In Milwaukee, Muslim girls’ basketball team courts a broader understanding

By Mark Guarino

February 19, 2019

MILWAUKEE — With the state regional playoffs opening this week, the team from Salam School doesn’t quite fit the profile of a girls’ basketball powerhouse — but perhaps the Stars are redefining it.

Fresh popcorn crackles by the front door of the gym, but the concession table also sells namoura, an Arabic sweet cake. Coaches still shout strategy and advice to players on the court, but during a second-quarter break, a man sings in Arabic over the public address system, extending an invitation to evening prayer at the adjoining mosque. All 12 players on the varsity girls’ team play while wearing hijabs.

At 14-4, the Stars entered this week’s sectionals as underdogs, but they have shown that being Muslim and crushing it on the court is as normal as apple pie. As the only Muslim team in the league, and sometimes the first Muslims some people outside Milwaukee see when the team plays road games, the Stars are tasked with responsibilities that go beyond playing solid defense or taking care of the ball. Jeers from the bleachers and whispered slurs on the court are common.

“To be honest, I did not expect it,” team captain Safiya Schaub, 17, said.

So that means they must be good enough to win but also disciplined enough to not disrespect their religion in the public eye.

“We just have to keep a level head,” Schaub said. “Because of what we are wearing, we represent more than our school. We represent the Muslim community in Milwaukee, maybe in the U.S. We have that level of responsibility on our shoulders.”

One gym, nine teams

The Muslim community in Milwaukee is relatively small — about 8,000 people, according to Salam Principal Wanis Shalaby — but the school itself is one of the largest Muslim schools in the U.S., with total enrollment of 835 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. When the high school opened 12 years ago, the two main ethnic backgrounds among its students were Arabic and Indo-Pacific. Today, the majority of students are from India or Pakistan, with growing populations from Somalia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Turkey and Serbia.

That diversity is evident when you walk through the school’s halls: About eight languages are spoken by students. Shalaby said the school is in the midst of a $2 million campaign to build a new gym about a half-mile away on an 11-acre piece of land where it plans to break ground this year for a new high school.

Salam School’s athletic department has no locker room, shower facilities or pool. The school’s basement gym accommodates nine teams, from fifth grade to high school.

That means scheduling practices and games requires the supremely flexible skills of Athletic Director Dave Petrick, who notes that when he started at Salam in 2002, athletics were in an even more primitive state. Back then, the gym had a concrete floor, basketball nets were not installed, and there weren’t any definable teams. Worst of all: no equipment.

Hired as the school’s first physical education teacher, Petrick, 55, had to build the department from scratch. Years earlier, he worked in sports management, but after he started a family, he sidelined that career and became a corporate recruiter. Then came the dot-com crash and the 9/11 attacks, events that made him realize he missed the classroom. The job at Salam offered him a chance to refresh his life.

“I jumped at it,” he said. “I could care less if the students were green or brown. Kids are kids.”

He was also one of the first non-Muslim teachers at the school, which was an adjustment not only for him, but for his students. At a time when FBI profiling of Muslim communities was prevalent, he remembered a third-grader stopping him in the hallway and jokingly telling him that “everyone thinks you’re a spy.”

The athletic programs Petrick started at the grade school and high school levels were popular among students, but he quickly realized he needed to grow support among parents who didn’t grow up in a “Friday Night Lights” culture of youth sports. Instead, parents were dropping off and picking up their kids on game nights and not staying to watch the games.

When Petrick proposed a girls’ basketball team for the high school, according to Shalaby, parents were concerned about the revealing attire worn by visiting teams and the potential dangers their children might face as the only Muslim school in the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Wajdi Ismail, whose daughter Jenin plays forward, admitted he was fearful when his daughter announced she wanted to play, not just because of the taunting he thought she might receive from other schools but because he worried the fashion of basketball — shorts, loose hair, tight tops — was not Islamic. Then he learned Petrick annually petitions the WIAA to allow the team to play in hijabs and sweatpants, and every year the request is granted.

“I went with it, and thank God I went with it. It changed my life,” Ismail said. “I’m happy she found what she wants.”

With parents now in attendance, home games “boost our confidence,” said Schaub, who helped steer a committee to convince the school to allow the girls to play at home. “It’s nice to have people watch us and cheer us on.”

Schaub said female athletes automatically earned more respect among their peers, especially from the boys.

“Before, the girls’ basketball team was made fun of,” she said. “But when we finally had the home games, we got to show that we can play.”

Shalaby said the school’s elders have come to understand how athleticism is a way for the students to express their identity, which goes beyond their religion.

“These kids are Americans. This country is their country,” Shalaby said. “We are enabling them to accentuate their American identity.”

