At a stocky 6’2″ and 200 lbs., Warren Jabali was one of the hardest players to guard and control in the ABA. Born Warren Armstrong, his changed surname means “the Rock” in Swahili and frankly it couldn’t have described him better. The name change occurred toward the end of his career, but all throughout his life, Jabali exhibited an intensity on the court and off the court that often made people wary.
He was known as a merciless defender and averaged 2 steals per game in his career. His coaches wouldn’t hesitate to through him on any opposing guard or forward, no matter their height. If Jabali was on the court, you basically had the other teams best offensive guard and/or forward dutifully harassed
Despite his own short height, Jabali would fly in with reckless abandon to snare rebounds. Capturing the board, he would sprint down court and loved to throw down left-handed dunks – despite being right-handed. In the halfcourt setting, Jabali was absolutely too strong for opposing guards to contain and absolutely too fast and short for forwards to have any hope of slowing him down.
Jabali put his unqiue blend of talent and personality to immediate use in the ABA during his rookie season with the Oakland Oaks. Stacked with Rick Barry, Doug Moe, and Larry Brown, Jabali emerged as perhaps the team’s best player. That title was without dispute once Barry was lost to a knee injury early in the season. Averaging 21.5 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 assists, Jabali was named the ABA’s Rookie of the Year and lead Oakland to a 60-18 record – best in the ABA.
In the playoffs, Jabali was outstanding. Averaging 29 points and 13 rebounds for the playoffs (and 33 points in the Finals), the 6’2″ guard led the Oaks to the ABA title and was easily named the MVP of the playoffs.
A sensational follow up season was in store for Warren as the Oaks moved to Washington, DC, and became the Capitols. He upped his production to averages of 23 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists. He was named to the first of his four All-Star games. But his season was cut short and his career altered by a knee injury.
Returning in the 1970-71 season with the Indiana Pacers, Jabali’s limitless versatility was perhaps overused. Indiana had won the 1970 ABA title, so clearly had a solid core in place with Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, and Freddie Lewis. Jabali was basically designated as a Swiss Army Knife sliding up and down the lineup plugging holes instead of having a firm role.
After that lone season in Indy, Jabali was picked up by the Floridians forming a dynamic backcourt with the equally short Mack Calvin. Jabali returned to his All-Star form with averages of 20 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. He also added a new wrinkle to his game: the three-point shot. His outside shooting had always been his biggest weakness, but in 1972 he led the ABA in three-pointers attempted while finishing fifth in percentage by nailing 36% of his downtown attempts.
Jabali was again on the move for the 1972-73 season. Landing with the Denver Rockets, Jabali’s unbounded athleticism was becoming a thing of the past. His rebounds fell to just 5 a game, but he still managed 17 points and 6.5 assists. Also, we finally get a glimpse at his steals totals since the ABA began tracking the stat this season. Warren swiped 2.1 per game.
In any event, 1973 proved Jabali’s last great season. At the All-Star Game, he secured MVP honors. But by the playoffs Rockets coach Alex Hannum had cooled on Jabali, drastically cutting his playing time.
What may have been Jabali’s undoing in pro basketball was his personality, the reaction others had to it, and his reaction to the reaction. No one in their right mind picked a fight with Jabali. During his vaunted rookie season, the firebrand stomped on an opponent and received a 15-game suspension.
More than that though, he was considered a radical black nationalist. After all, he had given up his born name of Armstrong for Jabali when he converted to Islam. Indeed, his outspoken beliefs made ABA management fearful of retaining him. In the 1974 season, Denver put Jabali on the waiver wire and no ABA team picked up the rest of that season.
A return to the ABA came in 1974-75 season for Warren with the San Diego Conquistadors, but he averaged an underwhelming (for himself) 12 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals a game. After those 62 games with the Qs, Jabali was done as a professional ball player.
Jabali explained his politics and seemingly aloof nature, but not many people in pro basketball wanted to take the time out – then or now – to fully grapple with the issues he saw swirling in sport and American society. In his later years, Jabali more keenly focused the rage he felt toward the injustices and became a devoted community organizer.
Even though his basketball career was spectacular, one wishes he had the same time and space to replicate his latter life solemn focus on to the court. Instead, injuries and personality curtailed the murky yet still amazing career of Warren Jabali.
Playoff MVP (1969)
Rookie of the Year (1969)
All-ABA 1st Team (1973)
All-Rookie Team (1969)
4x All-Star (1970, 1972-’74)
All-Star Game MVP (1973)
Regular Season (447 games):
Playoffs (36 games):