Men's Basketball

Two Muslim athletes on FIU basketball team preach cornerstones of the faith

Muslim athletes Hassan Hussein, left, and Elhadji Dieng of Florida International University’s basketball team at Islamic School of Miami in Kendall on Wednesday Jan. 17.
Muslim athletes Hassan Hussein, left, and Elhadji Dieng of Florida International University’s basketball team at Islamic School of Miami in Kendall on Wednesday Jan. 17. For the Miami Herald

Sometimes, during the early stages of a Florida International University men’s basketball practice, Hassan Hussein will go to his locker-room, take out his prayer rug and kneel down while facing Mecca.

The prayer lasts about five minutes, and it’s one of five times a day when he and other devout Muslims throughout the world engage in these solemn moments.

“When I come back from praying, my teammates say, ‘Where did you go?’” said Hussein, who prays at dawn, twice in the afternoon, once before the sun sets and again just before sleeping.

“I say, ‘Hey, I just had to go pray real quick. I had to read the Koran.’”

Hussein 10 (AJH_20180104_D500205)
Florida International University’s Hassan Hussein (10) on Jan. 4 as FIU men’s basketball team loses to Middle Tennessee, 66-71, at Ocean Bank Convocation Center. ALEX J. HERNANDEZ

Hussein is one of two Muslim players on FIU’s five-man starting lineup — Elhadji Dieng is the other.

FIU’s Anthony Evans, who has been coaching since 1999, said he had never had one Muslim player on any of his previous rosters, let alone two.

“When Hassan first came to us, we knew he was a Muslim, but we didn’t know everything that went into it,” Evans said. “But it’s never been a disruption. Normally, Hassan will pray before we go into practice or maybe during stretching.

“We accept people for who they are, and Hassan has been a pleasure to coach.”

Model student-athletes

Hussein, a 6-9, 215-pound forward, is a redshirt junior athletically, but he already graduated this past December, earning a bachelor’s degree in information technology. He has already begun work on a master’s degree in network security and has compiled a 3.4 grade-point average during his FIU career.

Dieng 22 (AJH_20171230_D5B0862)
Florida International University’s Elhadji Dieng (22) on Dec. 30 as FIU defeats Florida Atlantic University, 58-57, at the Ocean Bank Convocation Center. ALEX J. HERNANDEZ

Hussein is in his fourth year with FIU — three years longer than Dieng, a 6-11, 245-pound junior center from Senegal. Dieng went to high school in Spain at Canarias Basketball Academy and then played for New Mexico Junior College as a freshman and Sheridan College (Wyoming) as a sophomore.

With his family all the way back in Senegal, Dieng, who has a 3.5 GPA, said his faith has kept him on the right path.

“Without (my religion), I could do something crazy,” said Dieng, whose main languages are French and Wolof, adding English just in the past two-plus years.

“But if you’re Muslim, you can’t drink. You can’t smoke. That’s helped me not to do that. I’ve been around people who have been smoking and drinking. But when I think about my religion … I can’t do that.”

Dieng acknowledged it isn’t always easy being a Muslim in the United States, especially in the era of President Donald Trump and his attempted Muslim travel ban.

“A lot of people in the United States, they think Muslims are terrorists,” Dieng said. “But I don’t think that’s true. Muslim is discipline.

“(Terrorists) who say they are Muslim — they are not Muslim because Muslims can’t do something bad.”

Hussein, a first-generation American whose parents arrived in the U.S. in the late 1980s as refugees of Somalia, said he and his faith are inseparable.

“It’s like my DNA,” he said. “It’s who I am and how I live my daily life.

“My mother is one of the strictest Muslims I’ve ever met; she texts me every hour saying, ‘Make sure you pray.’ She instilled that in me and all my siblings, so I’m pretty devout.”

Ramadan tests athletes

Hussein said he has never had a drink or smoked. In addition, he, Dieng and millions of other adult Muslims fast during Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

This year, Ramadan begins May 15. It is observed as a month of fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Koran to Mohammed.

Food and drinks are consumed before dawn and after sunset. But while the sun is up, not even water is allowed, which makes workouts extremely difficult for athletes.

Hussein said the first week of Ramadan is the toughest as the body makes the adjustment. And he recalls one workout in which the FIU team had to run the football field on a hot day during Ramadan.

It took all of his will power not to drink water at that moment, Hussein said, but he proudly managed.

“From the outside looking in, (fasting) sounds tough, but it’s one of those spiritual journeys that I would recommend to anyone,” Hussein said. “When you don’t eat, and you don’t drink, you find yourself.

“And when it’s time to eat, that’s probably the most beautiful thing. There’s a big feast after sunset, and everyone comes together.”

As for the image of Muslims as terrorists, Hussein said it’s a mistaken view taken by those outside the faith.

“Islam is a religion of peace,” he said. “The people who kill and do terrorist activities — that’s not the identity of Islam as a whole. Those are just people using the name as a label.

“Much like Christians and Jews pray, we pray. We have the same beliefs of charity. The building blocks are the same. There are just some knuckleheads messing up the image (of Muslims).

“I always believe there’s a greater good. If I continue to do good things, then good things will come.”