Last week, when discussing how best to combat Daesh, Obama mentioned that “Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes.” Donald Trump, our Bizarro World presidential hopeful, business zealot, and certified moral compass for the modern age seemed to take offense with a tweeted response: “What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama Profiling?” In this cryptic accusation Trump’s concern seems to be that Obama is misjudging certain athletes as Muslim, probably because he assumes a scarcity of Islam in American sports.
Ignoring the fact that Trump asking if Obama is profiling feels like a gentrifying Liberal Arts student seeking out microagressions, I wanted to tackle his assumptions (much like the Muslim brotherhood of NFL tacklers, Hamza and Husain Abdullah) and put together a tribute to a religion that finds its contributions to our society, our economy, and the lore of our professional sports, completely overlooked. This is an examination of the card Trump wants to play, and a nice opportunity to be a little positive in a time of wavering fear. There’s dozens of other Muslims in American sports (from the Bengals’ Mohamed Sanu to the Pistons’ Ersan Ilyasova), but these are the top 15. Some guys don’t have much public exposure of their faith, presumably because they like privacy or maybe because it’s become controversial to be Muslim in America. So I had to do some digging, but here is: The Trump Card? The Top 15 Muslim Athletes in America. Kareem’s response to the Muppets is fitting to keep in mind: “Kermit the Frog famously complained, “It’s not easy being green.” Try being Muslim in America.”
15 Dion Waiters
Dion might not be the most remarkable athlete out there, but he’s current and his rarely discussed faith only came under the light when he was getting heat from the media. The 24-year-old was a 4th overall pick in 2012 and since then he’s averaged about 14 points and been shrouded in the mystery of his inner battle between mediocrity and potential.
Dion routinely prays before games and, after a lengthy, self-reflective battle with scripture (and possibly as an ode to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), on November 5th, 2014, Dion Waiters waited in the locker room during the National Anthem. Unfortunately, we won’t get to hear an in-depth explanation from him, because since the media backlash Dion has dismissed the notion that it was prompted by his faith and suggests instead that it was a simple miscommunication.
14 Ameer Abdullah
‘Meer is an impressive Detroit Lions rookie running back, a 2014 Senior CLASS Award winner (for excellence in academics, community, and sport), and a devout Muslim with nuanced responses to Trump. Having grown up black and Muslim, Meer has felt America’s judgmental eye firsthand – and, patient as ever, he wants people to research and form their own opinions rather than make brash assumptions.
When asked about Trump’s comments, Ameer replied: “When you have someone like him say some things, a large following that he has – he has a very large following – it's kind of disappointing from my perspective. But I just encourage everyone to educate yourself before you take a stance on something that you may not really know about.” Only ‘kind of’ disappointing? He must be a really nice guy.
13 Mirza Teletovic
Mirza hasn’t blown through the NBA just yet, but his experience as a young Muslim trying to survive in a battle-torn country is telling, and, unfortunately, familiar. Mirza grew up in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzogovina, a city that remained under siege for 18 months during the Bosnian War. Subsequently, Mirza’s dazzled the league with a very quick trigger on the perimeter and a chilled heart to match.
Mirza’s story (and eventual contribution to America) is indicative of what might happen when you are accepting of Muslim people who have experienced strife in their homeland. "All my friends and me are playing [basketball] and then you hear the sirens like the grenades start falling down and just run to your house and hide. If I have to die, I die. For basketball, I will do anything.”
12 Kenneth Faried
Kenneth Faried embodies the American dream. A young kid from Newark works hard to go D1, then 22nd pick in the draft, then 44 and 10 in the Rising Stars challenge, then helping the country earn a Gold at the 2014 FIBA tournament while holding a career average of 12 and 9 on 54% shooting.
Kenneth’s story diverges a little when you learn that, since 11, he’s been a Muslim raised by two moms. Kenneth’s mom, Waudda, suffers from lupus and when she met her wife to-be, Sister Manasin, who gave Kenneth a copy of the Quran and began caring for his mother, Kenneth called their relationship ‘a blessing.’
