Abdul-Aleem’s hoop dreams are set in Mecca

Muhammad Abdul-Aleem played two seasons at FAMU.

Muhammad Abdul-Aleem played two seasons at FAMU.

Athletes are rarely afforded the opportunity to write their own ending.

For every one who makes it all the way to the professional level and gets to retire from their sport on their terms, there are thousands whose athletic careers — in the pros, in college, in high schools and rec leagues worldwide — are ended by injuries, by ineligibility, or by simply not being good enough. It’s why we are so enamored by the Hollywood storybook finish; because it is so uncommon and outside of the norm. Michael Jordan couldn’t even write that perfect ending. Neither could Joe Louis, or Babe Ruth, or Steffi Graf, or Jerry Rice.

Muhammad Abdul-Aleem‘s basketball story may not be over yet, but its latest chapter came to a close that is not only disappointing for the former Florida A&M University point guard, but — buried under the inescapable truths and unconfirmed accusations surrounding FAMU’s struggling program — also quite disturbing.

This past season was Abdul-Aleem’s senior year at FAMU. After averaging 9.2 points in 22 minutes per game as a junior — his first season at FAMU after transferring from Georgia Perimeter College — the 6-4, 210-pounder played just 10 minutes per game as a senior, scoring 4.0 points a night while the Rattlers finished 14-18 and lost to Morgan State in the second round of the MEAC tournament.

Abdul-Aleem didn’t play in 13 of FAMU’s 32 games, including Senior Night against Bethune-Cookman on March 6. While many college programs make it a tradition to start as many seniors as possible on Senior Night, Abdul-Aleem, one of seven seniors on the FAMU roster, never got off the bench.

Why the drop in playing time? Abdul-Aleem believes Florida A&M head coach Clemon Johnson had a problem with the fact that he is a Muslim.

“I thought it was religious discrimination,” Abdul-Aleem says of Johnson, who was fired in April. “I think he didn’t like the fact that I am a practicing Muslim. I heard from people around the team that he didn’t like me because of my religion.”

Abdul-Aleem says Johnson never told him specifically why he wasn’t playing, and added that the coach didn’t impose his own religious beliefs on him.

Johnson denies Abdul-Aleem’s discrimination claim. The 6-10 FAMU alum and 10-year NBA veteran (1978-88) says Abdul-Aleem’s playing time (or lack thereof) was solely in accordance to his basketball ability.

“That’s ridiculous. That’s not true at all. I couldn’t care less about him being Muslim. That has nothing to do with his basketball skill,” Johnson said. “Religion in no way, shape or form has anything to do with how much I played him, or how much I play any player. I have no idea what he’s talking about. That’s a crazy accusation.”

One source close to the Rattlers backed up Abdul-Aleem’s version of events, saying they felt he was “penalized” for practicing Islam, whether it was for being late to an occasional meeting or practice because it conflicted with daily prayers, or for not being able to fully participate in some training activities due to fasting during the month of Ramadan.

“They couldn’t break Muhammad, though,” said the source, who did not want to be named. “I think it bothered me to see it more than it bothered him to go through it.”

Florida A&M sports information director Vaughn Wilson said he was not aware of any formal complaints filed against Johnson during the coach’s three-year tenure, but added that such personnel records would be confidential under Florida law.

Johnson compiled a 32-64 record at FAMU, and the men’s basketball program (along with the football program) was recently hit with a one-year NCAA postseason ban due to low Academic Progress Rate scores. FAMU is appealing the ruling.

Growing up in and around the Atlanta, Ga., Muhammad and his twin brother Musa — a 6-5 shooting guard who will play his senior year at Troy University after transferring from South Florida — played at four different high schools while being home-schooled. Following graduation, the twins went to Georgia Perimeter College before splitting up for the first time and heading to NCAA Division-I programs.

“The thing that impressed me the most about Muhammad was his maturity,” says Condric Sanders, a former FAMU assistant who recruited Abdul-Aleem. “He’s a good student, a high-character athlete. He’s a dedicated, devout Muslim who loves his family and loves his religion. He’s the kind of kid that lets you sleep at night as a coach. He won’t be getting into any trouble at the club; he won’t be doing anything crazy with girls; he’ll take care of business in the classroom. You love coaching kids like that.”

