Being Muslim in the NBA
A roundtable of current and former basketball players discuss religion and career
There is a new private room in Madison Square Garden in Manhattan that will be used only on nights the New York Knicks play. It is for Muslim prayer for one of their new players. And there is halal food available for his consumption too.
Enes Kanter, who joined the Knicks in September as part of the Carmelo Anthony trade, appreciates the effort made by the Knicks’ player development and medical staffs.
“I have to pray five times a day, so the Knicks gave me a special room at the practice facility and at Madison Square Garden,” Kanter said. “We have to eat halal food, so they ordered me special food. It means a lot. This is not a Muslim country. But when you see a team do a respectful thing like that, it shows me how respectful people are in America.”
According to the Pew Research Center, by 2020 the United States is expected to have a population that is 78.3 percent Christian and a mere 0.9 percent Muslim. As the NBA season opens Tuesday night, at least 12 of its returning players are Muslim: Kanter, Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried, Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng, Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters, Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu and center Jusuf Nurkic, New Orleans Pelicans center Omer Asik, Atlanta Hawks forward Ersan Ilyasova and guard Dennis Schroder, Dallas Mavericks center Salah Mejri, Milwaukee Bucks forward Mirza Teletovic and Brooklyn Nets forward Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, according to the online magazine Muslim Matters and other media outlets.
Perhaps the most famous Muslims to wear an NBA uniform were Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon, as well as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was suspended by the NBA in 1996 for refusing to stand for the national anthem before Denver Nuggets games.
So, what is it like to be Muslim in the NBA? The Undefeated talked to three current NBA players and four former players, in alphabetical order:
Abdul-Rauf: The Mississippi native first became curious about the Muslim faith while in college at Louisiana State University when his coach, Dale Brown, gave him the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X. During his rookie year with the Nuggets, he was introduced to the Quran and “became hooked” two pages in. He converted to Islam shortly afterward and changed his birth name, Chris Jackson. Abdul-Rauf played in the NBA from 1990-2001 with the Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Vancouver Grizzlies.
Tariq Abdul-Wahad: The France native became a Muslim in college “after extensive reading while I was looking for the meaning of all things. It offered the proper balance of spirituality, healthy moral way of life, and intellectual approach. It spoke to me in ways nothing else did.” He changed his name from Olivier Saint-Jean. The ex-San Jose State star played in the NBA from 1998-2003 with the Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks.
Dieng: The Senegal native was born into a Muslim family led by his father and studied the Quran at a young age. Dieng says that in “Senegal, it’s like 95 percent of the population are Muslim.” The former University of Louisville star center is entering his fifth NBA season with the Timberwolves. The 6-foot-11, 240-pounder averaged 10 points and 7.9 rebounds last season.
Faried: Faried says his father was Christian and his mom was Muslim, which allowed him to learn about both religions as a youngster. He said it was a “no brainer” to decide to be a Muslim when he was around 8 years old, in large part because the Quran preached how to live right, healthy, smart and to give praise to Allah. Faried is entering his seventh NBA season, all with the Nuggets. Nicknamed the “Manimal,” he averaged 9.6 points and 7.6 rebounds last season.
Kanter: Kanter says he was “born Muslim” in Switzerland to a Muslim-faith family originally from Turkey, where the majority of people are Muslim. The 6-foot-11, 245-pounder played for the Utah Jazz and Thunder from 2010-17 and averaged 14.3 points and 6.7 rebounds last season. Kanter said he was stopped in a Romanian airport last May after his passport was canceled by his native Turkey because of his political views and that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was responsible.
Olajuwon: Olajuwon says he “was born as a Muslim in Nigeria,” as both of his parents were Muslim and he grew up in an “Islamic environment.” The 12-time NBA All-Star averaged 21.8 points and 11.1 rebounds during his 18-year Hall of Fame career. The 1994 NBA Most Valuable Player also won two NBA championships with the Houston Rockets.
Mustapha Shakur: Shakur says he “was born Muslim” after his then-20-year-old father and 19-year-old mother converted more than 40 years ago in Philadelphia. The former University of Arizona star guard played 22 games for the Washington Wizards during the 2010-11 season and three games for the Thunder in the 2013-14 season. Shakur last played professionally in Germany last season and is a free agent working out in Oakland, California.
