Everybody was expecting the new coach to be a giant, but he was
bigger than that. He had to duck to get through the door, which
no one else in the history of Alchesay High had ever needed to
do. Even center Ivan Lamkin, who at 6'6" and 230 pounds is the
biggest kid on the team, said he felt like a dwarf. "It's like,
man, he's eight inches taller than me," said Lamkin. "For the
first time since I was little, I actually felt kind of small."
When guard Kyle Goklish first saw the new coach, he didn't see
his head, which was up there above the door frame, blocked from
view by a wall. He saw only the 270-pound body, and the body was
leaner and better conditioned than he had imagined it would be.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 51, has been retired from basketball for
nearly a decade, but there was nothing remotely soft or
antiquated about him. Even without a clean view of his head, he
looked to Goklish as if he could still dominate in the post,
could still mix it up with the big men and could still shoot the
skyhook. "I got a real antsy feeling," Goklish says, recalling
that first glimpse. "My hands got sweaty. It was hard to breathe."
They met in the weight room. About 80 boys had signed up for
tryouts, but when reality set in, only 60 or so showed up, not a
few just to say they were there, as witnesses to history. About
one third of those in attendance, some barely skilled enough to
dribble, would be cut from the team by the end of the week, yet
they turned up anyway. When they are old and gray, with grandkids
cluttered like leaves at their feet, they will be able to brag
that they were present and accounted for on that day in November
1998 when one of the greatest basketball players of all time came
to Whiteriver, Ariz., in the White Mountain Apache Reservation,
to help coach the boys.
The first thing the new coach did, he sat on a weight bench and
stretched out his legs. He was wearing dark-blue sweats, white
socks and black Adidases. He had neither a clipboard nor a
whistle. He wore a big, clunky watch but no rings on his
fingers. (His fingers? When the boys are old and gray, they'll
make sure to describe those, too.) You'd think Raul Mendoza, the
head coach, would introduce the man and list his
accomplishments. Or at least say, "Yes, it's true. He ranks up
there with Jordan and Bird and Dr. J as the best the game has
ever known, and he's volunteered to be my assistant this
season." But Mendoza, who's also the school guidance counselor,
was his usual taciturn self and said nothing of the kind.
Instead of making a fuss, instead of even acknowledging
Abdul-Jabbar's presence, Mendoza turned the floor over to Rusty
Taylor, the 30-year-old coach of the freshman team, who never
even played basketball in high school.
November 30, 1998
"O.K., gentlemen, no drugs and no alcohol will be allowed,"
Taylor began, barking like a Marine Corps drill instructor. "And
no rat tails. I have no rat tail, and Mr. Mendoza has no rat
tail. You want to play for this team, you have to sacrifice. Mr.
Jabbar? Mr. Jabbar has no--"
"Hair," Abdul-Jabbar said, speaking up finally. He ran a hand
over his shaved scalp, and the whole room blew up with laughter.
"And no more hickeys on the neck," Taylor went on. "Tell your
girlfriends, 'Thank you, but no thank you.' It's just not right,
and we don't want to see it. No hickey-suckin' guys on this
team. Well, I guess you can give them, but don't go gettin' them
back. Are we clear on that, gentlemen? I ask you, are we clear
No one seemed to be listening. It was because of who-else. In
college, back in the 1960s, before any of these boys were born,
Abdul-Jabbar led UCLA to three consecutive NCAA titles while
dominating the game as no player had before or has since. During
his 20 years as a pro he scored 44,149 points--44,149 points!
That's almost 9,000 more than Michael Jordan has scored.
Abdul-Jabbar also played on six world champion teams, first with
the Milwaukee Bucks, then with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he
won six league MVP awards. But up close here in the weight room,
if you ignored who he was and ignored his size, he almost looked
like a regular human being.
At last Mendoza turned to face him. "Coach Jabbar?" he said
quietly, more as a question than a statement. "Would you like to
Then Abdul-Jabbar stood up.
It was a long drive from his house in Beverly Hills to the
reservation, high in the elk and bear country of eastern
Arizona. He needed four hours to reach the state line, then
another 2 1/2 to make it to Phoenix. Somewhere beyond that, in
the town of Miami, he stopped for gas, and a complete stranger
raised a hand in greeting. "Hey, Kareem," the man said casually.
