“It’s not supposed to be like that, but kids love to play the game,” Abdelkader said while watching a recent Boston Celtics playoff game on a big-screen television at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. He was joined by about 20 other Muslims, a scene that is being replicated in living rooms and Islamic community centers as the NBA playoffs head toward the finals in June.
At the moment, there are at least eight Muslim players in the NBA (four Turks, two African Americans, one Iranian, and one Tanzanian), and one of them — center Nazr Mohammed of the Oklahoma City Thunder — is currently in the middle of a tense series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
But 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 written by Ira Berkow, a Pulitzer-prize winning sportswriter.
For many Muslim Americans, college and professional basketball provides heroes they can take pride in, symbols of affirmation at a time when they face hostility from some Americans. And it serves as a way to develop fellowship with their fellow believers while reaching out to non-Muslims.
“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 of Houston.
Abdali, 19, is helping organize the youth program of an annual convention sponsored by the Muslim American Society and the Islamic Circle of North America, a pair of religious and outreach organizations. This year’s convention will be held in Hartford, Conn., over Memorial Day weekend. The “highlight” is the 3-on-3 basketball tournament, which is expected to draw close to 200 players, Abdali said. “Basketball has become more than a sport; it’s a culture for us.”
That culture is manifesting itself in Muslim basketball leagues and tournaments across the country, and is even recognized by the country’s major Islamic organizations, which are often criticized for being out of touch with Muslim youth.
Evolving from pick-up games in Chicago, the National Muslim Basketball Tournament was launched in 2010 and now holds at least four tournaments per year. The most popular one is in Chicago and has attracted 42 teams with 8 or 9 players each.
The Islamic Society of North America has recruited the organization to set-up a tournament during its annual convention in Washington D.C. this September.