Flying Frenchman, Tariq Abdul-Wahad, returns to San Jose as coach
SAN JOSE -- During his search for a new varsity basketball coach, Lincoln High athletic director Kevin Collins got a voice message from Tariq Abdul-Wahad.
The name didn't ring a bell, which is understandable. Abdul-Wahad is better remembered in these parts as Olivier Saint-Jean, the French-born sensation who single-handedly (and trilingually) propelled San Jose State to its last March Madness appearance, in 1996.
Collins put the name through an Internet search and suddenly made the connection: Abdul-Wahad was a first-round draft pick and played seven seasons in the NBA.
And if that wasn't enough to jar his memory, Abdul-Wahad was the only one of the 12 candidates for the Lincoln High vacancy to include
a letter of recommendation from Doc Rivers, an NBA coach of the year.
It seemed too good to be true. So Collins called the player with an estimated $37.9 million in career earnings to ask, in essence, why the heck would you want to do this?
"I just want to coach,'' Abdul-Wahad told him.
So there he was Wednesday night, lugging an equipment bag through a near-empty gym, barking directions at willowy teenagers and jousting with referees during a 59-46 loss at Evergreen Valley High.
Why the heck would he want to do this? A clue comes during a timeout with 4:49 to play in the third quarter. That's when Abdul-Wahad shouts one last instruction at his players.
"Go use your minds," he says.
'Studentof the game'
Abdul-Wahad, now 38, was always something of the thinking man's hoopster -- part baller, part scholar. Raised in Versailles, France, he took frequent field trips to the Louvre as a kid. (In interviews over the years, he's been known to quote artist Georgia O'Keeffe.)
Abdul-Wahad arrived at San Jose State in 1995 an astonishingly nimble 6-foot-6, 223-pounder. Ron Bergman, the longtime Mercury News sports writer, promptly dubbed him "The Flying Frenchman."
The rest of the Spartans flew along for the ride. The former Olivier Saint-Jean guided SJSU to the most surprising March Madness appearance in Bay Area history, rallying back from a 4-15 start to win the conference tournament. It remains the school's only NCAA tournament appearance since 1980.
"He carried us," recalled former assistant coach Bill McClintock, now 76. "He loved the game and he was a student of the game, and those are the guys who tend to end up in coaching. What he's doing now, he's doing it for the love of the game."
Abdul-Wahad, who changed his name after converting to Islam during his junior year in college, was mostly a role player in the NBA. Known as a defensive specialist, he averaged 7.8 points and 3.3 rebounds per game until retiring in 2003.
Abdul-Wahad moved back to San Jose in 2009, so he could finish his degree in art history. He enrolled in the SJSU master's program, too. But then, he said, "I got busy." For one thing, he and a friend started a small Brazil-based apparel company called 610 Clothing. For another, he had a wife, Khadija, and three kids: Amine, now 15, Hind, 13, and Anas, 10.
When Hind began showing athletic promise about three years ago, Abdul-Wahad did what he could to show her basketball fundamentals. He tutored other girls, too, ranging from sixth- to eighth-graders, and discovered he was a natural-born teacher -- the Edifying Frenchman.
Bitten by the coaching bug, he jumped at a chance to serve as an assistant coach for the women's team at Cal State Monterey Bay. Never mind that this was an unpaid position for a Division II program that required him to commute about an hour-and-a-half each day.
"He was great for us," said Renee Jimenez, the coach at Cal State Monterey Bay. "He's not your typical NBA guy. He's humble. He worked really hard and he really listened."
Abdul-Wahad's breakthrough came with Brittani Jefferson, a 6-footer who Jimenez described as a former "stand-in the-background post player." Abdul-Wahad pushed her, cajoled her, challenged her. By the time he was done, Jefferson was MVP of the California Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.
"It was like she did not understand how big she was until we told her: 'Dude, do you realize how good you are? Do you realize how good you can be?' " Abdul-Wahad recalled, laughing. "But she came out of her shell. She became a beast."
Looking to future
During an interview in the bleachers during Lincoln High's junior varsity game last week, Abdul-Wahad was noncommittal when asked about his coaching aspirations. He said he despises the politicking it can take to move up to the big time.
"A lot of college coaches -- and I'm saying this outright -- are a bunch of frauds. And you need to write this down," Abdul-Wahad said. "I don't need to name names, but there are a lot of coaches out there who work their way up because they know the right networks. But they're not even good people to start with."
Abdul-Wahad, though, mostly had astonishing luck with his own coaches. He loved Stan Morrison at San Jose State and learned from notable names like Rick Adelman and Don Nelson in the NBA.
Abdul-Wahad is rapturous in his praise of Rivers, who won NBA Coach of the Year honors for Orlando when Abdul-Wahad was on the roster. His enthusiasm for Rivers is matched only by his devotion to Jimenez, his head coach at Monterey Bay. "She's better than some of the NBA coaches I had," he said. "You should be doing this story on her."
Abdul-Wahad even has nice things to say about his first college coach, Steve Fisher at Michigan, but that relationship did not end well. Abdul-Wahad felt intellectually stagnant in that program because players were so athletically gifted that coaches rarely bothered teaching fundamentals.
Despite averaging 13 minutes a game as a Michigan freshman, he transferred to San Jose State. He wanted more hands-on instruction.
"People thought I was crazy. 'Why are you leaving Michigan?' '' Abdul-Wahad said. "I said, 'Dude, if I'm not improving, what's the point of being here, even if there are 20,000 people in the stands?' "
He found his basketball oasis with the Spartans, where Morrison and McClintock taught him the footwork and positioning they had learned as players under legendary Cal coach Pete Newell.
During Abdul-Wahad's final season at San Jose State, in 1997, he averaged 23.8 points per game and became the first SJSU player to finish among the top 10 scorers in the country. Their miracle '96 tournament run was a quick one -- the Spartans were ousted in the first round by No. 1 Kentucky -- but his time there remains one of the most memorable eras in Spartans' basketball history.
"Oh, that was brilliant," Abdul-Wahad said. "We were better than we actually knew we were. Had we known we were that good, we probably would have been better."
'He wants to teach'
Izaiah Gonzalez, a junior forward at Lincoln High, said the school's new coach will sometimes stop an entire practice until everybody understands the nuances of a particular drill. "He wants to teach you," he said. "And he knows what to say."
More than that, everybody plays. During the game against Evergreen Valley, Abdul-Wahad is dizzyingly liberal with his substitutions, swapping players in and out so the bench never has time to get warm.
"This is not, honestly, the NBA," Abdul-Wahad explained. "Nobody is making money. There are no jobs on the line. This is just for kids to get better.
"It's about bigger things. High school basketball is about the memories. 'Yeah, I played that game. We won. I made a pass. I made a play.' We try to spread it out and give everybody a chance to participate in what we're doing."
"Honestly," he said, "this is a pretty cool gig."
Hope he's successful as a coach for the Spartans and turns the program to a winner... always liked his game and character. I'll never forget that game against Kentucky in 96'. It may have been a blow out, but for the first half of that game the Spartans were actually hanging with imo the best college team I have ever witnessed. Once Olivier Saint Jean was in foul trouble it was long over. Tito Addison was also a good player on the Spartans too (and ironically coaching the womens team last I heard), but he had no chance of keeping it close without any other NBA talent to help...
Always thought Olivier/Tariq was underrated. Go Tariq Abdul-Wahad!