on a 13th-story, two-bedroom corner unit with a view of downtown. (Two bedrooms ran $260-$308 a month.) Doors were raised and ceiling lights tucked flush to accommodate Alcindor’s height. The Bucks shipped Alcindor’s oversize bed to him from Encino, as USC shipped Simpson’s custom helmet to Buffalo. The Milwaukee Journal reported that women “seek his [Alcindor’s] unlisted phone number and stroll past Juneau Village.”

After Alcindor arrived in Milwaukee, Look magazine said he told veteran guard Jon McGlocklin he only wanted to play four or five years: “Live in Milwaukee? No, I guess you could say I exist in Milwaukee. I am a soldier hired for service and I will perform that service well.”

Milwaukee was happy to get him on those terms. On Alcindor’s first day of camp, there was a three-minute standing ovation when he walked onto the court. Ten thousand fans paid $2 apiece to see his first intrasquad game. Ticket sales went from an average of 6,200 a game in 1968-69 to 8,500 in Alcindor’s first season. Alcindor attracted huge crowds in the black community. In his first 45 days, he had 10 speaking engagements there.

Pavalon said of Alcindor, “He’s got such an image to live up to. … You can imagine what Lew is up against.”

The white sports press wasn’t always sympathetic, though. The Sporting News‘ Joe Falls excoriated Alcindor for his brevity with the media. Falls wrote, “Alcindor is supposed to stand 7’1″ 3/8 inches … I can tell you he is  much smaller than that. In fact, he is one of the smallest men I ever met. … They brought the big guy into a press conference. … It would have been better for all concerned — including Alcindor — if he had gone straight to his room and not talked to anybody. Never have I seen such a discourteous display put on by an athlete in any sport.” Falls wrote that he and his colleagues had neither time nor space to grill the rookie about his faith or his thoughts on race relations. “When he tells us, the media, that he isn’t interested in us, he is also telling you, the public, that he isn’t interested in you.”

O.J. Simpson, a San Francisco native, starred for the Buffalo Bills for nine seasons and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.

Ross Lewis/Getty Images

Simpson also had mixed feelings about his move to the Rust Belt. While his contract negotiations dragged on, he told Sports Illustrated he was building a new home in L.A.’s Coldwater Canyon. “I’ll buy myself one of those float-em deals and just lie on it in that pool until … I have to report. … I don’t mean to put down Buffalo, but when you got California in your blood, it’s there and you have a hard time being happy anywhere else.”

George Arthur, a Buffalo resident who served on the Erie County Board of Supervisors from 1964 to 1967, told The Undefeated, “People looked forward to O.J. coming. … We supported him. But he didn’t hang  out in the black community.”

Dan Darragh, the Bills’ quarterback at the time, told The Undefeated, “War Memorial [Stadium] was pretty intimate with the sidelines so close to our benches. They were typical Buffalo fans, so when things were going well you heard it from them, and when they weren’t — the same. You might get beer cans thrown at you while you’re walking to the tunnel.”

Simpson feared he’d be pelted with cans after his holdout, Sports Illustrated reported. But he was met at the airport by 2,500 fans, a kiss from a beauty queen and a handshake from the mayor. “I’ve been trying to get here for six months,” he told the crowd. Bills vice president Jack Horrigan gushed, “You’d think we just won a championship.”

Lew Alcindor (right) goes to the basket as his Los Angeles Lakers counterpart, Wilt Chamberlain (left), attempts to block his shot. Alcindor’s Bucks came up on the winning end, as Milwaukee prevailed 117-100 in 1970.

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Two differences in the rules eased Alcindor’s adjustment to the pro game. There was no ban on dunking in the NBA. Instead, the pro game banned zone defenses, which he had regularly faced in college. His new teammates were thrilled. “He’s the best big man I’ve ever seen,” Guy Rodgers, a future Hall of Famer who played six seasons with Chamberlain, told Ebony magazine. “He may be the first of the 7-foot backcourt men,” said guard Fred Crawford in Sports Illustrated. “He can dribble and make moves that no big man ever made before.”

