From the playgrounds of California to the pro game in Europe, Indira Kaljo made it to the highest level of basketball without truly standing out from the crowd.
As a high school star in Van Nuys, Calif., a JUCO All-American at Ventura College, an award-winning contributor at Tulane University, and a professional in Ireland and Bosnia, Kaljo is obviously better at basketball than most people in the world. But among the elite, the 5-foot-10 guard would be considered average. A solid role player. Just one of many faces in the class photo, albeit a classroom full of gifted honor students.
And then, Kaljo made a choice earlier this year that guarantees she’ll stand out on the basketball court. The irony is that this choice may hasten the end of her playing career.
Raised Muslim in a Bosnian-American family, Kaljo did not wear the hijab on or off the court before this year. When she recently decided to start wearing hijab, the 26-year-old found herself (unwittingly at first) challenging the controversial International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rule that prohibits “headgear” — which includes Islamic headscarves, Jewish yarmulkes and Sikh turbans.
So while free agents around the basketball world — from LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony down to the last benchwarmer on the worst team in the worst league on the planet — are looking for jobs this summer for the upcoming winter season, an established pro like Kaljo has yet to sign with anyone due to FIBA, an organization whose jurisdiction covers most leagues overseas as well as international tournaments like the Olympics and World Championships. Because of FIBA Article 4.4.2, Kaljo’s team could be forced to forfeit any game she plays while wearing hijab.
In the meantime, Kaljo crossed a personal milestone in late-June when she wore full hijab during two (non-FIBA) summer league games in Oxnard, Calif. It was the first time in her life Kaljo had played basketball while wearing hijab. At the end of the day, her team was crowned league champion.
UMMAH SPORTS: Did your summer league teammates know you planned to play in hijab beforehand?
INDIRA KALJO: I wasn’t sure if I was going to be allowed to play covered, so first I called Steve Peters, who runs the league (Steve Peters Ballers Only Basketball League). Alhamdulilah, he’s not Muslim, but he was very understanding and supportive. He said, “Yeah, no worries. This is your faith.” He said he would completely support me, and if anybody had a problem with it, he’d tell them they can leave.
So once I knew I had the approval, I told my friend who first invited me to the league. Then I sent a text to the rest of the team and told them I’d recently decided to cover. It wasn’t a big ordeal, and I don’t think it should be.
What was going through your mind leading up to the game?
Just driving there, I felt excited. I was also anxious, because this is something for me personally that has been a long journey. I didn’t think so much about this world — about what people were going to say, what people were going to think. I’m doing this for the sake of Allah, and I feel strong about my decision. I feel comfortable and I feel proud that I can represent Islam in a positive way and show people that you can be covered and still play well.
How did it feel when you first stepped on the court in hijab?
It’s a huge difference, I’m not going to lie. During warm-ups, I could feel more eyes on me. There was another game going on the other court, and I could still tell a lot of people in the gym were staring at me like, “Is she really going to play like that?” It wasn’t like a negative thing; I don’t think they were talking mess about me. It was more like, “What’s going on?” It just shows that this isn’t a common thing yet. But Insha’Allah, it will be someday.
How long did it take for you to feel normal? To where you weren’t even thinking about what you were wearing and you were just playing?
I think in the championship game I played better because by then I was used to it. I felt like I was able to represent my skills well, so people watching could see me and say, “You know what? She’s really a hooper.”
I felt an honor with that, Alhamdulilah. Before (I covered), if I had a crappy game, so what? Who cares? Now, if I play good, people may not even know my name, but maybe it’ll spark an interest in Islam for them. Now, every time I play I want to represent Islam and represent covered Muslim women well. That’s why I think Bilqis (Abdul-Qaadir) is so cool. Covered or not, she’s an amazing basketball player.
Do you think you played well?
I was happy with how I played. I’m not the type to keep track of my stats and all of that, but I played better in the championship game than in the semifinal game. And we won the whole thing, which is most important.
It was funny — after the semifinal game, someone said to me, “You actually played really well.” I was thinking, “Did you think I’d lose my basketball skills?” Maybe that is what they thought; that I wouldn’t be able to do the things I usually do on the court.
I’ll tell you why this is personally huge for me: My family left Bosnia when I was four. A grenade hit our house and my Mom was like, “OK, we’re getting out of here.” We got out on the last bus.
A lot of the conflict in Bosnia had to do with trying to kill off the Muslims. So being able to represent not only Islam, but also represent Bosnia (in international tournaments), that’s what I’ve wanted to do since I started playing basketball as a little girl. And I think it would be such a beautiful way to do it, in an Islamic way — playing while covered. When I found out I might not be able to do that because of this rule against headscarves, I almost started crying. FIBA might take a few years to change their rule, and I’ll probably be done playing basketball by then. But I’ve made this decision and it’s for the sake of Allah, so that’s fine. I may not be able to represent my country, but it’s not about me.
When did you start playing basketball?
My older sister played in high school, and I was around nine years old then. That’s how I got started.
Were you a natural talent?
Actually, I was a great shooter right away. Everything else took a while: my ball-handling skills, my defense … but shooting came naturally from the first day.
When did you realize you might have a future in basketball?
My fifth-grade coach is the reason why I fell in love with basketball. He made us believe that what we set our minds to, we could achieve. I said back then I wanted to play pro basketball, and that I wanted to get my college paid for. In fifth grade you just kind of say stuff, but Alhamdulilah, it actually happened.
But what really changed my game was when I started played AAU basketball in my sophomore year (of high school). My coach then, he was the total opposite of my fifth-grand coach. He’d tell you that you sucked and you couldn’t even make it to the JUCO across the street. But he had a way of getting the best of your abilities out of you. He worked us so hard that my game really transformed within four or five months. That’s when recruitment letters started to come.
