Giant Steps

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

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is when you discover that the team's furious brand of Apache basketball is to a large extent culturally determined. The whole idea of being a solitary warrior is still an ideal in this community, and the kids see themselves as little separate stones. Coming together and communicating on a group effort is not something they are used to doing and it was difficult to get through that.

What was the most important thing you learned on the res? That Americans are not that much different from the Apache. People would not necessarily think of the White Mountain Apaches as their fellow Americans, yet they are dealing with the same problems as any other disadvantaged group in America, and they have the same potential and they have the same drawbacks. We share so much as Americans that we are not aware of.

Should more Americans know about this shared history? Definitely. Especially black Americans. They don't understand what it means. When I would tell people that I am part Cherokee, they would roll their eyes sometimes. People don't understand that Cherokees owned slaves and intermarried with Africans over a period of centuries. That has not been written about and consequently we are very ignorant about it.

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

What do you hope you taught the kids? That they can have great lives. For a lot of them, playing high school basketball is going to be, like, it, for their life, and I hope that they can see beyond that, that they have a lot to do beyond that, especially if they can educate themselves.

Growing up, you drank, dropped acid, and smoked pot. You wanted to help these kids with life lessons, and many of them had substance abuse in their lives, but how did your own experiences impact your ability to reach them without being a hypocrite? I fooled around with those things, but I didn't stick with them. More or less as an adult I was an advocate of sobriety and being in shape and being ready to do my job. I was always ready to do my job physically and mentally. I didn't let any abusive situations throw me off from being a professional.

So having experimented with those things helped you give the kids guidance. I was able to relate to them because I had the same choices and I chose not to throw my life away. And they can make the same choices for the same reasons. There are better choices out there for them than to go that route.

With that in mind, do you think it's destructive for high-profile athletes to tell kids they can achieve anything they want or for commercials to tell kids they can be the next Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, and should adults be more concerned with helping them set reasonable goals? I certainly agree that you should help them set reasonable goals. It's OK to dream about being Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan. That's fine, pursue that dream, but don't let that be the only thing you pursue. Too many kids just decide, well, I'm gonna be a centerfielder, and if that doesn't happen, then it's a bust for them their whole life. It doesn't have to be that way, but too many of them don't see that. There was one kid on the reservation, he was a freshman, he was 6-3, about 160 pounds, and he's dreaming about being able to go out there and handle people like Karl Malone, and I didn't see that happening. Maybe if he grew a few inches and learned a lot he could go to a small college. It's totally unrealistic where he's trying to get to in his life. And I think if we do a better job preparing these kids to do something they can actually accomplish, we'll be doing a better job as teachers and parents.

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