Off the court: Sports journalist Habeeba Husain

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Like many of the athletes she covers, Habeeba Husain‘s rookie year in the sports journalism industry has been one of learning experiences, both humbling and affirming. At the same time she is building upon the foundation of skills and potential that brought her where she is today, she is also proving to herself with each success that she does, in fact, belong at this level.

Husain joined the SLAM magazine staff as a college intern last September. After graduating from Rutgers University in her home state of New Jersey, she stayed on with the NYC-based basketball publication as an Editorial Assistant, covering high school, college and pro hoops for the print magazine and for SLAMonline.com.

For the website she has written a feature on the Muslim Basketball rec league in New Jersey, and a piece about FIBA’s rule (soon to be under review) that prohibits Muslim females from playing in pro leagues and international tournaments while wearing hijab headscarves.

For SLAM’s Sept. 2014 print issue, currently on newsstands, Husain penned a feature on WNBA All-Star center Tina Charles, and a profile on a young woman who could become the next Tina Charles: UConn-bound high school star De’Janae Boykin.

In addition to her new job, Husain also maintains her own blog, H2Hoops.wordpress.com.

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UMMAH SPORTS: What does your job as a SLAM Editorial Assistant entail?

HABEEBA HUSAIN: I mostly help with the online side of things. I get print assignments to work on, too. I don’t go into the office that much; I’ve only gone into the office a handful of times over the past year. I mostly log in from home, from New Jersey.

What other publications have you written for?

About a year ago I wrote for a Muslim magazine based in New York called Got Wudu? I wrote for a blog called MuslimGirl.net. My last year in college I worked with the Muslim Student Association (MSA) to get their blog going a little more.

How did you get into sports writing as a profession?

When I got to college, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. During some tutoring sessions I went to, the tutor asked me what I wanted to do. I said I didn’t know, so he asked, “What do you like?” I said I liked basketball; that I’d been into the sport almost 10 years.

He was surprised, like most people are. They don’t really expect me to be a basketball fan. I told him I’d written some stuff in high school about the Knicks, and when he asked me if anyone had forced me to do that or if I did it on my own, that was when I realized that writing was something I wanted to do. I write because I enjoy it. So I looked into the journalism program at school and just kind of ran with it. That same year, I started writing for a blog called American Muslim Mom.

Did you write for the school newspaper at Rutgers?

I went in one day with a resume and everything, but right away I found out it was way less formal than that. (Laughs) I wrote one article for them that got published. I covered a guest lecture, but I didn’t really like it that much. The people were really nice and everything, but it just was not my interest. The newspaper style was not a good fit for me. I felt like I was just throwing things into the article that weren’t important just to fit the word count they gave me.

How did you get connected to SLAM?

After that conversation with the tutor, I sent in a letter to SLAM for the reader feedback section they have called “Trash Talk.” I was just telling them how I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I liked their magazine.

One of the editors at the time, Lang Whitaker, he actually responded to me. He said I’d just missed the deadline for my letter to run in their next issue, but he told me to keep my head up, that kind of thing. After that I started sending in more letters, and some of them got published in “Trash Talk.”

Later on, I sent in a formal letter telling them I was interested in an internship. A week or two later, I saw SLAM was following me on Twitter, then I got an email from the editor-in-chief, Ben Osborne. We arranged for me to interview for an internship, and that’s how I got started.

How often do you post on your own blog?

It’s been way less frequent than I’d like it to be. I used to post a few times a month; now it’s like once a month. At first when I started the blog, it was more just me writing about basketball. Over time it transformed into being more personal — like what I’m doing with my journalism career more than who won the game last night.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I really just enjoy writing. I like making a story come together, making it come full circle. I really like when people read my stories and give feedback. And seeing my name on the byline, I like that. (Laughs) And I love that I get to write about basketball, something I really like and am interested in. Similarly, I enjoy writing about and reading about Islam, because I really like Islam.

What areas are you working on improving as a journalist?

