Giant Steps


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.

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.

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.

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.