ST. LOUIS - Arsalan Kazemi of Rice and Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir of Memphis - two student-athletes with similar backgrounds who have had to endure bigotry and discrimination to play college basketball at their respective institutions - have been named co-winners of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association's Most Courageous Award.
Kazemi, a sophomore forward at Rice, is the first Iranian-born athlete to play NCAA Division I basketball. Abdul-Qaadir, a freshman guard at Memphis, is believed to be the first Muslim woman to play in Division I with her arms, legs and hair covered during games in accordance with her Muslim faith.
Kazemi will receive the USBWA's male Most Courageous Award at this year's NCAA Men's Final Four in Houston on April 1. Abdul-Qaadir will be presented with the female Most Courageous Award at the Women's NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis on April 5.
While growing up in Iran, Kazemi watched NBA games and became fascinated by the idea of playing in the U.S. He turned down professional opportunities to pursue his dream.
After his arrival at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, three U. S. officials questioned Kazemi for six hours. They doubted him when he told them he had flown to the U. S. to play basketball.
"I'm not a terrorist," he told them. "If you don't believe me, deport me."
They didn't deport Kazemi, who knew all along that it would not be easy to play in the NCAA after arriving from a country that was blacklisted by President George W. Bush.
He would need a visa to play in the United States, and the U.S. had not had an embassy in Iran since Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran nearly 30 years earlier and held U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days. Kazemi had to travel more than 500 miles to Dubai and secure his visa.
Once in the U.S., Kazemi played at The Patterson School in North Carolina and was warned, fearing anti-Iranian sentiment, to avoid telling people where he was from.
Yet, according to the New York Daily News, Kazemi told the truth when a man at a North Carolina gas station asked him where he was from.
"The guy said, 'I am going to kill you,'" Kazemi recalls. "Then he said he was joking. At first, I was scared. If you are me, wouldn't you be, too?"
Kazemi has given coaches a reason to consider recruiting players from the Middle East in the future. At 6-7, he leads Conference USA in rebounding and is among the league leaders in field-goal shooting percentage and scoring.
Similarly, Abdul-Qaadir hopes to inspire Muslim girls to become basketball players.
Her teammates at Memphis have become accustomed to watching Abdul-Qaadir leave practice in order to pray. She continues to attract attention, however, because she wears a scarf, or hijab, over her head and plays with Nike dry-fit apparel covering her arms and legs. When she first began playing basketball, she wore cotton sweatpants and shirts as coverings.
"People ask me why I cover," she told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "I don't mind the questions. Questions are good. I've answered a lot of them."
President Obama took notice, inviting Abdul-Qaadir to dine at the White House last year to break a Ramadan fast. Obama told the crowd: "She recently told a reporter, 'I'd like to really inspire a lot of young Muslim girls if they want to play basketball. Anything is possible. They can do it too.' As an honors student, as an athlete on her way to Memphis, Bilqis is an inspiration not simply to Muslim girls; she's an inspiration to all of us."
Abdul-Qaadir has had to deal with anti-Muslim sentiment.
"In high school, someone called me Osama bin Laden's daughter," she told the Commercial Appeal. "It was at Holyoke Catholic. We beat them every time we played them."
No doubt. Abdul-Qaadir, the 2009 Gatorade player of the year in Massachusetts, was the first high school player in state history, male or female, to score 3,000 points, playing for New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, Mass.
She scored 43 points in her high school debut, as an eighth-grader. Her school moved a game to a larger gym to accommodate the interest when she broke Rebecca Lobo's state scoring record, and the game was stopped for 10 minutes when she made the record-setting free throw.
Abdul-Qaadir, who's 5-4, sat out her first season at Memphis after injuring her ACL during a pickup game. She averaged 3.8 points through the Tigers' first 24 games this season.
Abdul-Qaadir is majoring in biology at Memphis, with a plan to attend physical therapy school.
The U.S. Basketball Writers Association was formed in 1956 at the urging of then-NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers. With some 900 members worldwide, it is one of the most influential organizations in college basketball.