I met Bilal Abdullah in a sweaty, dimly lit gym with faded white and green walls and flickering florescent light bulbs that sits across the street from a shuttered mental asylum. We argued almost immediately. I liked him instantly.
Our paths first converged six years ago in Watch City — Waltham, Massachusetts — a sprawl of red brick mill buildings and slat-sided houses sitting in the shadows outside of Boston’s glow. Once a major mercantile and manufacturing hub during the American Industrial Revolution, it now searches for an identity while straddling the divide between urban renewal and a death rattle.
At the time, we were both trying to find our way in our respective worlds: I was transitioning from broken down ballplayer to wannabe writer; He was swimming upstream against the turbulent waters that gulf the great divide between small conference college hoops and professional ball.
Fresh off a four-year career at Lafayette in which he had scored more than 1,250 points to go along with nearly 420 rebounds and 290 assists as a 6’5” wing, Abdullah now found himself in no man’s land, competing against thousands of other American players – many from far more prestigious, higher-level “name” programs — for just a few hundred open roster spots overseas.
A few months earlier, Abdullah was studying amongst the starched collars and brownstones of one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Now, he was shacking up with a cast of basketball misfits in an aging triple-decker on a pothole strewn street — living in the hardwood equivalent of Animal House.
Abdullah had come to Waltham to train in a no-name gym with brothers Wayne and Keith Alpert. A pair of short, white, Jewish brothers, despite their outsider status in a game now dominated by tall African-Americans, the Alperts had carved out a niche as basketball gurus capable of reinventing, resuscitating, or completely creating professional careers. (Among others, the Alperts unearthed Mark Eaton, took the likes of Theo Ratliff and Antonio Davis from the scrap heap and put them back in the NBA; and helped Ben Handlogten become the oldest American-born NBA rookie in league history).
Aiding the Alperts was their protégé, former Pitt star Bobby Martin, who was transitioning from a 13-year pro career at the highest levels of European basketball to the next phase of his life as a trainer.
I spent a lot of time hanging out with the Animal House cast of oddballs, misfits and characters, and I very quickly gravitated towards Abdullah. Over the course of numerous verbal sparring sessions (we argued about everything — politics, race, religion, hell, he even got me to argue about soccer – and I don’t think we agreed on much of anything) I came to know him as equal parts philosopher, rabble-rouser, and iconoclast
In other words, he was exactly my type of guy. (more…)