Giant Steps

Kareem’s Hoop Dreams Take Him From an Indian Reservation to the NBA Basement

 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is back in the NBA and back in Los Angeles. The basketball legend has achieved a long-sought-after goal, having recently landed a coaching slot with a pro team. Eleven years after he retired from the Lakers, Kareem's post-playing-days career seems ready to take off.

Problem is, the job he landed—an assistant coaching position—is with the Los Angeles Clippers, a team that's had one winning season in the last 20 years—and a team that's sullied the good name of other NBA legends, like Elgin Baylor. But Kareem has experience in the area of coaching through troubled basketball waters. Last year he was an assistant coach at a high school on the White Mountain Apache reservation, an experience he recounts in the just-published A Season on the Reservation: My Sojourn With the White Mountain Apache.

Kareem was inspired to take the high school position for three reasons: a speech by Colin Powell that challenged Americans to volunteer, a chance to coach for the first time, and an opportunity to get out of L.A. after the death of his mother. The season was a rough ride for Kareem, but when the final buzzer sounded, he came away as a better coach, and perhaps more importantly, a better person. The Voice recently chatted with the native of New York's mean streets and six-time NBA MVP about his new job and his experiences on the res.

They call me Coach
photo: Pete Kuhns
They call me Coach

From a selfish perspective, what do you want to get out of your time with the Clippers? I just want to be able to show people what I can do as a coach. I hope that in helping our guys improve, people will see that I can do what needs to be done as a coach and there will be other opportunities for me down the road.

So this is a calling card to a certain extent? A calling card, a stepping stone. I would like to be with the Clippers for a while. It's a minimum disruption on my life. I live here in L.A. I know the game, I know the Clippers, and I know their history and I can deal with that and it would be a great opportunity for me to be with them for some time. It doesn't have to be that way but I'm hoping it works out.

You talk about the Clippers history, but with all the success you've had are you at all concerned about being associated with such an unsuccessful team? No, I'm not. I can't go down to San Antonio and help their centers improve. They've got pretty good centers down there, most people have noticed that. [Laughs.] So the Clippers are a perfect spot for me to go to in terms of what they need. And if I can deliver what they need then that's a feather in my cap.

How much better do you think Clipper centers Michael Olowokandi and Keith Closs can get? I don't know. They have certain things going for them—size and athletic ability—and they have other things that don't work in their favor and we're just going to have to do the best we can with them while I'm involved.

With all due respect, have you gotten any sense that you were brought in so that your star power would put some butts in the seats there? I don't know how much star power that is. [Laughs.] It could be. That might be the motivation, but I think despite any of those situations that it's a good opportunity for me because this is the NBA and they believe that I can bring something to the table.

In the book, you come down really hard on the NBA. What is the biggest problem facing the league? The money has just really screwed up a few things. Because of the lure of the money, kids aren't staying in college and learning how to play the game with coaches who can show them how to win and show them the fundamentals and give them a chance to mature. They need all of that to play NBA basketball. The time that it takes to do that is not time wasted, but the kids are so anxious to get the big bucks that they go for a year and then they're in the draft and the learning curve while they are professionals is longer than it would be if they had stayed in college. So it's harder for them to learn the things they need to learn.

So is the game not as good now? Well, look what it's doing. The best talent is leaving college, so the college game is suffering, and then they come into the pros unprepared, so the pros aren't getting the turnover of good talent that would have developed in college. Both games are suffering, and the NCAA and the NBA have the ability to do something about that. And they should.

After your stint on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, did you gain more admiration and respect for coaches in general? I have more admiration for certain coaches, especially people like John Wooden, who didn't do it dishonestly. He achieved what he did by not paying players and by getting real student athletes. No illiterates played for John Wooden. That's a hell of a thing to say these days. They don't do it like that anymore. So I really am in awe of what he was able to achieve ethically and I think that's the example we should try to promote in athletics.

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