Everybody was expecting the new coach to be a giant, but he was bigger than that. He had to duck to get through the door, which no one else in the history of Alchesay High had ever needed to do. Even center Ivan Lamkin, who at 6'6" and 230 pounds is the biggest kid on the team, said he felt like a dwarf. "It's like, man, he's eight inches taller than me," said Lamkin. "For the first time since I was little, I actually felt kind of small."
When guard Kyle Goklish first saw the new coach, he didn't see his head, which was up there above the door frame, blocked from view by a wall. He saw only the 270-pound body, and the body was leaner and better conditioned than he had imagined it would be. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 51, has been retired from basketball for nearly a decade, but there was nothing remotely soft or antiquated about him. Even without a clean view of his head, he looked to Goklish as if he could still dominate in the post, could still mix it up with the big men and could still shoot the skyhook. "I got a real antsy feeling," Goklish says, recalling that first glimpse. "My hands got sweaty. It was hard to breathe."
They met in the weight room. About 80 boys had signed up for tryouts, but when reality set in, only 60 or so showed up, not a few just to say they were there, as witnesses to history. About one third of those in attendance, some barely skilled enough to dribble, would be cut from the team by the end of the week, yet they turned up anyway. When they are old and gray, with grandkids cluttered like leaves at their feet, they will be able to brag that they were present and accounted for on that day in November 1998 when one of the greatest basketball players of all time came to Whiteriver, Ariz., in the White Mountain Apache Reservation, to help coach the boys.
The first thing the new coach did, he sat on a weight bench and stretched out his legs. He was wearing dark-blue sweats, white socks and black Adidases. He had neither a clipboard nor a whistle. He wore a big, clunky watch but no rings on his fingers. (His fingers? When the boys are old and gray, they'll make sure to describe those, too.) You'd think Raul Mendoza, the head coach, would introduce the man and list his accomplishments. Or at least say, "Yes, it's true. He ranks up there with Jordan and Bird and Dr. J as the best the game has ever known, and he's volunteered to be my assistant this season." But Mendoza, who's also the school guidance counselor, was his usual taciturn self and said nothing of the kind. Instead of making a fuss, instead of even acknowledging Abdul-Jabbar's presence, Mendoza turned the floor over to Rusty Taylor, the 30-year-old coach of the freshman team, who never even played basketball in high school.
"O.K., gentlemen, no drugs and no alcohol will be allowed," Taylor began, barking like a Marine Corps drill instructor. "And no rat tails. I have no rat tail, and Mr. Mendoza has no rat tail. You want to play for this team, you have to sacrifice. Mr. Jabbar? Mr. Jabbar has no—"
"Hair," Abdul-Jabbar said, speaking up finally. He ran a hand over his shaved scalp, and the whole room blew up with laughter.
"And no more hickeys on the neck," Taylor went on. "Tell your girlfriends, 'Thank you, but no thank you.' It's just not right, and we don't want to see it. No hickey-suckin' guys on this team. Well, I guess you can give them, but don't go gettin' them back. Are we clear on that, gentlemen? I ask you, are we clear on that?"
No one seemed to be listening. It was because of who-else. In college, back in the 1960s, before any of these boys were born, Abdul-Jabbar led UCLA to three consecutive NCAA titles while dominating the game as no player had before or has since. During his 20 years as a pro he scored 44,149 points—44,149 points! That's almost 9,000 more than Michael Jordan has scored. Abdul-Jabbar also played on six world champion teams, first with the Milwaukee Bucks, then with the Los Angeles Lakers, and he won six league MVP awards. But up close here in the weight room, if you ignored who he was and ignored his size, he almost looked like a regular human being.
At last Mendoza turned to face him. "Coach Jabbar?" he said quietly, more as a question than a statement. "Would you like to say something?"
Then Abdul-Jabbar stood up.