CAIRO – American Muslims are increasingly falling in love with basketball, in a relationship that transcends any particular player or team and embraces the sport itself a way to foster their relationship with the wider community.
“Every Muslim community I go to, there’s this obsession for basketball. Almost every mosque you go to, there’s a basketball court outside,” Musab Abdali, a 19-year-old Houston man helping to organize youth programs, told The Kansas City Star on Friday, June 15.
“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.”
Basketball has long served as an inspiration for religious minorities in US.
Transcending cultural barriers, American Muslims found basketball as a means to communicate with their community.
For example, Mohamed El-Housiny came to America from Gaza when he was about 5.
Speaking little English, he could communicate in a language Americans understand very well. So, basketball was the language that allowed the kids to play with him and he later picked up more English.
“As a first generation in this country, I longed to fit in,” said El-Housiny, at 27 an architect for Black & Veatch in Kansas City.
“I always had a hard time breaking social barriers, but after a good game of basketball you can talk to anyone.”
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 basketball stars, such as NBA leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and 12-time NBA All-Star Hakeem Olajuwon, were regarded as heroes and inspiration for many Muslims.
“Without any other superstar Muslim athletes in other sports, Hakeem represented the best of what Islam was and made us all proud,” said El-Housiny.
“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.”
Transcending cultural barriers, some American Muslims started the National Muslim Basketball Tour with Haron Saadeh and Farhan Khalique from Chicago
The tour was seen “as a way to bring people of all ages closer to God,” Kansas Star reported.
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.
Using the successful sport as a platform for reaching out to the American society, 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.
Shining in basketball sport while observing their religious duties, those good examples were an inspiration for many Muslim kids.
“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.”
With its small teams, basketball 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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