|One-on-one with Kareem|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Just his name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, conjures images of strength and beauty, of the game at its best.
Ask anyone with even a passing interest in sports to name the best basketball players of all-time and his name will be at or near the top of every list.
Now 55 and 13 years after his playing career ended, the legend is starting over as a coach.
This spring, he coached the Oklahoma Storm to the United States Basketball League championship.
Ask even the most die-hard fan about where and why he's coaching and you're liable to get a blank stare or a quizzical look.
Page 2 sent Eric Neel down to Oklahoma to find out what's what. He asked Kareem why he's come to coaching and what he hopes to get out of it, asked him about the influence John Wooden had on him, about his love of history and jazz, about the contemporary game and his memories of the glory days.
Like he did as a player, Kareem the coach covered a lot of ground.
You wrote in "A Season on the Reservation" that you thought about coaching after your mother passed away. You described her as your "first and most important teacher." Can you talk about the enduring influence of your parents in your life now?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: They taught me my work ethic. And, you know ... my career made my mom proud and happy. Having the ability to do that was special. My good friend "Hot Rod" Hundley would always say, "hi," to my mom any game he broadcast and that was so special for me and for her ... her friends would always call her. And my dad was proud, too.
When you get back to basketball now, as a coach, do you feel close to that feeling again?
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, because ... I just think about everything that the game has given me. It's been a special part of my life and I have, I think, things to give back that the game needs.
Is "coach" a title you feel good about right now?
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, I have something to offer them. I'm not just doing this because I had a great career and maybe I deserve a shot. I do have something to offer them, and it goes beyond what I did as a pro, back to UCLA -- somebody needs to keep coach Wooden's ideas and approach alive, and keep it real.
I read recently that coach Wooden told you one of the real challenges of coaching was to avoid "over-coaching" ...
How did coach Wooden communicate the confidence that was necessary for his players to perform at such a high level?
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, if you do it every day in practice, you just keep doing it. You know that you can do it. Another thing was, the guys coach Wooden recruited had killer instinct, they wanted to win, they wanted to go out there and show what they could do on the court. They weren't meek guys.
As a kid from New York, what brought you to UCLA?
Abdul-Jabbar: My whole thing was that I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the 1964 and 1965 UCLA teams. Walt Hazzard in '64 and Gail Goodrich in '65 -- I saw what those guys did, the way the played, and I was like, geez, if I could do that ...
So you were conscious of carrying on a tradition?
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, definitely. Plus, Jackie Robinson had gone to school there. And I'd gotten a letter from Dr. Ralph Bunche encouraging me to go there. Following in that tradition meant a lot to me.
And Arthur Ashe was still enrolled there -- he was a senior when I was a freshman. And Rafer Johnson. I remember seeing Rafer on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and they introduced him as the president of the student body at UCLA, they didn't announce him as an Olympic athlete. That really impressed me, that he could have that kind of impact at an institution of higher learning like that. It showed me what UCLA was about in terms of being an equal opportunity kind of place.
Coach Wooden told me last fall that the key to teaching is listening. Do you know what he means?
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, because when you listen, and you already know what the answers are, then you understand where the student needs to go, and you get a sense of how to lead them, how to bring them from where they are to where they need to be.
With coach Wooden, you could ask him about anything. I remember we'd be on road trips, and I could ask him the correct use of semi-colons and stuff like that ... you know, stuff that had nothing to do with the game, but he'd know. He was there for us on all levels.
You've said that you wanted to coach because there were certain traditions and bodies of knowledge passing away. What were you talking about?
It's that kind of thing that I'm talking about. That and the money in the pro game. You got guys now declaring they're ready to play pro ball in their second or third year of high school. It's crazy! They're missing so much.
What are they missing?
Abdul-Jabbar: OK, I'll put it like this: I doubt if we will see another All-American basketball athlete who is a Rhodes Scholar. We won't see Bill Bradley again. And America is missing something when we lose that. We're losing something. Encouraging our kids to at least finish high school and possibly college is one of the best things we could be doing for them. But because of the money in the pro game, it's screwing all that up. It's also screwing up the pro game and the college game.
You mean in terms of playing style?
Abdul-Jabbar: Playing style, yes, and talent available. The college game now has fewer seniors coming out, so you have fewer wiser, experienced players who've had to deal with discipline, had to learn the fundamentals of the game. They've had to dumb-down the pro game so that maybe these young guys can learn it while they're pros. So they've allowed the zone and things of that nature. They're not learning it in college, and there's no time to teach it in the pros.
If you had an NBA job tomorrow, where would you start with the young players?