Sanders said Abdul-Aleem “would’ve had a great senior year” if not for a “division” between him and assistant coach/offensive coordinator Chadrick Johnson, son of Clemon. Sanders suggested that changes in FAMU’s offense under the younger Johnson from one year to the next may not have been the best fit for Abdul-Aleem’s style as an attacking, score-first point guard. Then again, FAMU’s leading scorer and starting point guard from last season, 5-10 senior Jamie Adams (17.2 ppg, 3.7 apg) was certainly closer to Damian Lillard than Rajon Rondo for the Rattlers.

“I didn’t understand it,” Adams says now. “Muhammad was in the rotation, he was playing a lot, playing good, and then one day everything just turned. Muhammad’s PT started going down, then it got to a point where he wasn’t even playing at all. He wasn’t even traveling with us. He was killing in practice, but he wasn’t playing.”

Adams will go as far as saying Abdul-Aleem was the most talented player, pound-for-pound, on the Rattlers.

“From the outside looking in, to me it looked more personal than about Muhammad’s ability to perform on the court,” Adams says. “It was like, ‘Man, this dude is a senior. Why are you treating him like that?’ The Senior Night thing was crazy. Everybody got into the game, but Muhammad didn’t play. To me, that’s unacceptable. I don’t understand how (Abdul-Aleem) goes from a player who was producing to on Senior Night he doesn’t play at all. I’ve never heard of something like that on any level. I don’t care how bad or how good they are, every senior plays on Senior Night.”

While Abdul-Aleem is currently working toward finishing his Criminal Justice degree, he is also searching for opportunities to add a more pleasing chapter to his story by playing pro basketball.

The NBA is more than a longshot for a mid-major conference backup without a standout stat line, but Abdul-Aleem’s pro aspirations are focused elsewhere: He wants to play in Saudi Arabia, preferably in Mecca or Medina, two cities with great significance in Islamic history. Each year, millions of Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca, an at-least-once-in-your-life journey that is one of the five pillars of Islam. Medina is the site where Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) established the first Muslim community in 622 AD.

The 12-team Saudi Premier League has one team in Mecca (Al Wahda) and two in Medina (Al Ansar, Ohud Medina). College basketball fans may recognize some of the league’s talent: Isma’il Muhammad (Georgia Tech), Tiras Wade (Louisiana-Lafayette), Chief Kickingstallionsims (Alabama State) and Derick Nelson (Oakland) are among those who played in the SPL last season.

“If he wants to play in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, somewhere like that, he can definitely play over there,” Sanders says of Abdul-Aleem. “With his strength and scoring ability, he would be an asset to any of those teams. He can have a long career over there.”

***** *****

Muhammad-Abdul-Aleem-3

UMMAH SPORTS: What have you been doing since the season ended?

MUHAMMAD ABDUL-ALEEM: I’ve been focusing on finishing school and training; staying in shape, doing my daily routine in the gym to keep my skills strong and keep the rust off. I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to be playing next in terms of my basketball career, if I’m going to be playing.

For a player who isn’t on the NBA draft radar, how does one go about finding a place to play pro ball?

The first thing is getting an agent. The second thing is getting some exposure. I have a video of some of my highlights that I’m distributing to coaches and agencies, and I’ve sent some e-mails. I don’t know what to expect. I’ll have to play in some exposure camps so I can be seen and scouted and evaluated. Once I get an agent, the next move is picking a country and finding a team that’s in need of a player like me.

What kind of player are you?

I’m more of a Jason Kidd type of point guard, but I score more. I like to get into the paint and pass, but I can also shoot the three. My mid-range game is better. A lot of people call me “Little LeBron,” because I’m 6-4 but I have a larger frame so I can get to the basket fairly easily. My game probably most mirrors somebody like Jason Kidd or Derrick Rose; a good, strong point guard like that.

Where do you want to play?

My No. 1 country would be Saudi Arabia. I want to play in Medina or the holy city of Mecca, in that area. That would be spiritually beneficial as well as physically and financially. Other Muslim countries I’d like to play in would be Oman or Qatar. I wouldn’t mind playing in Europe; it’s great competition and you make better money. But my first choice would be Saudi.

Have you been to Mecca before?