What are the challenges of being a Muslim in the NBA in regards to Ramadan and prayer?
Abdul-Rauf: In terms of praying, it was difficult because we traveled a lot, so there are prescribed times when we are to pray. Obviously, there are certain situations you can delay it or make it up. But just trying to find those prayers at those prescribed times were not always easy because you’re sometimes in the air, sometimes you’re practicing or you’re in the process of a game. And also fasting, there are challenges of practicing early and spending all of that energy. Or, playing the game sometimes when you’re playing, it’s time to break at that moment. … Ramadan just takes out of you naturally, but at the same time your body adapts after a certain time.
Dieng: Sometimes it’s tough you know? Like me, before I go to the game I pray at home and just go. But after the game I’m missing the prayer time. Right after the game, usually you will see me in the locker room praying. And I guess some people are wondering like, ‘What is he doing?’ They give you the look. But I do what I believe, and I respect all religions. And when it’s time for me to pray in the locker room or whatever, I got to do what I got to do. That’s my religion.
Faried: It’s very hard because of my illness of asthma and other things that I won’t speak of. I can’t fast, so I have to find another way to give back, and for me it is giving back basically with the temple. … I go there and basically give back and try to figure out ways to do things with the community. Helping homeless, that’s during that time of fasting.
Kanter: Well, of course, you have daily prayers, which you have to do. And the NBA schedule is really difficult with lots of workouts, meetings, traveling, watching game video. So it’s tough, but possible. The same with fasting. I fast while I play, but I just make sure that I live a healthy lifestyle at the same time.
Olajuwon: Of course, there were challenges such as Ramadan taking place during the season and the time to breakfast comes in during the game, or it’s prayer time and you are en route to another city or in the middle of practice or a game. However, the beauty of Islam is that it allows you the ability to meet those challenges by giving a solution to these types of situations. What I mean by that is, Islam is very practical, and it’s not meant to make things difficult for people. For example, as a traveler, you can combine and shorten your afternoon prayers at one time and then your evening prayers at one time, which gives you a sufficient window of time to fulfill your prayer obligations. As for fasting, it is a spiritual mindset that gives you the stamina required to play. Through Allah’s mercy, I always felt stronger and more energetic during Ramadan.
Shakur: The biggest challenge for me personally was making up for my prayers with travel, especially playing in Europe with multiple practices each day. While in the NBA, Ramadan fell on the summer months. And that was difficult because you want to train at a high level, but you don’t have as much energy as well as it being hot in the summer.
What has been the typical reaction from teammates, coaches and executives when they find out you are Muslim?
Abdul-Rauf: Initially, when I became a Muslim, it wasn’t looked at as a threat. … And [people] say they’re Christians or they’re Jews, but you don’t necessarily see them practicing it, according to scripture. So when I first became Muslim, there was nothing. No concern on their faces. But when they saw me, ‘Hold on this guy is actually praying? He’s trying to find a closet and places to pray, talking about fasting.’ You know they had concerns about that, like, ‘I don’t think that’ll be a good thing.’ And, when they see you really trying to practice what you say you’re about, that’s when you start to see a little bit of the resistance, as if though you’re not in this country club atmosphere.
Abdul-Wahad: At the time, Islam was not yet understood as a universal thing. It was more of a black thing in the U.S., not yet an Arab thing, so it was welcomed with accommodating coaches and staffs. [Then-Orlando Magic head coach] Doc Rivers being the most accommodating made the pregame prayer a silent one instead of the classic Christian prayer on account of me being Muslim. That was big time. As far as Ramadan, same thing. Everybody has always been supportive in NBA organizations.
Dieng: One time at Arizona State as soon as we finished practice at their practice facility, everybody takes a shower. And after showering, ‘Ticket’ (then-teammate Kevin Garnett) was there, K.G. So, we were in the locker room, me and him. So, I was in the shower, I got out and I began praying. So, he was listening to his music while he was taking shower, and I was praying. Soon as he got out the first thing he did was turn the music down. And he waited until when I finished and he was like, ‘Yo, G, I got it. I respect this. I’m sorry. I said, ‘No, no, you’re good. The music doesn’t bother me.’ He’s like, ‘I respect [your religion].’ This means a lot to me, considering the fact that you come here and stick with what you believe. So, some people respect that.
