Abdul-Jabbar set to begin first season as head coach

Saturday, April 20th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The coach stopped practice and walked to the low post, moving his center out of the way.

``You don't have to be tall _ you have to be wide,'' he explained, spreading his long arms and crouching into the defender. ``Get low, get your elbows up like this and don't let him get around you.''

With that, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar caught a pass, spun to his right and lay the ball into the hoop. Then practice resumed for the Oklahoma Storm of the United States Basketball League.

Abdul-Jabbar, who turned 52 on Tuesday, is beginning his first season as a head coach. Now 13 years removed from his Hall of Fame career, he hopes a summer in the USBL will help get him back to the NBA, this time as a coach.

Abdul-Jabbar served as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers for part of the 1999-2000 season, and worked with a high school team on an Apache Indian reservation in Arizona in 1999. But this is different _ he's calling the shots, and it takes some getting used to.

``I played 33 seasons, starting in grade school until my last year in the pros, and went to practice all the time,'' the NBA's career scoring leader said after a recent practice. ``But all of a sudden I have to deal with the aspect of organizing and running practice, and there's some intimidation there.

``I had done it my whole life, but it was like looking down the other end of the telescope. It was disorienting.''

During the practice, he referred often to a yellow piece of paper that had the day's workout schedule. He watched quietly much of the time while his two assistants did the bulk of the hands-on work. When Abdul-Jabbar spoke, he usually did it quietly, pointing out how he wanted drills run or where players should be on the floor.

But players said Abdul-Jabbar is more assertive than he was during training camp a week earlier, and that they expect him to become even more vocal as the season progresses.

``Now that he knows who he wants and what he wants, he's making his points very clear,'' said guard Doug Gottlieb.

``You can tell his basis is somewhere in between NBA basketball and John Wooden basketball. He has an incredible feel for not just basketball in general, but spacing, fundamentals, ball handling. I've played for several different coaches at high levels of basketball who don't have a feel for that.''

Abdul-Jabbar's experience with the Clippers left him disappointed because he found it difficult to relate to the players and because they weren't fundamentally sound. Now he is coaching players who, like him, dream of making it to the NBA or another pro league and are eager to listen and learn.

``They have to, because this isn't where they want to be,'' he said. ``To get from here to the next point, they're going to have to subject themselves to a little bit of discipline and understand how we look at the game, and try to help us do what we're doing as coaches.''

Post players Ira Clark and Mario Woodson said they're thrilled to have Abdul-Jabbar on hand. It was Clark who guarded Abdul-Jabbar as the coach demonstrated proper low post positioning to Woodson.

``That's a big ol' dude, man, trying to get around that,'' said Clark, who played at Texas. ``I can just imagine how it was when he was playing.

``You can already tell just by listening to him in practice that he has great knowledge. Every time he talks, we're open ears.''

Abdul-Jabbar hasn't talked only to his players. Coaching in a league like the USBL means selling the product, and he has done some of that. He appeared at a fight night at an area casino. He has done interviews with local radio and television stations. When the Storm played an exhibition game in the northern Oklahoma town of Ponca City, he did 10 minutes on the radio before the game.

They're the sorts of things Abdul-Jabbar admits he ``hated'' doing during his playing career.

``But coaching is a people job,'' he said. ``You've got to deal with a lot of people _ people who are interested in the game, people who report the game and people who play the game. That's part of what you have to do to coach at this level.''

He will live in a local hotel, and will travel _ sometimes by bus, sometimes by plane _ to places like Brooklyn, N.Y., and Easton, Pa., like Dodge City, Kan., and Melbourne, Fla. There's also some traveling to do in Oklahoma _ the team plays nine home games in Oklahoma City and the other six 80 miles away in Enid, where the team began three years ago.

Abdul-Jabbar said the Storm has the talent to win, and he hopes to bring that out, since he figures a winning season might help gain the attention of NBA front-office personnel. But he also expects to be judged on whether he is able to get some of his players to improve enough that they further their careers.

``Win or lose here, if that happens, then I know I've done a good job,'' he said.