Abdul-Jabbar first became acquainted with the area four years ago while doing research about the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American members of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry divisions who served in the West after the Civil War and made their headquarters at Fort Apache, five miles south of Whiteriver. Abdul-Jabbar is a student of Western history and Native American lore. Artifacts from the West crowd the walls of his Beverly Hills house from floor to ceiling. He once paid $20,000 for a shirt worn by an Indian warrior; it's displayed over the fireplace. He's paid thousands more for antique weapons, documents and photographs. The original oil paintings in his collection show desert landscapes where lost tribes once lived. Uniforms worn by Buffalo Soldiers are on exhibit in the living room.
While exploring the White Mountain reservation that first time, Abdul-Jabbar befriended Edgar Perry, now 60, a cultural adviser to the tribe who is the grandson of an Apache scout. Perry later presented Abdul-Jabbar with a drum and an eagle feather, symbolizing Abdul-Jabbar's acceptance into the Perry family. Still later, Perry traveled to Los Angeles with a group of tribe members and performed ceremonial dances for Abdul-Jabbar at his home.
"Then word traveled around that Kareem himself was dancing in San Carlos [a reservation town about two hours from Whiteriver]," says Noland Clay, a tribal council member who serves on the Whiteriver school board. "So we understood that he wanted to be close to the Apache people. He danced at a puberty ceremony for a young girl related to Mr. Perry's family, at a traditional sunrise dance. This meant a lot to our people."
When Perry learned that the school board was looking for a celebrity guest to appear at the dedication of Alchesay High's new $5 million activities center, he encouraged superintendent Clark to invite Abdul-Jabbar. Waiving his usual appearance fee, Abdul-Jabbar agreed to attend as long as the school gave him a baseball cap and T-shirt emblazoned with the emblem of the Alchesay Falcons. He showed up at the event wearing a cowboy hat dressed with his eagle feather, and he sank a skyhook to the noisy approval of a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 5,000. Abdul-Jabbar says he couldn't help but feel a spiritual connection to the people. "Just for what they've been through," he says. "They had their land taken from them, and Africans were taken from their land. The whole thing of being ripped off, that common history, is something that resonates for both of us."
One day in July in a conversation with Perry, Abdul-Jabbar "mouthed off about coaching," as he puts it, and Perry said, "You should coach here." The next day Clark called, and two weeks later Abdul-Jabbar was back on the reservation, meeting with officials, plotting the months to come.
In addition to coaching, Abdul-Jabbar will give occasional history lectures at the high school, and he has a contract to write two books over the next year: one, a journal about his experiences as a coach at Alchesay, the other a motivational book on how to succeed in life.
"When word got around that he was coming, nobody but the people on the reservation believed it," says Goklish, the Alchesay guard. "They said we were joking. It's the reservation, they said, and no celebrities ever go there. 'But it's true,' I told them. 'Just wait and see.'
"I think, though, that in the end Coach Jabbar will be getting a whole lot more from this season than he's going to be giving. What we can teach him about our Apache culture and heritage, he couldn't get from a book. The people here are so different from what's out there. It's a whole other world here. And every day he'll be living it."
"In Pinetop and Show Low," says Lamkin, the center, referring to nearby towns, "they don't want to admit that he just wants to be our coach. They have to give a reason for it, so they started spreading the rumor that the only reason he was coming was to perform community service for what happened to him in Canada. They're trashing us by saying that. But I'm not surprised. People are jealous."
But there was no penalty of community service for Abdul-Jabbar, and he truly is there just because he wants to be. Yet as he rose to his feet and faced his team for the first time, he seemed nervous. This giant of a man, one of the best basketball players ever, who'd scored 44,149 points, spoke in a voice that was barely audible. "I just want you guys to understand that," he said, referring to his desire to be there, "and I want you to understand that we're going to go on from this point. I hope this is a great learning experience for all of us. That's it. Thank you."