Faried: It’s not really that big of a deal. It’s not as before, where if you’re Muslim coming into the league then you’re looked down upon or disrespected. It’s more so hey, whatever religion you are, it doesn’t matter. … So for me, it doesn’t really matter what you are, it just matters how you play the game. And that’s all they care about.
Kanter: The NBA is like a family; people are respectful of my faith, and the faith of others. The NBA is inclusive, and you can be yourself. Most treat me just like everyone else.
Olajuwon: My teammates, coaches and executives always showed me tremendous respect and regard for my faith. I think it was because they witnessed my growth and maturity along the way due to my beliefs. The Islamic principles are the most upright way of life, and when you practice that, it will reflect in your character.
Have you dealt with any hate or discrimination from teammates, coaches, players or executives?
Abdul-Rauf: Yeah, definitely. But not all of it is overt, especially when you get to that level of the NBA. I think some of it is subtle because there are lawsuits that you can enter into if it becomes just overt and blatant in your face.
Abdul-Wahad: Not openly. But you never know what people are saying behind closed doors. The beauty about Islam is that it puts a certain fear and respect in the heart of people. If you practice the religion the best way you can with a proper understanding, your deeds will echo in ways that trigger respect. So, no, I can’t say I was ever disrespected.
Faried: I’ve never dealt with it from my teammates or coaches. But general public, yeah. I get it a lot, especially when I start to post that I am Muslim or Eid Mubarak [a Muslim greeting during the holy festivals of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha]. I posted [online] for that, like, ‘Hey, Eid’s coming up, blessings.’ And people just have so much hate. Like, ‘F your religion.’ Like, ‘You’re a terrorist.’ And I’m like, what? Like, ‘You believe in Allah, and your God’s not real.’ I’m like ‘Wow.’ You get your hate. But you also get your good people commenting back, saying [positive things].
What is the biggest misconception about being Muslim?
Abdul-Rauf: That [Muslims] don’t believe in Jesus. You know what I mean? Some people believe that a lot of Muslims don’t like America, or that Muslims are terrorists. These are misconceptions. Terrorism is antithetical to Islam. You can’t be a terrorist and a Muslim. It’s an oxymoron. And it’s not about, it’s not hating America. I mean, we don’t necessarily agree. There’s no perfect place in the world. But we don’t necessarily agree with all the policies as much of sometimes what we see that takes place in America. So, wherever that is, as a Muslim we’re duty-bound to confront that, to address it. Whether it’s in Saudi Arabia, whether it’s in America, sometimes it comes off as being against the people.
Abdul-Wahad: The biggest misconception is its universality. It is no longer the spiritual quest of a few Bedouin Arabs in the desert. Islam is now a worldwide way of life that has an incredible number of cultural expressions across the globe.
Dieng: The biggest misconception was people thinking Muslims are terrorists. That’s the way they see me nowadays. But I don’t think there is nothing harmful in Islam.
Faried: I guess the radical Muslims. If you believe in Allah, then you’re Muslim. Like, radicals exist. You have your radical Christians, like you have the KKK, who believe in Christianity. Then you have your radical Muslims blowing up buildings and stuff in Allah’s name. It’s just extremes to each side of religion. But you’re always going to have your humble, appreciative people who are just like, ‘Yo, I don’t partake in that type of stuff.’ I just pray and believe in the way of Allah.
Kanter: Well, most people think Muslims are only Arabs. But in fact there are Turks, Russians, Indonesians, Bosnians and Americans, etc., that are Muslim. Many people around the world are Muslims.
Olajuwon: I would say it is probably the ignorance around the religion. Unfortunately, nowadays, people associate Muslims and Islam with terrorism. A lot of people don’t really know the true Islam and the great contributions Islam and Muslims have made to civilization. Islam has a rich history. It is not a new religion that popped up in recent years.
Shakur: The biggest misconception I see today and hear is that a Muslim can’t be flawed too. Islam is seen as a ‘strict’ religion. But in reality, all religion is. But many choose to abide by whatever fits them personally.
Is there a current or former Muslim NBA player who you look up to, and why?
