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Ex-Pacers Player Soared in Retirement

by Mark Montieth

Aug 21, 2012

Filtered through the numbers on the back page of a media guide, Warren Jabali's lone season with the Indiana Pacers was forgettable. Plagued by physical ailments, he averaged 11 points and 4.8 rebounds over 62 games in 1970-71, and was released at the start of training camp the following season.

Warren Jabali as a Pacers players in the ABA

That's an out-of-context view, however. Jabali was one of the most unique talents in the American Basketball Association, a comet who soared across the landscape, evoking mystery and wonder, before fading too soon. He then glowed steadily and quietly on the ground of the real world until he died in his sleep from heart failure on July 13 at his home in Miramar, Fla.

His name was Warren Armstrong when he played for the Pacers, which seemed an appropriate enough name, but he changed it to Jabali the following year. It means "the rock" in Swahili, a name that was even more appropriate and of his own choosing.

Jabali stood just 6-foot-2, but was so powerful and athletic that he could play either guard or forward position—four in all. He had an off-the-charts vertical jump, at least before injuries mounted, and reportedly could stand underneath the basket, jump and dunk with either hand. He also had exceptional court vision, huge hands, uncanny mid-air agility, and was an intimidating defender and a natural leader. He was at best an average perimeter shooter, yet swished one of the biggest three-point shots ever by a Pacers opponent, one that quite possibly cost them a championship in 1969.

Through seven ABA seasons, he averaged 17.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists in a career cut short by physical ailments. He was the league's Rookie of the Year for the Oakland Oaks in 1969 when he averaged 21.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists, and averaged 33.2 points in the playoff finals against the Pacers when his Oaks teammate Rick Barry was out with a knee injury. He played in four All-Star games, and was voted MVP of the 1973 game in Salt Lake City. His coach in Oakland and Denver, Hall of Famer Alex Hannum, once called him the smartest player he had ever coached.

He also was a proud individualist dedicated to the Black Power movement of his time, and didn't offer respect for white coaches or teammates indiscriminately. He wore dashikis and beads and encouraged black teammates to do the same, to separate themselves from white society. He reportedly organized a boycott among the black players at one of the All-Star games. That, naturally, made for plenty of controversies and complicated relationships, and still elicits mixed reviews from those who knew him then. Most famously, as a rookie he had sucker punched a Los Angeles Stars opponent, Jim Jarvis, and stepped on his head. Incredibly by today's standards, he was merely suspended for 15 games and fined $250, but the incident marked him for the rest of his playing career.

"I wasn't a friend of his," one of his ABA teammates recalled. "I was white and he wasn't going to take the time to get to know me. As a player he was great, but as a person I don't have much good to say about him."

And yet in retirement, Jabali grew from militant to community activist. He put his serious-minded worldview and heartfelt concern for disadvantage kids to work as a K-8 teacher and guidance counselor, and founded a midnight basketball league in Miami. He also paid for kids from poor families to participate in youth leagues, and attended their games if they had nobody else to support them. The proof of his widespread impact was in the ultimate bottom line numbers. Although he only talked about his basketball career when asked and never engaged in self-promotion, his funeral service in Miami was attended by an estimated 700-800 people. His body was then flown to his native Kansas City for burial. A service there drew an estimated 1,000 people. Eulogies, in spoken and written form, at formal services and on the internet, have flowed since his death, praising his character and the endless displays of grassroots concern for others.

"He was a beautiful, beautiful man," said Lou Hayes, who was the lead statistician for the ABA Floridians in Miami, for whom Jabali played one season. "The coaches and GM's put a tag on him. All that talk about him being a militant was BS." The two developed a friendship so deep that even a month after Jabali's death, Hayes still chokes back tears while talking about him.

Such extreme viewpoints summarize the enigma that was Jabali, particularly before he retired from playing. But when he joined the Pacers shortly before the start of the 1970-71 season, it seemed nothing less than an incredible stroke of good fortune for a franchise coming off a championship. He had played the previous season without incident in Washington D.C., where the Oaks had moved to become the Caps, averaging 22.8 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists. He played just 40 games, however, because a knee injury that required surgery.

The franchise moved after that season to Virginia, but Jabali was traded to Kentucky following a dispute with coach Al Bianchi. The Pacers tried to trade for him then, but the Colonels won out in a dispute that reached the commissioner's office. Kentucky suspended him at the end of training camp, however, for " a series of disciplinary problems which have arisen between the player and the club," and traded him to the Pacers for a first-round draft pick and cash.

Warren Jabali receiving All-Star game MVP trophy

(Trading a draft pick was virtually meaningless in the ABA. The Pacers, theoretically bereft of that first-round pick, still signed George McGinnis following the season – not because they drafted him, but because he wanted to sign with his hometown team and the survival-bent ABA permitted any team to sign any star player it could get.)

