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BASKETBALL Muslim Bearcat not just a name

Monday, February 21, 2005

Jihad Muhammad is the talented point guard at Cincinnati.
CINCINNATI (AP) -- During an idle moment before a human development class, two University of Cincinnati students struck up a conversation about the basketball team's new point guard.
They weren't interested in his statistics or accomplishments. They couldn't get past his name: Jihad Muhammad.
"I heard one person say, 'Isn't that supposed to mean holy war or something?' " said Anwar Salahuddin, a junior sitting nearby.
It wasn't the first time someone had wondered aloud about the distinctive name. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the dreadlocked point guard from New Jersey has wound up explaining himself to fans who think the worst.
"They're like, 'Ooh, Jihad,' " said Muhammad, sitting in an interview room off the Bearcats' court after practice. "It's just the name, just the word that's scaring people. They really don't have a good understanding of it."
Few know what it's like to be a high-profile Muslim player in a country where insecurity rises and falls with color-coded alerts. The NCAA doesn't keep track of religious affiliation, so there's no count of Muslim players. Only a handful play major-college basketball.
Grew up in New Jersey
Muhammad grew up in an Islamic community and attended Plainfield High School in New Jersey. The most unusual thing about his upbringing was the size of his family -- six brothers, seven sisters. He was the youngest boy.
"Basically, you learn to share," he said. "You learn how to relate to different personalities. Before I left home, I learned how to relate to 13 personalities."
That was nothing compared to the adjustment at San Jacinto Junior College in Texas. He developed into the top-rated point guard in junior college, learning to use his speed and long-range shot to full advantage.
He also learned about culture shock. In his first year, he met one other Muslim.
"That was real difficult," he said. "It was an adjustment I had to make within myself. I had to make a lot of prayers in my room or in the hotel when we were on the road."
Impressed Huggins
His play attracted the attention of Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, who desperately needed a point guard. Huggins quickly grew fond of Muhammad and his sincerity, dedication and eagerness to do well.
"He's a great kid," Huggins said. "He wants to be a good player. He listens, he tries."
Things have been much easier off the court in Cincinnati, where Muhammad is a junior majoring in criminal justice and finding out what it's like to be a prominent player on a basketball-crazed campus.
The Bearcats won back-to-back national championships in 1961-62. Huggins revived the program in 1989 and has coached the Bearcats to a Final Four and 13 straight NCAA tournament appearances, the third-longest streak in the country.
Talk of campus
They were talking -- and wondering -- about Muhammad long before he arrived.
"I thought, 'Wow, I've never heard of any one person who had that name before,' " said Justin Shafer, a senior accounting and finance major who attends most games and is president of the student government. "Then I started looking at his stats and what he had done in junior college.
"I think some students were skeptical at first, as I was. We're all realizing what Islam is, and we need to realize it's a peaceful religion."
Muhammad doesn't mind sharing his story.
"A lot of people sort of stray from their religion," said Salahuddin, a health promotion major from Philadelphia who has become a close friend. "He was open about it. He even told Huggins when he first got here that it was a big part of him."