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When discussing all-time NBA greatness, it’s impossible to ignore Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. While the center is usually overlooked in GOAT debates, he’s more than worthy of sitting among basketball’s elite. The New York native won six titles, claimed six MVP crowns, and towered over the Association’s scoring charts for decades.

Based on that resume, you’d probably think Kareem would be a good head coach. He’s well-spoken, intelligent, and knows a thing or two about basketball. But despite his interest in the job, Abdul-Jabbar never got to lead a team at the highest level.

So, why didn’t the legend get a chance to sit at the front of an NBA bench and call the shots? It could be because of his behavior during his playing career.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spent some time as a coach, but he never took charge of an NBA team

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar coaches the Clippers at Madison Square Garden.
Kareem Abdul worked as an NBA assistant but always wanted a chance to be the main man. | Matt Campbell/AFP via Getty Images

During his playing career, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar established himself as a legend of the game. In retirement, he developed the desire to pass on what he had learned over the years.

As noted in a New York Times piece, the legend spent time “with the Fort Apache Indians in Arizona and coached a high school team there.” After that, he took a job in Hollywood. The legend joined the Los Angeles Clippers in 2002 as an assistant coach; he was theoretically supposed to help Michael Olowokandi take his game to the next level.

Kareem, however, took the job when interim coach Jim Todd was at the helm. The Clippers didn’t improve, though, and Todd didn’t get the full-time job. While it’s unclear whether Abdul-Jabbar was removed because of that change or on the merits of his own performance, the legendary big man’s services weren’t retained at the end of the season.

After that, the former Laker took several steps down the ladder and accepted a job as the Oklahoma Storm’s head coach in the United States Basketball League (USBL). While he found success, leading the club to the title, it didn’t change Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA fortunes. He accepted some smaller gigs over the years — he worked as a scout for the New York Knicks and joined Phil Jackson’s LA Lakers as a special assistant — but didn’t land a head coaching job. His attempt at NCAA work also fell short, as his attempt to coach Columbia’s basketball team was unsuccessful.

Abdul-Jabbar is probably paying the price for his personality

Unfortunately for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he’s remembered for something besides his on-court talent. The big man’s personality also made headlines during his playing career, and not for the right reasons.

“Before games, Abdul-Jabbar read books in front of his locker to avoid engaging with reporters. (On his reading list that year: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who reignited his childhood interest in Sherlock Holmes, He admired the detective’s ability to synthesize huge amounts of information,) Jay Caspian King wrote in a 2015 New York Times Magazine piece. “He became notorious for berating reporters who he thought were trying to bait him into a controversial answer.”

Over time, the big man’s reputation was established as someone who was aloof and uninterested in the trappings of stardom. If Magic Johnson was fun, spontaneous, and happy to chat, Abdul-Jabbar was dull, regimented, and uncomfortable in the public eye. That wasn’t entirely true — Isiah Thomas, for example, found the Lakers captain was more than willing to give him advice — but perception ultimately becomes a reality.

And while that personality was somewhat understandable when you consider that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a Black man who couldn’t avoid the spotlight during and immediately after the Civil Rights Movement, it probably affected his chances of landing a head coaching gig. Bench bosses, like it or not, have to deal with the media on a regular basis and massage a group of diverse personalities into a cohesive team; given Kareem’s perception, you can see why teams might be hesitant to place him in that position.

That idea is supported by a 2004 New York Times piece by Chris Broussard headlined “PRO BASKETBALL; A Legend Learns That He Needs to Be Liked.” The story discusses Abdul-Jabbar’s time on the hardwood and his hunt for a coaching job.

‘People just didn’t feel comfortable with who I was personally,” Abdul-Jabbar explained. ”I was quiet, and I really didn’t want to spend a lot of time dealing with the media. I saw how they tried to crucify people, so I was really wary. I wanted to leave the game and go home and see my girlfriend.

”I wasn’t like Dracula. It wasn’t anything I did. It was just my general attitude that made everybody leery. It was like no one could approach me. That had a lot to do with me, and I had some adjustments to make. There were a lot of opportunities I had to make friends that I turned my back on, and there were some consequences for that, and I have to accept responsibility.”

Further down in the piece, Magic Johnson was quoted to provide a front-office perspective (he was the Lakers’ vice president at the time). The former point guard advocated for giving Cap a chance but understood why teams were hesitant to pull the trigger.

”I think everybody is just scared because of how his personality was before,” Johnson said. ”That’s everybody’s concern: can he relate to the guys of today? I think, first, let’s give him a try. Let’s not crucify him or ban him before he even gets the opportunity to see whether he can do it or not, because I think he’ll be a good coach.”

Was Magic speaking for every team in the NBA? Sheer numbers would suggest that wasn’t possible. At the same time, though, the dots seem to connect rather clearly; Kareem never seemed like a people person, and that’s a base-level requirement to be a head coach.

The NBA legend still isn’t the most comfortable in the spotlight, but he’s more than willing to speak out

Even after his failed attempt at landing a coaching job, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can still be somewhat aloof. As Jay Caspian King noted in his story, the legend wasn’t keen on shaking his hand or greeting fans during their time together. With that being said, though, he’s still happy to use his platform for social causes.

While the big man has been involved in activism since his youth — he famously refused to go to the 1968 Olympics and, of course, changed his name from Lew Alcindor to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — he’s now seen as one of sports’ elder statesmen. He’s weighed in on issues of race and religion, called for NCAA athletes to be compensated, and encouraged NBA players to use their fame appropriately during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And, if you look at things from a grander scale, you could argue that the living NBA legend is still accomplishing the same underlying goal as if he were coaching. He might not be sharing basketball advice, but we can all benefit from hearing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s perspective on life.


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