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Lew Alcindor, basketball player, 61st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, New York, May 2, 1963

Since ancient times, artists have represented athletes as extraordinary. The pose of this ancient spear thrower was innovative in its day for showing the body at rest and in motion at the same time. Roman, The Doryphoros, 120?50 BCE, Pentelic marble, The John R. Van Derlip Fund and Gift of funds from Bruce B. Dayton, an anonymous donor, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Dayton, Mr. and Mrs. W. John Driscoll, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Harrison, Mr. and Mrs. John Andrus, Mr. and Mrs. Judson Dayton, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Keating, Mr. and Mrs. Pierce McNally, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Dayton, Mr. and Mrs. Wayne MacFarlane, and many other generous friends of the Institute

This detail of Alcindor's expression reveals his self-confidence. During his sophomore year when the photo was taken, he averaged 19 points per game, leading Power Memorial's team to 27 straight victories. He was also an A-student.

Lew Alcindor, better known today as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, kept the number 33 throughout his career.

key idea
Sports Superstar

Think about the various places you see sports images every day. What makes a sports image a work of art? Many photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries have captured the drama of sports and created iconic images of sports superstars.

Photographer Richard Avedon made artistic choices to emphasize that Lew Alcindor was not an ordinary high school student. He positioned his camera well below the tall, athletic Alcindor to emphasize his height. By posing Alcindor palming the basketball (a difficult feat for most people), and with his right knee bent and his right arm extended, he showed off the extraordinary length and muscularity of the young man's arms and legs. He is self-confident. He dominates the court. He appears almost super-human.

According to a Newsweek magazine feature on Avedon in 1993, the photographer was taking a cab down the west side of Manhattan and spotted Alcindor in the schoolyard. As the story goes, it was only after photographing Alcindor that Avedon learned that sports insiders had already discovered the phenom. The photograph, however, suggests he was fully aware of the Power Memorial Academy student's superstar status.

The photograph first appeared in print nearly two years later, in the April 1965 "What's Happening" issue of the fashion and style magazine Harper's Bazaar. The entire issue featured photographs by Avedon; Lew Alcindor was pictured and heralded as "what's about to happen in basketball." In fact, however, he was already "happening"—in his senior year, Alcindor averaged 33 points per game, and led his team to win the New York City Catholic High School championship.

January 2012