|Kareem at the crossroads|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stands up in the spotlight and waves to the crowd, like he has a thousand times before. The people greet him with cheers and shouts, like they have for a generation.
But this isn't the Forum, the Boston Garden or Pauley Pavilion. This is the Cox Business Services Center in Oklahoma City, game night for the United States Basketball League's Oklahoma Storm, May 2002.
And Kareem isn't the unstoppable, unflappable big man in the pivot. He's the head coach.
At 55, the NBA's all-time leading scorer and one of the half-dozen greatest players ever is coaching minor-league basketball. It's a strange scene. His frame, his fame and his record of accomplishment are out of whack with the room (which tonight holds maybe 600 or 700) and with his players (most of whom are long shots to even make the NBA).
He doesn't seem to belong here. He belongs at the heart of the game -- you can't recount the history of the last 35 years of basketball in America without coming through Kareem early and often. What's he doing out here at its edges, working more or less in obscurity?
Now, 13 years after retiring, he's working in and working to cross other, less useful, gaps.
For starters, he's 1,200 miles from his home in Los Angeles, and seemingly a world away from the big-time basketball world he once dominated. The bridge between this job and the one he says he wants -- at a major college program or in the NBA -- looks uncertain. The minor-league brand of ball he's coaching has little to do with the highly evolved game he knew at UCLA and with the Lakers. The ideal game he keeps in his mind, the selfless game he first saw in Red Auerbach's Celtics, might be an anachronistic fantasy in the modern hoop world.
Then there are the other gaps, too, the older ones, more ingrained, the ones he always has maintained between himself and the people around him. He was never comfortable with the way people looked at him, with the way they seemed to want something from him. He hated to talk to the press or cater to the public. He wanted to play and go home, and he took refuge in being alone or with close friends, away from the demands of the spotlight.
That gap has given birth to another one -- the gap between his perception of himself and the way others seem to see him. It's apparent he thinks of himself now as someone deep in the tradition of the game who is ready and able to give back, to share what he has learned. He sees himself as a private person, yes, but he believes he can do this job, he knows how much more comfortable he has grown over the years, and feels he has it in him to reach out now.
Others -- reporters stung by or shut out by him over the years, general managers he hopes might hire him -- aren't so sure. His habit of keeping a "safe" distance over the years has left them doubting his people skills and made them wary of his ability to communicate.
A big part of Kareem's story has always been about the ways we see him. We've projected fantasies, hopes, fears and resentments onto him for more than a generation. Some made him a symbol of grace and skill, an icon of winning; others also saw him as a symbol of athletic privilege and cockiness. We carry pictures of him around in our heads.
It's hard to reconcile a mental picture of the sky hook with the present-tense image of him trying to get through to his players. It's hard, too, to jump the gap between the isolated Kareem of the past and the social, available Kareem gladly signing autographs and sharing his time with the press these days. He's made that jump -- or he's in the process of making it -- and though it doesn't seem to come easy to him, it does seem to be coming.
The next jump will have to happen in the minds of those who think they've known him over the years, in the minds of those who've made up their minds about him. Can they see him differently? Can he show them something new?
That's a big question, and it has a lot to do with whether Kareem will ever make it, ever be given the chance to make it, as an NBA coach. Maybe the biggest question, though, maybe the most important gap for him to cross, is the one that lies between what he knows and what he can translate and teach to others.
Teaching is an elusive, almost magical thing. You can learn certain mechanics and strategies, but a lot of teaching is intuitive and a lot of it comes from an easy sort of willingness on the part of the teacher to give himself up, to make himself vulnerable and suffer frustration and confusion and failure, to empathize.
What Kareem knows and what he has to give back must cross over that gap of confusion and frustration and, to get there, he and his players (whether they're in the USBL or the NBA) will have to rely on subtle, instinctive patterns of communication. He knows basketball as well as or better than anyone who has ever played, and he learned from John Wooden, one of the greatest teachers of all-time, but where he finds himself now, in Oklahoma, at this moment in his life, is somewhere close to elementary school, at the beginning of a life in teaching.
He says he first started thinking about coaching seven years ago, when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He had retired in 1989, and he says he didn't miss the game much at first, but being at the induction ceremony made him "think about what a brotherhood there was, and that I was a part of it. I realized so much more about the game and what it meant to me and in my life. That's when I started to have the desire to coach."
There's often a long road between wanting to coach and being a coach, though, and Kareem's journey has gotten off to a rocky start. When he first put the word out that he was interested in coaching, he got no offers.
Why was Kareem coaching the Oklahoma Storm in the USBL playoffs while his former teammate Byron Scott was coaching the Nets in the NBA Finals?
