NC State's Abu juggles faith, hoops

NC State freshman Abdul Malik-Abu puts in long days in the gym sometimes without any food or water AP Photo/Gerry Broome

When Abdul-Malik Abu arrived on the NC State campus, his teammates had heard plenty about him.

The power forward came with high grades from all of the recruiting sites.

The Boston native had eschewed nearby Connecticut to join the Wolfpack, a big get for an NC State team trying to get back on the track of consistent relevance.

And the coaching staff was high on Abu, not just for his big body, but also for his boundless energy.

Still Abu managed to catch them all by surprise.

It happened innocently enough. The players would gather for summer workouts with the coaching staff or strength coach and during breaks do what people normally do when breaking in rigorous workouts.

They'd swig some Gatorade or chug some water.

And Abu would just stand there, dry mouthed.

Later, they'd all go out and grab some food to refuel.

Abu would eat nothing.

"They were like, 'What's wrong with you?'" Abu said with a chuckle. "'Why don't you eat?'"

Patiently, because he'd done this before, Abu would explain.

He is a Muslim, and as a commitment to his faith, he fasts during Ramadan.

Among the 2.6 million people practicing the Islamic faith in this country, that doesn't make Abu unusual.

Among athletes, though, it does.

Fasting is a choice, not a requirement -- the second chapter of the Quran reads, 'Therefore those of you who witness the month shall fast it. And those of you who are ill or travelling, then an equal number of days,'' -- and many high-level athletes have opted to postpone their fast during training.

Nebraska running back and Heisman hopeful Ameer Abdullah, for example, fasted all through high school, but when met with the rigors of college training, he amended his schedule. Olympic athletes, too, have long made similar concessions.

Upon arriving at NC State, Abu chose to stick with his fast. It is not new to him, and frankly, this summer wasn't even the toughest. The past two summers, the recruiting calendar's live period coincided with Ramadan. For one month, with the eyeballs of college coaches assessing him, Abu would play three and sometimes four games a day without a thing to eat or, even tougher, a drop to drink.

"It's like none other,'' Abu said of the physical demands of the fast. "I think it's more mental than anything else.''

Such commitment is really what attracted Gottfried and plenty of other top coaches to Abu in the first place. He has in his possession the buzziest of buzzwords: huge upside. Raw and somewhat unrefined, he's a lunch-pail kind of kid with "a high motor," an attribute Gottfried referred to more than once in a 15-minute phone conversation.

Abu averaged 24.5 points and 10 rebounds in his final season at Kimball Union Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, and finished his career there with more than 1,200 points.

That's not too shabby, even through the competitive viewfinder of Abu's brother, Damola.

Older by five years, Damola acted as the family guinea pig, navigating both the high school academic and athletic waters first, offering Malik, as well as their Nigerian-born parents, Rotimi and Helen, how-tos and how-not-tos.

As part of Massachusetts' Metco program, which allows inner-city kids to attend schools in other areas of the state, Damola and Malik bused to Marblehead, a coastal community about an hour's bus ride from Boston. There, they were paired with host families who not only helped them adjust, but offered them a place to go on the long nights when basketball stretched the schedule.

Damola graduated from Marblehead High, helping the school to a conference title and earning a sportsmanship honor before continuing to play at Franklin Pierce College, a Division II school in New Hampshire.

But Malik, who used his big brother as a virtual and literal measuring stick, was bigger and eventually better than Damola. And after two years at Marblehead, he transferred to Kimball Union.

His brother, as much as his parents, was his guide through both that process, as well as the sausage-making world of college recruiting.

"I've heard and seen a lot of horror stories, and I understood it a lot better than my parents,'' said Damola, who now works in IT. "Some schools would change their messages. Some coaches told Malik what they thought he wanted to hear. Some were even a little fishy with their mixed messages. I kept telling him to go where he's comfortable and believes he can get better.''

That place ended up being NC State. Damola liked Gottfried's consistent message; Malik liked the idea of spreading his wings.

Both liked that Gottfried made an effort to ensure Malik's religious happiness as much as his basketball contentment.

Abu, fortunately, has experienced little in the way of discrimination in his life. If anything, it's been more sideways glances from people who, he said, "expect me to look a certain way, and I don't look like that." He's tried to counter even the smallest of snubs with patience, taught early by his parents that overreacting will only exacerbate a problem.

"They told me, coming here [to the United States] was an opportunity to do great things,'' he said. "They didn't want me to take that opportunity for granted. I think if people have questions about my religion, it's my duty to answer them. At least they have the curiosity.''

Count Gottfried among the curious. He admits that this has been a whole new learning curve for him to conquer -- "I told him, 'I don't know the ins and outs of everything. Help me learn.'" The coach went out of his way to research Raleigh's Muslim community and found a nearby mosque where Malik could worship.

Gottfried knew this summer that Malik would be fasting, but in his more than 25 years in coaching, Gottfried has never had a player who's done that. He wasn't quite sure what to expect.

"The hardest part -- he has to eat at around 4 in the morning,'' Gottfried said. "So it's your first college experience; he's studying, doing workouts with the coaches and the strength coach, and he'd be so tired, sometimes he wouldn't get up to eat. Then he'd really be in trouble and get light-headed.''

Those incidents, though, were rare.

Gottfried and the rest of the NC State players who started off the summer curious finished it impressed -- not just with Malik's commitment, but also with his personal discipline.

"You know, the way I look at it, if I can keep going, then, when my energy is at my lowest then I'm capable of anything,'' Malik said. "It's a challenge, but I also think it's a strength.''