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I must tell you this story and you will understand.
Coach Jack Donohue held a meeting in the spring of 1958 to introduce himself to his new team. He outlined his philosophy of the game and made sure we knew how much he looked forward to his first season as head basketball coach at Power Memorial Academy. Power had suffered through a couple of seasons with a coach who missed practices and was a no show at games while he was off playing against the Globetrotters, putting on a show and losing cheerfully.
Practice began in the fall of 1958 under our new coach. As one of his first orders of business, Donohue ordered new uniforms for the varsity team and evidently he had only two requirements for uniforms. They must be the right color and they must have the largest numbers possible, front and back.
The team learned about the coach, as he learned about the team. After one of our practices, before the start of the season, a couple of large boxes were waiting in the locker room for us. They were the new uniforms and we were told to pick a uniform, try it on, make sure it fits and turn it in to the team manager. The team manager will have fresh uniforms before each game. No forgetting your uniform. Although our school colors were purple and gold the home uniforms were white and the away uniforms were purple. I guess that was intentional. The numbers on both the front and back of the shirts were very, very large. They were so large that on shirts with two numbers the end of the second number almost met the beginning of the first number, under the arm, also very skinny players would be forced to wear shirts with only one number.
I didn’t know, when we were picking uniforms that afternoon, that this was to become a major event in “Basketball History.” I didn’t know that it would affect so many people. I didn’t know that the number chosen that day would be carved into statues and plaques, painted into paintings and raised on banners to the ceilings of gigantic auditoriums. There is no way I could have known what lie ahead.
During that ’58/’59 season Waverly Davis was our 6ft. 7in. center. He was all muscle, very quick and a our best player, and without a doubt the best player in New York City. He was a bit of a showman too. The previous season, he had acquired the habit of holding a lemon in his mouth, during warm-ups. Yes layups with lemon. He said it was to quench his thirst, maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t, but the crowd went wild for his warm up dunks with that lemon smile. This sight of 6 feet 7 inches of ebony muscle over the rim, slam dunking and hitting the court with an ear to ear lemon smile as the crowd roared their confident approval had to make the opposing team wonder why they showed up at all.
Back to that afternoon and the box of uniforms. Waverly and I were sitting together when he picked out uniform number 16, the same number he had worn the year before and I guess was planning to go with that number again. I was, as was all our other team mates looking for a uniform for myself; but when I saw the shirt with that giant number 33, something clicked in my head. The best college player in the country wore that number. The flashiest showman in college had worn number 33 just last season. One of the greatest player in basketball history, had worn the double number 99. Something about those two 3’s together was riveting to me and I couldn’t let this moment pass. I picked up the shirt and turned to the big guy next to me. “Waverly” I said “this is the number for you.” “It says speed, it says power, it says winner, and when you take layups with this number and that lemon everyone will know your the best basketball player in the city.” Waverly took the shirt and history was made that day.
Of course, it’s not the end of the story because I need to tell you how history was made. I’ll continue. I’ll explain.
When Waverly wore number 33 that year everyone did notice. He was such a great basketball player and our team had a destiny. We won 33 games that year and went on to the Eastern States Catholic Invitational Post Season Tournament where Waverly out played 3 future NBA star players. Waverly had an opportunity come his way and left school that year to attend Seattle University and play basketball. What happened to Waverly Davis is a long story for another time. So let’s not change gears now.
The following year a young man named Melvin Kellogg came to Power. He was a seven footer but not very good at the game. His brother Junius had been an All-American basketball player in college, unfortunately he was injured in an auto accident, and will always be remembered as the founder of Wheelchair Basketball. Seizing the opportunity to make Melvin notable we gave him number 33. At least to the other teams, the mild mannered and very likable Melvin, was a threat because he wore number 33. So, we at Power now had a tradition, the big man in the center position wore 33. I really started something but I didn’t know how big it would be.
After the next season Lew Alcindor arrived at Power and without question he was getting the uniform with the big number 33. We struck gold with Lew. He was destined to be the greatest ever high school player. From Power he went to UCLA where he wore number 33 and became the best ever college player. Then on to Milwaukee and Los Angeles in the NBA where he wore number 33 and became the greatest basketball player of all time. Look at his accomplishments and his records if you have any doubt about that. Along the way, because of his faith, as we all know, he changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar, but he never changed his number. He is so attached to his number 33 that he spells Kareem in his logo as Kar33m. Sometimes, I just can’t believe what I did.
But wait there’s more. Maybe because of Kareem other great stars have worn the number 33 in college and two of them became Lakers but when they got to the Lakers, their number 33 was already gone and would not be released to either of them. In Kareem’s honor the number 33 was retired at Power Memorial, UCLA and by the Los Angeles Lakers. The L A Lakers jersey with number 33 will never be worn again by anyone else. That number has been retired forever. Magic had to choose another number and selected 32, which was retired in his name. Shaq changed his 33 to 34 which was retired in his name.
Indirectly then, I am responsible for the numbers of three of basketballs greatest players. Numbers which have been retired and have taken their place in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
In case you don’t believe me I have provided pictures.
Note: In the three pictures in this story, Waverly, Melvin and Lew are wearing the same number 33 but more than that, they are wearing the exact same uniform top. Uniforms were passed down as players left. It was only later in Lew’s career at Power that Coach Donohue bought new uniforms for the team. Although he still kept number 33.
Note: The team photos above with Waverly and Melvin are photos that I was also in.
© 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 Richard D. Lombardi