CHICAGO — Farhan Khalique made his way to the bleachers at halftime and scooped up his two young daughters in each arm before heading back to the court.
Other players huddled to check NBA scores on their phones. Two players lay on their backs near the sideline, using their book bags as pillows and laughing over a joke.
In the Chicago Muslim Basketball League, the gatherings at the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park are as much about what happens off the court as on it.
“The brotherhood is there,” Khalique said — but don’t be mistaken. “On the court it gets competitive. They’ll go to dinner afterward, but while they’re playing, they (play hard).”
The all-Muslim league began about 10 years ago as a fundraiser tournament three friends set up to help replace flooring at a Morton Grove school. Word spread, and it quickly grew into an annual league drawing players throughout Illinois and out of state before teams began traveling nationally for tournaments.
Like most rec leagues, Chicago Muslim Basketball consists of guys getting together after work, some who played high school or Division II or III college ball and a few who had never played on a team before. About 70 players are participating on 14 teams this winter.
“We had a weekly thing where everyone wanted to see each other,” Khalique said. “We started a league to bring all the Muslim people in the area together. It was nice to have a competitive atmosphere but with your friends you see regularly, and it helps grow the community.”
On a rainy, foggy January night, players began arriving before 7 p.m., and games didn’t end until around 11. One high-scoring battle between two of the most competitive teams ended 87-80.
“The biggest misconception when people see it’s hosted by a Muslim organization is they don’t think it will be competitive,” said Haron Saadeh, one of the league founders. “When they see us, it’s more than they thought.”
Days before the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, who has been criticized for harsh characterizations of Muslims, players weren’t discussing politics. It was all about basketball.
But the friendship and solidarity were evident without speaking.
“There’s camaraderie. It’s, ‘Let’s stick together,’ ” said Saadeh, who noted the diversity in the Chicago area is comforting for many Muslims. “But at the same time, we don’t look at ourselves as victims. It’s more, ‘Listen, we’re all the same people.’ It’s finding strength with the same interest.”
Yousif Khalil is a 6-foot-6 former high school player at Stagg in Palos Hills. He has played in the Chicago Muslim Basketball League for four years on a team called Shabab (Arabic for “youthful men”) and now assists the league organizers.
“It’s nice to have guys understand what you go through in life,” he said. “Sometimes we do (talk politics), but here it’s more basketball. It’s (an escape) — you’re not talking about any bad news.
“We’re just regular people. We work every day 9 to 5. We have families. We do the same things as everyone else. We pray. We’re just Americans who are just like them. People sometimes don’t want to understand or (they) label us, ‘They’re all this or they’re all that.’ But if you take time to understand, you see how we are.”
Such bridge building between cultures and religions is the mission of the league’s annual interfaith tournament. This year’s event will be March 25 and 26 in Carol Stream.
After tournament games that welcome all faiths, there are often lectures about Islam. But even the games help bring about deeper understanding, participants said.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Subhan Baig, who has played in the league for nine years. “In the current climate, when there’s a lot that’s negative in the news and media about Muslims, you find people who come with a common goal. It doesn’t matter what you think or what your differences are, you’re on the same team and have a good bond. People start to learn from each other. Sports always has a way to (unify).”
The main difference in the Muslim league is no cursing is allowed. Refs give players who curse with a one-shot technical foul for the first offense and an ejection for the second. The rule helps set the tone for friendly competition that upholds the morals of their faith.
The league also picks a charity or cause — such as helping a local woman who needed an organ transplant or donating to Syrian refugee organizations — to contribute money raised each year.
The umbrella organization One! Athletics also hosts a Muslim football league, volleyball league and youth camps. It began a basketball tournament for girls recently and is looking to add a softball team. It’s also considering buying space to convert into an athletic facility.
“When you play in a park district (league), it’s, ‘OK, show up, play and leave,’ ” Saadeh said. “Here we’re creating a family bond. There’s a common mindset. You’re not going to see much arguing. You’re not going to see someone fighting with a stranger. Here people will hang out after. It’s more than just basketball for us.”
(c)2017 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.