Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Gets Education As Coach On Apache Indian Reservation
WHITERIVER, Ariz. - Five miles down a winding highway, through a ruggedly beautiful wilderness dominated by red rock buttes, remnants of the real Fort Apache still stand.
It's not the one Kareem Abdul-Jabbar thought he once knew, the Fort Apache portrayed on "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" television show he watched while growing up in Harlem during the 1950s.
"The characters were all lily-white," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It was a real distortion of history. No Indian scouts. No Hispanics. No Asian rail workers."
And no Buffalo Soldiers.
Three years ago, Abdul-Jabbar came to the remote White Mountain Apache Reservation to research the Buffalo Soldiers - African-American cavalry troopers who served on the Old West frontier - for his book, "Black Profiles in Courage."
He found that in the non-Hollywood version, those soldiers and the Apaches not only coexisted more than 100 years ago, but it was a positive interaction.
"There are people walking around here who are descended from the Apaches who worked with the Buffalo Soldiers," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Now I'm working with their great-grandchildren. That's very meaningful to me."
Abdul-Jabbar carries the title of volunteer assistant basketball coach at Alchesay High School, a team that is the pride of this hoops-obsessed reservation. He's also something else: a modern-day Buffalo Soldier.
He wants to be a coach, and only Alchesay would offer him a position - for the princely sum of $1. But the reasons run far deeper why one of history's greatest basketball players has left his posh Beverly Hills home to spend four months in a one-stoplight town of 3,000 people 150 miles northeast of Phoenix.
Abdul-Jabbar hopes to show kids there's a way to rise above the cycle of poverty that permeates a reservation where unemployment stands at 60 percent and almost every family has felt the effects of alcoholism.
But something curious is happening. The teacher also has become a student.
On the court in practice, he exchanges playful banter with the players and smiles easily. In other words, Abdul-Jabbar is everything he wasn't during a celebrated playing career where he was perceived as aloof, sullen and unapproachable.
"I think he's learning a whole lot more about himself than he's teaching us," said senior guard Kyle Goklish. "Our life, our culture is different from the big city. He's not going to be the same when he leaves here."
Abdul-Jabbar pondered that thought.
"I don't know if coaching in the NBA is the most important thing to me anymore," he said. "I'd be open to listening, but it's not the same as it was just a month ago. It's changed."
The team's starting center stands 6 feet 2. Abdul-Jabbar deals with daily traumas such as players in detention. Away games can mean eight hours, round trip, in a cramped school bus. A recent shortcut included traveling a dirt road.
But here, in the middle of nowhere, Abdul-Jabbar quickly has discovered basketball's importance to the Apaches.
Most houses here have hoops - many homemade with wooden backboards and logs for standards - and kids begin dreaming at a young age of playing for Alchesay High. Last season the Falcons, coached by Raul Mendoza, lost the Arizona 3A title game by three points.
The school's new activity center tells you everything you need to know about basketball on the reservation. It cost $6 million, seats about 4,000 and usually is full at home games.
"The people here were fanatics long before I arrived," Abdul-Jabbar said. "This is the only game in town."
But while Apache teams are known for their basketball excellence, that success hasn't been duplicated off the court.
Alchesay - named for an Apache chief who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor - had 115 graduates last spring. Only 45 enrolled in college.
"Then a lot of guys come back in the first week," said Brennen Butterfield, the team's center. "They can't handle it.
"There's a lot of drug abuse and alcohol here," he added. "It would be very easy to slip into that. I know (Abdul-Jabbar) had to get past similar problems in Harlem. I want to know how he coped. Maybe he can teach me something about how to deal with things because I think I would be homesick, too."
Abdul-Jabbar may have been hired to coach X's and O's, but he seems more interested in talking about the ABC's of life. Just as he discovered the Fort Apache depicted in "Rin Tin Tin" didn't exist, he wants Native American kids to realize the perception that they are inferior also is an illusion.
"Because of the messages that Apaches get from the mainstream culture, they don't think success is for them," said Abdul-Jabbar, 51. "It's the same thing in the ghetto or the barrio. They will accept this as fact unless they see someone challenge it and beat it. They have to see an example like me, someone who has gotten his degree, that they can apply to their lives."
So when the rumors started circulating last summer that he would help coach the team, much of the reservation understandably was skeptical.
"I didn't believe he was coming," said Tinker Burnette, an 18-year-old senior. "Who comes here? A NBA player coming to our res is weird."
Famous athletes and entertainers occasionally visit the 1.6-million acre reservation, which is home to 13,000 Apaches. But they fly in on private jets, pay thousands to spend a few days hunting elk and then leave with a trophy kill. Contact with actual Apaches is strictly accidental.
Abdul-Jabbar was different. When he first visited Fort Apache, which has housed the all-black Ninth and 10th cavalries, he struck up a friendship with Edgar Perry, whose grandfather was an Apache scout.
They stayed in touch, and when the gymnasium was dedicated in 1996, Perry encouraged Whiteriver Unified School District superintendent John Clark to invite Abdul-Jabbar. For the appearance fee of an Alchesay hat and T-shirt, Abdul-Jabbar spoke and sunk the building's first official basket. Sky hook. Nothing but net.