"How's your team? Are they big?"
Abdul-Jabbar couldn't help but shout out a laugh. He said, "I
haven't even seen them yet!"
He drove on, moving in his new Ford Expedition from a vast
desert to mountains thick with aspen and spruce, his destination
a rented town house where he would be spending the next four or
five months. The air thinned and grew colder as he traveled
deeper into the 2.6-million-acre reservation in the big green
country where the Apache people have lived for 500 years.
Many things in recent months had put him on this uncertain
journey, not all of them good. First and foremost, after a year
of lobbying hard for a coaching job in the NBA, he'd failed to
land one, even as an assistant. He'd vigorously courted the
Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks and Los
Angeles Clippers, but "any NBA situation," he said last spring,
would have interested him. "I'm ready," he announced then with a
note of expectation. "I feel I can cope with whatever comes. I'd
be willing to talk to any club if it was interested in me. I'd
live in any city. Anywhere."
He met with general managers, with former teammates who had
connections and, on two occasions, with Clippers owner Donald
Sterling. He wasn't after money, Abdul-Jabbar said. He just
wanted back in. "It's really a no-brainer for me," he said.
"Basketball is a simple game. My job would be getting the guys
ready to play."
To prove how serious he was, and to demonstrate his mettle,
Abdul-Jabbar volunteered to put on clinics free of charge for
promising young players, most of them big men. This summer he
tutored Michael Olowokandi, the 7'1" rookie center from Pacific
whom the Clippers made the first pick of this year's draft.
"There's no doubt about it, the man can definitely coach," says
Olowokandi, who had four sessions with Abdul-Jabbar. "When he
speaks, you have no choice but to listen. We went through
offensive rebounding, for instance, and he showed me the
footwork to use against a guy trying to block me out. And though
I had a hook shot before, he taught me how to put that extra
little arch on it. Whatever he showed me, I did. He's Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar, and there aren't many people like him around these
He was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all right, but still no team in the
NBA wanted him. Most of the rejections came with expressions of
gratitude for his interest, but the consensus was that he lacked
coaching experience and was thus unqualified. One of the best
players ever, and he wasn't fit to teach the game!
"What's that feel like? It feels like being all dressed up and
nowhere to go," Abdul-Jabbar says. "But I'm not angry. It's what
it is. They recycle the same guys in these jobs. Why? It's
because they don't care if they win or not. What's important is
that [the coaches] fit in with the corporate team structure. And
the guys who get those jobs are the guys who sat on the bench and
cultivated good relationships with managers, while guys like me
were out there winning championships but not making friends with
In the years since he retired, Abdul-Jabbar has worked as an
actor and a film and television producer. He's also written
books, most notably a history with Alan Steinberg called Black
Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement.
But his real money has come from trading on his former stardom.
He gives speeches for large fees, although he never was one to
say much. He signs his name at card shows, and he endorses
products for companies that somehow benefit from an association
with a too-tall bald guy who once could really play. "I was away
from basketball long enough," he says. "All the burnout was
gone. I called Coach [John] Wooden, and he was supportive. I
knew it was the right thing to do."
Last season Larry Bird showed that a former superstar can win as
an NBA coach, but apparently his success with the Indiana Pacers
didn't blot out the memory of how other great players had
performed at the job. The coaching tenures of Bill Russell and
Magic Johnson, both disastrous, had reinforced the notion that
the best players can't sublimate their egos and accept roles
that don't put them at center stage. In his hunt for work,
Abdul-Jabbar had this perception to overcome. But there were
other issues, too, none so great as that of his character.
In April '97 Abdul-Jabbar faced misdemeanor battery and
false-imprisonment charges for allegedly having assaulted a
motorist after a traffic dispute. The case was dismissed after
he underwent anger-management counseling and paid $5,000 to a
youth program. Then, last March, drug-sniffing dogs detected
marijuana in his possession as he was making his way through the
Toronto airport. Abdul-Jabbar claimed to customs officials that
he used the drug to diminish the nausea that accompanies
migraine headaches, from which he frequently suffers. He
surrendered the small amount of marijuana he was carrying and
paid a $500 fine.