Abdul-Rauf: I really like Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s a very good brother. I definitely believe he loves Islam. He’s philanthropic. He gives. He’s approachable. A very humble brother, man. And I really enjoyed my time spent with him, and not just seeing how connected he was with his trying to enhance his relationship with Allah, but also just trying to put himself in the situation with all of his stardom and praying with people. And that’s what I pride myself on doing, I’m a people’s person. So I really, man, love that brother. Also, [former NBA player] Shareef Abdur-Rahim, he loves Islam. He’s very giving with his wealth.
Abdul-Wahad: Kareem, Hakeem and Mahmoud. Kareem for his wisdom and experience and Hakeem for his sense of humor and his humility. Mahmoud for his intelligence and awareness. His jumper was nice, too. I played in the late ’90s, and it was an honor to sit and share moments with two amazing Muslim brothers like Olajuwon and Abdul-Rauf. I don’t know Kareem personally, but I would love to meet him and pick his brain.
Dieng: I don’t really know who is Muslim or not in this business unless I talk to them. I talked to Kenneth Faried. We spoke, and he told me he was Muslim, I was shocked. I couldn’t see it in him. We were talking about basketball and stuff and so forth, and he was like, ‘I’m Muslim.’ And I was like, what? I said, ‘I didn’t know, you know.’
Faried: I mean, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was great just watching him and Hakeem Olajuwon. Just watching them being great at their sport but also take a stand and say, ‘Hey, I’m Muslim and I’m proud. And I’m going to continue to play this sport, and y’all are gonna respect me for playing this sport and being the religion I am.’ And I’m not gonna say, ‘Oh no, I’m Christian,’ or try to hide my religion from you. I really loved that, and it’s really inspired me. Like you know what, I can be whatever I want.
Olajuwon: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is really the only Muslim I knew of when I was playing, and I have tremendous respect for him.
Shakur: Hakeem Olajuwon. Some of his years in the NBA, Ramadan fell on in-season months, and I admired his strength to be able to still perform at a high level. The only experience I’ve had in this regard was in high school having fasting occur during the season, and it was difficult. But ironically, I probably played my best during it.
How do you look back on what happened to former Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for not standing for the national anthem?
Abdul-Wahad: I am an SJSU grad, and athletes as active citizens is second nature to us. A (1968 Olympic gold medalist) Tommie Smith lecture as a sophomore in college took care of that. So yeah, Coach ‘Pop’ [Gregg Popovich] said it best, that ‘this conversation needs to happen, and it needs to be uncomfortable.’ Mahmoud did it when everybody was asleep. He paid with a shortened career. Everybody has to do his part where it’s most uncomfortable. Putting the privileged masses face-to-face with their contradictions and their unfair advantages.
Dieng: People see things differently and act differently. We’re all from different backgrounds and have different personalities. But, me personally, I would never do that. I believe what I believe, and I respect people’s decisions for me or someone else.”
Faried: People disrespected him. He got fined because he didn’t want to stand for the national anthem. It’s actually against our religion, standing for anything. In the national anthem, they’re giving praise to a flag. So most people are like, ‘Yo, we don’t do that.’ And a flag is like, I guess, considered, people say, ‘Oh, the Christian flag of America.’ So, for me, in my religion we don’t give praise to that. We give praise to God, Allah. Like, that’s it, nobody else is higher than him. For me to give praise to a flag is, like, frowned upon.
Kanter: I don’t know much about that, but everyone is allowed to express themselves as they wish. This is the beauty of America. We have that right, whether you agree with it or not, you have the right to protest peacefully. Having these rights in America is something I am proud of.
Olajuwon: Mahmoud was entitled to his opinion, as are the players who are protesting now. They are using their platform to try to make positive change in America, and I hope something good will come of it, God willing.
Shakur: It’s an interesting thing today how relevant it is and how misunderstood he was for it at the time. Much respect for him doing what he felt in his heart and having no regrets. Watching his highlights, I think you can see how special he would have been in the league. But none of that mattered for him. It was about something much bigger than the game.
What is your view on extremist groups who say they are Muslim?
Abdul-Rauf: Islam is about balance, and it’s not about going to extremes. You know whether you’re a Muslim or Christian, whatever, so I’m definitely opposed to extremism in any form.
Abdul-Wahad: People with extreme views in our religion have existed since the time of the prophet. In the mid-seventh century A.D., he warned us about them. They just misunderstand our way of life so enormously that they make grave mistakes. Extremism comes from ignorance and a lack of understanding and knowledge. I always try to remind myself that Islam is the ‘middle way.’ I am here in my country that protects my rights to practice my religion, so I actually and literally have to defend it, if it came to that.
