A few months ago, former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy made no bones about his refusal to either consider, comment, or court a job coaching the Brooklyn Nets, citing the presence of an interim coach in P.J. Carlesimo that already had the gig. It wasn’t a surprising move, the Van Gundy family (and Carlesimo) are well-entrenched members of the coaching fraternity, they’ve combined to have 23 assistant or head coaching gigs spread out over college and the NBA, and Jeff Van Gundy (from 1996 onward) turned out to be one of the more successful interim coaching hires of all time.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has been shunned by the coaching community since retiring from basketball in 1989, apparently has no such reservations. And we don’t blame the guy. From a talk with Dave Begel at OnMilwaukee.com, as hepped to us by Steve Aschburner at NBA.com, Kareem didn’t hold back. And his honesty was refreshing. From Begel’s interview:
I asked him flat out if he would be willing to be the head coach of the Bucks.
"Of course," he replied.
But besides his reputation, what else would he bring to the Bucks?
"I know how to prepare for a season as an individual and I know what that means in terms of team commitment," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I can get all the right people together that have some chemistry and care about each other and they love the game. That's where teams are made or not made successful.
"That's very hard for GM's to figure out. They know talent when they see it. But that ability to connect with your teammates, that personal chemistry is a hard thing to see in people. I can help players learn how to develop that chemistry. We had Pete Newell out here (in Los Angeles) and he was a master at understanding the personal fire within each player. I'd be a coach who can provide respect and keep the guys on the same page for a whole season."
Abdul-Jabbar, famously, has been out for a coaching gig since the late 1990s. He spent time on the Los Angeles Clippers bench from 1999 until 2001, working under luminaries like Jim Todd and Chris Ford, and was a special advisor to Phil Jackson during part of Jackson’s final run with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s held advisory roles with the Seattle SuperSonics and New York Knicks; and as a head coach led the Oklahoma Storm to the USBL championship in 2002, winning coach of the year. Most movingly, he also worked as a volunteer head coach for a high school on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in 1998.
He’s certainly put in the time. Current coaches like Doc Rivers and Mark Jackson have shot straight to the head coaching ranks without even working as an assistant coach. Lindsey Hunter wasn’t even a part of the Phoenix Suns’ bench corps before moving from an advisory role to interim head coach of the Phoenix Suns. And though current Bucks coach Jim Boylan has done well in his time with Milwaukee, he is the figurative definition of an NBA retread – literally replacing the same man in Scott Skiles as Bucks interim coach as he did in Chicago some five years ago.
This is why we don’t blame Kareem for speaking honestly about something he’d like to do. Remember, this is the guy that didn’t find Milwaukee stimulating enough 40 years ago when he was a member of the Bucks. Now, at age 65, he’s on record as willing to come back to Wisconsin, coach a team that could go through (with three potential free agents in Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, and J.J. Redick) a tumultuous summer, and fold himself into the coaching chair for seven or eight months of travel that even Phil Jackson may not want to sit through any more.
And unlike Van Gundy, he’s not guaranteed the look-sy that so many other ex-coaches are given every time a spot opens. Weirdly, Stan Van Gundy (one of the best coaches, and one of our favorite people) has a more luxurious advantage in this regard than the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
Steve Aschburner, as is always the case, deftly explains why:
First, there’s an apparent bias against centers among NBA head coaches. Bill Cartwright got a shot for a spell and, though he always was listed as power forward, Houston’s Kevin McHale certainly ranks among the league’s great big men. But others such as Patrick Ewing and Bob McAdoo have been waiting for years. Something about their specialness as players – seeing the game from about seven feet up – seems to work against them.
Second, there’s an apparent bias in the NBA against prickly sons of guns. The fraternal order of coaches and the league overall tends to rewards the regular Joes, the fellows who mix and blend and get along. Abdul-Jabbar came across for years as aloof and distant – a late Milwaukee Journal sports columnist said, “I interviewed his back for six years” – and more recently has seemed like one of those who “learn to say hello when it’s time to say goodbye.” The PR value of bringing the big fella back to a city he once fled would be mixed, possibly negligible.
As Aschburner noted elsewhere in his column, this is still the town that had to trade Kareem away in 1975 because he wasn’t happy with his surroundings. Brian Winters and other contributors were a nice take in exchange for Abdul-Jabbar, but nothing can make up for the loss of perhaps the greatest player to ever play what was then the NBA’s most devastating position. Returning to show fellow UCLA product Luc Mbah a Moute a thing or two about touch on the offensive is an interesting column for a preseason preview, but not a completely winning sell to the locals.
Abdul-Jabbar’s return to the assistant coaching ranks would probably ease that move toward the top job, but head coaches are rarely forced to hire assistants they don’t want, and it’s probably true that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doesn’t have a whole lot of close friends amongst the 30 working NBA head coaches.
Which is a shame. Because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has a voice I want to hear. I’d love to see his impact on a team at a top position. What’s getting in the way is the understandably cool attitude the NBA’s front office and coaching fraternity gives him, and the just as understandable hesitancy from Kareem to go work as a third assistant for some random team at age 65, and at 7-2.
Disappointing, all around. At least Kareem has the luxury of being able to fall back on all those points, all those rings, and his significant off court work. As a Plan B, it ain’t bad.
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