To league insiders, both incidents seemed an odd way to impress
potential employers. "These are two extraordinarily major things
to overcome, especially at the same time he's saying he wants to
coach," says Pat Williams, senior executive vice president of
the Orlando Magic. "So the minute those two hit, boy, they were
giant red flags. To start hammering on a motorist, no matter the
reason.... And anytime the drug thing comes up, that's not good.
Those are two very distressing signals."
But these weren't Abdul-Jabbar's only encounters with the
judicial system. In November 1997 he brought a lawsuit against
Miami Dolphins running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar, 24, another
former UCLA sports star. Alleging trademark infringement, the
elder Abdul-Jabbar objected to sharing his name in the
marketplace with the younger one, who had changed his name from
Sharmon Shah in 1995. In April the parties settled out of court
when the football player surrendered rights to the name for
commercial purposes. Although the agreement amounted to a
victory for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to many the suit made him seem
petty and ungenerous.
"The way it was reported in the paper," says the elder
Abdul-Jabbar, "it was like I was an egotistical bully. I'm not
the first person to have that name, and I won't be the last. But
I am the one who's been marketing himself as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
for many years. I had to protect that position."
"People in the league are going to look at all these different
things before hiring him," says Jerry West, executive vice
president in charge of basketball operations for the Lakers.
"But I don't think there's any question that eventually someone
will take a chance with Kareem. This is a uniquely gifted guy
who also happens to be one of the truly great players ever to
play the game. Kareem is just different, and I say that in a
positive way. He's introspective, thoughtful and extremely
bright, and he doesn't say an awful lot, which I think will be a
plus. Add to that his knowledge of the game and the respect
he'll command from the players, and you have the ingredients of
a wonderful coach."
Perhaps even more than his legal problems, Abdul-Jabbar has had
to battle his image as a moody, aloof loner. West has encouraged
him to be more visible, to attend more Lakers games, but
Abdul-Jabbar has followed that advice only to a degree. "He's
uncomfortable with his celebrity," says his agent and close
friend, Dominic Sandifer. "He sits down, and all of a sudden
they flash his picture on the Jumbotron, and the whole place
goes crazy. People chase after him. It's a parade--Kareem and
then this crowd trailing."
When he played, Abdul-Jabbar seemed to wear a perpetual scowl.
Reporters regarded him as one of the toughest interviews in the
league, and he often rebuffed fans when they approached him for
autographs. Even some of his teammates struggled to connect with
him. "He's just a hard guy to know," says Kurt Rambis, who
played for the Lakers for eight years and is now an assistant
coach for the team. "One of the sad things about Kareem is that
I don't think there are too many guys, if anybody, that he
played with whom he stayed close to. He didn't seem to have any
tight relationship with anyone."
On road trips when Lakers congregated in hotel restaurants and
bars, Abdul-Jabbar remained alone in his room, lounging under a
lamp with a book open in his lap. Before games, while teammates
bounced around the locker room in a jangle of loud talk and
nerves, he quietly sat at his locker with a piece of reading
material, head bowed, like a holy man in meditation, lost in any
time but the present.
"Most athletes who are members of a team aren't great friends,"
Abdul-Jabbar says. "When the team is a champion, people see the
rapport down on the court and assume it extends to the players'
personal lives. But that's not the case."
The teammate with whom Abdul-Jabbar seemed to have the best
rapport was Johnson, but as Abdul-Jabbar admits, even that
relationship was never close. "There's no problem between Earvin
and me," he says. "It's not like we're enemies. But we didn't
have much in common beyond basketball, and we still don't."
Did he know that Johnson was HIV-positive before Johnson
announced it publicly? "No, I didn't," Abdul-Jabbar says. Has he
talked to Johnson since then about his health? "No, to be
honest, I don't spend any time with Earvin. I run into him every
now and then. But we don't talk."