"Basically, I ticked a lot of people off," Kareem told the Houston Chronicle recently, meaning, as a player, he never played nice with the press and never went out of his way to build relationships with teammates or management. "I just wanted to play and go home," he told the Los Angeles Times in April.
Orlando Magic VP Pat Williams says it's not just that folks don't know him, it's that they doubt his people skills. "Coaching is all about skills and relationships," he said during an ESPN SportsCentury profile of Kareem. "I'm not sure he has the background or the training or the ability to be that kind of person."
Kareem understands there are doubts. "The public perception of me -- certainly among people who make the decisions on hiring coaches -- was that I didn't have the skills to coach," he told the Chronicle. "I think they agreed that I might know something about the game, but I couldn't communicate it. I have to show people that that's not true."
His former coach John Wooden told USA Today that he thinks Kareem has a good shot -- and deserves one. "I see no reason why he wouldn't be a success, not only in winning percentage, but in what he would do with youngsters," he said.
His current boss, Storm owner James Bryant, agrees: "It's beyond my imagination that someone won't grab him. I've already had a call from a university that's interested. Kareem is an excellent pro coach, he also could be an excellent college coach. He's an intellectual, he's a teacher, he's an author, he believes in making young people better on and off the court."
A college job, with young players still learning the game, might be a good fit. Today's pro players might be less receptive to Kareem's ideas about fundamentals and discipline.
"Yeah, that definitely would happen," he says. "(During my season as an assistant coach) with the Clippers, we had guys . . . the whole concept of them being so valuable and having their egos massaged was just so drilled into them. . . . It really distorted them, and you couldn't communicate with them."
And so, as of now, Kareem is waiting and wondering. But he genuinely wants a real opportunity. I ask him why.
"I have something to offer," he says. "I'm not just doing this because I had a great career and maybe I deserve a shot. I do have something to offer, and it goes beyond what I did as a pro, back to UCLA -- somebody needs to keep coach Wooden's ideas alive."
Above the fray
Both jobs were temporary, however. The job with the Storm was his first legit coaching offer, and he took it. Will it work? Can he coach? Will anyone notice? Will it change how they feel about him?
I find it painful even to be thinking these things. I grew up in southern California in the '80s, not just rooting for but living through the Lakers teams led by Kareem and Magic Johnson.
Everything about Kareem seemed so automatic then. My friends and I trusted his sky hook the way we trusted air, light and water -- it was elemental. Everything he did seemed inevitable, otherworldly.
Magic was down in it all the time, laughing and pleading with the refs, shouting at his teammates and waving them in and out of position. He was intense and electric, but he seemed like regular folks, too. Kareem was on another plane.
Even then, I knew that he'd sometimes angered and alienated writers and others with his above-the-fray approach, but I didn't care. Talk to writers, don't talk to writers, whatever -- play like a stone-cold, never-falter, goggle-eyed superhero, that's what I wanted and that's what he delivered ... so often I never gave it a second thought.
But now, watching him in Oklahoma, I find myself wondering whether the stuff of basketball legend is the stuff of basketball coaching, whether the isolated, reticent star can make the transition to communicator and teacher.
It's hard to say for sure, but he seems a long way away from the big time tonight, as he settles down into a red plastic folding chair, crosses his arms and looks out at two 6-8 guys jumping center.
Solace on the hardwood
Gaylon smiles -- swish No. 6.
"Gaylon, stop it, he's young, you're gonna hurt him!"
Gaylon laughs, steps back, dribbles between his legs -- No. 7.
"Gaylon, please! I'm begging you, let him up. We got a game tonight, I need him!"
Gaylon stops, looks at Jenkins like, "You want me to stop?"
Jenkins shakes his head and waves him on, as if to say, "I'm not through yet."
Kareem throws his head back and laughs. He and assistant coach Dawan Scott turn toward each other and shake their heads, cracking up. I'm not sure what all this adds up to, but one thing is sure: I don't recognize the Kareem that Pat Williams was talking about.
Kareem hasn't always felt at peace in his own skin -- he wrote in his autobiography, "Giant Steps," about feeling awkward and self-conscious as a lanky kid, and about feeling harassed and ogled by fans and the press as an adult superstar. As Bob Costas once said, "To be over 7 feet tall, a great athlete and uncommonly intelligent . . . to be an African-American athlete at a time of such turmoil . . . exactly how many people are going to share (his) experience?"
Still, the court and the game have always been a safe, comfortable place for him. I ask him after the shoot-around how he first felt about basketball, when he was a kid.
"Everything on the court came easy for me," he says.
In "A Season on the Reservation" he goes on to say that he felt at home there, that he "liked hearing the rubber squeak of sneakers . . . jump shots that passed through the net with a perfect swish (and) the echo of a bounding ball in an empty gym."