11 Hedo Turkoglu
Hedo, born in Turkey and son to Bosniaks, is a Muslim with a storied journeyman pro-career that’s brought him from Doug Christie’s Kings to his organizational muse, the Orlando Magic and a bevy of Suns, Raptors, and Clippers along the way. Like a Mediterranean Lamar Odom, Hedo averaged 20, 6, and 5 during the 2007-08 season, and his religion was subject to public awareness when people saw him and Shaq kiss each other on the cheeks.
The Imam of Diesel, Shaq (who is a rumored Muslim himself, but I suspect that he’s Shaqnostic), commented on the embrace: “It’s not a French thing. It’s a Muslim thing.” Hedo explained that "Muslims respect each other. It's nice, you know. It didn't surprise me when he did it, because Muslim people support each other." Each other and the American economy, with deep 3s and dimes that earn TV deals.
10 Rasheed Wallace
Rasheed Wallace was a fourth overall pick in 1995, an NBA Champ in 2004, and a four-time All Star. Sure, Sheed might have the record for most technical fouls in a season, and for a career, but he’s also known to be a nice guy that cares for his teammates, is wary of domestic racial inequalities and wealth management in professional sports, and commits to the community – most notably through the Rasheed Wallace Foundation and his hometown basketball camp. Oh, and he is also Muslim.
But since there’s not much info about Sheed’s faith, here’s another clue in the mystery of Shaq’s Islamism: Shaq contends that he himself, Allahu Shaqbar, has taken the hajj.
9 Mike Tyson
Tyson is a little too morally controversial for me to throw him to the top of this list, but his accolades and assumed good intentions land him somewhere in list limbo. While spending time in prison in the 90s, Mike converted to Islam. A lifetime of ear candy, trash talk tirades, and pigeon racing controversy has passed – and a calmer, more comfortable and socially acceptable Mike (or, Malik, as he halfheartedly changed his name to) gives a lot of credit to his faith.
Regarding his own experience: “I'm very grateful to be a Muslim. Allah doesn't need me, I need Allah.” And in response to those who might suggest Islam as a cause for the actions of a barbaric few: “Religion is not bad. It’s people that make religion bad.”
8 Aqib Talib
Aqib Talib’s journey from a troubled youth to professional sports is a familiar one. From a kid tempted to skip school with the other 5th grade dropouts, to a professional athlete who reportedly shot at (alongside his mother) his sister’s boyfriend in the middle of the street, to a two-time Pro Bowl invitee and apparent good guy and winner – Talib’s character has made a full evolution and the guidance of Islam has been lending its hand from the beginnings.
7 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
The third pick of the 1990 draft, Chris Jackson converted to Islam in 1991, converted his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (which means “Elegant, and praise worthy, most merciful, most kind”), and got buckets to the tune of 19 PPG and an NBA Most Improved Player award.
In 1996, Mahmoud’s internal battle with the national anthem came to fruition as the media and population suddenly realized he had stopped being present for the Star Spangled Banner for the past several months. A combination of Mahmoud’s objections to U.S. foreign policy and his religion’s aversion to nationalistic ritual led him to sit out for the national anthem, which led to him being suspended from the NBA, Nike dropping their sponsorship, and his house being burnt down in Mississippi. And just like that,he was blacklisted by the Association and now plays overseas.
6 Larry Johnson
A young Muslim, Larry Johnson was an NCAA Champion at UNLV and the NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 1992 en route to a successful career that culminated in two All Star selections and a huge playoff four-point play against the Pacers in the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals.
After Larry knocked down that equalizer and its subsequent game-winning free throw, the post-game interview with Jim Gray reminds us of a simpler time in Muslim/American (Islamerican) relations – as no one so much as batted an eye when, in the post-game interview, L.J. credited Allah with the shot’s success and repeated the infamous phrase “Allahu Akbar. All praise is due to Allah.” Oh, and L.J. was a beast even though he would observe Ramadan during the NBA season.