Representing faith

Similar to any Christian school, a Muslim school doesn’t compartmentalize disciplines from theology. Students are graded on whether they adhere to Islamic tenets, and prayer is integrated into the daily schedule. Shalaby said he is aware of the many distortions of Islam that non-Muslims see in the media. The school’s role is not to correct those distortions through lecturing, but instead he said athletics present the perfect opportunity for “people to see us in action.”

“In sports, if you are on the floor playing and your adrenaline is pumping, you can mask only so many things,” he said. “The real you comes through.”

Esraa Salim, a 15-year-old sophomore who plays guard for the Stars, said character on the court means not taking the bait when an opponent ridicules her for her hijab.

“I can’t say anything because I don’t want to represent something I don’t really believe in. I don’t believe Islam is hateful. We don’t exclude people; we treat them kindly,” she said. “So I play defense straight up on her. That’s how we get over it.”

Salim said being the underdog in sports also has an upside.

“It’s motivating,” she said. “When you hear those comments, you think, ‘Let’s beat them on the court and show them we know how to play, and we’re not those names that they’re calling us.’ ”

Nadira Ali, whose parents are from Somalia, plays three sports, and when the Stars play in nearby Kenosha, she feels all eyes on her from the stands.

“They look at us and don’t think ‘basketball players,’ they don’t think ‘teenagers’; they think ‘Muslims,’” she said. “And the first thing they think of is the stereotype on the news. So we have to be on top of our stuff. It’s more of a responsibility [than a burden]. We represent our faith. I’m all for that.”

Attitudes such as Ali’s reflect a growing visibility of Muslim women playing sports on their terms. Fourteen Muslim women received medals during the 2016 Rio Olympics; among them was fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who became the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing. Florian Pohl, an associate professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta who specializes in Islamic history, said this emerging group of Muslim female athletes is dispelling the preconception that they must choose between religious obligations and competition.

“I would hope that it would unsettle this idea that there needs to be some adapting of being Muslim to also be American and we can get to an understanding that being Muslim is part of shaping what it means to be American,” he said.

On a recent Monday night, more than 100 people filled the tiny Salam gym to watch the Stars play a physical game against Carmen Northwest High School, ending in a 13-point victory for Salam.

Afterward, as the Stars filed into a classroom to change clothes, the Carmen team lined up to wave middle fingers in their direction. Then a fan lunged at Jenin Ismail and punched her. Security was called, and the Carmen girls were quickly escorted from the building.

After the shock of the attack wore off, it became another smear that the girls shrugged off.

“You feel you are stronger than everyone else by not responding,” senior forward Lojain Gamar said.

But later, when they are alone, the Stars do have one response after they win.

“We turn up the music and start dancing,” Gamar said. “We sing songs.”

‘A peer to them’

Before Kassidi Macak became the head coach, she was working the desk at a local rental car company. “I was so bored,” she said. Even though she grew up five minutes from Salam School, she didn’t know any Muslims. Becoming the coach at Salam “gave me a new path in life,” she said.

When she took over, the program “was more like a club,” said Macak, who played on the 2012 Wisconsin Collegiate Conference women’s basketball championship team at the University of Wisconsin Waukesha. She implemented daily practices, which because of the over-scheduled gym sometimes started as late as 9 p.m. She explained to girls and their parents the importance of commitment to the team. The court, she explained to her players, was where they could release all of their emotions, especially aggression.

Gamar credited the team’s winning season directly to “Coach Kass.”

“She brought a lot of new ideas,” she said. “At first everyone was frustrated, but then we realized she’s teaching to better you.”

Macak, 26, was frank with her players that she knew nothing about their religion. So she asked their permission to ask “dumb questions.” Those conversations led to respect on both sides. She began to see the girls for their strength, on and off the court.

Petrick said Macak has built the team through her natural ability to be direct but also honest.

“She has really found a niche in how to communicate with this particular group,” he said. “Quite frankly, she’s a peer to them.”

Schaub said she was “extremely nervous” when she started playing as a sophomore, primarily because she knew that her height — she is the second-tallest player on the team — demanded more from her. Now she runs drills in practice, her voice echoing off the gym walls.

At the start of the season, Macak brought the girls into a classroom and told them to define a vision for the team. Before practice ended, they had one: “Playing to our potential each day through unity and commitment to achieve greatness.”

Then she asked them to create five core values that they would commit to throughout the season. Playing hard and supporting one another on the court made the list. But the fifth value — “It’s more than the score” — is one that comes directly from knowing they are seen by the outside world as more than athletes.

“It’s not just a basketball game for you guys; this is real life,” Macak told them. “You’re doing something super important. I don’t think you realize you’re changing the opinions of people who have never seen a Muslim person before. That’s a big deal.”

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