They Still Remember Power's Tower

Posted: May 25, 1989

It was the best high school basketball team in America, maybe the best ever.

It won 95 of 101 games during a four-year period. It won 71 games in succession. All while playing the toughest competition around.

The name on the jersey said it all: Power. As in, Power Memorial High School, New York City, 1961 to '65.

On the best of those teams, the undefeated '63-64 group, Art Kenney and Jack Bettridge were the forwards. Bob Grundstrom, Jack Bonner and Paul Houghton shared time in the backcourt.

The tower of Power was junior center Lew Alcindor, 6-10 going on 7-2, a shy, self-conscious teenager who later grew into the pro basketball legend known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Great team, great memories.

"Everyone in New York knew the name (Power)," Bonner recalled. "We used to play in the old Madison Square Garden as part of a doubleheader with the Knicks.

"It was a great feeling to be that young and sitting on top of the world."

Power Memorial is gone now. The school was torn down in 1983 as part of the Lincoln Center expansion.

And the kids who played on those championship teams have drifted apart. They are in their 40s now, married and pursuing different dreams.

Even the coach, Jack Donohue, has called it quits. He retired after 17 years with the Canadian national basketball team.

Only Kareem - or "Lewie," as they still call him - keeps going.

Now 42, Abdul-Jabbar is chasing one last NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers. Win or lose, he will retire after these playoffs, and the glory that was Power basketball will be retired with him.

Most people don't associate Abdul-Jabbar with New York anymore. They think LA, as in UCLA and the Lakers. That is where the big guy played for most of the last two decades.

But there is a link between Kareem and his Power teammates that spans the miles and the years. Every time an Art Kenney or Jack Bonner flips on the TV and sees Abdul-Jabbar in action, it brings back sweet memories of what it was like to be young and invincible.

"Lewie" is the uncommon thread that runs through all their lives. At parties, they still are introduced as "(fill in the blank) . . . he played high school ball with Kareem." It is almost like a hypenated last name.

They haven't had much direct contact with Abdul-Jabbar since he left New York in 1965. Kenney visited him a few times at the Garden and Bettridge called him for Lakers tickets whenever their paths crossed out of town. Otherwise, the old gang was held together by little more than nostalgia.

But now that Kareem's career is winding down, his former teammates find themselves pausing to reflect.

They saw the Alcindor era dawn and flourish, now they are watching it slip below the horizon. To a man, they feel privileged to have been part of basketball history, even though it seems a lifetime ago.

"Growing up in New York, I read about guys who played baseball with (Babe) Ruth and (Lou) Gehrig, and I'd think how neat that was . . . to be able to say you played with the best," Grundstrom said.

"I can do that now. I can say I played with the greatest basketball player who ever lived. And I can say I was part of the greatest high school team this city ever produced. Whether (other) people remember my name doesn't matter.

"I know I was there, I know I contributed," Grundstrom said. "That's good enough for me."

*

The Power Memorial team had a reunion last November at Madison Square Garden as part of the Knicks' tribute to the retiring Abdul-Jabbar.

Most of the old gang showed up. Houghton, 41, even brought his yearbook. Abdul-Jabbar sat with his former teammates before the game, paged through the book and asked whatever happened to certain teachers and classmates.

"It was fun to see him so relaxed," Houghton said. "He took us in the locker room and introduced us to the other Lakers. I brought my son and he got to meet Lew, too. I said, 'Maybe now you'll believe I played with this guy.'

"The nice thing was seeing that (Kareem) had not changed. He was happy to see everyone; he was very cordial with our families. He enjoyed talking about the old days. He really got into the yearbook, because he had lost his in the fire (which destroyed his Bel Air, Calif., home, in 1983).

"Basically, he was the same guy I remembered from 20 years ago, just balder and richer."

Abdul-Jabbar was the only player on that Power team to make it in the NBA. Most of the others played basketball in college, then pursued business careers in the New York area.

Only Kenney, the 6-8 redhead, stayed with the game. He played eight seasons in Europe after starring at Fairfield University.

Kenney had an unsuccessful tryout with the Baltimore Bullets in 1968 and signed with a professional team in Milan, Italy. He quickly became a favorite with the European fans, and acquired the nickname "King Arthur."

Today, Kenney, 43, is a vice president with the Shearson-Lehman investment group in Manhattan.

Houghton and Bettridge both attended St. John's and were reserves on a team that featured All-America Sonny Dove. Today, Bettridge, 43, has an office supply company in New York and Houghton owns a fish market on Long Island.

Bonner, 42, went to Central Connecticut State and helped the team reach the NAIA Tournament in 1967. He now is a building manager near Broadway. He plays softball, not basketball, on weekends.

