by Lang Whitaker

Talk about feeling old: Word came down today that Shareef Abdur-Rahim was retiring due to injury. I’ve known Reef since not only he was a kid, but since I was a kid. We went to high school together (sort of) and used to play ball all the time. He never won a title, was never really counted among the NBA’s elite, but he was my guy, and I’m sad to see him go.

Here’s a feature I wrote about Shareef in SLAM back in 2001.

MOVIN’ COOL
by Lang Whitaker

Shareef Abdur-Rahim went high over my back for the rebound, pump-faked twice, then jumped to drop in a left-handed lay-up. I didn’t go for his fake, though, and when he rose for the lay-in, I went with him, swatting his shot out of bounds and off the brick wall of the gym. A moment later, I checked the ball into play for Reef, who took the rock, crossed me over and pulled a three, draining it.

Of course, this was in 1990. I was in the eleventh grade, the back-up point guard on the North Fulton High School basketball team in Atlanta, a team that would go on to be ranked in the top ten in the country by USA Today. Shareef was a 5-10, 13-year-old eighth grader who was serving as our unofficial manager and occasional pick-up player. When we played in the Peach State Classic tournament over the winter holidays and stayed in an upscale downtown Atlanta hotel, Shareef was dubbed our “sub-rookie,” sleeping on the floor in our hotel rooms and keeping track of our warm-ups and towels.

He was just a kid. Our goal was winning a state championship; Shareef was barely an afterthought to us.

What we didn’t know at the time was that Shareef was watching us. Closely. “During the season, the times that I could come and play with you guys, man, that was really important to me,” Shareef says now. “I remember watching the way you guys played and the things you guys did, and trying to emulate the same things you guys did in my little eighth grade games.”

Our problem was that we didn’t allow ourselves to think grand enough. Coach Gerald Arnold was the North Fulton coach back then, keeping a close eye on Shareef’s development. “Well, I didn’t know that one day Shareef was going to be 6-9,” the man I still call Coach says now. “It was obvious he’d be a good player, but you never knew he’d be that tall, and then go on to develop the overall game he had then and has now.”

Nearly a decade later, Shareef is now back home in Atlanta, one of the top power forwards in the NBA. He is the new face of the Atlanta Hawks, a man that has been hailed as everything from cool to passive, but mostly just comes off to the journalists trying to profile him as some kind of 6-foot-9-inch riddle that they can’t unravel in 2,000 words.

Actually, it’s simple. Shareef is just a guy that has his priorities figured out: “First and foremost, I’m a God-fearing man. After that, I’m a family man. Those are the two most important things to me. Then, I love doing what I do. Other than that, I don’t think there’s a whole lot left to it. If I get caught up in a whole lot of other things, man, I think I’ll lose my focus. That’s why the attention and all of that are not really that important to me. I appreciate any accolades I get, but it’s not something I need to feel good about myself.”

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My big growth spurt hit between ninth and tenth grades, pushing me from 5-9 to 5-11. Between eighth and ninth grades, Shareef went from 5-11 to 6-4. That same summer, his parents split up; Shareef moved with his Mother to Atlanta’s ‘burbs, into the Wheeler High School district. Shareef ended up starting on the varsity as a freshman and averaging 20 a game.

Despite having a two-year varsity record of 45-9, I never got my hands on that elusive state championship. Shareef had one by the end of his junior year. But Shareef says I had it easy.

As the best high school player in Georgia, and being from Atlanta, the sizable Georgia Tech contingent wanted Shareef to stay home and play for Bobby Cremins. The best player on our North Fulton team, Martice Moore, the player Shareef had most identified with, had gone to Georgia Tech and been ACC Rookie of the Year two years before.

So when Shareef signed with the University of California, it came as a huge surprise. “In the end, just where I was, age-wise and everything, I think it was best for me to get away,” Reef explains. “I didn’t really understand that and appreciate it at the time, but once I did get away and was able to just be myself and go through whatever I was going through on my own, without the expectations of everybody at home, man, it was great.”

“It was so different for him in Berkeley,” former Cal coach Todd Bozeman recalls. “Berkeley has a good-sized Islamic community, and I sold that aspect of Cal to him in my presentation. He’d be able to feel comfortable and really fit in there.”

Immersed in Berkeley, Shareef flourished, averaging 21.1 points per game as a freshman and becoming the first rookie to be named Pac-10 Player of the Year. “His focus to prepare was unreal,” Bozeman remembers. “Once he gets focused on something, his game is great, especially around the basket. As he started to expand his range, he just got more difficult for people to guard him.”

After that one season, Shareef’s maturity and focus was tested, as Reef announced, renounced, then re-announced that he was entering the NBA draft. “Honestly, I wanted to stay,” Shareef discloses. “My family’s personal situation led me to want to leave, and a lot of the things going on at Cal at the time led me to leave. Honestly, I wasn’t one of those guys who went to college with the mindset of leaving after just one year.”