I think I need to work a lot more on my writing. I’ll see stories that some of the other writers post and I’ll be like, “Wow that was really good.” But when I try to write something like that, it’s really tough. So I need more practice in that sense. I think the more you read, the better you’ll get at writing. But it’s weird, because I love to write but I wouldn’t say I’m a huge reader.

For me, I also need to be more comfortable with interviewing people and meeting new people. That’s always been a bit of a struggle for me. But this job forces you to be friendly with people, especially strangers.

What is one of the more memorable experiences you’ve had on the job?

Well, the first thing I covered for SLAM was the unveiling of Madison Square Garden after they renovated it. That was the first time that I’d really covered something where I didn’t already know somebody there. And that was the first time I kind of went on my own into the city and was with the rest of the press. It was very intimidating, but it felt really good. (Knicks owner) James Dolan was there. (Knicks TV commentator) Al Trautwig was there, just walking around. (Former Knicks guard) John Starks was there. Spike Lee was there. I was like, “This is cool. I’m one of them now.” It was a rite-of-passage sort of thing.

What is your sports background? Did you play basketball growing up?

I didn’t really play sports. My brother was really into basketball. He’s a huge Knicks fan. I was in eighth grade when I started to get into it with him; I started looking at the standings more often and watching more games. When my brother noticed I was getting more interested, he gifted me a subscription to SLAM. That’s how I learned more about a lot of players.

So then you’re a Knicks fan?

Yeah. The Knicks are my favorite team, even though there’s have been so many heartbreaking seasons. (Laughs)

Who are your favorite basketball players to watch or to cover?

I don’t know if I have one favorite. I like a bunch: Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, LeBron James … I also really like Pablo Prigioni from the Knicks.

Do you follow any other sports besides basketball?

I recently started following soccer a little bit. Not like MLS (Major League Soccer), but more on the national-team level. I used to not like soccer. I thought it was boring. But my cousin is into it, and after I watched a few games and I really started to respect the athletes.

The World Cup is one of those stages where sports, politics and heavy societal issues often intersect. And the athletes often take criticism for not speaking out on those bigger issues. Do you think athletes should be more politically outspoken?

That’s a tough question. I would jump to say yes, and I wish the atmosphere was such where they could be (more outspoken). But I feel like there’s so much baggage and stuff they need to worry about if they do speak out.
So unfortunately, while I wish they would, I know why it’s hard for them. I feel like every time someone tries, it backfires on them with the hate the fans give them and on the business side of things as far as costing them money. But at the same time, there are athletes who have spoken out, and they’re alive and well. So what’s the worst that can happen?

Speaking of money, do you think NCAA athletes should get paid?

You know, I was never really into college sports before, so I didn’t really think about it. But I first got introduced to this problem in a class called Critical Issues in Sports Media. Everyone in there had an opinion about it.

I remember at first thinking, “They (athletes) get a free ride. What are they complaining about?” I used to think like that. But then I read a little more about it, and … I mean, the schools are making money off of these athletes. I feel like they should get paid; they’re basically working for the school.

The NCAA says it’s education-first, but if they were really about putting education first, March Madness wouldn’t be in March, when all of the players are missing classes.

They’re just given the name “amateur,” but they’re pretty much professional athletes at this point. I don’t know the solution to the problem, but I don’t like how it’s looked at like it’s not really an issue, because it is.

You wrote a story about FIBA’s anti-hijab rule. FIBA is going to review the rule on August 27 and could vote to change it, but what do you think of the rule as it stands today?

I’m glad they’re going to revisit the rule. Hopefully they’ll change it and allow players like Indira Kaljo and Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and a bunch of others — people of all faiths — to be free to play.

It’s OK to have restrictions. If someone wears pins in their hijab, I could see where that’s a problem. But if you’re worried about that, there are hijabs that come without pins. I went to a private Islamic school and our basketball team had a rule where if you wore hijab it had to be one of those pull-on headscarves. It was no threat to their safety or their opponents.

I was surprised when I first heard about the FIBA rule. It was kind of shocking. I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt and not always think it’s discrimination, but with this I was like, “No, that is discrimination.”

