This is probably one of my most “fun” posts. NBA is one of the four major sports leagues in America and second most popular behind NFL. Like so many other fields, Muslims are key contributors to the success and popularity of NBA.
I can list the Muslim NBA players in various categories: current vs past, position by position, born Muslim vs converted, outwardly Muslims vs “quietly Muslim”, starters vs bench players, or by teams. I will combine these categories in the case of some of the more well-known players.
The following is not a complete list. At the end I will reveal who is my all time Most Favorite Player (MFP), and why.
Current and Outwardly Muslim
Kyrie broke my heart when as a Cleveland Cavalier he drilled a late, game winning 3-pointer against the Golden Gate Warriors in game 7 of the 2016 NBA finals. The Warriors were leading 3-1 in that series and were poised to repeat as champions except Kyrie (and LeBron James) came in the way. Kyrie was the first overall pick in the 2011 draft and has played for various teams, including Dallas Mavericks last season.
Kyrie is a convert.
Kyrie’s list of accomplishments is very long. He was rookie of the year in 2012, all star MVP in 2014, MVP for the FIBA world Cup finals in 2014, 2014 NBA male athlete of the year, along with multiple NBA all star appearances. He has the rare honor of winning Olympic gold medal and NBA championship in the same year (2016). He announced he was a Muslim this past season and played NBA games while fasting during Ramadan.
Last year, he also drew criticism for tweeting a controversial film, Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America.
Dieng hails from Senegal. Not exactly a house hold name, Dieng has been an asset on the defensive end of the floor since he entered the NBA in 2013 out of the University of Louisville. He is a shot blocker and plays for San Antonio Spurs, a small city NBA market. He was selected number 21 in the 2013 NBA draft.
Current and “Quietly” Muslims
Dennis is among those few players I did not know were Muslims, until I started to do research for this article. He is a German, and currently playing with the Los Angeles Lakers against Denver Nuggets in the Western conference finals. The veteran point guard has been a solid contributor wherever he has played in the NBA. He played against my favorite NBA team, the Warriors just last week in the western conference semi finals, and was an important contributor to the Lakers series win..
Another player I was not aware is a Muslim until my research for the article. He plays for Boston Celtics and is currently playing in he Eastern Conference finals against Miami Heat. Jaylen was the 3rd overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft. This past season, he was selected in the all-NBA team. His interests go beyond basketball and he is a frequent speaker at many universities and institutions including Harvard, UC Berkeley and MIT.
Quite honestly, I didn’t know any thing about him until now. He played for the NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors in 2019 and is a swingman “known” for his defense and a bench player. He must have played against my Warriors (and won) during the 2019 NBA finals. It’s just that I don’t recall him playing.
Nurkic started his career with the Denver Nuggets, splitting time with MVP center Nikola Jokic. He now plays for Portland Blazers and regularly posts “double- double”. For those who are not very familiar with basketball, it simply means he scores more than 10 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Past and outwardly Muslim Players
This list includes 3 of the all-time great centers. All three of them are hall of famers.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar
Image: courtesy Wiki Common media
Kareem was born Lew Alcinodor and converted to Islam after winning NBA championship with Milwaukee Bucks in 1971. His accomplishments are too numerous to list here. He held the NBA record for most career points until this past season, when another Laker, LeBron James broke it. He was a record 6 time NBA MVP, 19 time All star (tied for most), 15 times All-NBA team, and 11 times All- Defensive team, 6 times NBA champion and 2 times NBA Finals MVP. He is most famous for his “sky-hook”_ a shot that is described as indefensible. When he retired, he held the records for most games played, most minutes, most points scored, most shots attempts, most blocked shots and defensive rebounds. ESPN named him the all time best center (in 2007), greatest college basketball player (in 2008), second best NBA player in history (behind MJ) in 2016. The list goes on and on. Needless to say, Kareem is a first ballot NBA Hall of famer.
Kareem has had an active life outside of basketball as well. He has been an actor, an author and social activist. He was awarded presidential award for freedom by Barack Obama in 2016.
He was one of the tallest centers at 7 foot, 1 inch and weighed nearly 13 lbs at birth and was over 22 inches long. He isn’t one of the funniest people around but he cracked me up, when watching a movie, when someone asked him when was he born. His response: April 16, 17 and 18.
Nicknamed Dream, few players have commanded more respect from his peers than Hakeem. He played for Houston Rockets and won two back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995. He is in the NBA Hall of fame as well as FIBA Hall of fame. He is a naturalized American citizen, and was born in Nigeria. His list of honors is very long too, many in the category of the “first Non-American player” such as NBA MVP, NBA All-Star and NBA All-defensive player. He is famous for his quickness, especially for a center, his turn around jumpers and foot work were in a class of its own.
There’s perhaps no NBA player who excelled during Ramadan more than former Hakeem Olajuwon. I still remember NBC announcer Bob Costas mentioning him fasting during the day games in Ramadan during the 1994 and 1995 seasons and how his head coach, Rudy Tomjanovich would frequently ask a drenched-in-sweat Hakeem, how he was doing during time outs when other players were drinking fluids.
Olajuwon averaged 29 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, and nearly four assists per game.
