WASHINGTON, D.C. — For a high school basketball prospect, the July evaluation period the summer prior to their senior year is one of the most important three-week stretches of their high school career. The coaches are allowed to be on the road, evaluating and recruiting, which means that the media will be there as well, schmoozing and networking.
Simply put, everyone with an opinion that matters in college hoops will be in a gym somewhere for three consecutive weekends in the middle of July.
For marginal prospects, that’s when you set yourself apart from the thousands upon thousands of other high school hoopers and earn yourself a scholarship. For the more talented kids, that’s when you play your way onto a top 25 program instead of finding yourself an afterthought for a team struggling to break .500 in the ACC.
For Boston native and Kimball Union Academy’s rising senior Abdul Malik-Abu, the most important month of his basketball career to date will be played without eating breakfast, lunch or dinner. It will be played without the benefit of a gatorade on the sidelines. He can’t even take a sip of water after his third game of the day in a gym with air conditioning that isn’t quite keeping out the swelteringly humid, 97-degree weather.
Malik-Abu — a 6-foot-8, 235 pound forward that ranks in Rivals’ top 50 in the Class of 2014 — is muslim. And as a practicing muslim, Malik-Abu fasts during Ramadan. This year, Ramadan began on July 8th and will run through August 7th, which means that throughout the entire July evaluation period, Malik-Abu will not eat or drink between sunrise and sundown.
“I’m really tired,” Malik-Abu told NBCSports.com after his only game on Thursday in Nike’s Global Challenge, as he packed up six gatorades from the event in his backpack. “For later.”
Here’s how Malik-Abu’s schedule works during Ramadan. He stops eating and drinking at about 4:30 a.m. each morning. For the next 16 hours, he has to hope that all the food and all the water that he packed into his stomach the night before keeps him running through out the day. At 8:30 p.m., when the sun sets and he’s allowed to eat again, Malik-Abu gets his Joey Chestnut on, which sounds ideal until you think about just how hard it is to actually fit that much stuff in your stomach.
“I eat as much as I can, but you get full quick because you haven’t eaten all day,” Malik-Abu said. “Just eat in spurts and spurts and spurts and spurts, and drink a lot of water.”
“It sucks. You think, ‘Oh, I’m fasting, I can eat as much as I want,’ but you get so full. You have to force yourself to drink water, or you’re going to pass out.”
What makes Malik-Abu’s performance while fasting all the more impressive is that he’s not an overly skilled big man and he’s not the kind of guy that does his damage knocking down jumpers. He’s a bruiser. He’s as big and burly as anyone in the Class of 2014, and he’s made a name for himself as an “effort guy”. He attacks the glass, he defends around the rim, he runs the floor in transition. That takes a lot of energy, which is not something that Malik-Abu necessarily has an abundance of right now.
“It’s something I have to do,” he said, “but it’s hard.”
Perhaps more impressive is that Malik-Abu consciously made the decision to play for the Pan-African team this week, passing up a chance to play on the USA East team. Instead of going up against the mediocre big men on some of the international teams, Malik-Abu will be spending the week battling against the kind of big men that should end up making all-conference teams in high-major leagues by the time their college careers are done.
“I wanted to be different, I wanted to do something for my heritage,” Malik-Abu said. His parents are Nigerian, but they came to this country two decades before he was born.
“I don’t want to beat teams by 20. I want to go against the best players instead of be on their team.”
Finding a college campus with a muslim community for him to join is important to Malik-Abu, but it’s not a deal-breaker. He says that having a mosque close to campus would be nice — muslims pray five times a day — but that it’s all just another part of the equation, “not the answer to the problem”.
“It’s not something I’m going to seek out, but if there’s one present, and the coach uses that as his pitch, it’s definitely going to help,” he said. “Not every campus is going to have it. I’m not going to limit myself. I’m going to go to the school that’s the best fit, and if they happen to have a muslim community that I could be a part of, then that’s that fine.”
Malik-Abu even said that his faith hasn’t been a major topic of conversation in much of his recruitment, which is down to 10 or 11 schools “on a mental note”, but that he’s not ready to officially trim his list.
“I don’t try to market it, I just try to play through,” he said, “and if they’re like, ‘what’s wrong, you’re not looking like yourself’, I’ll tell them I’m fasting.”
But here’s the thing: despite being 10 days into a month-long fast, Malik-Abu has looked like himself.
So what happens when he actually can eat?
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.