No. My brother Musa has been there and from what I’ve heard, it’s a wonderful experience. My dream is to live in Mecca or Medina or any city not too far from there. As long as I’m in the country and it’s easy for me to visit Mecca and Medina.

What is your major? What do you want to do outside of basketball?

Criminal Justice, with a minor in English. Hopefully, I’ll be graduating in the fall. I would love to teach English overseas; that’d be my No. 1 choice, preferably in a Muslim country. Secondly, I wouldn’t mind being a coach or an athletic trainer here in the States. I was thinking about getting my master’s in sports medicine.

Obviously it will be tougher to get the attention of a pro team if your stats aren’t impressive. You played over 20 minutes per game as a junior, then 10 minutes per game as a senior. What happened there?

I blame my coach. I don’t think he liked me personally, and to get back at me, he cut my playing time down. I was the third-leading scorer last year coming off the bench, and my senior year I barely play? I don’t know what I did or what I said to make him treat me the way he did.

The other factor was that I had a knee injury. My right knee was hurt, and it turned into tendinitis. I was in and out of games; some games I didn’t finish and some games I didn’t play. So between the coaching staff and the knee injury, I lost a lot of playing time.

Of course that’s the way God planned it, but the fact that the school got rid of the whole coaching staff after the season tells you something. It just wasn’t right. A lot of players that should have been returning are transferring now because of the coaches.

Why do you think Clemon Johnson didn’t like you personally?

I don’t know. I never disrespected him, never cursed him out, never talked back to him. I thought it was religious discrimination. I think he didn’t like the fact that I am a practicing Muslim. I heard from people around the team that he didn’t like me because of my religion.

For example, when I got injured, (Johnson) told me I couldn’t travel with the team. I’d never heard that an injured player can’t travel. He said something like, “We don’t need cheerleaders on the bench.” But he had already allowed two other injured players to travel. I mentioned their names and that they were injured — one of them could barely walk — and that he allowed them to travel. I was like, “I’m only asking you to let me go to a game in North Carolina.” He said, “I don’t want your knee to be bent.” Then he was like, “Listen, you can go see your family in Georgia” while the rest of the team would be on this road trip. What coach tells a player to go drive to Georgia, which is a four or five-hour drive, but you don’t want me to bend my knee? But you’re telling me to go drive for four or five hours when my knee will be bent in the car? He allowed walk-ons to travel, he allowed guys that were injured and redshirts to travel. But I can’t travel.

Another incident was when he didn’t play me on Senior Night. He played every player on the roster except for me. He played the walk-on senior, he played two freshmen … everyone except for me. That was ridiculous. My father was watching the game online and he was like, “Wow, where’s my son?” I’m glad my family didn’t come to that game.

He (Johnson) really stole my senior year from me. I was in the best condition that I’d ever been; I’d worked hard on my game. My game was at its top level. He just drained me mentally. During practice he’s telling me I should be starting while he’s telling me everything I’m doing wrong. It was all a mental thing, like he was trying to get at me discreetly.

What gave you the idea that he had an issue with you being Muslim?

Other people had been telling me that he really didn’t want me to come back; that they were just using my GPA (grade-point average) to help the academic standing of the basketball program. Then somebody in the program called me and said, “Muhammad, you know he doesn’t like you because you’re Black and Muslim.” I heard that and, man, I wish I had a recorder. At first I wasn’t sure if I should believe it, because a lot of people had beef with each other in the program. But he said it and it meant something to me. Then looking back, his (Johnson’s) actions really confirmed it.

But Coach Johnson never said anything to you about religion or Islam and it being a problem?

He never outwardly came out and said anything about his dislike toward me.

Did Coach Johnson ever impose his own religious beliefs on you or on other members of the team?

No, nothing like that. The team might pray in a circle or something before a game, say a Christian prayer, but I would just step outside the circle and do my own prayer. It was no big deal. Other than that, there was nothing religious that he imposed on me, nothing like that.

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Throughout your career, how have teammates, coaches, fans and others treated you when it comes to your religion?