Abdul-Jabbar: I'd say that the athletes are tremendously gifted, so it's not that they lack ability, it's that they lack knowledge and understanding of the dynamics of the game. They don't know how the game unfolds, and they don't know how to apply their skills fundamentally. If they did, you'd see a lot of players like Jason Kidd out there, but you don't, he's a rarity, and that shouldn't be.
Do you have any kind of special sympathy or understanding for players who are criticized, who take beatings in the press?
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, some of it has to do with their educational background. They just don't understand real well. What I noticed when I coached with the Clippers is that there are a lot of players in the league who do not have a legitimate high school diploma. They were recognized for their athletic talent in junior high, and from that point on they were allowed to skate by. They went to college for two years, didn't learn anything. They're ignorant, and it's very unfortunate, and these are guys making six, seven million dollars a year ... and they don't have high school educations.
Do you worry that if you got in a pro coaching situation, it would be a question of just massaging and managing egos, and that you wouldn't be able to do the kinds of things you want to do in terms of coaching techniques and fundamentals?
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, and that definitely would happen. I'd end up with players like that, and talented players. With the Clippers, we had guys who couldn't play together ... the whole concept of them being so valuable and having their egos massaged was just so drilled into them by people who were looking to take advantage of their athletic talent. It really distorted them, and you couldn't communicate with them, and by the time you got to them, there was no way you could get them to think about or try things differently and work together. It was all just a bunch of individuals.
Do you think your feel for the game was somehow qualitatively different than most contemporary players' feel for the game? Could you describe how?
Abdul-Jabbar: Definitely. OK, starting in seventh grade, I got to go to Madison Square Garden and watch doubleheaders. I saw Bill Russell, I watched Bob Pettit play, I saw Wilt play. I saw, you know, the really great Celtics teams that played between 1957 and 1966. Then my coach in high school, Jack Donohue, he'd quiz us after the games. One of his favorite questions was, "How many guys on the Celtics got 20 points?" And the answer was nobody.
Can you describe what the game meant to you at that age?
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, at that time, it was like, I was trying to figure out whether to play baseball or basketball. In the eighth grade, they put the gun on me, and I could throw the fastball at about 95 mph, at 14 years old. I was about 6-foot-8 then ... anyway, my control stunk. But everything on the basketball court came easy for me. It was much easier. I could do it better earlier. At that point, I decided that the NBA really was something I could get to.
Abdul-Jabbar: That was already in my life experience, probably because of all the attention I paid to Jackie Robinson as a boy. My dream as a boy was to replace Gil Hodges at first base and play with Jackie. That was it. The Brooklyn Dodgers were everything to me. My mom, she couldn't get me to go to bed when the team was playing out west in Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati. To try to get me to go to sleep she'd say, "It's all right, Roy Campanella is up next inning, and he'll take care of things. Don't worry."
What would you say the game represents or means to you now?
Abdul-Jabbar: It's kind of an opportunity for me to give something back to the game, and get something from the game, through teaching it, that I had no idea of. Being an administrator, dealing with the fans and the players and the owners and the press differently than I did in the past. You know, I was great on the court, but I wasn't too good in those other areas.
Is that something you're conscious of trying to change or turn around?
Abdul-Jabbar: No, it's just ... I can be better at it. I understand now what it means and how to do it. Reporters used to ask me the same inane questions year-in and year-out, city-to-city, and it would drive me crazy. But I understand now that there are people who are just now coming into the game, and they have no idea, and that question, whatever it is, at this point, is very new to them. While it's decades old for me, it's new to them, and I have to understand that that's something I can give them.
You said at various times throughout your playing career that basketball became a job to you, that it was work rather than fun. Has coming to coach in the USBL made the game fun for you again?
Abdul-Jabbar: I think so. It's fun for me to see the kids learn and mature. That's nice, that's very satisfying. I think my experiences as a parent make it easier for me to grasp, understand and enjoy that.
Because you're able to take joy in someone else's accomplishments ...
Abdul-Jabbar: Yes, and just to watch them grow and learn. You know, they're all men, but they haven't learned what they need to know as men about being consistent and being professional. I think I'm having a hand in teaching them that.
When you got here to Oklahoma and you met your players, were you "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar" to them?
Abdul-Jabbar: At first, yeah. But as time went on, they realized that they had to listen to certain things I had to say that had nothing to do with being a scoring champ or anything like that. They just had to do with "can you do what I want you to do in order to be an effective player for us?"
Can you recall a particular moment when the transition took place?
Do you find yourself getting frustrated with your players? Is it hard to maintain your patience?
Abdul-Jabbar: That's the crux of my job. I can't get frustrated. I gotta see what they need to learn and just take 'em over it again. That's one thing I learned from Coach Wooden, you just go over it again and again, you relate to them the object lessons. They don't like getting beat, so you get their attention when you dissect a loss.