“It was tough watching him go,” says Bozeman. “It was like seeing your little brother leave the house and go off to school. I knew as a coach I could still use him. But he would say, ‘Bose, I don’t like my mom sleeping on the couch.’ And I told him I understood that, and that I’d support him no matter what he did.”

So Shareef did what he had to do. The only problem was that he ended up in fricking Vancouver.

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The odd part is that Shareef Abdur-Rahim wouldn’t have minded staying in Vancouver. Really.

“Vancouver wasn’t bad for me, as far as the city and the people. The thing that was bad about it was the losing. I always felt that Vancouver would be a nice place to be if we were winning. We were all working hard to get better, but we just could never get it all on the right track. That was the most frustrating thing about it. I don’t think I ever displayed it publicly, but I went home a lot of nights very frustrated.”

And then there was the whole loyalty thing. Shareef had always admired that trait, and he didn’t want to go against the hand that had been dealt to him, even if it was a crappy hand. “I grew up watching guys like Magic, Bird, Isiah, guys who played for one team their whole career,” Reef says. “That was really my dream in Vancouver. I don’t know if people believe it or not, but I really wanted to get drafted by one team, play on one team, win with one team.”

So despite the fact that he was surrounded by a tumultuous assemblage of subpar talent, even though people wrote about how Shareef was going unappreciated and underexposed, even though all he did over five seasons was average 20.8 ppg with 8 boards per while only missing three games, even though he had to endure 292 losses, he couldn’t bring himself to demand a trade.

But after five years, with the franchise immigrating to Memphis and the Grizz needing salary space to help rebuild — and his hometown Hawks needing that one franchise player to revolve around — Shareef finally spoke up.

“It wasn’t a situation where I pushed to go to Atlanta or I even really pushed to get traded,” ‘Reef says. “I was on a team trying to make the situation better, and I said if that’s not what we’re trying to do, if it helps, then you can move me. So for it to come about the way it did, I looked at it as just a blessing. It was something from God.”

Still, he was escaping Vancouver. How excited was Shareef to come home to Atlanta?

“Very, very, very, very excited.”

You figure God had to owe Shareef a thing or three. After all, He’d plunked Shareef down 2,784 miles from his home, and He just sorta left him out there. Sure, Reef had buckets of money, and his Mom didn’t have to sleep on the couch anymore, but life isn’t supposed to be like it was in Vancouver, is it? Nothing but losing, experiencing that hollow feeling at least twice for every one time you’re allowed to win?

Of course, Shareef — whose very name translates into “noble servant of the most merciful one” — is able to see the glass as half-full in retrospect. “You know, I was so far away from home for the last six, seven years. I feel that it was a great growth process for me, on the court and off the court. I think I’m at a point now where I know that this is where I belong, that this is where I want to be.”

He wanted to be home, where he could play for the same Hawks franchise he’d grown up watching, for the same Hawks execs that drooled over Shareef while he was at Wheeler, surrounded by family and friends and with his mosque just up the street.

For the Hawks, Shareef fills the spotlight that has been searching frantically — almost like a prison spotlight — for someone to illuminate. It’s up to ‘Reef to seize that shine. “This is a tough town,” says former Hawks star Dominique Wilkins, who understands the burden of shouldering Atlanta’s glare, “but Shareef is very strong-minded, very focused, and that’ll help him out a lot. Also, his game is still coming together, and he knows that.”

No longer switching between the three and four, Shareef has been installed in the low post, where his variety of moves have proved a capable tandem with Jason Terry’s combustible outside game. Combined with this season’s emergence of Dion Glover, DerMarr Johnson and Nazr Mohammed, and once former All-Stars Theo Ratliff and Toni Kukoc get healthy, the Hawks, unlike all those Grizzlies teams, actually look like a division contender.

A devout team player, Shareef experienced the ultimate embarrassment earlier this year when he dropped 50 points on in a come-from-behind Hawks win over Detroit. In the Hawks locker room after that game, I mentioned what a great feeling it must be to hit half a century. Shareef’s response, honestly, was: “It feels good, but the best thing about was that we won. It was a hard-fought game for us, but we came back, and us winning the game, that’s what made it a special game.”

Like it or not, recognition is slowly but surely starting to trickle down on Shareef. Even though he hasn’t ended up on many (or any) magazine covers lately, Shareef swears he’s happy. “I don’t play for that kind of stuff, man,” ‘Reef insists. “Even right now, man, people don’t need to say nothing ’bout me. The thing I like is when my teammates make me feel like I’m giving good effort, I appreciate that. But as far as being on TV or getting attention that way, I’ve never played for that, man. So I’m to the point now where I want to prove that I can be part of a winning team, and just have fun playing basketball.”

And finally, he is. Thank God.