The tragedy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar isnâ€™t that heâ€™ll die some day. Weâ€™ll all die some day. The tragedy is that heâ€™ll die without spending even an hour as a head coach in the NBA.
Heâ€™s not going to die any time soon, certainly not from the rare form of leukemia that he recently disclosed he has been fighting for nearly a year. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, almost 90 percent of the chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) patients with the best possible medicine are still alive after five years. Thatâ€™s terrific.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has the best possible medicine, so five years from now I expect he will be 67 years old. But five years from now Iâ€™m positive he still wonâ€™t be an NBA coach. And thatâ€™s terrible.
Iâ€™m wondering if bigotry is at work here, and by â€œwondering,â€ a lot of you will say Iâ€™m â€œaccusing.â€ And Iâ€™m not. Iâ€™m not accusing the almost entirely white NBA ownership — which last season employed a 77 percent black roster base, not to mention 11 black coaches and five black team presidents — of bigotry in the usual sense.
But Iâ€™m wondering — just wondering, people, just wondering — if Abdul-Jabbarâ€™s religion has worked against him. Here we have the leading scorer in NBA history. Ever. And heâ€™s not just an athletic savant put on this earth to play one sport better than almost anyone ever has. (Which is what I think of when I think of Joe Montana.) No, Abdul-Jabbar was one of the smartest people ever to play in the NBA, and I do mean ever. He has written books that go far beyond basketball. The guyâ€™s a borderline genius, and if Iâ€™ve just written a word that doesnâ€™t belong in this story, fine. Take out the word borderline.
And he wants to coach. He has wanted to coach for years. He has coached in the United States Basketball League in Oklahoma and at the Fort Apache Indian reservation in Arizona. He has served as a scout and as a low-ranking assistant in the NBA. At this moment he is a special assistant for the Lakers, working primarily with young center Andrew Bynum. But Abdul-Jabbar wants to be a head coach in the NBA.
And nobody in the NBA will hire him.
I canâ€™t make sense of it, so Iâ€™m grasping for possible reasons. And one possible reason — a possibility, people — is that religious bigotry is at work. If an NBA owner has ever hired a Muslim as his teamâ€™s head coach, Iâ€™m not aware of it. There certainly has never been a head coach in the NBA who was so devoutly Muslim at any time in his life that he took on a Muslim name. Abdul-Jabbar doesnâ€™t seem that devout now, by the way. He has done a commercial for Coors and has been investigated twice for marijuana possession, and the Muslim faith frowns on such hedonistic pursuits.
Maybe his faith has nothing to do with his inability to get a head coaching job. Seriously, it could be irrelevant. There is another factor here, and to ignore it would be intentionally misleading, and I wonâ€™t do that. So Iâ€™ll acknowledge that Abdul-Jabbar has been known for his prickly personality over the years. He has been reluctant to talk to the media, and dismissive at times when he has talked to the media, though he was more than accommodating the one time I approached him.
Abdul-Jabbar knows his demeanor has hurt him. In 2006, he told the Los Angeles Times, â€œI always saw it like [reporters] were trying to pry. I was way too suspicious, and I paid a price for it.â€
He could be paying that price to this day. Owners typically donâ€™t want to hire a surly, public-relations disaster as a head coach, though it happens. Bill Belichick rules the NFL. Isiah Thomas landed coach and GM jobs in the NBA. Former NBA coach Bill Russell was prickly. Current Bucks coach Scott Skiles is prickly. But they got their chance. Skiles in particular is on his third team.
Abdul-Jabbar? Heâ€™s still waiting for his first chance. And heâ€™s not waiting quietly, either. When a story on ESPN.com in August ruminated on the possible heir to Lakers coach Phil Jackson, Abdul-Jabbar used his Twitter feed — which has a million followers — to lobby for the job:
â€¢ â€œI just read the ESPN story on who will replace Phil and I c that a lot of u think I would be a good choice. I would have to agree with my fans.â€
â€¢ â€œIf people want to find out what I am sitting on in terms of basketball knowledge maybe Iâ€™ll get a shot at a head coaching position.â€
â€¢ â€œI have not been given an opportunity as a head coach so maybe a groundswell of support from my fans could open a door for me!â€
Clearly Abdul-Jabbar wants to be a head coach, but the NBA is too busy recycling Scott Skiles and Don Nelson and proven losers like Alvin Gentry and Mike Dunleavy and Lionel Hollins and Eddie Jordan. This is a league in need of a new idea, and I have it: His name is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Heâ€™s the all-time NBA scoring leader, heâ€™s brilliant, and heâ€™s dying to be a head coach.