Dieng: People that see it a different way. They’re a different type of Muslim. [There is an Arabic saying] that means believe what you believe.
Faried: To me it’s like, ‘Hey, you have extremist Christians.’ So you have debates for both sides. As long as you don’t in a sense try to disrespect my faith and beliefs, like I’m OK with it. I can’t control what you’re doing and what you believe in.
Kanter: It sucks, man. The majority, almost all, Muslims are peaceful. But you have radicals who do stupid things that no Muslims approve of, and they become the face of Muslims in the media. Most Muslims I know donate money to charity and help others. They are good neighbors.
Olajuwon: It is very sad and disheartening to see what is happening in the world today. The Muslims themselves are wondering who these people are because we know this is not what Islam teaches us.
Shakur: Islam is not about violence and destruction. I was never raised that way and was never given that suggestion from anyone. I myself think it’s a clear and evident thing, but most people receive information from noncredible sources. The mistake that is made is grouping everyone together because of the actions of few.
What is your favorite teaching of the Quran?
Abdul-Rauf: [Allah] says he is God the one and only. His Gods are not 0,1,2,3, you know, like a number system. He stands on his own. He said there’s nothing coming before, there’s nothing coming after. … I love the story of Moses, when he was on the journey. He had to go through some trials.
Abdul-Wahad: My favorite Quranic verse is in Surah Ar-Rahman, when God asks repeatedly to mankind, ‘Then which of the blessings of your Lord will you deny?’ The poetic qualities of the verse in the original Arabic are just exquisite. It always reminds me of the many blessings we are all getting on a daily basis. It helps put things in perspective.
Dieng: I learned the Quran at a very young age, and I know the whole book pretty much. When I pray, I don’t need to look at the book. I just start saying it. You memorize it; that way you don’t need it.
Faried: It’s basically the meaning that wipes away evil from around you. Like when I’m having a bad feeling, I’ll be like, ‘La ilaha illallah,’ and that’s basically wiping all the fear in your mind and head, the negativity or people or whatever it is. Say somebody is being mean or something, and you say that, and it’s like, ‘Yo, I’m not worried about you. Praise be to Allah to him to give me strength.’
Kanter: The teachings that you must live for others, to treat everyone with respect and dignity because we are all God’s creation.
Olajuwon: That is a really tough question because there are so many wonderful teachings in the Quran. But if I had to pick just one, I would say it is from Surah 8, Verse 29: ‘Oh, you who believe, if you obey and fear Allah, he will grant you Furqan [criterion to judge between right and wrong] and will expiate for you your sins and forgive you and Allah is the Owner of a Great Bounty.’
What positive influence does being a Muslim have on your life?
Abdul-Rauf: For me it puts everything into perspective. I mean for everything that I do. From the way I worship, to the way I communicate, to the way I give to charity, to the way I look at life. Visiting the elderly. Visiting orphans. It governs everything I do in a positive way.
Abdul-Wahad: The most positive influence Islam had on me is to try to be good and do good for others.
Dieng: It teaches me life. I get where I’m at today because how disciplined I was, and my faith. I believe in God and Muhammad, and I believe the Quran. And I follow everything I read and I see in the Quran, and understand I try to do it. … That’s why I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t party. Just trying to be a good follower.
Faried: Very positive. Basically, gives me strength to go on. To want to go help people. To want to give back and continue to give back and help my family and the community I’m in. Whatever it is. Hey, I live right by giving, not just receiving or trying to. … We forget Christmas is about gifts, and giving and receiving. We don’t have that. Ours is Eid. But Eid is sacrificing, giving up. Like, hey, we don’t eat for a whole day. Why? Because we are giving up the food to give to others that need it.
Kanter: It helps me avoid bad habits and deeds. Instead, I can focus on being a good person and use religion as a map to reaching a better place through serving the community and standing up for justice.
Olajuwon: Being a Muslim gives you structure and discipline in your life. It makes you God-conscious, which regulates all of your actions. Islam is a complete religion which gives you a solution to every situation you may face in life.
Shakur: Understanding that we will all be tested in various ways in our lives and only faith, prayer and focus on the right path can help us. Certain things are ordained to happen, but we have the free will to respond correctly to it.