It was a long drive from his house in Beverly Hills to the reservation, high in the elk and bear country of eastern Arizona. He needed four hours to reach the state line, then another 2½ to make it to Phoenix. Somewhere beyond that, in the town of Miami, he stopped for gas, and a complete stranger raised a hand in greeting. "Hey, Kareem," the man said casually. "How's your team? Are they big?"
Abdul-Jabbar couldn't help but shout out a laugh. He said, "I haven't even seen them yet!"
He drove on, moving in his new Ford Expedition from a vast desert to mountains thick with aspen and spruce, his destination a rented town house where he would be spending the next four or five months. The air thinned and grew colder as he traveled deeper into the 2.6-million-acre reservation in the big green country where the Apache people have lived for 500 years.
Many things in recent months had put him on this uncertain journey, not all of them good. First and foremost, after a year of lobbying hard for a coaching job in the NBA, he'd failed to land one, even as an assistant. He'd vigorously courted the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers, but "any NBA situation," he said last spring, would have interested him. "I'm ready," he announced then with a note of expectation. 'I feel I can cope with whatever comes. I'd be willing to talk to any club if it was interested in me. I'd live in any city. Anywhere."
He met with general managers, with former teammates who had connections and, on two occasions, with Clippers owner Donald Sterling. He wasn't after money, Abdul-Jabbar said. He just wanted back in. "It's really a no-brainer for me," he said. "Basketball is a simple game. My job would be getting the guys ready to play."
To prove how serious he was, and to demonstrate his mettle, Abdul-Jabbar volunteered to put on clinics free of charge for promising young players, most of them big men. This summer he tutored Michael Olowokandi, the 7'1" rookie center from Pacific whom the Clippers made the first pick of this year's draft. "There's no doubt about it, the man can definitely coach," says Olowokandi, who had four sessions with Abdul-Jabbar. "When he speaks, you have no choice but to listen. We went through offensive rebounding, for instance, and he showed me the footwork to use against a guy trying to block me out. And though I had a hook shot before, he taught me how to put that extra little arch on it. Whatever he showed me, I did, tie's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and there aren't many people like him around these days."
He was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all right, but still no team in the NBA wanted him. Most of the rejections came with expressions of gratitude for his interest, but the consensus was that he lacked coaching experience and was thus unqualified. One of the best players ever, and he wasn't fit to teach the game!
"What's that feel like? It feels like being all dressed up and nowhere to go," Abdul-Jabbar says. "But I'm not angry. It's what it is. They recycle the same guys in these jobs. Why? It's because they don't care if they win or not. What's important is that [the coaches] fit in with the corporate team structure. And the guys who get those jobs are the guys who sat on the bench and cultivated good relationships with managers, while guys like me were out there winning championships but not making friends with management."
In the years since he retired, Abdul-Jabbar has worked as an actor and a film and television producer. He's also written books, most notably a history with Alan Steinberg called Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement. But his real money has come from trading on his former stardom. He gives speeches for large fees, although he never was one to say much. He signs his name at card shows, and he endorses products for companies that somehow benefit from an association with a too-tall bald guy who once could really play. "I was away from basketball long enough," he says. "All the burnout was gone. I called Coach [John] Wooden, and he was supportive. I knew it was the right thing to do."
Last season Larry Bird showed that a former superstar can win as an NBA coach, but apparently his success with the Indiana Pacers didn't blot out the memory of how other great players had performed at the job. The coaching tenures of Bill Russell and Magic Johnson, both disastrous, had reinforced the notion that the best players can't sublimate their egos and accept roles that don't put them at center stage. In his hunt for work, Abdul-Jabbar had this perception to overcome. But there were other issues, too, none so great as that of his character.