He also took part in a traditional sunrise dance for Perry's grandniece - a rite-of-passage ceremony for Apache girls. Abdul-Jabbar had been accepted.
"He has," said Perry, "a heart for the Apache."
Earlier this year, Abdul-Jabbar was talking to Perry by phone, voicing his frustrations over how nobody was taking his interest in coaching seriously.
"The next day, Mr. Clark called me," Abdul-Jabbar said.
Abdul-Jabbar is not sure why NBA and college teams have ignored him even though he has tutored big men such as Shawn Bradley and Michael Olowokandi, the No. 1 pick of this year's draft. But there are reasons prospective employers would be hesitant.
He long has been a complex figure. Extremely intelligent, he rarely displayed much joy on the court and made little effort to be cordial to people.
There also were questions about his judgment. In 1997, there was a series of sometimes bizarre events. He sued former UCLA running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar for trademark infringement over his name; underwent anger-management counseling after an altercation with a motorist; and had to pay a $500 fine after surrendering a small amount of marijuana at the Toronto airport.
Abdul-Jabbar said he suffers from severe migraine headaches and the marijuana was for medicinal purposes. "I am not," he said, "a stoner."
As for other legal entanglements, he conceded that he often has been his own worst enemy.
"Sometimes I wasn't very wise," Abdul-Jabbar said. "But hopefully I'm wiser now."
Clark also mentions Abdul-Jabbar's three references: Bradley, Phoenix Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo and Colin Powell.
"Not everyone leads a perfect life," Clark said. "Maybe those incidents have made him reevaluate his life and become a different person."
His assessment after watching the new coach for six weeks?
"Every high school athlete should be lucky enough to have a coach like Kareem," he said.
Clark has come to a conclusion about his 7-foot-2 coach: It's not easy being Kareem.
"To be around him is really eye-opening," he said. "He stands out. When people see him, they always want something from him. I saw a woman grab him around the legs and say she wouldn't let go until he gave her an autograph. And she had to be 70. You just feel sorry for him."
Abdul-Jabbar resisted psychoanalyzing himself. But for whatever the reason, he clearly has softened that hard shell around him, discarding his scowl.
He recently spoke to a group of 700 reservation women and secured his place in their hearts when he complimented them on their beauty . . . in Apache. He's getting language lessons once a week from Perry.
Native Americans also aren't the only ones who appreciate his volunteerism.
"I went home for a weekend and people were stopping me saying, `It's great what you're doing,"' he said. "Well I was never stopped that much by people who had bet and won on the Lakers. There's been a change in the way people accept me."
It took a couple weeks for the players to accept him.
"We had to get used to him because he wouldn't talk to us," said junior guard Tony Parker. "He was quiet. He didn't know what to say and didn't know how to act around us."
The fact that Abdul-Jabbar is a Hall of Famer also didn't impress them. Most only vaguely remember him as an NBA star, and they resisted his suggestion to run less and think more on the court.
"We thought we were too good and didn't want to listen to him," Butterfield said.
Then they lost three games.
"Nobody believed me when I said they needed to make all their layups to win," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Now they believe."
Goklish, a senior guard, said he now feels comfortable with the new coach. Goklish has lots of questions he wants to ask.
He is the top student in his class and recently finished fourth in the state cross country meet. He already has received several academic and athletic scholarship offers. Yet he remains troubled about his future.
"It's so different out there," Goklish said. "That's why on the long bus rides, he'll be talking and we'll hang on every word. He said he'd do anything he can to help me go to college, and that he'd even contact UCLA. He gives you such a sense of hope."
No one was standing on the corner in Winslow, Ariz., last Tuesday. That's because a standing-room only crowd of 2,500 was at the high school, eager to see Abdul-Jabbar as Alchesay faced host Winslow High.
In the locker room, Abdul-Jabbar was helping Mendoza with a final chalk talk. He had assumed his familiar, stoic game face.
As he walked onto the court, Abdul-Jabbar was greeted with the loudest cheers of the night, which he acknowledged with a brief wave. He took his seat next to Alchesay's other assistant coach, Tommy Parker, an Apache house painter who looks to stand about 5-2.
Mendoza, a quiet man who has welcomed his famous aide with open arms, ran the bench. Abdul-Jabbar, accepting in his role as a subordinate, rarely stood other than during timeouts.
But in the final minutes, as Alchesay became careless with the ball and a comfortable lead evaporated, a frustrated Abdul-Jabbar appeared ready to pull out some hair. If he had any left.
Somehow the Falcons held on to win, 64-59, and everyone was happy in the locker room - including Abdul-Jabbar.
Enjoying the present, he was vague when discussing the future. He only knows for sure that he'll finish the season with the Falcons, and then write a book about his experience.
Clark expects Abdul-Jabbar to move on to the college or pro ranks next year. He said this season should put to rest doubts about his coaching dedication. He believes, though, Abdul-Jabbar is forming a lifelong bond with these players.