"I played in a halfcourt game when I went to the Bahamas last year and I almost died from exhaustion," Bonner said. "That was halfcourt. How Lew lasted all these years is beyond me.

"I think he's the most amazing athlete who ever lived. Forget all the points he scored (an NBA career record of 38,387). Just think of all the miles he has run up and down the court. It is unbelievable."

Grundstrom, 42, now plays ice hockey in a men's league and coaches the sport at Hightstown (N.J.) High School. An Iona graduate, Grundstrom works for an executive search firm near Princeton.

"I played hockey and basketball as a kid," Grundstrom said, "and at my

size (5-10) I probably should have stayed with hockey. But basketball was the game at Power, so that's what I played.

"I wasn't the most talented guy around, but I was a plugger. Donohue liked that."

The teenage Alcindor wasn't exactly poetry in motion, either. When he enrolled at Power in 1961, he was a gawky 6-9. His hands were as useless as they were large.

"If you threw Lewie a pass, chances were pretty good it would hit him in the forehead," Bettridge said.

"He was horrible as a freshman. It didn't seem like he enjoyed playing. It was like somebody told him, 'You're tall. Go play basketball.' "

Kenney agrees that Alcindor was "awkward" as a ninth-grader, but he disputes Bettridge's view that young Lew didn't like the game. Kenney says nothing could be further from the truth.

"I knew him better than anyone," Kenney said, "because we grew up in the same housing project (Dyckman Street in Manhattan). We went to the same grammar school (St. Jude's). I'm the one who sold him on attending Power with me.

"Basketball was our life back then. On weekdays, we'd play at school. On weekends, we'd play at the park on 204th Street. We'd pack a lunch and stay all day. A lot of older guys played there. That's how we developed our game.

"He grew so fast that it took a while for his skills to develop, but he worked hard. He skipped rope, he played handball to improve his quickness. He was as dedicated as any of our guys.

"He didn't just grow into being the best high school player in the country. He worked at it."

Alcindor endured the customary freshman treatment at Power. As the youngest player on the varsity, he was responsible for carrying the equipment bags and cleaning up the locker room after practice.

And when coach Donohue got free passes to a Knicks game, the freshman was last in line to receive one. Those were the team rules. As a result, Lew usually got shut out.

But Alcindor never complained, not even late in the season when his play improved so dramatically that he carried Power to the semifinal of the city high school tournament.

"Lew was very quiet," Grundstrom said. "He wasn't unfriendly, he was just shy. He had a pretty good sense of humor around us, but he was insecure around other people."

You didn't need a psychology degree to figure out what was wrong. Young Lew was one of the few blacks at Power, an all-boys Catholic high school. He was the only black on the basketball team until his junior year.

Combine Alcindor's youth and visibility with the racial tension of the '60s, and it made for a lot of stress.

Said Donohue: "I told Lewie he belonged to the ultimate minority group: tall, black, Catholic, private school, only child and destined to be a great athlete."

In short, it wasn't easy fitting in.

"We'd go to dances and I'd feel bad for Lew because kids would make fun of him," Bonner said.

"We'd ride the subway and people would recognize him. You know how many jerks there are in New York. Somebody would come up and say, 'Hey, Al, ain't that you? Al Cinder?' That made him withdraw even more.

"Lew kept a lot to himself. Like, I had no idea he was visiting Wilt (Chamberlain) back then, borrowing his records, hanging out. He never told us. I didn't know it until a few years ago when I read his book. I thought, 'Well, I'll be damned . . . ' "

Although the teenage Alcindor often felt lost away from the court, he became a poised and dominant figure on the floor during his final two high school seasons.

He averaged slightly more than 20 points a game, which isn't much when you consider he has averaged about 24.6 points a game during the regular season in the NBA. But he played in a system under Donohue that stressed teamwork and balance.

"Lew could have scored 40 every game if Jack let him," Grundstrom said, ''but the idea was to get good shots, and the way defenses packed it in on Lewie meant the rest of us were open. And we had some good shooters.

"To his credit, Lewie never griped about it. He didn't seem to care about individual statistics. As long as the team was winning, he was satisfied."

Donohue also refused to run up the score on a weak opponent, which meant Alcindor spent most fourth quarters (and quite a few third quarters) on the bench, watching the junior varsity mop up.

Donohue had an excellent rapport with his star player until late in his junior season, when the coach went too far in a halftime speech.

In his 1983 book, "Giant Steps," Abdul-Jabbar recalls Donohue telling him he was playing "like a nigger" in a game against a rival high school. He played well in the second half and Power rallied to win going away.