Everyone I know who has ever played sports knows what he's talking about. We can't perform at Kareem's level, but we know the grounded, in-your-element feeling he described . . . and maybe some of us, like him, have felt more relaxed and confident of our place in the world just by playing and being around the game.
At some level, that kind of "easy" feeling is reason enough to come to coaching, in Oklahoma or anywhere else. Watching Kareem joke around with Jenkins and Nickerson, I imagine how he must have missed that easiness these last several years, and how good it must feel to back in step with it right now, to be in his element.
Most coaches can manage a grasp on the former, but the best coaches -- the empathetic ones -- have a hold on the latter, too. They're translators, moving from one language and example to the next, until they find something that makes sense and takes root in the mind of each of their players.
"I think about the game, and about how it's supposed to be played, generically. You've got to understand the approach to every position, and how it relates to all the other positions. I can't get stuck thinking, 'All right, a 7-foot center would do this or that.' If I do that, I really limit myself as a coach, and I'm of no use to the team."
He works on post moves with Tate Decker, a new forward on the team, and later defensive footwork at midcourt with guard Tim Pledger. He begins by describing what he wants them to do, then he models it, body-to-body, then backs off and describes it again. Animated and direct, he talks with his hands, moves the players' shoulders, arms and feet into place, looks them in the eyes.
It's small, mechanical stuff and Kareem seems to have a feel for it. The weird thing is, this scene could be happening in any gym, between any coach and player in America. There's nothing especially striking about it, and no evidence one way or the other that he's successfully communicating his ideas, or even that they're the right ideas to be communicating. There's no obvious magic there.
Watching the exchanges, wondering what's passing through the gap between coach and player, I start to think about how counterintuitive this work must be for Kareem on a bunch of levels.
He has always said he's most comfortable on his own and coaching forces him to reach out. He had maybe the most unusual combination of size, grace and agility the game has ever seen, and I wonder where the points of intersection between him and his players might be. A lot of what he knows must be so deep in his muscles and memories as to almost defy explanation.
Later on, Kareem is shooting without leaving his feet, first from the right baseline, then from the left, like a modified version of an old George Mikan drill he writes about in "Giant Steps" -- repetitions on the right and left side of the lane to refine your mechanics, get your touch, and make sure you're strong going both ways.
There's nothing special about what he's doing, but if you know how to look, there are probably all kinds of insights lurking in it, stuff about release points and follow-through, about composure and mindset, and preparation and focus.
Is he teaching those things? Can they be taught? Is he even thinking about that right now?
Who knows? It looks like there's a lot going on, but, of course, I've always thought of him as an example, I've been reading and reading into his rhythms and movements my whole life.
This moment might be about something revealing, but it might also be about his tendency to go inside, to stop short of communicating, to withhold.
An impossible ideal?
In a lot of ways, USBL ball is a perfect fit for what he wants to do. Most of his players want to learn. "These guys know something's missing because they didn't make it to the NBA," he says. "They're open to constructive criticism."
They're open, but they aren't rookies. Most of them have played for several years in various international pro leagues, from Taiwan to Uruguay to England. They think about the NBA, but their hearts aren't set on it any more. "I don't play for glory or a paycheck," former Cal guard Randy Duck says, and that's partially true. "I play because I legitimately love the game, and I can't help but play it."
In other ways, though, the league is a tough match. USBL ball is much more unstable than UCLA ball under the Wizard of Westwood. The season is only 30 games long. Players are coming and going throughout. Guys who are here this year might not be here next year (and that includes Coach Abdul-Jabbar). In addition, against the grain of Kareem's emphasis on teamwork and collaboration, many players are also thinking about how they might shine as individuals and impress NBA and international scouts in time to be invited to free-agent camps and tryouts.
So the USBL is also an ephemeral league full of pragmatic players taking what they can get out of this moment and knowing that they'll soon be somewhere else, and in that way, it's hard to see how Kareem's method will take hold.
That said, every player I speak with says he has learned from Kareem just by being around him. Unfortunately, details and specifics are not forthcoming; it doesn't seem to work that way. The players talk about his "presence" and the "aura" that surrounds him. They say he's different from other coaches they've played for, more "laid-back" and thoughtful.
Some of them seem to wish they had more of a connection with him, though each obviously respects and admires him and is glad for the chance to play for him. More than one says, "We want to win to make Kareem look good."
Nickerson, who has been at this a long time and seems to read Kareem more deeply than most of his teammates, says there's a challenge for the team in the coach's reserve. It makes them more responsible, he says: "Kareem figures you know the game. He has confidence in you, and he makes sure you know where you're supposed to go and what you're supposed to do and, after that, you're pretty much on your own."