The acquisition of Jabali held titillating promise for the Pacers. They had become all too well acquainted with him two seasons earlier, in the third game of their '69 championship series with Oakland. After splitting the first two games in Oakland, they were on the verge of taking a 2-1 lead at the Coliseum. The rookie Jabali, however, hit a quick three-pointer off an inbounds pass to force overtime. Various newspaper accounts described it as coming with one, three or four seconds left, and from 28 or 35 feet. Regardless, it was one of those shots that looks good from the moment it leaves a shooter's hand. It was doubly painful to the Pacers because coach Bob Leonard had called "yellow," meaning his players were to commit an intentional foul as soon as the ball was inbounded so that the Oaks could do no better than get within one point with two free throws. Tom Thacker, however, did not get to Jabali in time, thinking he was too far from the basket to shoot when he caught the ball.

The devastated Pacers lost that game by eight points in overtime, and the next one at the Coliseum by 27. Oakland clinched the championship in Game 5 back on its homecourt, again in overtime, with Jabali scoring 39 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. "I think eventually he will be one of the game's great players," the sidelined Barry said afterward.

If the Pacers were getting that player, the one who had averaged 33.2 points and 12 rebounds against them in the championship series, they might have dominated the 1970-71 season. But they weren't. The Jarvis incident still followed him like a dark cloud, tainting his reputation, he hadn't fully recovered from his knee injury (and never would) and he had back problems as well. He was still rehabilitating when he joined the team on Oct. 14, a day before their season opener.

He was, however, getting a fresh start, a point coach Bob Leonard went to great lengths to emphasize to newspaper reporters, who also talked enthusiastically about the deal.

The Indianapolis Star's Robin Miller called Jabali "probably the best guard in the ABA" before his knee injury, adding "if he hits it off with the Pacers, the rest of the league may just concede."

Jabali also was looking forward to a new beginning.

"I don't say too much so most people just form their own opinions of me," he said. "That's fine, let them think what they want to. But I don't think I'm the monster I'm made out to be."

Warren Jabali as a player at Wichita State when he was known as Warren Armstrong

What followed was the worst season of his career, for a variety of reasons, but one that offered glimpses of what could have been. He didn't play in the first game, played well off the bench in the next two, then sprained his ankle in the fourth quarter of the fourth game. He didn't hit stride until November, by which point Leonard was praising his attitude "after all the beatings he's taken from some people."

He had 10 points and 11 rebounds in his first start, as a forward, at Pittsburgh. He started the next game as well, against Carolina, and finished with 15 points and seven rebounds, but twisted his back while making a steal late in the game. After the Pacers lost three out of four games late in November, Jabali was back in the starting lineup as a guard and had 21 points in a 130-107 win over Denver. He followed with 24 points and eight assists in a 150-116 win over Carolina.

He was in and out of the starting lineup the rest of the season, playing both forward and guard, depending on matchups. He had 18 points, seven rebounds and eight assists against Miami in Louisville, just two points in the next game against Virginia, then 20 against the Floridians, then 19 points and 10 assists in 48 minutes against Memphis in Jackson, Miss., a game played before 371 people according to two independent head counts. He nearly had a quadruple-double on Jan. 6 against Utah, finishing with 23 points, 10 rebounds seven assists and 10 turnovers in 48 minutes.

Two weeks later, however, he was hospitalized at Methodist with a bleeding ulcer. He sat out for 3 1/2 weeks, missing 15 games. While he was gone, rookie Rick Mount, the Lebanon native and Purdue All-American, had begun assert himself. The Pacers also had acquired another guard, Wayne Chapman, to fill the gap left by Jabali's absence.

Jabali's erratic role continued. He scored three points in three minutes against Kentucky late in the season, then started and had 26 points and nine rebounds in 45 minutes in a win at Denver in the next game. He followed that with 25 points, nine rebounds and four assists in a win at Dallas.

The Pacers finished the regular season with a 58-26 record, best in the league. They swept Memphis in four games in the the first round of the playoffs, but Jabali never scored more than five points. He scored five in each of the first two games of the second round series with Utah, missing 15 straight shots through those two games and the start of the third. He played sparingly in Games 4 and 5 as well, but with the Pacers trying to fight back from a 3-1 deficit, he was thrown back into the starting lineup for Game 6.

With Utah trying to clinch the series on its home court, Jabali joined Billy Keller in the backcourt. Keller finished with 28 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Jabali added 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists and limited Utah's Merv Jackson, who had averaged 14 points during the regular season, to eight. The Pacers won, 105-102, to tie the series at 3. The league's two best teams were headed back to Indianapolis for the clincher. A crowd estimated at 3,000 greeted the team at the airport the following night (these were the days of commercial air travel for pro teams), one of whom carried a sign declaring "Armstrong, We Love You."

