In 1966, during his sophomore season, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) averaged 29 points per game, with an absurd .667 FG% — largely because he was unstoppable around the rim. The following season, the NCAA rules committee declared that the slam dunk (one of Abdul-Jabbar's signature moves) would be banned from the game. Coincidence? Probably not.
This synchronicity aside, there were some practical concerns addressed by the ban. At the time, backboards and rims weren't built to sustain repeated slam dunks (or players hanging on the rim afterwards), so games had to be postponed or even canceled for repairs after teams put on dunking exhibitions in pregame warm-ups. There were also safety concerns, as backboards, which had not been built with dunking in mind, were being shattered, sending glass shards flying in all directions. Sounds like the good old days, right?
Despite all this, Abdul-Jabbar was the driving force behind the ban, even if his own coach – the legendary John Wooden — didn't believe so and supported the rule change. (He sided with the rules committee; claiming it would ultimately be good for his young player's overall game.)
He was onto something. According to renowned basketball scout Tom Konchalski, a fixture in the high school and college scenes for over 40 years, Kareem had three shots in his freshman season at UCLA: the dunk, the finger roll, and a fadeaway jumper from the right block. But because he was no longer able to just turn at the basket and slam it home, he became a more well-rounded player, honing his footwork away from the basket and eventually developing the shot that he would become famous for: the skyhook.
"He was going to dominate the college game no matter what," Konchalski told me, adding, "he was just unstoppable; there was no way to defend him."
Indeed, after leading the undefeated Bruins to a national title in the 1966—67 season, Alcindor (he wouldn't take the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar until winning his first professional championship in 1971) went on to win two more Division I titles while averaging 25 PPG over his final two seasons, completing a collegiate career that is widely regarded as the greatest in history.
The NCAA kept the dunking ban in place for another seven years, removing it after the 1975—76 season. The decision was largely based on the fact that with incredibly gifted athletes continuing to play above the rim — where they could just drop the ball in rather than dunk it — referees were often forced to make the difficult judgment call of whether or not the player's hand was in the cylinder (necessitating the call of basket interference). To ask an official to make the determination of whether a player's hand had broken a hypothetical line above the basket was just asking for controversy; it's no wonder the rule was eventually discarded.
If you take the NCAA rules committee at their word that the ban was created to prevent injuries and damage to equipment then it not only succeeded, but, also had the added effect of strengthening fundamentals for centers and other big players. It forced them to think away from the rim and gain skills that they otherwise might not have thought important to their game.
Looking back from the perspective of a modern-day fan, the ban illustrates how much the fans' relationship with the sports they love has changed. "If they were to try [to ban the dunk] now, the first integrated Million Man March would occur in Indianapolis," Konchalski said. The lack of pushback from the public at the time speaks somewhat to the docility of the fans 50 years ago, and demonstrates the degree to which the consumers control the product in today's sports world. These days, the present and future state of sports is in the fans' hands, and less in those of the owners and league officials.
Just imagine if the three-point shot was banned in 2014. Riots in the streets...
To learn more about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Blueprint, head to adidas Originals.
Craig Lowell is a Brooklyn-based writer. Since graduating from Holy Cross, he has written for Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, NBA TV, The Fan Hub, The Sports Post, and the North Adams Transcript.