This more-or-less hands-off approach is clearly at work in the two games I watch the Storm play. Kareem is calm and quiet most of the time. He folds his arms, sometimes clasps his hands and leans forward in his seat, as if he's trying to see something on the floor more closely. In contrast, associate head coach Todd Chambers is animated and standing most of the time, often shouting instructions at the players.
Kareem rolls his eyes once or twice, and every once in a while he yells, "D up! Let's get a stop now!" or "Make the extra pass," but he's not trying to manage every little thing going on. He stands at the edge of the huddle during timeouts (Chambers crouches in the center, talking situations and strategies) and discusses small elements and fundamentals with one or two players at a time. He leans in to remind everyone to "protect the ball" and "make good decisions."
It's hard to say what I'm seeing. Is he delegating well, or is he hesitant to get emotionally involved in the huddle?
"I have learned to pick my spots -- when to give them advice and when to let them go," he recently told the Daily Oklahoman.
Earlier, he had explained to me that, like Wooden, his goal is to coach in practice, before the games.
And so, in part, Kareem is coaching against the backdrop of an ideal, a coaching and a playing ideal. To take over the huddle and to script plays would violate his vision of what he and his players can be.
At the same time, this seems like an impossible ideal, somehow disconnected from the reality of what's happening in the huddle, in the players' minds, and on the floor during the game.
Wooden, Kareem says, recruited self-motivated, incredibly talented, fearless "killers." Kareem's team is a more ragged group than that. They play with heart and show a lot of skill, but nobody's going to mistake them for one of those UCLA championship teams.
"The whole idea," he says, "is what my players learn to achieve as a group. I can't do anything about that. They've got to want to work together; they've got to want to win together. It's only them out there."
Kareem's a jazz fan, and this is a jazz dream, a dream about ensemble, a fantastic working out of the dynamics between the responsibilities and expressions of each individual and the coherence and accomplishment of the community. You'd see it in Wooden's Bruins, in the '80s Lakers and in a Count Basie big band.
The thing is, the hope of seeing it in the Oklahoma Storm, over 30 games played by a group of guys who are still getting to know each other, is, at some level, only ever going to be that -- a hope.
And so, in part, when I see Kareem take a reserved approach to his team's games, I also wonder if I'm watching him miss opportunities to supplement and reimagine the coaching legacy he inherited from Wooden. Is he not yet connecting and collaborating with the players he has and the place in which he finds them?
Kareem talks about the efficiency and precision of the old Celtics, Bruins and Lakers teams. His eyes light up when he describes the way "the ball moved around to the open guy, and the guy who had the open, high-percentage shot would take it."
"Success is a very rare thing," he says. "We might not have the best team in the country, but we can go out there and give our best effort, both individually and as a unit."
Yes. The work is its own reward. The ideal is a necessary part of defining and driving the work. Still, there's the issue of the gap between that ideal and the reality of his situation.
That's the story of these beginnings of his coaching life; that, and how he plans to cross that gap, and what obstacles, internal and external, might get in his way.
A promising start
Still, despite this success, it might take a while for his coaching and the public (read GMs' and owners') perception of him to evolve to the point where he gets a shot at a major job.
In the meantime, in the midst of the hard work, what will sustain him?
The same thing that he hopes will push and guide his players: an ideal. His isn't about basketball, though, it's about teaching, he says. When his mother died in 1997, he began to think about his responsibility as a teacher.
Ask him why he wants to coach, and he'll tell you he wants to "give something back." Ask him again, and he'll say important traditions are being lost. Ask him again, and he'll say he wants to uphold coach Wooden's legacy. Ask him again, and he'll say he wants to help his players become men. Ask again, and he'll tell you he wants to coach because it's what's next in his life's journey, because "it's a duty," a moral obligation.
That'll do. I'm a sucker for this kind of stuff. I don't think the work will be easy, and I have no idea what, if anything, it will lead to, but I'm hopeful that it will reward him in some way.
And that's a hell of a turnaround. When I was a kid, I pinned my hopes on Kareem . . . and now I think I can hope something for him? Kareem's not the only one with gaps.
I lived vicariously through Kareem's exploits as a boy. But the imperfect, open-ended, doesn't-quite-make-sense-but-I-feel-like-it's-what-I-should-be-doing work he is doing now -- forget vicarious thrills -- that's something anybody can relate to.
When I arrived in Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago, I thought a lot about how this job might be a bizarre end to the career of a great player. Now that I'm home, sitting here writing this, I still think about that some. But I also think about the possibility that that end could be the beginning of something. Finding it in yourself to teach what you know, and to learn in the process, that's good stuff.
Kareem wants to coach, even if it means beginning somewhere way off the radar. I can't really reconcile the two images -- the player in the limelight and the coach in that lonely spotlight -- but it's hard to feel anything but admiration for the impulse.
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.