After the game, Abdul-Jabbar wrote, Donohue called him in his office and said: "See, my strategy worked. I knew if I used that word it would shock you into a good second half."

Abdul-Jabbar claims he lost all respect for Donohue that day. He considered transferring to another school, but he stayed at Power for his teammates' sake.

There is no relationship between the two men anymore. Donohue did not attend the Abdul-Jabbar ceremony at Madison Square Garden in November. He cited commitments in Canada. It is questionable whether he would have come in any case.

"I'm sorry Lewie took it that way," Donohue said in a recent interview. ''I didn't realize he felt that way until years later. It didn't happen the way he wrote it.

"We had played a terrible first half. The kids were going through the motions. I was chewing everybody out, and I said to Lewie, 'You're giving those idiots in the stands a chance to say: Look, he's playing like a nigger.' Those were my exact words.

"I didn't call him a nigger. I don't use that word. I thought Lewie knew me better than that."

The other players who were in the room that day don't remember the exact words Donohue used, but they do remember the impact.

"When Jack said it, there was dead silence," Bonner recalled. "We had several blacks on the team then, and you could feel the tension.

"I sensed it was wrong the instant Jack said it; I just didn't know how wrong. Lewie was a sensitive kid; I figured it probably cut him pretty deep. He never talked about it - not with me, anyway - but it obviously stayed with him all those years.

"I feel bad for Jack, the way things worked out," Bonner said. "He is an unbelievably classy guy who just made a mistake. We all say things we wish we could take back. I'm sure Jack wishes he could take back what he said in the locker room, but he can't."

The closest Donohue has come to making contact with Abdul-Jabbar was during a 1987 Hawaiian vacation. Donohue passed Kareem's summer home in Kauai and considered leaving a note in the mailbox. However, the front gate was locked, and Donohue never bothered to go back.

"We've gone our separate ways," Donohue said. "That's part of the business. I'm still proud to say I coached Lewie. That will never change."

Abdul-Jabbar's former teammates feel the same way. His presence brought their Power team national media coverage and opened the doors to some big-time arenas.

Example: In Kareem's junior year, Power played DeMatha High, of Hyattsville, Md., in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the University of Maryland's Cole Fieldhouse. It was a matchup of the top two high school teams in the country and Power won handily.

DeMatha won the rematch the following year to snap Power's 71-game winning streak.

The nucleus was broken up by then: Kenney, Bonner and Bettridge had graduated. Grundstrom was lost with a broken ankle. The team was Kareem and a half-dozen rookies. It still was Power, but it wasn't quite the same.

"We were a very good team when we were all together," Kenney said. "Lew was our best player, but he wasn't our only player. There were games he didn't play well and other guys picked up the slack."

Donohue recalled one tournament game in which Kareem fouled out with three minutes left and Power trailing by four points. The other players pulled together, ran off 10 consecutive points and won easily.

"Art Kenney was a good player in his own right," Donohue said. "He was big and strong and he could shoot the ball. He didn't play eight years of pro ball for nothing.

"The other kids were good role players. Bonner and Bettridge could hit the outside shot. Everybody hustled and played hard . . . But Lewie was the reason we won 71 in a row. He was a dimension no one else could match.

"We played a game in Providence (R.I.) his junior year. The other team had a center named Ron Texiera, who was as tall as Lewie. He was a blue-chipper, too. The best high school player in New England.

"Lewie won the opening tap, raced the length of the floor, took a pass and dropped in a layup. Two points, just like that.

"They came back and fed the ball to Texiera. He shot and Lewie smacked the ball back in his face, wham. The game was over right there.

"I knew Lew would be a great pro, I just didn't expect him to be great for 20 years. I thought he might play five or six seasons, get bored and retire. I guess if you're making $2 million a year you can put up with a little boredom.

"I'll tell you how much times have changed," Donohue said. "When Lew was in high school, someone predicted he would earn $50,000 a year in the NBA, and I laughed at him. It seemed like a pipe dream back then. Now everybody (in the NBA) is a millionaire. It's crazy."

"People still ask me about (Kareem)," Grundstrom said. "They want to know what he was like, was he really as moody as he appears, that sort of thing.

"I say, nah, he was a good guy, a bright guy who was fun to be around. We rode the subway together and people would say, 'Look, it's Mutt and Jeff.' I remember those days like they were yesterday.

"What we accomplished as a team is something that stays with you. When times get tough, I draw on it. I say, 'Hey, I was a winner once. I know what it takes.' Just talking about it now gives me goose bumps.

"If you asked Lew, he'd probably tell you the same thing."

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