Hakeem was keenly aware of the plight of the poor. He became the face of Spalding athletic shoe line and endorsed a sneaker that retailed in various outlets for just $34.99. This made him one of the very few well-known players in any professional sport to endorse a sneaker not from the more well-known and much more expensive shoe brands such as Nike and Reebok. His rationale was simple: “How can a poor working mother with three boys buy Nikes or Reeboks that cost $120? … She can’t. So kids steal these shoes from stores and from other kids. Sometimes they kill for them.”
Quote Source: Wikipedia
Courtesy: Houma Today
Another center, another Laker. Simply known as “Shaq”, he is currently one of the studio analysts on the TNT show Inside the NBA. He was drafted 1st overall in 1992 NBA draft and won rookie of the year award. He has won three All-Star game MVP awards, as well as three straight NBA Finals MVP awards in the early 2000s with Los Angeles Lakers and another one with Miami Heat. He is a 15 time All- Star, 3 time All-Star game MVP and the league MVP once. He was considered one of the most dominating and unstoppable player.
Shaq is a rapper and has appeared in many reality shows and multiple TV shows and ads.
His “Muslimness” has been somewhat of a question mark since he has not openly stated he is a Muslim, though there are many reports of him being a Muslim. Though it does not “prove” it, his children’s names are “Muslim-sounding (Shareef, Amirah, Tahirah among others).
Probably not the most well-behaved NBA player, he won an NBA title with Detroit Pistons in 2004. He was a 2 time All-star. He was better known for his toughness and defense, though his scoring was not too shabby. His toughness sometimes translated into confrontations and earned him many technical fouls.
A devout Muslim, he is one of the few players with a Muslim sounding name. He attended UC Berkeley before getting selected 3rd overall in the 1996 NBA draft by Vancouver Grizzlies (Memphis Grizzlies now). Shareef was a frequent double-double player for the Grizzlies, scoring over 20 points and at least 10 rebounds per game. Well aware of his social responsibilities, he started the “Future Foundation”, providing after school and other form of support to children at risk in Atlanta. His emphasis on education was highlighted when he returned to UC Berkeley after his NBA career to graduate with a 3.8 GPA.
A 3rd overall pick in 2011, Enes currently is not playing for an NBA team, though he has not officially retired. He was born in Switzerland to Turkish parents, and was raised in Turkey. He is probably more famous for his social activism and political freedom, prompting him to change is legal last name to Freedom. He has been very critical of the regime in Turkey
Played 9 seasons with various teams and last played in NBA with Chicago Bulls.
Picked 3rd overall by Denver Nuggets in the 1990 draft. He led the league twice in free throw percentage. His 0.956 percentage in 1993-94 season is the third highest in history he played 9 seasons in NBA.
NBA players and Ramadan
One of the toughest challenges Muslim NBA players have faced is playing day games during the month of Ramadan. As you know, basketball players sweat profusely during games and have to constantly hydrate themselves during breaks.
Muslims don’t drink and eat during the month of Ramadan from dawn to dusk.
Perhaps the two most vocal about playing and fasting are Kyrie Irving and Hakeem Olajuwon. Kyrie scored 34 points this past Ramadan (month of April) in a playoff game.
Hakeem even went as far as saying: “I feel much better. I feel lighter, faster, much more mentally focused…. “When God prescribes something, it is for your best interest.”
“I have never wavered or regretted my decision to convert to Islam,” Abdul-Jabar wrote in 2015. “When I look back, I wish I could have done it in a more private way, without all the publicity and fuss that followed. But at the time I was adding my voice to the civil rights movement by denouncing the legacy of slavery and the religious institutions that had supported it. That made it more political than I had intended and distracted from what was, for me, a much more personal journey.”
And here is my MFP Muslim NBA Player
The Most Favorite Player award goes to…. drum roll….Hakeem Olajuwon.
Image: courtesy NBA.com
There are a number of Muslim NBA players who made the final cut, such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Shareef Abdul Rahim, but Hakeem is my all-time Most Favorite Player.
His basketball skills and accomplishments have already been well documented. I would not repeat them here.
For all his basketball skills, Dream shake, pump fake, hall of fame, MVP awards, and NBA championships, he is a much better human being, and a true role model- a rarity in American professional sports, more known for their sense of entitlement, off field/court antics and (bad) behavior.
He has a keen sense of social responsibility. He realizes that whether these stars admit or not, kids look up to them as role models and tend to act the way they do.
As I noted above, Hakeem regularly fasted during Ramadan, and has been active assisting the underprivileged.
I recall NBC TV doing a small piece on him during NBA finals when he was still playing at his prime. Coach Chuck Daly was one of the studio analysts at the time. They highlighted his basketball moves, blocks and dunks, but also showed his involvement with youth and his work in his native Nigeria as well as the underprivileged in America. One of the pieces they showed was Hakeem himself, talking about how he feels about being responsible. Can’t remember the exact words, but he said something to the effect of: “ You have a responsibility as a player. You are not just playing for yourself. You are representing your team, your country, your race and your continent. You have to act responsibly and lead by example”. And he looked and sounded absolutely, genuinely sincere. This is where his piece ended and the camera returned to coach Chuck Daly in the studio_ completely in awe, his jaw dropped and he uttered these words in a deep voice that are still vivid in my memory: “ if you ever wanted to have a role model in sports, you just saw one”.