One of his closest friends, filmmaker Richard Rubinstein, says
Abdul-Jabbar is more approachable today than he was early on in
his pro career. "When we first met, in the '70s, I was working
on a documentary film [a series of profiles called The Winners]
and wanted to interview him," says Rubinstein. "Everybody said,
'Don't do it. He doesn't want to talk to the press.' He was
considered the ogre of professional sports. I asked him why he
didn't smile or laugh at anything. I'll never forget how he
answered. 'It's really simple,' he said. 'Nobody's saying
During Abdul-Jabbar's playing days his Lakers teammates called
him Cap, short for captain. "He wasn't a rah-rah type, or one
who tried to coach from the bench," says Jamaal Wilkes, a
teammate for eight years. "But he was such a consummate
professional that he inspired everyone. He led by example."
When Abdul-Jabbar retired after the 1988-89 season, his
teammates bought him a white Rolls-Royce as a going-away gift.
"Since you've been carrying us on your back all these years, we
decided to get you something that would carry you," Johnson said
at a ceremony before Abdul-Jabbar's last game. Then the Lakers
presented him with the $175,000 car.
Eighteen months later Abdul-Jabbar returned it to the dealer. "It
was like driving a fire truck," he says now, seeming to attach no
sentiment to the gift that a few members of his last team had
chipped in more than $10,000 each to buy.
"I really don't want to say anything bad about Kareem," says
Rambis, "but it's almost as if he has that athlete's syndrome of
not being nice to people. You're so used to others going out of
their way to be nice to you that you don't feel you have to go
out of your way to be nice to them. It's really sad because I
believe that if he were just nicer to people, the windows of
opportunity would be huge for him."
Williams, the Magic executive, was trying to be nice to
Abdul-Jabbar when he approached him in February 1997 for an
autograph during All-Star weekend in Cleveland. That year the
NBA, celebrating its 50th anniversary, had published a glossy
picture book paying tribute to the 50 greatest players of all
time, and Williams was seeking the autographs of as many players
on the list as possible. "They were all still living except for
Pete Maravich," says Williams, "and even in that case I was able
to get his widow to sign my book. West and Shaq weren't there,
but I got everybody else--everybody, that is, except for Kareem.
On three occasions I politely asked him to sign his picture for
me. And all three times he declined, just turned me down flat.
And it's not like I was some fan out on the street."
Fourteen months later, at a seminar in Tampa, Williams approached
Abdul-Jabbar for a fourth time. "I said, 'I would be very
grateful if you would sign my book for me, Kareem,'" Williams
says. "And he said, 'You mean the one I didn't sign in
Cleveland?' But he agreed to sign it, finally.
"Since then, I've thought a lot about that. Kareem is
extraordinarily intelligent, yet for years he's had this wall
built up around him. I don't think he lets too many people get
close to him. It's probably a very lonely existence. But I think
part of him wants to connect with people. I understand the
dilemma of being Kareem. He's an enormous man who can't go
anywhere on earth without being recognized. Nowhere. At least
Michael Jordan can wear a hat, sunglasses and a wig and get by.
But Kareem can't do that. Think of it. Think of not being able
to live a day of your life without being recognized. Would you
Despite his fame and the attention his size brings, Abdul-Jabbar
has managed to keep his personal life private. In L.A. he shares
his house with his recently widowed father, Lewis (Al) Alcindor,
a former New York City subway cop, and until this summer
Kareem's son Amir, now 18, lived with them. Abdul-Jabbar had
three children with his ex-wife, Habiba, one of them his
namesake, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now a 6'6" small forward at
Western Kentucky. Amir, a freshman at UC Santa Barbara, is
Kareem's son with former girlfriend Cheryl Pistono. Then there's
Adam, the last of his five children. "His mother is a woman from
San Antonio," Abdul-Jabbar says. "It wasn't planned parenthood,
but there he is. She and I never even lived in the same city."
At the moment he isn't seriously involved with anyone, he says.
He dates and goes to dinner, that sort of thing. Mainly he
indulges his passion for horseback riding. He owns eight horses.
His favorite, Peaches, is a thoroughbred gelding that is 17 1/2
hands high, big enough to accommodate a giant.
Abdul-Jabbar says he started thinking about coaching a few years
ago when the Philadelphia 76ers brought him in to work with then
rookie center Shawn Bradley, and he saw that his student, though
eager to learn, "didn't know certain things that every pivot man
should have tattooed on the back of his arm." Not long after
that, Abdul-Jabbar met with Mike Garrett, the USC athletic
director, and discussed the possibility of coaching the school's
basketball team. Garrett ended up hiring Henry Bibby, but the
experience was a revelation for Abdul-Jabbar, who hadn't
realized how much he missed the game.
