When word arrived last Friday afternoon that Wichita State basketball legend Warren (Armstrong) Jabali had died in his sleep at his home in Miami, my first thought was: Superman is dead?
Warren and I were teammates for three years. Physically, he was the most imposing athlete Ive ever known. He had the look of a finely-chiseled fullback or heavyweight fighter, yet aerodynamically, his 6-foot-2, 200-pound body defied gravity. Legend has it, but not confirmed, that he once touched the top of the backboard in practice. There are simply few words to describe the strength and athleticism he brought to the game.
In the 1960s, Wichita State was a place making a lot of noise with its basketball program, but it was an urban setting in a tumultuous time, where it was hard being a young black man. By his sophomore year, it was clear that Warrens passion for the game was matched, if not surpassed, by his quest for changing society. He found an outlet in the Black Power Movement.
Much of the rest of his career at Wichita State and in the pros was significant in terms of accomplishment, yet he took considerable pride in taking a militant stance on civil rights. It was not surprising that he later changed his last name to Jabali (the rock in Swahili) as a further sign of his commitment.
He was truly a complicated guy: wildly intelligent, terribly stubborn and incredibly talented. He was an enigma, even to his college coaches, who were frequently puzzled by him and that extended to others in the Shocker family. I would like, however, to remember Warren as my friend and basketball teammate.
We met originally on my recruiting visit to Wichita in the spring of 1965. I was a wide-eyed kid from small-town Kansas. Warren was upbeat about the Shockers. He was still a teenager and you could not imagine a more relaxed or engaging person. In the dorm he showed me the dozens of recruiting letters he had received in high school that were still proudly saved in a shoebox. The serenity of that meeting would not last.
Over several summers after I signed at WSU, we played pickup games at Kansas Citys Rockhurst College not far from my hometown of Ottawa, and maybe four miles from where his legend began at Central High. Usually, I picked up him at his house on South Benton. He was one of 11 children and Im sure it was not easy for him growing up. The experience helped me realize the enormous economic gap between black and white neighborhoods.
We had good times and eventful road trips at Wichita State: a date with the Wizard of Westwood and Lew Alcindor in 1967; three years in marquee games at the old Chicago Stadium, and Missouri Valley Conference outings in such difficult venues as Peoria, Cincinnati and Louisville. We were in Chicago on New Years Eve several times not a bad place for college guys to ring in the new.
Fortunately, we averted disaster in 1966 on a basketball tour through South America. An engine failure on a flight between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo forced us to make an emergency landingWarren was not an easy flier and did not want to re-board when Varig Airlines sent another plane to pick us up. This came on the heels of a numbing experience in Mendoza, Argentina (near the Andes), where for the lack of a gym, we played outdoors in the wintertime and wore topcoats to stay warm on the bench.
Warren played and excelled at every position. He was the Shockers assist leader for decades and grabbed 20 or more rebounds three times (keep in mind he was 6-foot-2). His enormous hands enabled him to move the ball around like a juggler, and he could snatch a rebound with one hand and fire a full-court pass almost in one single motion.
After basketball, Warren never lost his fire as an activist, and he seemed to find his true calling in the Miami area school system. He taught elementary school for years and was considered a beloved teacher and community leader. At one point he was commissioner of the Overton Midnight Basketball League an excellent fit for his mission to keep young people properly directed.
Dave Thomas played against Warren in high school and tracked his career. Some years back he posted a tribute to Jabali on the Internet. He claims that Warren would have been better served, or remembered, had he played for a higher-profile program, such as Kansas or UCLA. I disagree. If hes not as well-known today as other stars, its more related to a loss of collective memory and to the era in which he played. Wichita State was a basketball power at the time and the Missouri Valley arguably the best conference in the country, better for several decades than the football-happy Big Eight. Although the Valley had a weekly game on its own network, sports on television then was a far cry from what it is today ESPN was well down the road.
Warren also received little exposure from the ABA, which had no national television contract before the merger with the NBA. It was Warren, after all, who turned down the Knicks and a chance to play When the Garden was Eden a description (and book) of the period by New York sportswriter Harvey Araton.
Warren will be buried on his native soil of Kansas City. He was the original LeBron James. He did amazing things in a different time on a smaller scale. Im sure he cared about his legacy in the end, but doubt that he worried about the choices he made and the audiences that might have been. A Wichita sports announcer started calling him Batman during his sophomore season but to me he was simply and always Superman. We could debate the future, but Wichita State and most basketball fans nationwide will not see the likes of him again.