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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Warren Jabali in his own Words

I first met four-time ABA All-Star Warren Jabali at the ABA Reunion during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend in Denver. I had read and heard a lot about him, but I was most struck by the fact that he played forward at 6-2, outrebounding players who were six to eight inches taller; after I introduced myself to him the first thing that I asked him was how he did that and Jabali answered simply, "They couldn't jump." I looked at his face as he said this and realized that he was neither boasting nor trying to make a joke. He was offering the most direct, straightforward explanation possible.

By his own admission, Jabali did not say much to teammates or media during his playing career, but after the ABA Reunion I did a phone interview with him and discovered that he has a lot to say on a variety of issues. Jabali's thoughts about his reputation as a tough player, his criticism of how he is depicted in Terry Pluto's book Loose Balls and how he defines basketball greatness are included in my article about Jabali at Hoopshype.com, which you can find here (9/9/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Warren Jabali (known as Warren Armstrong before he changed his name), averaged 17.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 5.3 apg while making the All-Star team four times in his seven-year ABA career. He produced 21.5 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 3.5 apg in 1968-69, winning the ABA Rookie of the Year award. That year, with star forward Rick Barry sidelined by a knee injury, he averaged 33.2 ppg in the ABA Finals, winning the Finals MVP while leading the Oakland Oaks to a 4-1 victory over the Indiana Pacers. The nucleus of that Indiana team--Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Freddie Lewis--led the Pacers to three ABA titles in the next four seasons.

Despite being only 6-2, Jabali played a very physically imposing game. He had point guard skills, but spent a lot of time at forward because of his powerful build and ability to rebound and dunk over players who were much bigger. He developed a very intimidating reputation that caused many players to tread lightly around him.

"Yeah, I was aware of it and of course it doesn't hurt for a person to have a reputation that is going to cause someone else to pause," Jabali says. "I didn't seek it. I played tough because that's the way Alex Hannum taught me to play. Remember, he was my first coach in Oakland. He said that KC Jones would start out the game with his fingertips on a player and by the end of the game he was grabbing the player. So you get the referees used to seeing it a certain way and, by the end of the game, you are able to slide and get away with stuff that you normally wouldn't be able to get away with. So I started trying to control the movement of smaller players by holding them with my hand and, obviously, they didn't like that, but referees let me get away with it. So I kept doing it and over the years it kind of became my trademark. They felt that I was trying to be tough because I really didn't communicate with the players about the game and the kinds of things that they were talking about. I don't know what they were talking to each other about, but I didn't have any line of communication with any of the other players. When you don't know something, you tend to fear it. Yeah, I was aware that I had this reputation and I think that I tried to use it to my advantage. I really do not have any regrets today about being perceived that way because, after all, the game was about winning. We were not at a social tea or something."

One violent encounter during Jabali's rookie season added an unsavory element to Jabali's reputation. Here is Jabali's account of what happened: "What went on with Jim Jarvis was, 'How do you handle anger when you are not able to articulate it?' That was my problem then. I was watching what was going on in the ABA. Rick Barry shot anywhere from 10-15 free throws a game and then he would make 10-12 baskets and, voila, he's got 35 points a game. The reason why he was getting all of these 35 point games is because he was shooting 15 free throws and making 12 or 13 or all 15 of them some nights because he shot real well. So, I began to realize that I was getting beat up and I needed to shoot some free throws. It got to the point that Alex Hannum made a comment that was published somewhere in which he said that what he liked about Warren Armstrong was that Warren Armstrong was able to go to the basket, take a blow and still make the basket. But there wasn't a foul being called. I was just taking the blow (Jabali laughs ruefully). The thing about guys like Jim Jarvis is that they had to scrap and hustle and do everything that they could in order to stay in the league because they really couldn't play. He was harassing me and hacking me and trying to steal the ball. One time he did get the ball, but he had almost taken half of my arm with it. I turned around and looked at the ref and the ref just turned his head. So I turned back around and impulsively swung and knocked Jim Jarvis down and went over and stomped him. That was an example that I offer no defense for; I mean that is something that I shouldn't have done."

Jabali's straightforward statement that he offers no defense for his actions toward Jim Jarvis and that he was wrong is much different than the typical apologies from public figures that are spoken in the passive voice lamenting "what happened" and regretting "if anyone was offended."