5 Shareef Abdur-Rahim
Shareef Abdur-Rahim (Noble Servant of the Most Merciful One) was an NBA stud who averaged 18 and 8 on his career and was an All Star in ’02, but he is also a Muslim and outstanding citizen in about every respect. This is a guy who, for the year in the NCAA before he got drafted, averaged 21 and 8 at UC Berkeley while maintaining a 3.5 GPA. A degree that Reef would later finish upon retirement, graduating with a degree in Sociology and a 3.8 GPA.
Reef is known for his impact off the court as much as on, putting his education and success to good use through his Future Foundation that benefits at-risk youth in Atlanta. Oh, and while violence does not seem to run in his family, the common threads of Islam and basketball do: two of his brothers, Muhammad and Amir, played D1 basketball as well.
4 Bernard Hopkins
Bernie was the stereotypical at-risk, presumably Christian, youth growing up in the Raymond Rosen projects of Philadelphia. He had already been to the hospital for stab wounds three times and involved in various muggings before he turned 14, and was convicted of nine felonies when he turned 17. Around 1988, after seeing another inmate killed because of beef over cigarettes, Bernie converted to Islam and swore off all drugs (including alcohol and junk food).
Upon his release he proceeded to mount a tremendous boxing career with 21 victories in 21 fights. Regarding Bernard’s violent, self-given nickname (“the Executioner”), you should hear of its genesis: “I know it sounds kind of dumb, but I couldn’t think of anything else to call myself, and it got me noticed. I got on TV a lot.”
3 Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem is a Hall of Famer, a two-time NBA Champ, an NBA MVP (1994), a 12-time All Star, 6-time All-NBA First Team, two-time DPOY, All-Time Blocks leader, the Rockets All-Time Scoring leader, and the guy that Michael Jordan said he would pick as his center. Hakeem is fluent in Arabic, Ekiti, English, French, and Yoruba. His shoe deal wasn’t with Nike, it was with Payless because he wanted a pair that was affordable enough for working mothers (explaining his shoe choice: “How can a poor working mother with three boys buy Nikes or Reeboks that cost $120?...She can't. So kids steal these shoes from stores and from other kids. Sometimes they kill for them.").
Hakeem would observe Ramadan during his career, even getting a Player of the Month award during Ramadan once. The Dream is the embodiment of what the Muslim Dream in America could be. His perspective on using his power to make positive impact is a telling response to Trump’s: “What’s more important is that they can manage their fame for a good cause – there are lots of people like that. But you also have a lot of people where they don’t know how to handle success and end up destroying their career. Someone who is rich, but who doesn’t have [positive] principles – these people have no value.” Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep Hakeem’s value here, as the previous immigrant from Nigeria decided he would rather live in Jordan.
2 Kareem Abdul-Jabaar
He used to be Lew Alcindor and then he converted to Kareem Abdul-Jabaar (the Noble One, Servant of the Almighty). He won six NBA MVPs during his career, was a 19-time All Star, 15-time All-NBA, won six championships and absolutely dismantled some of the hate set forth by the likes of Trump and Carson. Summarizing the issue: "We are intelligent enough to understand that [the KKK] is not Christianity and they do not represent Christianity. Well, these people over there in the Middle East that are so committed to murder and mayhem, they don’t represent Islam."
The NBA's all-time leading scorer has also struck back at Republican candidates Trump and Carson over their comments on Islam.
1 Muhammad Ali
Donald Trump literally posted a #TBT on Instagram with Muhammad Ali, calling him a ‘friend.’ How do you forget that friend when dismissing a group, Muslim athletes in America, that he represents? Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 under the mentorship of Malcolm X, he tried Sunni Islam in 1975 and Sufi Islam in 2005. He is the greatest boxer of all time and has some of the most hilarious trash talk ever recorded.
He also poignantly responds to Trump’s misguided venom: “Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”