Do you imagine this job leading to another job? Are you satisfied with it being what it is?
Abdul-Jabbar: I think so, because being here has made me grow and made me learn. I don't want to stay here. I hope I get the chance to coach in college or the pros. But I appreciate the opportunity, and I appreciate the reception people have given me here. It's been awesome. It's been humbling.
Humbling in what regard?
Abdul-Jabbar: Just for me to understand how I've affected people's lives. I had no idea. I do a weekly radio show ... guy came with a copy of my book, "Black Profiles in Courage," and he said, "Hey, Man, thank you for this, because this has been the perfect thing for me to use as bedtime stories for my daughter."
It's awesome. I can't tell you. It had nothing to do with basketball. He said, "They know you more as the guy in 'Airplane.'" (laughs) The whole NBA experience is like a vague, tangential thing, but what they got from "Black Profiles" really helped them understand who they were and what America was about. That, to me, was very, very satisfying.
But you see this moment as part of a new era in your life, headed toward a job in college or the pros ...
Abdul-Jabbar: I hope it opens those doors for me. Regardless, it's made me, it's enabled me, to be more as a person.
What about a job like Jerry West's, as a GM? Would that be interesting to you?
Abdul-Jabbar: I could do that. I think I could do that. I think I could help a team in that capacity. But you know, you have to be given that opportunity, and right now no one really wants to see me as a prime candidate for that kind of opportunity.
In your autobiography, "Giant Steps," you talk about when you decided to skip the 1968 Olympics, and you say that at the time you had "no special love for tradition." Do you feel differently about tradition at this stage in your life and career than you did then?
Abdul-Jabbar: I do. I feel differently about tradition, because now that I understand black America's contribution to America, I see a broader context. Instead of there only being the tradition of subservience that I was hostile towards, I know now about other traditions.
We're starting, as a culture as a whole, to understand that so much of our history has been distorted by the whole racial legacy.
Abdul-Jabbar: I see things differently now. The whole idea of being part of a great game that is a part of American life -- I love that tradition; it's been great to me and I'm very pleased to be a part of it.
You've said that you're comfortable here in Oklahoma, in part because of your affinity for Western history and Native American history. Can you tell me why Western history and Native American history appeal to you?
Abdul-Jabbar: Watching too many cowboy movies when I was a kid ... and then finding out the facts, because everything I saw as a child, everything was white ... then when you find out what it actually was, it's like "wait a minute." You know, the first non-native American to explore this part of the world was a black slave named Estevanico. It's in "Black Profiles." But blacks are not known for being explorers ... there were blacks with Columbus on all his voyages ... but the truth is just totally different from what I saw on both the big and little screen as a kid.
A lot of people think of you as a city person. Is Oklahoma City and this kind of relatively rural landscape comfortable for you?
Abdul-Jabbar: Yes. I like the outdoors. I've always liked the outdoors. Even in Manhattan. You know, northern Manhattan, Inward Hill Park, is the last, the only part of NY, that is as it was when Hudson showed up. In fact, he made landfall right there.
Is that an area where you'd spend time as a kid?
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, we'd go in there and play cowboys and Indians. Right in my neighborhood were the forts that General Washington and the Continental Army occupied; it was the last part of Manhattan that the Continental Army held. And we'd find musket balls and stuff, arrowheads. I had a little collection, but somewhere between the third grade and high school, I lost all of that. I was very much aware of history because of that. The Dyckman House, a Dutch farm house where people traveling between New York and Albany would stay, is up there. The Dyckman Housing Projects were later there, on Dyckman street.
As an adult, you've really been a student of history, and you've written "Black Profiles in Courage." Has the reading and writing you've done prepared you for the work you're doing now as a coach?
Abdul-Jabbar: Oh yeah, because, you know, in addition to what it means for the game, you understand that you affect young men's lives and you have to have a certain moral outlook and you have to stick with it. And that was a very important thing I learned from Coach Wooden.
That's the teacher's hope, right, that affecting one single life is important work in the world?
Abdul-Jabbar: Absolutely, that was the most important thing to Coach Wooden. You know, if we didn't win the NCAA, that wasn't as important as what we learned in terms of how to live our lives, how to be our best, how to give our best effort.
I know you've long been a fan of jazz music. Can you talk about the parallels between the music and basketball?
Abdul-Jabbar: My dad was a jazz musician and the music has always been in my life. I didn't start making comparitive analogies until very late in my competitive career, but the whole idea of a jazz quintet resonates -- there's a theme, and there's a ball on the court, everybody shares, everybody has their moment with the ball, with different responsibilities at different times, but the central focus is the ball and putting the tune out there in a certain way. In basketball, it's about winning, and getting it done with the skills of the five guys out there.