Jabali takes issue with being characterized as a "thug" in Terry Pluto's book Loose Balls, an oral history of the ABA (there is a Bob Ryan quote on page 286 referring to Jabali and John Brisker as "thugs" and the chapter titled "The Meanest Men in the ABA" is about Jabali and Brisker).

"To now start categorizing it as a result of the thug life--it wasn't a result of the thug life," Jabali says. "I wasn't a thug. It was a result of political thoughts. The thing that had me thinking the way that I was thinking was not being a thug and robbing or stealing or anything like that. It was that these people who were in control of the league were messing me around. Why is it that I don't get a foul called when there is a foul? And here's a person (Jim Jarvis) who is trying to take advantage of the fact that he knows that they won't call a foul. So he's going to come and assault me because he knows that he can get away with it."

Defining Basketball Greatness

Other than Magic Johnson, Jabali is the only rookie guard in the NBA or ABA who won the Finals MVP. So it is surprising to hear Jabali's greatest memory from his ABA career.

"The thing that probably stands out the most for me is the recognition and realization that I could play," Jabali says. "That happened in the first training camp. Alex Hannum already knew pretty much who he wanted to start. He would split Rick (Barry) and I up. I would be on one squad and Rick would be on the other squad. We would win our share of the scrimmages. Then he would put all of us together--Larry Brown, Doug Moe, Rick and I on the same squad--and of course we would dominate. What began to become clear was that there was nobody in the practice, save Rick, who was performing any better than I was at that point. Subsequently, going through the beginning of the season--after going through the cycle once and seeing everybody--it became clear that I could actually play the game. That was a high point."

Despite his accomplishments, Jabali does not consider himself a great basketball player: "I'm probably a mid-level professional basketball player; I'm certainly not a great basketball player."

Jabali adds, "Oscar Robertson is certainly the greatest player who ever played. They want to give that to Michael Jordan, but Jordan really did not have to play against the same type of players. If somebody were to really study it--and I'm talking off the top of my head, so maybe statistically people can refute this--when Magic left, who were the great players? I think Karl Malone was the greatest player still circulating around when Jordan was doing all those things. Who was Jordan playing against?"

Jabali does not rank Jordan second, either. "The person who is right behind Oscar as far as I am concerned is Walt Frazier. Walt Frazier had an equal impact on the game offensively and defensively. Nobody did that. Walt Frazier is the one who made me realize that I was never in condition to play the game. This man would play just as hard on the defensive end as he would play on the offensive end and would beat you either way."

Jabali explains, "Michael Jordan is a great player, but I always look at it from the point of view of impact on the game. If you look at impact on the game and you have someone who is capable of averaging a triple-double for the entire year, then you have a tremendous, great player. Michael Jordan was great because he was clutch. Jerry West also has that reputation. Michael Jordan happened to be in those situations. I don't think that anybody will ever be able to be compared to Michael Jordan unless they happen to be in those situations. I think LeBron James is going to be unable, the way that it looks now, to actually be compared to Michael Jordan because (the question is) what do you do in championship situations? Michael Jordan was in so many championship situations and came through that, unless you are doing that, how can you compare?"

Jabali realizes that not everyone will concur with his views on the subject: "Anyway, that's my point of view. It might be a little biased because of the time that I came up in. I think that there are two different things: Rick Barry used to argue that in All-Star Games there should be a Most Valuable Player and there should be a Most Outstanding Player. I think that Michael Jordan is the most outstanding player that has ever played, but that Oscar Robertson in his prime was the best basketball player."

Asked who he would take between Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson in an all-time draft, Jabali admits that he would take the Big Dipper: "I think what you have to realize is that at the end of the game you need to be close to the basket."

Jabali concludes, "If you think in terms of the skills that are required to play the game of basketball-- that's the best way for me to break it down--Oscar had mastery over all of the skills. I don't know of any skill that Oscar didn't have. The reason that I said that I would take Chamberlain first is because you have to start in the middle. If that's a contradiction, then I would say Chamberlain, Oscar, Frazier and then Jordan."

What about Bill Russell? Jabali offers this assessment: "Because Russell won all the championships he is supposed to be the greatest player. Well, he's not the greatest player. Chamberlain was the greatest player. You take that team away from Russell and let Russell play with some mediocre players, what is Russell going to do? If you put Chamberlain and Russell with the same mediocre players, Chamberlain's team would win more games."

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:50 PM