The man is tall.
relaxed against the blue pad of a basketball hoop support, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stretches his hand as high as the net that many of these Apache high-schoolers barely brush with a running leap. Players say his imposing height and steely eyes could freeze a charging elephant, but his smile could melt a block of ice.
Midway through his first season as assistant coach at Whiteriver's high school on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, the leading scorer in NBA history has made an impact as huge as his 7-foot, 2-inch frame and as broad as his mammoth hands, which palm basketballs as if they were grapefruit.
"Kareem has put us on the map nationally, not just as a basketball team, but as a native American people," says Raul Mendoza, head basketball coach of the Alchesay High School Falcons. Noting standing-room-only arenas for regular-season games and an influx of national TV and print reporters to this little-known, rural community of 13,000, Mr. Mendoza says, "Both this state and the larger world are gaining a better understanding of just who are the White Mountain Apaches."
The unfolding saga includes a boost in local hoop fever that now includes fervent fans who never before gave a hoot about basketball. It has galvanized both home-team youths and rival opponents, boosted ticket sales that support alternative sports, and hatched a surprise side plot, as well.
The man who came to teach and preach about basketball, life, and success amid poverty - drawing lessons from his own youth - has learned some things about his capabilities that may translate to an extended life in the sport he retired from 10 years ago.
"I know the game inside and out from playing it at the highest levels for 25 years," says Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, who played his last game with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989, leaving with more than 38,000 points, the league's all-time high. "What I am learning here is how to communicate what I know, but also to develop the altogether different talent of reaching inside other people to pull out their best effort."
By nearly all accounts, the idea that began as an experiment is working out famously. Abdul-Jabbar is getting the hands-on, experience that might lead to a college or pro-basketball coaching job. And Alchesay High School is reaping the wealth of world-class basketball experience in the person of someone who also rose above the same cycle of poverty that pervades this region. Unemployment is 60 percent, with half the reservation's 20,000 Apaches living below poverty.
"These kids feel a connection to me they might not otherwise feel with some other basketball star," says Abdul-Jabbar, whose ancestry is part Cherokee and part Carib. Abdul-Jabbar grew up around the Harlem area of New York, and alcohol and drug use were rampant.
"There is a common history.... Native Americans had their land taken from them and blacks were taken from their land," says Abdul-Jabbar.
"He's teaching me moves on the basketball court, but also about values and integrity for life," says Kyle Goklish, a senior who plays forward. "He's telling us that if anyone tells us we can't do something, don't believe them."
It was, in fact, Abdul-Jabbar's interest in the history of oppressed peoples that brought him to the reservation in the first place. Three years ago, he came to the reservation to research the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American cavalry who served on the Old West frontier. The research became part of his recent book, "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy in African-American Achievement."
During that research, he struck up a friendship with local historian Edgar Perry, whose grandfather was an Apache scout. When Abdul-Jabbar expressed frustration that no college or professional team was taking his interest in coaching seriously, Mr. Perry passed the tip on to Whiteriver Unified School District superintendent John Clark.
Now, for the nominal salary of $1, Abdul-Jabbar has moved from his Beverly Hills home to a condo 30 minutes from the school. He drives a black Ford Expedition to the arena, about a block from the school, for daily practice from 3:45 to 5:45 p.m.
Inside, he skips rope on his own and then shares a full coaching schedule with Mendoza: warmup, fundamentals practice in groups, scrimmages, one-on-one pointers, strategy sessions.
"It surprised me that a man who played center his whole life really knows how to play every position," says Orlando Aday, a forward.
Such a background in fundamentals was stressed by the mentor whom both Abdul-Jabbar and Mendoza call their model coach: John Wooden. Mr. Wooden was one of the most successful coaches in college history, leading the University of California, Los Angeles, to 10 NCAA championships in his last 12 years as coach. After Abdul-Jabbar played three years with Wooden, he became NBA Rookie of the Year in 1970 and the league's Most Valuable Player for six years, winning six world championships and establishing records for most minutes played and most points scored. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995.
'Knowledge is power'
The adoption of Wooden's philosophy is partly what enables "this enterprise to transcend just the sport of basketball to teach about real life once these kids leave school," says Mendoza, whose team is a perennial contender for the state championship.
Besides telling players to "look for your teammates," Abdul-Jabbar says, "hit the books." A key goal is to inspire more graduating seniors to go on to college. Last year, only 40 of 114 did. To aid in that quest, Abdul-Jabbar is studying the Apache language and is slated to give several lectures in history. "They are just starting to understand that knowledge is power, that they can use it just like anyone else. It's not white, Asian, or black," he says.
Joy all around town
Although his formal ties are coaching duties at the 750-student school, his presence has given the whole community a boost. Four hours northeast of Phoenix on a two-lane highway, the pine-tree-covered reservation totals 1.6 million acres, 7,000 feet up in the White Mountains. Many of the small homes and trailers have dirt courts with homemade hoops.
"Just having such a great and famous man around town has provided a role model for everyone here," says Ramsey Cooley, a social worker.
When Abdul-Jabbar is seen at games and around school, where he must duck to get through doorways, residents and students shout, "Kaiye, kaiye," an Apache expression of surprise. And for Abdul-Jabbar himself, there is surprise at the joy he is recapturing from the purity of the game.
"I feel good. It's like everyone here is my nephew or my family," Abdul-Jabbar says. "They are all nuts about basketball but at the same time they don't worry about losing. After all the blood and guts I went through in the NBA, that is a lesson about joy that I have had to learn."