I read somewhere that you said this transition from being player to coach was like the difference between being Miles Davis and Count Basie.
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, because, you know, Miles ... all he'd have to do was go out there and do what he did. But Count Basie had to manage all these different artistic egos, meld them into a unit, get them to perform every night and give them the incentive to be at their best and to perform at a high level, night-in and night-out. I really appreciate that now. I had no appreciation of that before I took this job.
What does an ideal game from your team look like?
Abdul-Jabbar: In the best of worlds, we'd be methodical and aware of each other. When we win games, we have five or six guys in double-figures, like the old Celtics teams. That's always my hope.
Are the players hearing that message, that that's a really satisfying night?
Abdul-Jabbar: I don't know if they're hearing it or not, but they're getting practical lessons that that's how it works, and they're very satisfied when it works. Sometimes it works against us, because they're so satisfied that, the next game, they revert back to hot dog time. They don't yet understand that if you want to be a professional athlete, you need to get up to that level every night. If you do it one night, you have to forget about it and get ready for the next night.
What was your most satisfying season as a pro player?
Abdul-Jabbar: I think the most satisfying season for me was the 1986-1987 season. That was the easiest season I had as a pro, and I turned 40 that year, but I was in my best physical condition as an individual, and the team was like a very well-tuned race car. It all fit together really well. That was our easiest march through the playoffs.
That was the easiest year, but really the height was 1985, when we finally beat the Celtics. I'd rooted for the Celtics in high school, and I got to win a championship in Boston Garden. It was very satisfying.
What did the sky hook feel like to you?
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, for me, it was like ... Hubie Brown used to describe me as an assassin ... I liked that, because, you know, it was like my sniper shot. They couldn't get to me, the defense couldn't get to me, I knew I could get it off whenever I wanted. I felt like a sniper, just waiting for people to expose themselves so I could pick them off.
It was what I did to protect the team. It was what I did to put pressure on the defense, by taking advantage of the center and making the whole team conscious of trying to stop the sniper ... and when they paid attention to me, you know, Byron Scott or Jamaal Wilkes were open. I created something for them to play off of.
Is the sky hook a teachable shot?
Abdul-Jabbar: Oh yeah, it's easy to teach. But nobody wants to shoot it.
Abdul-Jabbar: Because it's not sexy. It's not Michael Jordan. It's in there with your back to the basket, and you wheel and, you know, it's not sexy.
There was so much grace in that shot. Did you think of yourself as a player oriented towards grace and finesse, or as a player oriented towards power?
Abdul-Jabbar: Oh, I was oriented towards finesse. It's funny, all my musician friends, they always appreciated the shot. Chick Corea always used to say that he loved it, because I could kick it to them every time.
You won at every level, from Power to UCLA to Milwaukee to the Lakers. Is it hard for you to understand where some of your players are coming from, having not had that steady success over the years?
Abdul-Jabbar: Success is a very rare thing. Individual success, though, being able to be at your peak, anybody can achieve that, in almost any context. That's its own value, and that's what you have to learn how to do consistently, no matter what it is. As an athlete, as a parent, in your professional life ...
So that's the level at which you come to your players now and say, "This isn't about are you or are you not going to become an NBA star ..."
Abdul-Jabbar: Yeah, I haven't said one word to them about the playoffs, for example. Nothing. That will be determined by fate.
Do you have goals for your team this year?
Abdul-Jabbar: No, the goal is to get them to be a very efficient team that can compete. That's it. It doesn't go beyond that. All of that is about fate and the roll of the dice.
After the season, what's next? Do you see yourself back here doing this again?
Abdul-Jabbar: I don't know. I'm gonna have to think about it.
What is it you most love about basketball?
Abdul-Jabbar: Well, you get something from it in terms of conditioning, it's a physical challenge, it was an opportunity for me to have a profession; it was a great stage for me, and I was blessed to be able to dominate the stage. It was a special part of my life.
What's the most common misconception people have about basketball?
Abdul-Jabbar: Being seven feet tall is not that great an advantage, if you don't understand how to play the game. It requires agility, a shooting touch and the ability to work with other people. Also, at a certain point, the game is intellectual. You have equal talents out there, and the question is how can you put these talents together best?
What do you love most about teaching?
Abdul-Jabbar: The prophet Muhammad said, "Let those who are here take this knowledge to those who are not here." It's about living a moral life. Coach Wooden, that was his philosophy in a Christian context, but it was exactly the same philosophy. He felt he had an obligation to affect young men's lives in a certain way, and I feel the same thing.
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.