You wrote a line on one of your H2Hoops posts: “I like learning. I like writing. I like basketball. I like Twitter. I like cookies. I like open-mindedness. I like Islam.” What do you like about Islam?

I feel like I identify with Islam. I’m American, I’m whatever, but I’m a Muslim before I’m anything else. A lot of people my age that were raised (in the U.S.), they have this “American Muslim” complication. I’ve never felt like that, like those identities conflicted whatsoever. I’m really comfortable being what I am.

I like the restrictions of Islam. I know “restriction” is kind of a hard word, but that’s what it is. I see the benefits of it. I can’t drink, and I’m totally cool with that. I’m glad I can’t drink. I wear hijab, and I’m glad. It was a never a problem for me.

I feel like more than anything, there’s a higher purpose in life, and Islam really brings that out. Of course at times you get distracted, but one thing that is always there and constant is God.

Did you grow up in a big Muslim community in New Jersey?

Where I live, my neighbors are family. Like, literally, they’re my cousins and stuff. I went to public school until sixth grade, then in seventh grade I started going to an Islamic school. One of the reasons my parents moved me is that there were very few Muslims in my grade. So yeah, I had a good Muslim community around me growing up.

You talked about being involved with the MSA at Rutgers. For a Muslim kid who’s maybe just starting college this year or has been in college already but hasn’t found their MSA, what would you say to them about the value of staying connected to their Muslim Student Association?

For my first two and a half years, I didn’t really go to MSA that much, to be honest. The friends I’d made in high school and some of my cousins had all come to Rutgers with me, so the crowd I was hanging out with was already Muslim. I was also a religion major, so I met a few Muslims through that.

But the MSA is good for people who don’t already have a lot of Muslim friends. I’d never really bothered going until some of my good friends were like, “You should go.” So I went a few times, and I ended up loving it. I got way more involved my senior year, and I’m so glad I did.

Rutgers is a huge and diverse school — which is wonderful — but in a lot of classes you’ll be the only Muslim student. It’s nice for every Thursday night to see all of your Muslim friends and have that company around you. It’s like a recharge from week to week.

It’s important to have people there who do understand what you might be struggling with, not just with school, but spiritually. Other people may not get it. You can be so involved in school that you’re forgetting to connect with God in your prayers; not everyone will understand that struggle that is. So it’s good to have other Muslims around that you can talk to who can relate.

What do you think Muslims who work in media can do to help change the narrative and influence the images of Muslims that are presented to their audience?

I think the first thing is to not be afraid to say you’re a Muslim. You should be comfortable with the fact that you’re a Muslim and not try to hide it.

Like, the first time I went to the SLAM office, I figured I might be the only girl on staff, and I try not to shake hands with men. So I told myself going in they’d probably want to shake hands, but I just had to let them know about my beliefs. That kind of thing. Once people I work with know that I’m Muslim, they respect that.

That’s the first step. Then we have to not fall into the way things are set up to be reported already. Take that risk and go against the grain if that’s what the truth is. Write stories about problems Muslims are dealing with. That’s important, because it’s been the same storyline for so many years, reinforcing the negative stereotypes.

People in the media have a lot of power to change things. We can make (the audience) realize that Muslims are people too.

What are your plans and goals for the future in this business?

It’s funny, I remember when I was just starting out finding my major in college and I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if I can write a story for SLAM?” That happened quicker than I expected. I’d love to continue here. I’d love to do more features on basketball players that give more insight into a person’s life or into their journey.

I’d also really like to be able to help Muslims in the media bring attention to different things that other Muslims are doing: How Muslim communities thrive in America and how they struggle. Like, I don’t think many people who aren’t involved in Muslim communities know how hard it is to get established, with a mosque and everything. Just for a simple prayer space. That’d be really cool, to be able to connect with different Muslims that way.

Follow Habeeba Husain on Twitter: @HabeebaHusain

Follow Ummah Sports on Twitter:@UmmahSports

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