In April of last year, Abdul-Jabbar traveled to New York City to
appear on The Late Show with David Letterman in a comedy skit
featuring former great athletes. After taping, he retired to the
green room with Reggie Jackson, Walter Payton, Al Unser and
Gordie Howe. Somebody called him to the telephone, and he picked
it up to learn that his mother, Cora, hospitalized in Los
Angeles, had died after a long illness. Abdul-Jabbar put the
phone down and turned to Sandifer. "We have to go," he said. "My
"You don't think much about your mother until she's no longer
around," Abdul-Jabbar says now. "When she's alive you take her
for granted. She's always there. What I went through when my mom
died...it was an incredible shock."
About a week after the funeral Abdul-Jabbar flew with Sandifer
to Russia on a publicity junket for Adidas. He was despondent
during much of the 10-day trip, but on the return flight he let
his guard down and confided as to how he wanted to take his life
in a different direction. "He was really suffering," says
Sandifer. "He said his mother's death had forced him to take a
look back at his life--where he'd been, what he'd done, what
he'd accomplished, what his parents meant to him. And he said he
realized that he'd turned his back on the one thing that had
helped to define him for so long, basketball. He said it was
time: He had to coach."
The call finally came this summer. It was long distance, from
Arizona. But not from Phoenix, home of the NBA's Suns. The call
was from an Indian reservation, from the office of Whiteriver
Unified School District Number 20. The voice on the other end
belonged to John Clark, the superintendent there. "You wouldn't
help coach our basketball team, would you?" Clark asked.
"Yes, I would," Abdul-Jabbar answered.
"Unbelievable," Clark says, still reeling nearly four months
later. "Just to have someone of Kareem's stature drive through
the reservation is newsworthy. But to have him coach here? You
can't imagine how significant that is."
The White Mountain Apache tribe counts about 13,500 members, and
most live in small communities surrounding Whiteriver (pop.
3,000). Bengay, for example, is a neighborhood with a large
number of elderly residents; its name comes from their
prodigious use of a pain-relieving cream. Another district, Dark
Shadows, sits in the shade of a mountain. One Step Beyond is
next to a cemetery. There's also Chinatown, so named because the
houses stand close together. Six Pack, Corn on the Cob, Jurassic
Park and Smurf Village are other local districts.
"The people on the reservation have always been crazy for
basketball, and they'll be even crazier for it now that he's
there," says Mike Smith, the coach at Round Valley High in
Springerville, a league rival of Alchesay's. "Sometimes I think
they love the game so much because there's nothing else to do on
the reservation. It can be the dead of winter, and you see kids
playing on bare ground under outdoor hoops. They pound the snow
down with their feet, not even caring about the cold."
Abdul-Jabbar first became acquainted with the area four years
ago while doing research about the Buffalo Soldiers,
African-American members of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry
divisions who served in the West after the Civil War and made
their headquarters at Fort Apache, five miles south of
Whiteriver. Abdul-Jabbar is a student of Western history and
Native American lore. Artifacts from the West crowd the walls of
his Beverly Hills house from floor to ceiling. He once paid
$20,000 for a shirt worn by an Indian warrior; it's displayed
over the fireplace. He's paid thousands more for antique
weapons, documents and photographs. The original oil paintings
in his collection show desert landscapes where lost tribes once
lived. Uniforms worn by Buffalo Soldiers are on exhibit in the
While exploring the White Mountain reservation that first time,
Abdul-Jabbar befriended Edgar Perry, now 60, a cultural adviser
to the tribe who is the grandson of an Apache scout. Perry later
presented Abdul-Jabbar with a drum and an eagle feather,
symbolizing Abdul-Jabbar's acceptance into the Perry family.
Still later, Perry traveled to Los Angeles with a group of tribe
members and performed ceremonial dances for Abdul-Jabbar at his
"Then word traveled around that Kareem himself was dancing in
San Carlos [a reservation town about two hours from
Whiteriver]," says Noland Clay, a tribal council member who
serves on the Whiteriver school board. "So we understood that he
wanted to be close to the Apache people. He danced at a puberty
ceremony for a young girl related to Mr. Perry's family, at a
traditional sunrise dance. This meant a lot to our people."
