When President Obama said during his Oval Office address Sunday that “Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes,” Donald Trump — as he so often does — fired off a tweet that captured what many were thinking.
(Trump’s knack for saying what people are thinking is as big a reason as any for his steady perch atop the polls, by the way.)
I think Trump is familiar with him.
Then there’s the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Just down the list, at No. 6, is Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq might not be the most devout Muslim, but he might literally be the biggest Muslim ever. Four spots lower is Hakeem Olajuwon, whom Shaq has called a “Muslim brother” and the greatest center ever.
Yes, three of the top 10 scorers in NBA history are Muslims.
There are more but, in Trump’s defense, not a ton — especially among famous current pro athletes.
Mike Tyson and Bernard Hopkins join Ali as some of the greatest boxers of all time who are Muslims. But Muslims are still not highly represented in American professional sports; most people would be hard-pressed to name the best — or any — active Muslim athlete. There are several Muslims currently in the NFL, including Pro Bowl defensive back Aqib Talib of the Denver Broncos and top defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson of the New York Jets. In the NHL, there's Nazem Kadri, a young rising star on the Toronto Maple Leafs (who is Canadian). Casual fans might not recognize any of them, though.
But look again where the president mentioned Muslim-American sports heroes — he placed them among friends, neighbors and co-workers, suggesting we should think about the people we encounter every day, not only superstars.
I’m reminded of a high school cross country runner I covered while working at a small newspaper in Connecticut. This kid, Mohamed Hrezi, was hardly famous, but he remains one of the most compelling athletes I’ve ever written about. Here’s an excerpt from a 2010 article I wrote in the Citizen’s News of Naugatuck, Conn.:
It was 2007, and Mohamed Hrezi, then a junior, was explaining to [coach Bill] Hanley that throughout the month of Ramadan he would fast from sun-up to sun-down, in keeping with Islamic tradition.
“No water, no gum. Nothing,” Hrezi put it to me later.
That’s not exactly what Hanley means when he talks about runners giving up certain foods. But the coach applied his scientific knowledge to manage Hrezi’s unique circumstances: He pushed Hrezi, who wasn’t a big breakfast guy, to eat sizeable meals before dawn, so he’d “get a long burn.”
“It was hard to wake up, eat, then go back to sleep, and I didn’t always do it,” Hrezi admits now. “But it definitely made sense and helped a lot.”
On hot days, Hanley knew enough to scratch Hrezi from races or to let him work out on a belt in the high school pool.
“One thing we see is on a hot day, Mo, maybe on some days his blood was like sludge because there wasn’t a whole lot of water in it,” Hanley says. “There might have been the hemoglobin, but his heart had to pump faster to pump his thick blood around on those hot days.”
By Hrezi’s senior season, the combination of deft planning and cooperative weather allowed him compete at all seven of Naugatuck’s meets during Ramadan. Even more impressive, he broke the school record on each course.
Hrezi went on to win the 2008 Class L state championship and is now a scholarship runner at Central Connecticut State University. He recently broke the school’s 800-meter record.
Mohamed Hrezi, in the small town of Naugatuck, was a Muslim-American sports hero. And he’s exactly the kind of athlete Obama asked the country to watch and admire Sunday.