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Hooking a Job

Abdul-Jabbar, Who Has Struggled for Years in His Attempt to Become a Coach, Gets a Shot With Minor League Team


OKLAHOMA CITY — It is the last Saturday night in April. Sooner football, the next thing to a religion in this state, is months away. So the locals wander in to Cox Convention Center Arena to check out the new guys in town, the Oklahoma Storm of the U.S. Basketball League.

About 2,500 people pay for an $8 or $12 seat--the elite pay $25 to sit courtside--and scatter throughout an arena that seats 14,000. They cheer for Randy Duck and Doug Gottlieb and Sterling Davis and Albert White and Gabe Frank and the rest of the good guys wearing home red. And they boo Fred Warrick and Kenny Gregory and Skip Youngblood and the rest of the visiting Dodge City Legend.

But their attention never strays far from the legend in their midst, the new coach of the Storm, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It is he who gets the biggest cheers, the most autograph requests, the largest number of hands extended.

And for the first time in his life, he is really enjoying it.

Half a continent removed from the city of his greatest glory and a world apart from the life of privilege he lived for so long, Abdul-Jabbar, at 55, has come to this city of nearly half a million to reinvent himself and carve out a new role in the game he so long dominated.

Denied an opportunity to coach in the NBA or at a major college largely because of the perception that he lacks the personality to be a leader, Abdul-Jabbar has come to the minor leagues to prove his doubters wrong.

"I'm thankful for the opportunity," Abdul-Jabbar says. "The people here have been real nice. Nothing crazy, but they honk when they see me on the street and they are real friendly."

His biggest fan is James Bryant, the Oklahoma lawyer who owns the team and hired Abdul-Jabbar.

"He reminds me of my history professor," Bryant says. "He's not an intellectual athlete. He's an intellectual. I can see where he easily might have been misunderstood in the world of professional basketball."

So what brought Abdul-Jabbar back to basketball?

"They say even old fire horses can still hear the bells," he says.

He is working his way slowly into the job, using five assistant coaches to carry much of the load, both in terms of strategy and team motivation.

Part of the coolness toward Abdul-Jabbar was generated by the stoic silence he showed the world both on and off the court. He knows that won't cut it in the coaching profession, and, if Saturday night is any indication, he has undergone a personality change.

On the bench, Abdul-Jabbar is animated and vocal, barking orders, waving his arms and opening his eyes wide in enthusiasm at the good moments and shaking his head dejectedly at the bad. He even finds time to come over to the scorer's table to chide play-by-play announcer Robert Allen for not eating his dinner.

The Storm holds on to win when Eric Coley blocks a Warrick shot in the final seconds. Abdul-Jabbar runs off the court, left fist in the air, as if the Lakers had just beaten the Boston Celtics to win the NBA championship.

Is this really the Abdul-Jabbar so many came to know and not love?

Giving the Silent Treatment

"As big as he is, Kareem uses silence to create a tension that anyone who is uncomfortable in his presence might find unbearable. It's a testing process that he has incorporated into his life. I find it unfortunate but understandable that, in order to get close to Kareem, one had to undergo this emotional frisking."

Peter Knobler in "Giant Steps,"

the book he co-wrote with Abdul-Jabbar

Abdul-Jabbar never had a problem on the court. While the other two dominant centers of the Los Angeles era, Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal, depended on sheer bulk to bulldoze any hapless defender stuck in their path, Abdul-Jabbar relied on athleticism and finesse.

No other player in memory had been blessed with Abdul-Jabbar's combination of gifts, the 7-foot-2 frame of a center, the quickness of a small forward and the shooting touch almost of a guard. Adding to that Abdul-Jabbar's unique offensive weapon, the sky hook, made him seem unstoppable.

And he usually was. In high school, where, at New York's Power Memorial, he led his team to a 95-6 record over four years, including a 71-game winning streak. In college, where, at UCLA as Lew Alcindor, he led the Bruins to three NCAA titles and an overall mark of 88-2. And in the pros, where he won six NBA titles, one with the Milwaukee Bucks and five with the Lakers, and, over a 20-year span, became the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points.

Enough said?

Abdul-Jabbar thought so.

"I didn't want to talk to the public," he says. "I didn't want to talk to the media. I was not people-oriented. I really wasn't very good at communicating. I just wanted to play and go home."

With the media, he would often respond with terse answers or roll his eyes at a question and flash that bone-chilling Abdul-Jabbar stare.

"It was not my cup of tea," he says. "I was more cerebral, thoughtful, into other things. Public recognition was not what I was into."

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