When Perry learned that the school board was looking for a
celebrity guest to appear at the dedication of Alchesay High's
new $5 million activities center, he encouraged superintendent
Clark to invite Abdul-Jabbar. Waiving his usual appearance fee,
Abdul-Jabbar agreed to attend as long as the school gave him a
baseball cap and T-shirt emblazoned with the emblem of the
Alchesay Falcons. He showed up at the event wearing a cowboy hat
dressed with his eagle feather, and he sank a skyhook to the
noisy approval of a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 5,000.
Abdul-Jabbar says he couldn't help but feel a spiritual
connection to the people. "Just for what they've been through,"
he says. "They had their land taken from them, and Africans were
taken from their land. The whole thing of being ripped off, that
common history, is something that resonates for both of us."
One day in July in a conversation with Perry, Abdul-Jabbar
"mouthed off about coaching," as he puts it, and Perry said,
"You should coach here." The next day Clark called, and two
weeks later Abdul-Jabbar was back on the reservation, meeting
with officials, plotting the months to come.
In addition to coaching, Abdul-Jabbar will give occasional
history lectures at the high school, and he has a contract to
write two books over the next year: one, a journal about his
experiences as a coach at Alchesay, the other a motivational
book on how to succeed in life.
"When word got around that he was coming, nobody but the people
on the reservation believed it," says Goklish, the Alchesay
guard. "They said we were joking. It's the reservation, they
said, and no celebrities ever go there. 'But it's true,' I told
them. 'Just wait and see.'
"I think, though, that in the end Coach Jabbar will be getting a
whole lot more from this season than he's going to be giving.
What we can teach him about our Apache culture and heritage, he
couldn't get from a book. The people here are so different from
what's out there. It's a whole other world here. And every day
he'll be living it."
"In Pinetop and Show Low," says Lamkin, the center, referring to
nearby towns, "they don't want to admit that he just wants to be
our coach. They have to give a reason for it, so they started
spreading the rumor that the only reason he was coming was to
perform community service for what happened to him in Canada.
They're trashing us by saying that. But I'm not surprised. People
But there was no penalty of community service for Abdul-Jabbar,
and he truly is there just because he wants to be. Yet as he
rose to his feet and faced his team for the first time, he
seemed nervous. This giant of a man, one of the best basketball
players ever, who'd scored 44,149 points, spoke in a voice that
was barely audible. "I just want you guys to understand that,"
he said, referring to his desire to be there, "and I want you to
understand that we're going to go on from this point. I hope
this is a great learning experience for all of us. That's it.
This being the first day of tryouts, everybody was herded
outside for a conditioning test on the parking lot of the
activities center. To qualify for the team, boys who wanted to
play guard had to run a mile in six minutes, and prospective
forwards and centers had to do it in 6:30.
Coach Mendoza blew his whistle, starting all 60 on their way,
and Abdul-Jabbar stood at the finish line and studied his watch.
He waited just as any other coach for any other team anywhere
would wait, and when the front-runners started to appear, he
ticked off the seconds in a loud voice that rose in the cold
autumn air and seemed to beat against the mountains and echo
The boys ran past him, some glancing up in disbelief, others
keeping their heads down so as to avoid being distracted.
Minutes later, as the last of the stragglers came around the
corner and entered the final stretch, team members gathered in a
loose huddle by the finish line. Some bent over with their hands
on their thighs, but even they kept their heads up, eyes fixed
on the new coach as if to memorize him.
"Come on!" Abdul-Jabbar shouted. "You can do it!
It was amazing just to watch him count.
"There's no doubt about it--the man can coach," says Olowokandi.
"When he speaks, you have no choice but to listen."
To NBA insiders, the assault and the marijuana incidents seemed
an odd way to impress potential employers.
"It's really sad," says Rambis. "If Kareem were just nicer to
people, the windows of opportunity would be huge for him."
"His mother's death forced him to look back on his life,"
Sandifer says. "He said it was time: He had to coach."
"What we can teach him about Apache culture, he couldn't get
from a book," Goklish says. "Every day he'll be living it."