Which colleges were recruiting you?
I was recruited by Utah State, San Francisco, Brown, Cornell, UC Davis … mostly smaller, mid-major D-1 schools. I chose Utah State but I didn’t enjoy it, so after my freshman year I decided I was going to transfer.
I was going to go to another D-1 school, but one of my teammates from high school told me about this brilliant coach at (JUCO) Ventura College named Ned Mircetic. I talked to him for five minutes, and I knew I was going there. I’ve never met a coach that knows so much about basketball. I had a really successful year there (Editor’s note: Kaljo averaged 16.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game at Ventura), and then I got recruited to go to Tulane.
What was the highlight of your time at Tulane?
Tulane was phenomenal. The school has a wonderful tradition of basketball. I won (Conference USA) Newcomer of the Year. I was 13th in the nation in three-point shooting percentage. My coach had never really recruited JUCO players before me, and she said she was happy she recruited me.
But my favorite moment was when we played East Carolina on national TV during Brest Cancer Awareness Month. My mom passed away when I was 13. She had breast cancer. In that game, from beginning to end, I felt this feeling of serenity and calm. I can’t even explain it. I had one of the best games of my entire career. I hit the game-winning shot on national TV. (Editor’s note: Kaljo finished with a D-1 career-high 23 points and six threes.) That’s the kind of thing I can tell my grandkids about when I’m 80.
They told the story about me and my mom on TV during the game, so then after that, women and men around the world wrote me letters saying they had lost an aunt or a sister to breast cancer, or they told me they were going to go get themselves checked. It was so amazing that I was able to connect with somebody who was just watching me play basketball. That’s why it’s not just playing a sport; it can bring so much to people’s lives. I thank Allah every day for that.
Tulane is in New Orleans. Does going to school in that kind of environment challenge the lifestyle of a Muslim?
Honestly, growing up in California there was a lot that conflicts with Islam. I mean, we all know what New Orleans is famous for, and it does conflict with your beliefs. I’m not going to pretend like I was an angel during that time. I’d go out with my friends, but I didn’t drink, so I was always the designated driver. It was in your face, all the time. But I was able to meet some great Muslim people while I was studying at Tulane. It’s like any university you go to; it offers craziness, but you have to make the right decisions.
What did you do after college?
I got hurt my senior year. It was one of those horrible ankle injuries. We made it to the NCAA tournament and I got to play, but that was my first real injury and it mentally messed me up. (Editor’s note: Tulane lost to Georgia in the first round of the 2010 tournament.)
I wasn’t the same after that. I thought my career was over. I stopped playing basketball and got into coaching. I coached at Ventura as an assistant for two seasons, and during that time my love and passion for the game came back. I was like, “You know what? I’m not done.” I told Ned what I was thinking, and he just said, “Get back in shape. Start working out, get an agent and find a team.”
It was a harder rout for me because I hadn’t played in a while and wasn’t coming straight out of college, but Alhamdulilah, I was able to make it happen. I played in Ireland for a year, then I played in Bosnia for Zeljeznicar (Sarajevo) because my grandma was ill and I wanted to be near her.
What was your experience like playing in Bosnia?
Bosnia is a Muslim country, but it was weird because I was the only player on the team who was praying five times a day. There were times when it conflicted with practice, but my coach completely understood. She wasn’t Muslim, but she was very understanding. My team was very supportive, too. There are a lot of mosques in every city in Bosnia, so even when we were traveling, if I had to go pray I could just go to any mosque around.
How and when did your decision to wear hijab come about?
I was going through my own personal Islamic changes at the time. Up to that point I hadn’t covered, but I’d been talking about it for months. I’d been praying about it. I wanted to do it, even before I knew FIBA had regulations. One time I decided to kind of try it out, so I wore leggings during a game. After the season, when I decided to cover fully, I felt like I was personally ready to deal with whatever happened.
When did you find out about FIBA’s anti-hijab rule?
I had been talking to a few teams (about signing for next season). I knew I wanted to cover, and something just told me just to go check, and boom — all of these articles came up, including the Ummah Sports article about Bilqis.
It’s funny; I actually met her a few years ago when she played at Memphis and I was at Tulane and our teams played each other. I went up to her and said I thought it was awesome that she was the first NCAA player to play covered. When we talked recently, she remembered that. Honestly, I pray for her sake that this rule will be changed before too long. I got my years in playing pro, and may Allah forgive me for not covering, but she deserves the opportunity to play because she’s a very gifted basketball player.
How do you feel about FIBA’s anti-hijab rule today?
It’s just ridiculous, in my opinion. It’s not right, and like I said, even if it wasn’t me, I’ll always stand up against something that’s not right. That’s just how I am. You have players that wear crosses when they play, but a Muslim woman can’t wear a head covering? There shouldn’t be that kind of discrimination.
Some people will read your story and ask, “Why doesn’t she just play uncovered? She’s done it before.” What’s your response?
On Judgment Day, I’ll have to ask Allah to forgive me for not being covered all these years before I decided to cover. It took me a lot of prayer to get to this point, but no matter what happens from this point on, I’m going to be covered. I won’t go back to the wrong way. I will not do that. If that means I never play basketball again, so be it.
Indira Kaljo has started an online petition via Change.org to urge FIBA to remove its ban on Islamic hijab. You can sign the petition here: http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/fiba-f%C3%A9d%C3%A9ration-internationale-de-basketball-remove-ban-on-wearing-head-scarf-during-competition?recruiter=117736780&utm_campaign=signature_receipt&utm_medium=email&utm_source=share_petition