Only a few weeks before their debut tournament this past spring, members of the nation's only known all-Muslim AAU basketball team were still grappling with an important decision.
Did they want to select a team name that would make it easier to blend in on the AAU circuit or one that would highlight the differences between themselves and their opponents?
A brainstorming session among the players produced some tolerable yet unimaginative possibilities, from the Ballers, to the Warriors, to the Mustangs. Coach Clarence Archibald offered a more daring alternative when he suggested the team show pride in its faith and culture by opting for a name featuring either the word "Muslim" or "Islam."
"Some of them were a little hesitant, but I pushed pretty hard," Archibald said. "We all know Islam often is unfortunately portrayed in a negative way in the media. I wanted to be sure we were easily identifiable as an all-Muslim team because it gave us an opportunity to change people's mindsets by showing them we're as American as home runs and apple pie."
In an era when young Muslim Americans sometimes try to avoid detection by removing any outward signs of Islam in public and by going by names like "Mo" instead of "Mohammed," Archibald's players boldly chose to wear their identities across their chests. They named their team the Motor City Muslims and emblazoned a custom-made logo on the front of their jerseys featuring a basketball player clad in a traditional Islamic robe and turban.
Such an unconventional choice made it difficult for the Motor City Muslims to keep a low profile at the tournaments they attended in Michigan this year.
Strangers often gawked or whispered when the team prayed together between games or broke its huddles by shouting in unison "bismillāh," the Arabic word for "in the name of God." Other teams also tended not to take the Motor City Muslims as seriously as they would have opponents of a different culture or skin tone.
"Some teams looked at us and thought, 'Oh this is an easy win. What are they even doing here?'" said starting point guard Zeeshan Tariq, a rising sophomore at Harrison High School. "When I'd turn around during warmups, they'd just be fooling around on the side like they didn't even need to warm up to beat us because it would be such an easy win."
Though the Motor City Muslims didn't have any surefire Division I college prospects or any players taller than 6-foot-3, opponents quickly learned to overlook them at their own risk. The team won a handful of games in the 16-and-under tournaments it entered the past few months before taking the July live period off while fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The formation of an all-Muslim 16-and-under AAU basketball team in the Detroit suburbs was the brainchild of a man not far removed from his own playing days.
Ali Altimimy, the 26-year-old youth director at the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., is a former high school and community college basketball player whose love for hoops is only exceeded by his passion for his religion. He is skeptical that his own basketball career would have blossomed had he not challenged himself by playing AAU ball, so he wanted to give the same chance to some of the Unity Center's best young recreational players.
"I asked the guys, 'What if we start a team? Would you be down?'" Altimimy said. "They were all over the idea. They were like, 'Yeah, sounds amazing.'
"For me, that was exciting because basketball was my go-to thing when I was their age, along with my connection to God. If I wanted to get away from my parents bugging me or all the negativity and stigma surrounding Islam, basketball was my refuge."
Altimimy recruited 18 high school freshmen and sophomores to try out for the team, some from the mosque at which he works and others from neighboring towns. He didn't actively pursue boys of other faiths, but he says he'd have welcomed them had they heard about the tryout and asked to participate.
The next task for Altimimy was attempting to talk Archibald into getting involved, no easy task since the coach has a family, a full-time real estate job and another AAU coaching position running the more well-established Michigan Soldiers. Fortunately, Archibald was a fellow Muslim who had held clinics at the Unity Center before and believed in what Altimimy was trying to accomplish, so much so that he agreed to carve out time to lead practice twice a week and coach the team at tournaments.
"My wife wasn't happy, but such is life," Archibald said. "It was something I wanted to do. We've had some kids at the Unity Center who were talented enough to play basketball at the next level, but they didn't have anyone to push them. There are a couple who are in college now that said, 'I wish you had this for us when we were growing up.'"
Before Archibald and Altimimy could worry about molding the Motor City Muslim's best players into college prospects, they first had to focus on basics.
One priority was helping the players develop the fundamentals they would need to someday make the jump to the varsity team in high school, anything from ball handling, to boxing out, to maintaining a low defensive stance. Another priority was eliminating the cliques that had formed among players of Indian or Pakistani descent and those with Middle Eastern roots. Once that was done, there was still the vital task of preparing the team for the challenge of wearing "Muslims" on their chest at a time when that word still can inspire fear and distrust.
"What I told them was that they were representing Islam," Altimimy said. "If we can show people that we're ballers and we can hoop but that we're also regular young people, that would be big."
The importance of debunking the negative image of Islam isn't lost on the Motor City Muslims, but many of them were more eager to discredit another unflattering stereotype. They wanted to show that an all-Muslim team could be more formidable on the basketball floor than many opponents expected.
At their first tournament, the Muslims buried a trio of threes and ripped off a 9-0 lead against an opponent that had been giggling at them in warmups. Weeks later, they shocked a team with one of the better point guards in Michigan by coming within a basket or two of winning.
One of rising sophomore guard Omar Shalal's favorite memories came at a tournament in Brighton at which other teams were laughing at the Muslims after they played a poor opening game. The Muslims warmed up for their second contest determined to leave a better impression.
"The other team was making fun of us before the game and acting like we were a bunch of pushovers," Shalal said. "We played one of our best games that day and blew them out. All the other teams came on the court afterward, congratulated us and said, 'Wow, you guys are actually pretty good.' They went up to one of our top players and said, 'You can go somewhere with basketball if you keep working at it.'"
Successes like that explain why the Motor City Muslims are unlikely to be merely a one-year phenomenon.
Many of the current players enjoyed their experience enough that they expect to play again next year in the 17-and-under division. Altimimy and Archibald are also discussing expanding the program by launching a couple new teams for younger players in hopes they'll get used to the competition level early and grow together.
"There are a lot of good players in the gym at the mosque I go to, but they just want to play against each other," Tariq said. "They don't ever want to go out and expose themselves against better competition and show out at tournaments and tryouts. I feel like this team helped some of our guys overcome that fear. I feel like it helped us grow and gave us a chance to show what we can do."
Video highlights of the Motor City Muslims:
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