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Shocker basketball legend Warren Jabali dies at 65

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, July 13, 2012, at 3:42 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, July 15, 2012, at 7:37 a.m.

His 6-foot-2, 200-pound body was built more for a linebacker than the tight-fitting shorts of 1960s college basketball.

But Warren Jabali’s legs made him the best leaper on the court. His huge hands led to full-court passes or dribbling through trouble.

He played three seasons at Wichita State, a Missouri Valley Conference first-teamer every year. Another seven standout seasons in the American Basketball Association added to his Shocker legend.

“I’ve recruited 17, 18 guys who went on to play in the NBA,” former Shocker assistant Lanny Van Eman said, “but I can’t think of any who had in his body what Warren had.”

Mr. Jabali died Friday in Miami at the age of 65.

Mr. Jabali, known as Warren Armstrong while at Wichita State, had a recent history of heart problems, said Len Trower, a close friend since college. Mr. Jabali’s wife called Trower on Friday and said Mr. Jabali had died in his sleep.

Five jerseys hang from the Koch Arena rafters, and if there were to be a sixth, it might be Mr. Jabali’s 52.

He was 6-2, yet 25-rebound games weren’t uncommon. Neither were 30-point nights. Nor 12-assist games.

“He was certainly athletically ahead of his time,” former Shocker teammate Ron Mendell said. “I think of Warren in the ’60s and he was playing above the rim long before others were.”

Mr. Jabali arrived at WSU in 1964 from Kansas City (Mo.) Central High. He was highly recruited but Wichita State — a consistently ranked team in the “Valley of Death” — beat out Big Eight, Big Ten and other MVC schools.

Freshmen were ineligible for varsity then, but when WSU raced to the Final Four in 1965, Mr. Jabali averaged 29.1 points on the freshman squad.

He quickly became a sophomore star. He averaged 16.5 points and 11.9 rebounds as the Shockers went 17-10. A year later, he averaged 14.9 points and 8.6 boards.

The Shockers were 12-14 in Mr. Jabali’s final season, but he averaged 18.6 points and 11.6 rebounds after missing early practices with a broken foot.

He left WSU as the school’s career assists leader and was No. 2 in rebounds and No. 4 in scoring.

“If he got the rebound, I would make sure I hit the sideline and look back for the ball like an NFL receiver,” former teammate Melvin Reed said. “Because if he got his hands on the ball, we had that fastbreak going.”

The late 1960s were turbulent times on college campuses, especially for black men. Mr. Jabali was outspoken about racial issues. Trower was one of the campus’ most outspoken critics of racial inequality.

“Jabali jokingly, but seriously, blamed me for changing his attitude about the whole culture in this country regarding white America and black America,” said Trower, who now lives in Philadelphia.

Mr. Jabali was an ABA star from the start. He was Rookie of the Year in 1969 and a four-time All-Star, earning All-Star Game MVP honors in 1973. He averaged 17.1 points for his career, including more than 21 his first two seasons.

But Mr. Jabali was also known for an incident in which he intentionally stomped on an opposing player after knocking him to the ground. It strengthened his reputation and as one of the league’s toughest players.

Mr. Jabali lived in Miami after basketball, teaching elementary school and working as a youth counselor. He was elected to the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame in 1985. The Central High court that Van Eman watched him break a backboard on with a thunderous dunk almost 50 years ago was named in his honor in 2008.

“He was never a prospect,” Van Eman said. “He was an absolute player.”

Reach sports editor Kirk Seminoff at 316-268-6278 or kseminoff@wichitaeagle.com.

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