My teammates are usually very inquisitive. They always have questions. Some players I’ve played with have been very interested in converting to Islam, so we have conversations and I’ll answer all of their questions if I can. It’s always been a good experience for me, dealing with non-Muslim teammates. We’d have debates, and sometimes those debates got loud and sometimes they got heated, but at the end of the day we’d shake hands and acknowledge that we’d learned something from each other. And before you know it, some of those same guys would want to wear a kufi and want to go to the mosque with me.

It’s always been an interesting experience dealing with people that have totally different lifestyles than I do. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I don’t go to parties, I don’t chase the girls, I don’t listen to the music they listen to. Sometimes that makes me the outcast or the oddball in the group.

I remember one time in junior college, one of my teammates did have a problem with me and my brother. He was like, “Why do you guys think you’re better than us?” Musa said, “What makes you think we think we’re better?” and he was like, “Y’all act like y’all don’t sin.” I told him, “We do sin. Maybe we don’t commit the same sins, but we all make mistakes and we all have our shortcomings.” Musa and I explained it to him, and eventually we had a nice big pow-wow. Not long after that, that same guy who was very hostile toward us wanted to be our roommate. We ended up sharing food, driving each other to school. I’ll never forget that.

Then there was another teammate we had from Yugoslavia (in junior college). It was during Ramadan when we couldn’t eat or drink during a time when the team was doing conditioning. And our teammate, he was so amazed at this that he was like, “Hey, can you give me some type of Islamic literature? Because I know you guys aren’t supposed to be keeping up with us if you’re not eating or drinking. Where are you getting the strength?” I gave him a book on Islam, and he said it gave him a totally different outlook on Muslims.

Does it challenge your deen as a Muslim to be a popular athlete on a college campus in a place some people would call a party town?

It’s always a challenge. Life is always a challenge. What helps is to stay spiritually active all of the time. Stay in the masjid, read your Quran, stay around other Muslims who practice the deen. Keep yourself in good company.

But you can’t avoid everything. As much as you lower your gaze and try to avoid physically coming into contact with women, sometimes you have to go through that. A lot of women on campus know I can’t touch them or shake their hand; some girls know I’m married and can’t touch any women other than my wife or my relatives, because I was able to explain it to them. One girl actually became Muslim and took her shahada after I’d explained it to her and then she did her own research on Islam for a few weeks. But, like, one time a cheerleader came up to me and wanted to shake my hand and I didn’t do it, and she was almost in tears because she felt rejected, or like I was being mean. I had to explain to her my situation and my beliefs, and so after that we started this thing where we’d do an “air five” or she’d give me an “air hug.” Another time a girl came out of nowhere and hugged me, so I had to tell her that I can’t do that. It’s hard sometimes because you don’t want to make people feel bad, but you have to stick to your beliefs.

That’s one reason why I want to live in a society in a Muslim country where everyone knows the rules. If I don’t greet a woman or if I don’t touch her, it’s not because I’m being disrespectful. It’s actually a sign of respect.

What advice would you give to a young Muslim who is dealing with those same things, trying to navigate between Islam and what our more loose society allows?

My number one piece of advice is never be afraid to practice your religion. Never be afraid to receive criticism or mockery. Accompany yourself with people that fit your lifestyle and share the same beliefs. Like for me, right after basketball practice, I’d go to the masjid and hang out with the brothers there. It re-energizes your iman, your faith.

And honestly, if you’re devout in practicing your religion and your teammates and your friends know about it, they’ll respect it and they’ll respect you. When my teammates go out to party, they don’t invite me. It’s like, “What’s the use? He’s just gonna say no.” But if I wanted to fit in and I compromised like, “OK, I’m gonna do it for the team to break the ice,” then they’ll see me out and be like, “Oh, he does talk to girls. He does party.” Then the next time they go out, that’s more pressure on me to say no because they’ve already seen me party and will keep asking.

Right from the beginning, I’ve told every coach I’ve had, “Hey, I’ve got to go pray.” I’ve told my teammates, “No, I can’t go to the party.” Then they know right away that I’m devout and I’m practicing.

It’s not always easy. Every sheep is going to feel like an oddball in a pack of wolves. Some people are afraid to look like a sheep, to act like a sheep, because they feel vulnerable.

Every Muslim who lives amongst people that have different views is vulnerable to the influence of the majority. But I’d advise them to keep practicing their religion and accompany themselves at the masjid with other Muslims.

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