Hoop Dreams: Hooping With Hijab

Since its inception, SLAM has approached the game and those who play it from a fresh, new angle that has kept the magazine and website the number one place for basketball fans for over 20 years. Unfortunately, due to a litany of circumstances, SLAM doesn’t always have the time, writers or space to capture every story we’d like to. Thankfully, publications like Narratively–a platform devoted to untold human stories–exist .

While most publications dedicate their All-Star Week coverage to today’s brightest stars (which SLAM will do as well!), SLAM and Narratively are bringing you four alternative basketball stories from around the globe.  

The group of stories debuted this week represent a commitment to reporting and the telling of stories about players past, present, and future. They are narratives not about marketing or hype but about taking readers to courts around the world. It’s about giving readers fresh perspectives–even a group of stories directly from the players themselves. Narratively and SLAM are proud to present Hoop Dreams: Hooping With Hijab.

Thank you to Ben Osborne and Pete Walsh of SLAM and Noah Rosenberg, Brendan Speigel and Garrett McGrath of Narratively for forming the best five-player lineup and cranking out a winning slate of basketball stories.

For more about Narratively, visit their site, Facebook and Twitter.

B o u n c e .  B o u n c e .  Elbow in. Knees bent. Sneakers planted. Her feet levitate, her arm extends over her veil, and not a single hair from her head invades the personal space of her eyes, nose, or mouth. Her hand follows through as the touch of the rust-colored leather sphere flies from her fingertips.

It doesn’t merely fly — it soars — following the imaginary curve drawn by the great shooters of basketball legends past until it reaches its peak height. Then it falls and plummets perfectly through the circle.

S   w   i   s   h   .

Fresh off her college career as the first player to rock the hijab while playing Division I basketball, twenty-four-year-old Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir has a degree in her hand and recently signed with an agent. The high school record holder for most points scored in the state of Massachusetts, Abdul-Qaadir was recruited for athletic scholarships by multiple colleges, and she played successfully at both the University of Memphis and Indiana State. Playing pro is simply the next logical step. She has hopes of signing with a team overseas to tip off her professional career in the game she has played since she was three. Abdul-Qaadir grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts and has worn the hijab — the headscarf worn by Muslim women as a symbol of modesty — since age fifteen. All throughout high school and college, her hijab never gave her serious problems. On the contrary, her teammates and high school community were very supportive when she first played with her hair covered. But when Abdul-Qaadir opens an email from her agent, there is no news about potential teams — instead, her agent breaks the news that breaks Abdul-Qaadir’s heart.

Three thousand miles away from Massachusetts, on June 15, 2014, Indira Kaljo, a Bosnian American baller who played for Tulane University and professionally overseas, officially makes her decision — she had it on her mind for a while, but now she is certain. Today, she commits to wearing the hijab, and she loves it. She’s happy. She feels closer to her faith, closer to her Islam.

There’s  one thing though, that wrenches in her gut. Will the hijab interfere with her professional basketball career? Kaljo did not grow up wearing the headscarf, and she played a few seasons as a professional overseas before she decided to cover. She remembers her previous season in Bosnia, when she had to get approval for the tights she put on under her shorts, with the veiled excuse that her legs were cold. The referees gave her some flack, but eventually they allowed it. If tights on her legs — the same thing the basketball greats wear for protection in the elite National Basketball Association — were an issue, then her newly donned hijab could surely be one as well.

Kaljo musters up the courage to Google search so she can satisfy her curiosity. Within seconds, she’s met with the same words that have crushed basketball dreams for Abdul-Qaadir and many others: Article 4.4.2 from the official rules of basketball’s international governing body, FIBA.

“Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players. The following are not permitted:

• Finger, hand, wrist, elbow or forearm guards, casts or braces made of leather, plastic, pliable (soft) plastic, metal or any other hard substance, even if covered with soft padding.

• Objects that could cut or cause abrasions (fingernails must be closely cut).

Headgear, hair accessories and jewelry.”

“I kind of just cried once I found out,” Abdul-Qaadir says. “I didn’t even know if we could take action, trying to get the rule banned. At that point, I thought I couldn’t do anything about it.”

The rule requires a little bit of reading between the lines. The hijab is not expressly stated as disallowed. Neither are turbans or yarmulkes. But they all fall under that last bullet: “headgear.” That one word is responsible for shooting down the dream of professional ballerhood for any Muslim who wears a hijab, any Sikh who wears a turban, or any Jew who wears a yarmulke. Although it was not put in place to ban any followers of certain religions from the basketball court,  it has nevertheless created a complicated love triangle that forces a range of players to choose between his or her two passions — faith and sport, lifestyle and career.

For the rest of this story, visit Narratively here.

Illustration by Chris Russell