The Pacers have a peculiar playoff history, however. Their greatest moments tend to come on the road, from their three ABA titles, which all were clinched on the opponent's court, to Reggie Miller's heroics in Madison Square Garden, all the way to last season when they won Game 2 in Miami but failed to protect a 2-1 lead over the Heat in Game 4 at Banker's Life Fieldhouse. Game 7 against the Stars was yet another example of their postseason homecourt disadvantage. They led by nine points early in the third quarter, but Utah shot 74 percent and outscored them by 18 in the period on its way to a 108-101 victory.

Keller led the way with 33 points. Jabali fouled out after 26 minutes in a game in which the home team was called for five more fouls than the visitor, and finished with 12 points, four rebounds and four assists. A fire-code-violating record crowd of 11,202 filed out in a state of shock, and the champagne that was on ice in the Pacers locker room turned bitter. Utah went on to win the championship over Kentucky.

For those who would question Jabali's militant stance against the racism of the era, a postgame incident serves as a reminder of its roots. A few fans tossed beer and racial epithets at Roger Brown, MVP of the Pacers' championship series the previous season, as he walked off the court. Brown reportedly broke down emotionally in the locker room afterward, inspiring Star sports editor Bob Collins to write a public apology.

Jabali's statistics in an injury-plagued season in which he never had a defined role were modest, although much better in games he started. His future seemed bright, given the way he had finished the season. But he reported to training camp the following September out of shape, as was his habit (he was more interested in community affairs than basketball in the summer) and was traded to Miami for an undisclosed draft pick and cash.

Reaction was no doubt mixed among the players. He had been an intimidating presence in the locker room because of his quiet, serious manner, strong convictions and raw physical presence. One player recalls him ripping the underwear off a white teammate because he liked neither the underwear nor the teammate.

"I've never seen a group of grown men so intimidated by someone," Miller said. "He was so strong, he was a bad a— and he never smiled. But the longer the guys were around him they warmed up to him."

Miller recalled Bob Netolicky coining a phrase that became a running joke of a threat in the locker room even in future seasons: "We're going to Jabali your a—!"

Netolicky looks back on Jabali with fondness, however. He kept in touch with him in retirement, and admired him on and off the court.

"The thing about Warren was, he wasn't flashy," Netolicky said. "He would dunk on people, but he made plays that were so subtle. He could drive the middle and see the floor so well. I loved playing with him. You have no idea how strong he was. And he could jump."

Leonard, firebrand coach that he was, got along with Jabali, but does recall one outburst—of his own. "Me and him went at it one day in practice," Leonard recalled, laughing. "He was down at the end of the floor and I was out back of the three-point line and I took a ball and threw it and hit him right in the head. He went downstairs and put his clothes on and went home."

Generally, however, Jabali was said to be coachable while with the Pacers. Asked upon his arrival to shave his beard and get a haircut, he defiantly shaved his head – but then kept his hair shorter than he had previously throughout the rest of the season.

Ultimately, the experiment probably was doomed to fail. Jabali was a natural leader, but the team's core of Freddie Lewis, Mel Daniels, Brown, Netolicky and Keller had won a championship the previous season, and didn't require additional leadership. And while he never complained publicly about his unpredictable role, he never was able to settle into a groove. Leonard's preference for matching up to opponents had him constantly shuffling between positions and in and out of the starting lineup, and his 15-game ulcer-induced absence further disrupted continuity.

He also had joined a congested backcourt full of political intrigue. Lewis had been the starting point guard and captain since Day One of the franchise in 1967, and his demotion to a reserve role in the playoff series with Utah had strained team chemistry. Keller, the Washington High School and Purdue grad, was voted by fans the team's most popular player that season, and was a proven contributor. The addition of Mount, who had averaged 35.4 points the previous season at Purdue and was one of the most popular high players in the state's history, had placed intense pressure for playing time on Leonard, who had chafed at management's decision to sign Mount in the first place. Jabali's intimidating persona and outspoken nature didn't help.

Wrong team, wrong time.

In retrospect, Jabali probably looked back on the trade as a good thing. He played the next season in Miami, where he made his permanent home, even while winding down his career in Denver and San Diego. He averaged 17.4 points against the Pacers as a Floridian the following season after missing the first one with a bad back. After two productive seasons in Denver, which included the '73 All-Star MVP nod, he was left unsigned until 20 games into the 1974-75 season, when San Diego signed him. His last appearance as a player in Indianapolis, at Market Square Arena, was an appropriate final viewing for Pacers fans. Starting at point guard for the Q's, he shot poorly (4-of-19), but finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists, keeping an undermanned team close in a Pacers victory.

Jabali retired following that season, at age 28. His knee and back were giving out, and he was relying on savvy more than athleticism. He also had more worldly ambitions than basketball. His life was about to begin anew, and his greatest moments were ahead.

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