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Muslim players have faith in U.S. basketball

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By Omar Sacirbey and John Ngirachu

Omar Abdelkader, a student at Northeastern University in Boston, is an observant Muslim but admits being occasionally seduced by the swish of a perfect jump shot over the Islamic call to prayer.

“Sometimes we’d sneak out of prayers to play ball,” recalled Abdelkader, who grew up attending the Worcester Islamic Center in central Massachusetts. Like a growing number of American mosques, the center has a basketball court — and hence a built-in temptation for younger members.

“It’s not supposed to be like that, but kids love to play the game,” Abdelkader said.

He was watching the NBA playoffs on a big-screen television at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. He was joined by about 20 other Muslims, a scene replicated in living rooms and Islamic community centers during the ongoing NBA finals.

At least eight Muslims compete in the NBA: four Turks, two African-Americans, one Iranian and one Tanzanian. One of them is center Nazr Mohammed of the Oklahoma City Thunder, now battling the Miami Heat for the championship.

The special relationship between Muslims and basketball goes beyond any particular player or team and embraces the sport itself. It is not unlike the one described in “Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” a 2010 documentary film by Ira Berkow, Pulitzer winning sportswriter.

Mohamed El-Housiny came to America from Gaza when he was about 5. He didn’t speak English, but he could communicate in a language Americans understand very well. He could pass a ball and get it through the hoop.

The kids he played with would talk to him and he picked up a bit more English.

“As a first generation in this country, I longed to fit in. I always had a hard time breaking social barriers, but after a good game of basketball you can talk to anyone,” said El-Housiny, at 27 an architect for Black & Veatch in Kansas City.

El-Housiny started the National Muslim Basketball Tour with Haron Saadeh and Farhan Khalique from Chicago “as a way to bring people of all ages closer to God.”

Evolving from pick-up games in Chicago, the group was launched in 2010 and now holds at least four meets per year. The most popular one, in Chicago, has attracted 42 teams.

The tour also allows for non-Muslims and creates an environment where players from other faiths can learn about Islam and help dispel the negative notions and concepts that surround the religion.

For many Muslims, basketball works the same way. They can meet at the mosque, shoot a few hoops after prayers and have a good laugh.

“Every Muslim community I go to, there’s this obsession for basketball. Almost every mosque you go to, there’s a basketball court outside,” said Musab Abdali, a 19-year-old Houston man helping to organize youth programs.

“We have people to look up to. We have Muslims who have won championships and who have set records,” Abdali said.

“Basketball has become more than a sport; it’s a culture for us.”

That culture is more recognized by major Islamic organizations, which have been criticized for being out of touch with Muslim youth.

The Islamic Society of North America has asked El-Housiny’s group to set up a tournament during its September convention in Washington, D.C.

“We do that so we could set a good example to non-Muslims,” said Ziad Pepic, a co-commissioner of the Muslim Basketball League in Southern California. The league started in 2005 and now has close to 300 players.

“We can’t go out to a bar Saturday night and meet people. But being able to go to a basketball court and play is a great way to meet people and build bridges with them,” said Saad Khurshid, of the Muslim Basketball league in Parsippany, N.J., which has teams named Mecca, Cairo and Timbuktu.

Muslims have competed professionally in football, boxing and soccer, but the number of basketball stars putting their faith in a positive spotlight is unrivaled. These include all-time NBA leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and 12-time NBA All-Star Hakeem Olajuwon, who retired in 2002 after a long career spent mainly with the Houston Rockets.

El-Housiny saw Olajuwon as a hero and an inspiration.

“Without any other superstar Muslim athletes in other sports, Hakeem represented the best of what Islam was and made us all proud. I still remember that he used to fast during Ramadan even during the NBA playoffs, and they would always do a half time report on the month of Ramadan during his games.”

A retired star, Shaquille O’Neal, said in a 2010 interview with a Turkish journalist that he planned to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

And the nation’s top high school player, Shabazz Muhammad of Las Vegas, will be a freshman at University of California, Los Angeles this year.

“There are so many temptations facing kids these days that we wanted to provide them an alternative,” El-Housiny said. “Especially as a Muslim, there are many things we can’t do, so we were trying to find an alternative.”

Basketball, with its small teams, also is the easiest and most affordable sport for Muslims to organize.

“There are basketball hoops in every neighborhood and unlike other sports, you don’t need many people to play,” El-Housiny said. “Even when I used to be stressed I could always go in the backyard and shoot hoops.”

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