Although there are old photos on his office door and newspaper clippings inside of his days with the Miami Floridians, most of Warren Jabali’s physical education students had no idea he was once a basketball legend.
For many of the elementary school students at North County K-8 Center in Carol City during the past 30 years, he was just Coach Jabali — the guy with the booming, deep voice who wore sneakers and warm-ups and a cool Kangol hat and was there before and after school to make sure they crossed the street correctly and followed the rules.
“We used to tell the children we had a great basketball player among us and that they didn’t even know it,” said Charlene Carswell, a fourth-grade gifted math and science teacher at the school for the past 14 years.
“Every now and then we would tell them to go online and do a Google search on Warren Armstrong. That’s when they would freak out. They would go running back to him and say, ‘Coach Jabali, how come you didn’t tell us you were a basketball star?’ He would just smile.
“I’m going to miss him so much.”
Jabali — a beloved teacher, friend and community leader who spent most of the second half of his life in Miami trying to steer young or troubled people in the right direction — passed away a week ago Friday in his sleep at his Miramar home. He was 65.
“He put up a good fight,” his wife, Mary Beasley, said. “After he had open heart surgery in February 2011, he never really recovered. It was only operating about 20 to 30 percent. I kept pushing him to retire. His brothers had just retired — he’s the eldest of 11 — and he wanted to be around them. But he felt his work wasn’t done here for another year.”
Once the commissioner of Overtown’s Midnight Basketball League, which used basketball as leverage to keep men ages 17 to 30 off the streets four nights per week, Beasley said her husband of 18 years continued to visit basketball courts in the inner city every Sunday morning to encourage the league’s former participants to stay straight. When he wasn’t there, Jabali was driving around to various little parks, where he would go and sit in the stands and watch the kids who didn’t have parents in the stands.
“There were so many times he would pay the entry fee for children who didn’t have the parents or the money to play baseball or basketball or football, and then he would go sit in the stands and watch them,” Beasley said. “He used to say, ‘I just don’t want them to look up to the stands and not see anybody there for them.’ ”
Former University of Miami and current Houston Texans All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson was one of Jabali’s former students who never forgot what Jabali did for them. According to Beasley, every summer when Johnson would come home he would host a picnic at Buccaneer Park in Jabali’s honor.
“Every lesson he taught had a moral,” Beasley said. “Whether he was talking to elementary school kids or teenagers he would point at them and say, ‘What will you be doing when you’re 20 years old?’ ”
Beasley said her husband “purposely stayed in the elementary schools” and away from coaching “because he thought it was too late to mold in the high schools.”
“He wanted to instill values and morals and compare and contrast. He was focused on the kids and what their future could be,” she said. “He was so upset when they would start wearing sagging pants. He would go up and tell them, ‘don’t you know African Americans don’t own many businesses. So who is going to hire you?’ ”
Jabali’s passion wasn’t always his community. It was also basketball. And he was pretty good at it.
A star at Central High School in Kansas City, Mo., when he was known as Warren Armstrong, he became one of the best players to ever put on a uniform at Wichita State.
“It’s probably hard to find anybody who compares with him, even today. He was a guy who was 6-2, 200 pounds who could outjump anybody in the building, if not anybody in the country,” former Wichita State teammate Ron Mendell said. “He could see the court very well. Great leaper. A dominating player.”
After his college career, he was drafted by the New York Knicks but signed with the ABA’s Oakland Oaks. Armstrong was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1968, when he averaged 21.5 points. A year later, amid America’s racial protests, Armstrong changed his last name to Jabali — Swahili for “the rock.”
Although Jabali was a four-time ABA All-Star, he quickly developed a reputation for having a mean streak and was dubbed one of the meanest players in the league in Terry Pluto’s book on the ABA titled Loose Balls. Once his basketball career came to an end, Jabali saw power in education.
“He thought anyone could make it if they became properly educated,” Beasley said.
On Friday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. there will be a wake in Jabali’s honor at Royal Funeral Services, located at 17475 NW 27th Ave. in Miami Gardens. On Saturday at 2 p.m. a church service is scheduled at the Antioch M.B. Church of Miami Gardens, located at 21311 NW 34th Ave., with a repast scheduled for shortly after inside the school cafeteria at North County.
Jabali will then be flown to Kansas City, where he will be laid to rest in his home state.