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Buffalo Soldier
John Ed Bradley
November 30, 1998
In his quest to become an NBA coach, former superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will go anywhere to gain experience-even an Apache reservation in Arizona
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November 30, 1998

Buffalo Soldier

In his quest to become an NBA coach, former superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will go anywhere to gain experience-even an Apache reservation in Arizona

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At the moment he isn't seriously involved with anyone, he says. He dates and goes to dinner, that sort of thing. Mainly he indulges his passion for horseback riding. He owns eight horses. His favorite, Peaches, is a thoroughbred gelding that is 17½ hands high, big enough to accommodate a giant.

Abdul-Jabbar says he started thinking about coaching a few years ago when the Philadelphia 76ers brought him in to work with then rookie center Shawn Bradley, and he saw that his student, though eager to learn, "didn't know certain things that every pivot man should have tattooed on the back of his arm." Not long after that, Abdul-Jabbar met with Mike Garrett, the USC athletic director, and discussed the possibility of coaching the school's basketball team. Garrett ended up hiring Henry Bibby, but the experience was a revelation for Abdul-Jabbar, who hadn't realized how much he missed the game.

In April of last year, Abdul-Jabbar traveled to New York City to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman in a comedy skit featuring former great athletes. After taping, he retired to the green room with Reggie Jackson, Walter Payton, Al Unser and Gordie Howe. Somebody called him to the telephone, and he picked it up to learn that his mother, Cora, hospitalized in Los Angeles, had died after a long illness. Abdul-Jabbar put the phone down and turned to Sandifer. "We have to go," he said. "My mom's passed."

"You don't think much about your mother until she's no longer around," Abdul-Jabbar says now. "When she's alive you take her for granted. She's always there. What I went through when my mom died...it was an incredible shock."

About a week after the funeral Abdul-Jabbar flew with Sandifer to Russia on a publicity junket for Adidas. He was despondent during much of the 10-day trip, but on the return flight he let his guard down and confided as to how he wanted to take his life in a different direction. "He was really suffering," says Sandifer. "He said his mother's death had forced him to take a look back at his life—where he'd been, what he'd done, what he'd accomplished, what his parents meant to him. And he said he realized that he'd turned his back on the one thing that had helped to define him for so long, basketball. He said it was time: He had to coach."

The call finally came this summer. It was long distance, from Arizona. But not from Phoenix, home of the NBA's Suns. The call was from an Indian reservation, from the office of Whiteriver Unified School District Number 20. The voice on the other end belonged to John Clark, the superintendent there. "You wouldn't help coach our basketball team, would you?" Clark asked.

"Yes, I would," Abdul-Jabbar answered.

"Unbelievable," Clark says, still reeling nearly four months later. "Just to have someone of Kareem's stature drive through the reservation is newsworthy. But to have him coach here? You can't imagine how significant that is."

The White Mountain Apache tribe counts about 13,500 members, and most live in small communities surrounding Whiteriver (pop. 3,000). Bengay, for example, is a neighborhood with a large number of elderly residents; its name comes from their prodigious use of a pain-relieving cream. Another district, Dark Shadows, sits in the shade of a mountain. One Step Beyond is next to a cemetery. There's also Chinatown, so named because the houses stand close together. Six Pack, Corn on the Cob, Jurassic Park and Smurf Village are other local districts.

"The people on the reservation have always been crazy for basketball, and they'll be even crazier for it now that he's there," says Mike Smith, the coach at Round Valley High in Springerville, a league rival of Alchesay's. "Sometimes I think they love the game so much because there's nothing else to do on the reservation. It can be the dead of winter, and you see kids playing on bare ground under outdoor hoops. They pound the snow down with their feet, not even caring about the cold."

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