By Austin Burton
The biggest decision of Zaid Abdul-Aziz’s life nearly cost him his NBA career.
The former SuperSonics center, previously known as Don Smith, played 10 seasons in the league, including three with Seattle. During that time he converted to Islam and changed his name.
And so it was that as the 1974-75 season approached, while Abdul-Aziz was playing for the Houston Rockets, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan coincided with a brutal training camp of two-a-day practices in 105-degree East Texas heat. Fulfilling his religious obligation of fasting during daylight hours, the 6-foot-9, 235-pounder found himself in an anemic-like state, and his game suffered.
“I went in to the general manager and I told him, ‘I can’t play basketball anymore. I quit,’ ” recalls Abdul-Aziz, 67, who lives in the Seattle area. “But I didn’t really want to quit the team. I’d gotten sick and lost all my vital minerals. It was like a form of depression. What I really wanted him to do was give me a little time off because I was fasting for Ramadan, but if I would have told him that, he wouldn’t have understood. So I quit.”
Abdul-Aziz returned to the Rockets the next day, but the incident had a lasting impact.
“That was kind of my downfall,” he says. “I was playing great with Houston, then I took that one-day hiatus and I never got back to being a starting center in the league.”
For the next three years, Abdul-Aziz – the No. 5 pick in the 1968 draft who averaged a double-double with the Sonics and Rockets, the man who would later have his number retired at Iowa State and be named one of the NBA’s 500 greatest players of all time by SLAM magazine – bounced around the league as a backup. By 1978, at 32 years old, he was done with basketball.
And that doesn’t bother him at all.
“It could have been about how the league perceived me. That’s possible,” says Abdul-Aziz, who penned his life story in a 2006 autobiography “From Darkness to Sunlight”. “But I have no regrets for how people saw me at that time. I’m very happy with who I am. I had a good career. When I do speaking engagements now, I have a mantra: Basketball was something I did. It’s not who I am.
“At that time I converted to Islam, it opened a whole can of worms,” he says. “There was a lot of turmoil in the country, so when a person became Muslim, they thought it meant he hated White people. Some people I knew couldn’t figure out how Zaid could hate White people. They didn’t know that Islam is not like that.”
Decades after Abdul-Aziz joined Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the list of prominent Muslim athletes, not much has changed as far as the mainstream public’s lack of knowledge about the religion.
Meanwhile, the intertwining of sports and spirituality is as still as touchy and polarizing a subject in the time of Tim Tebow as it was in the age of Ali.
Some of the same fans and media who peruse and pick apart an athlete’s financial status and romantic relationships will, when confronted with outward expressions of faith, complain that athletes should keep their private lives private.
So while many athletes are devoted men and women of faith, most tend to worship privately – only giving themselves away via religious tattoos or retweets, quick prayers or shout-outs to a higher power on the field of play.
For Muslim athletes, however, expressions of faith are not a matter of choice or convenience.
The five pillars of Islam – belief in one God, praying at least five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, giving to the needy, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime if one can afford it – are not “want-to” elements of the faith; they are “have-to” parts of a religious regimen. One who does not perform these tasks is not living up to the minimal requirements of being a Muslim.
The duties of Islam are therefore as natural and necessary to Muslims as breathing, even if their way of life may cost them career opportunities.
That is why, from June 28 to July 28 of this year, when NFL players are training for the upcoming season, former Washington State safety Husain Abdullah will be abstaining from food, drink and supplements during daylight hours.
Husain and his brother, Hamza, who also played safety for the Cougars and in the NFL, both skipped the 2012 NFL season in order to make the Hajj pilgrimage. Husain, a starter for the Minnesota Vikings at the time, was a backup last season for the Kansas City Chiefs and is now a free agent. Hamza, who played for the Arizona Cardinals in 2011, has not played in the league since returning from Mecca.
When NBA hopefuls must be on top of their game for summer-league tryouts and free-agent auditions, former Washington Huskies center Aziz N’diaye (who most recently played in Germany) will also be fasting for Ramadan.
Then there is the famous case of Ali, who lost three years of his boxing prime when his Islamic beliefs led him to stand up to the U.S. government during the Vietnam War; as well as the infamous case of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was essentially blackballed from the NBA after his silent protest of the “Star-Spangled Banner” – inspired by his Muslim faith – became a national story.
Ali and Abdul-Rauf became controversial figures long before Sept. 11, 2001. In our post-9/11 society, with Muslims under increased scrutiny, would an athlete who is vocal about his Islamic beliefs have a public-image problem?
Seattle-based agent Muhammad Abdur-Rahim doesn’t think so. As part of Goodwin Sports Management, Abdur-Rahim works with the likes of Nate Robinson, Gary Payton and Tina Thompson. His older brother, Shareef, is a former NBA All-Star. Muhammad and Shareef are both Muslim.
“If LeBron James was named Muhammad Abdur-Rahim, he’d still have a $100 million deal from Nike and still be in every commercial,” Muhammad says. “What rings louder than anything is the ability to perform.”
But at least one active NBA player I’ve talked to, a practicing Muslim, says he chooses not to discuss religion during interviews because it’s too risky if a quote is misunderstood or taken out of context.
Abdul-Aziz can relate.
“There’s a lot of mystery with Islam,” he says. “Some of the people who really respected me as Don Smith, it was hard for them to make a change and respect me as Zaid Abdul-Aziz. Some people wrote me off, like they were feeling sorry for me because they thought I made a mistake. I put everything on the line.”
It was a choice and a lifestyle change he made with no regrets then and with no regrets now.
Austin Burton is a Seattle University graduate and former Seattle Times news assistant. He runs the Seattle U basketball site RedhawkNation.com, and this month launched UmmahSports.net, an online magazine that focuses on Muslim athletes and health and fitness in the Muslim community.
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