"I come from a tough area myself—I was born in Harlem, and I know what the kids here are going through," says Abdul-Jabbar, 51, the National Basketball Association's all-time leading scorer, who retired in 1989 after 20 seasons and six championships. "The negative aspects of life on the reservation are well-documented, but that fate can be overcome. I want these kids to go as far as I did. I want to teach them the value of education, and what it can mean to their lives."
And so it came to pass that late last month the 7'2" legend packed a bag with a couple of history books, some Miles Davis and John Coltrane CDs, left behind his spacious Beverly Hills home, and headed to this hard-scrabble community of 10,400 souls 123 miles northeast of Phoenix to become volunteer co-head coach of the Falcons, the boys' team at the reservation's Alchesay High School. It was about as far off the basketball fast track as an aspiring NBA coach like Abdul-Jabbar could get. But, he says, "it was right for me."
That certainly seemed to be the case one recent afternoon in Alchesay's gymnasium as Abdul-Jabbar led 35 teens—three of whom were returning starters from the team that co-head coach Raul Mendoza took to a second-place finish in the state finals of their division last season—through a grueling two-hour practice. Coach Kareem explained, he gently prodded, and after he complimented Ivan Lamkin, 18, by name for a good block, the 6'6" center seemed to sprint down court with a little extra spring in his step. "On the first day we were all looking at him in awe," says guard Tony Parker, 16. "But I can see that players are already listening more than last year." Observes coach Mendoza, 51: "Personally, I plan to steal as much from Kareem as I can. He's a vast pool of information and knowledge."
That pool should be even broader by the time Abdul-Jabbar leaves his rented lakeside condo near the reservation at the end of Alchesay's season in February. Though he will be involved in all phases of the school's basketball program, he plans to study the Apache language and work on two books, one a motivational volume on championship strategies, the other a diary of his season at Alchesay. (The project that first brought him to Fort Apache—a book on the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black cavalry regiment that was stationed there after the Civil War—is at least temporarily on hold.) The currently unattached father of five—he has three grown children from his marriage, which ended in 1973, and two from subsequent relationships—also goes horseback riding when he can and enjoys watching the resident bald eagles snatch bass from the lake. Almost a decade after leaving the game, the notoriously guarded Abdul-Jabbar says he's a mellower man who doesn't bristle the way he used to at intrusions from the press and the public. Life is "not quite as intense" as it was when he played, he says.
But more intensity may be just what Abdul-Jabbar needs if he truly wants to coach in the NBA. Says Jerry West, executive vice president of basketball operations for Abdul-Jabbar's old team the L.A. Lakers: "I think the biggest thing is he has to show a real interest. Kareem is a quiet man, a dignified person, and he has to be more forceful. But if he shows coaching is a 100 percent commitment, they'll stand in line to hire him."
In the meantime, Abdul-Jabbar is happy where he is. He recently ran into Ann Meyers, the former women's basketball star, and asked about her brother Dave, who played five seasons in the NBA. "She said he'd made all the money he needed and then decided to do what he most wanted," recalls Abdul-Jabbar. "He's coaching a high school team in Orange County." That doesn't sound bad to Kareem. "I've come to realize," he says, "that a big part of life is to smile when you turn in at night."
Lorenzo Benet in Whiteriver