The 60 or so aspiring athletes who showed up for basketball tryouts at Alchesay High School in Whiteriver, Ariz., were surprised to find a tall black stranger standing next to the coach. The young men were Apaches who lived on the White Mountain Reservation, and the stranger was someone they would soon come to call "Coach Kareem"--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the celebrated basketball player whose career on the courts at UCLA and then in the NBA elevated him to the heights of athletic superstardom.
Abdul-Jabbar volunteered to spend four months as a guest coach for the Alchesay High School basketball team, the Falcons, but his stay on the reservation was more than an exercise in altruism. It turned out to be a consciousness-raising and life-changing experience that Abdul-Jabbar describes in "A Season on the Reservation: My Sojourn with the White Mountain Apaches" (William Morrow, $24, 224 pages).
What inspired Abdul-Jabbar to leave Beverly Hills for the outback of Arizona was an incident of road rage in L.A. His mother was terminally ill, and he was called upon to decide whether to take her off the life-support equipment. On his way to the hospital, he found himself in a skirmish with a man who had "flipped him off" in traffic.
" . . . We were two grown men fighting over a minor traffic accident . . . ," he recalls. "What was I doing? What had caused me to stop and grab him? Things had been building inside of me for months--things having to do with my mother and with living in L.A. and with feeling that it was time for me to make a change, but not knowing what I wanted to do next."
His getaway to the reservation, however, was not merely a whim.
"Back in L.A., I displayed oil paintings of this terrain on the walls of my living room," he writes of the day he first arrived in Whiteriver. "I felt the same rush of excitement I always felt when entering an Old West landscape." Deeper still was Abdul-Jabbar's sense of solidarity with the Indian people--his father's family in the West Indies included Carib Indians, and his mother was part Cherokee, and so he sees himself as "not only African American but one-fourth Native American."
Still, Abdul-Jabbar was forced to reach across schisms of race, age, wealth and sophistication to make a meaningful connection with the young athletes he had come to help. And the process was slow, painful and frustrating, both for him and for his team.
"By the second practice, I had a whistle around my neck and had begun blowing it," writes Abdul-Jabbar of his transformation from player to coach. "I'd seen enough of the kids' miscues and decided it was time to speak up and start coaching." Ironically, Abdul-Jabbar found himself in yet another nasty fight, using his martial arts training to subdue a player after he had harassed the young woman who served as the team manager.
What Abdul-Jabbar discovered in the process--and what he shares with his readers in "A Season on the Reservation"--are the surprising linkages between races and cultures that came to light on the court. Centuries before basketball was "invented" by Dr. James Naismith in 19th century America, for example, an early form of the game was played by the Maya and Olmecs in the Yucatan. And the heritage of the high school athletes includes skills that were put to good use in the heat of the game.
"The Falcons were carrying on a long tradition of running from things that were chasing them," Abdul-Jabbar observes. "There were legendary stories from the Apache past of their warriors crossing 60 miles a day on foot over rough terrain and high-country mesas while the U.S. Cavalry aggressively pursued them on horseback, but still weren't able to catch up."
Abdul-Jabbar is the author of the three previous bestsellers--"Black Profiles in Courage," "Giant Steps" and "Kareem"--and so it is not surprising that he also turns out to be a confident and compelling storyteller. Perhaps the biggest surprise in "A Season on the Reservation" is how Abdul-Jabbar starts out with a modest tale about a struggling high school basketball team and ends up with a memoir that explores the deeper issues of history and identity with both charm and wisdom.
Quite a different approach to dismantling the barricades between cultures and races is offered in "Ethnic Peace in the American City: Building Community in Los Angeles and Beyond" by Edward T. Chang and Jeannette Diaz-Veizades (New York University Press, $55 cloth, $19.50 paper, 200 pages). The book is a scholarly monograph that focuses on the flash points of ethnic conflict in three neighborhoods where people of African American, Latino and Asian descent are struggling to find a way to live in peace with each other--South-Central, Pico-Union and Koreatown.
"Today, the myths of multiculturalism only disguise the sad reality of a society still 'separate and unequal,' " the authors insist. "Accordingly, Los Angeles has emerged as a new laboratory for social scientists and human relations practitioners experimenting with and developing new ideas and policies concerning race relations in the United States."
"Ethnic Peace" concludes with a challenge that goes far deeper than the obvious differences in ethnicity and language: "Tensions will continue to rise and riots will continue to erupt," the authors declare, "unless basic needs such as adequate housing, equal access to resources and freedom from crime and violence are met."
West Words looks at books related to California and the West. It runs every other Wednesday.