The Bucks adapted to him. “On defense you play differently with him in there,” said Rodgers. “We take chances because we know Lew is there.”

Simpson’s adaptation was more challenging. His last year in college, he had been living in a two-room apartment near USC’s campus, with his wife, Marguerite, and their infant daughter, Arnelle. There was also a parakeet named Harvey and, according to Life, a red rubber tarantula hanging from the doorway to startle Simpson’s mother-in-law.

He took no such talismans to the Bills’ preseason camp in Niagara, New York. “Niagara wasn’t much of a college town,” Darragh said. “The chemical industry was still there. We had to cancel practice sometimes because of the air quality.” The players shared dorm rooms, and there was no air conditioning. After training camp, the Simpson family planned to reunite and stay in an apartment complex 6 miles from Buffalo on Niagara Falls Boulevard, where Bills players had their own floor.

Bills running back O.J. Simpson (32) is tackled by New York Jets defensive back Bill Baird (46) and Gerry Philbin (81). The Jets defeated the Bills 33-19 at War Memorial Stadium on Sept. 14, 1969.

Dick Raphael/USA TODAY Sports

When the rookie finally arrived in August, Kemp took Simpson to the coaches’ office. John Rauch, who had been AFL Coach of the Year in 1967 when he was with the Oakland Raiders, told Sports Illustrated, “I wouldn’t build my offense around one back no matter how good he is. It’s too easy for the pros to set up defensive keys. O.J. can be a terrific pass receiver, and we expect him to block, too.”

Defensive end Tom Day told Sports Illustrated he would perform the ritual of shaving the rookie’s head. “He’s like any rookie — a little cocky but a little shy. I think I’ll just cut an O and a J in his hair,” Day said. “But he has so many movie and TV contracts coming up that we may hold off for awhile. Wouldn’t want to ruin the boy.”

But others worried that Rauch was doing exactly that.

Art Spander, a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner, told The Undefeated, “Rauch was … old school. ‘You’re going to learn to play football.’ You don’t teach a lion to bite … you don’t teach O.J. how to run.”

“He was the best we had seen since Jim Brown,” Butch Byrd, a Bills cornerback from 1964 through 1970, told The Undefeated. “I had played in five All-Star Games, I was a good player. He was fabulous. But he was at Niagara doing some outrageous stuff. It made me wonder what it would feel like to be that good, to be that fast.”

“You could tell he was upset. Everyone but Rauch knew Rauch was wrong. [Simpson] did what he was told. … Everyone knew O.J. was going to be a star.”

Simpson’s regular-season debut came on Sept. 14 at home against the Jets. The game was broadcast nationally, and Simpson had a reception of nearly 60 yards and scored a touchdown. But Buffalo lost 33-19.

Alcindor’s pro debut, on Oct. 18 against Detroit, was also nationally broadcast. He scored 29 points and had 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks. The Bucks won by 19.

Alcindor that year led the Bucks to the Eastern Division finals, where they lost 4-1 to the New York Knicks. His 28.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game earned him Rookie of the Year honors. Simpson rushed for 697 yards and two touchdowns, caught 30 passes for three scores and averaged 3.9 yards per carry. But Buffalo finished 4-10. While Simpson was selected to the Pro Bowl, Boston Patriots back Carl Garrett and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Greg Cook divided the media’s AFL Rookie of the Year awards. On Jan. 27, 1970, in the last NFL draft before the merger season, the Bills selected USC defensive end Al Cowlings in the first round — largely on the recommendation of his best friend, Simpson.

After the Bucks were eliminated in the playoffs by the Knicks in New York, the team arrived back at Mitchell Field in the middle of the night and about 250 fans greeted them to cheer on their still-new franchise. The next day, April 22, Alcindor was waiting to board a plane for L.A. His eyes fell on a headline announcing that Cincinnati had traded Oscar Robertson to the Bucks.

Bijan C. Bayne, a frequent contributor to Andscape, is the author of Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How A Resort League Defied Notions Of Race & Class.