By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
It’s déjà vu all over again for W.D. Mohammed boys head coach Farad Abdur-Rahman.
For the second time in his career he has taken a team at the tiny, Muslim-based school in East Atlanta and taken it from worst to first. Seven years ago it was the girls’ team. Now, he has done the same with the boys’ squad as the Caliphs enter region tournament play this week as the Region 5 regular season champions and the top-ranked team in Class A (No. 2 in the private school power rankings).
To take one team – boys or girls – to the top of the rankings more than once in a career is a great accomplishment. To do it with the boys and girls teams at the same school might be unprecedented.
“I was talking to a friend of mine and he said he thinks I might be the only coach in Georgia to take the girls to No. 1 and then take the boys to No. 1. I never even thought about that,” Abdur-Rahman said. “I’m truly humbled.”
What makes the coaching feat even more remarkable is the school in which Abdur-Rahman has pulled it off. W.D. Mohammed has a total of 150 students in grades kindergarten through 12, just 75 in the high school grades. It is one of the smallest schools competing in athletics in the Georgia High School Association (no football). Even in a diverse metro area like Atlanta, students are not flocking to transfer into W.D. Mohammed.
“That makes it even more special, the fact that all of my kids have gone to school here since third grade,” Abdur-Rahman said. “I’m proud of that the most. Our kids have earned this and earn everything they’ve gotten. We won’t ever get a 6-[foot]-8 kid to transfer here. We do this together. We’re family, a collective unit.”
But just as important, if not just as compelling, is the route Abdur-Rahman took to get back to No. 1.
He was a supremely talented point guard for Mays High School, where he graduated in 1988, after moving to Atlanta from New York when he was 10-years old. But instead of playing in college, Abdur-Rahman embarked on a career in the entertainment industry. But he always came back to basketball.
“Oh, I could go, trust me,” Abdur-Rahman said of his skill on the court, on display most prominently in the Venice Beach (Calif.) pro-am league his father helped start.
“My father was a street ball legend in New York, and so he took the concept of the Rucker League in New York and brought it to Venice Beach,” Adbur-Rahman said of the league that has become the west coast’s equivalent to the world famous Rucker tournament in Harlem. “I would come off the road in the summer and go play in a tournament at Venice Beach and drop 40 on a dude who had just signed a [NBA] contract. The guy would be like, who is this dude and how is he killing me?”
Abdur-Rahman’s life was full of fun, until tragedy struck in 1998. His sister, who was still living in Atlanta, was murdered by a jealous boyfriend who Abdur-Rahman thinks would not have been in the picture had he been living in Atlanta at the time.
Shortly after he buried his sister, Abdur-Rahman had a daughter of his own. He decided to dedicate his life to improving the self esteem of young ladies, and he would do it through basketball.
“Our religion teaches us that you can do charity for your loved one, even if they have passed away, and it will still go on their account,” Abdur-Rahman said. “At that moment, I knew I had to do something for these girls.”
He started by serving as a volunteer coach at Harvard-Westlake High in suburban Los Angeles and then moved on to an all-girls Catholic school, Mayfield Senior School, in Pasadena not known for basketball. Within three years he had led them to the program’s first state playoff appearance.
When Abdur-Rahman decided in 2002 that he wanted his children to grow up in Atlanta, he relocated his family and, as a Muslim, went to W.D. Mohammed to ask them about a coaching position on the girls team. He was given the reins of a team that went 0-20 the previous season. But Abdur-Rahman never wavered.
“I’m a confidence guy,” said Abdur-Rahman, whose voice and speech are still quintessential New York, even after years of living in Atlanta and California, and visiting countries all over the world. “Yes, success in basketball has a lot to do with the X’s and O’s. But some people just need that boost of confidence. They need you to set the bar high and tell them they can fly, even if they don’t believe it at first.”
Abdur-Rahman’s infusion of confidence and swagger worked. In 2006, W.D. Mohammed finished the regular season ranked No. 1, but was defeated in the Sweet 16. The Caliphs finished with a record of 22-2 and were featured on ESPN. But more importantly for their coach, all of the seniors on the team went on to college, with two moving on to play at the Division I level.
Additionally, in keeping with his pledge to honor his sister, Abdur-Rahman helped several girls get into college who were on teams he faced. In fact, one of his most staunch opponents, Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, invited Abdur-Rahman to be the keynote speaker at the senior banquet for the basketball team.
“At the end of the day, it’s about people and basketball,” Abdur-Rahman said. “And I know both.”
Following the 2007 season, Abdur-Rahman, who had complied a record of 64-34 in four seasons, stepped away from coaching and focused more on his business, selling custom-made neckties for men and handbags for women. But he stayed close to the school and the basketball teams. That’s when he noticed how bad the boys team was.
“When I was coaching the girls, [the boys] didn’t have as good a record as we did, but they were decent,” Abdur-Rahman said. “But they were looking terrible out there.”
Then one day while he was watching a junior varsity game, the coach got ejected with the Caliphs down by 10 with just three minutes to play. There were no assistants there to take over.
“All of a sudden, everybody in the gym was looking at me,” Abdur-Rahman said with a laugh. “I went down to coach them and we ended up coming back and winning by 10.”
At the start of the 2009-10 season, Abdur-Rahman began rebuilding the boys program at W.D. Mohammed, which had gone 5-38 the two seasons prior to his arrival on the bench. Even though he had established a track record of constructing winning programs out of nothing, many doubted that he would be able to turn the boys program around.
“People said, this is the boys game. You won’t be able to do that,” Abdur-Rahman said. “But we just followed the same playbook we did for the girls. God has blessed me with the ability to understand people, their strengths and their weaknesses. And I know the game of basketball as well.”
The team improved steadily each season and last year finished 18-9, and advanced to the state playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. This season the Caliphs started out 12-0 before they were defeated by AAAAAA No. 5 Hillgrove, 72-54, in the championship game of a holiday tournament. They have won every game since, including a 43-42 win over No. 5 Greenforest Christian, a team with a Division-I caliber front line that many believe might win the private school title in Class A. But W.D. Mohammed, which has just one player taller than 6-foot-3, overcame the size disadvantage and hit a half-court buzzer-beater to win the game.
“That’s who we are,” Abdur-Rahman said. “Our kids fight and scrap and find a way. We play defense like our lives depended on it. Offensively, I just let them go. Everybody has the green light. My kids know they don’t have to worry about me pulling them out for missing a shot.
“They know they’ll get in trouble for not playing defense,” Abdur-Rahman said. “But I want them to have the confidence to take and make big shots.”
The team is led by junior point guard Muhammad Hamilton, who Abdur-Rahman believes is the best in Georgia.
“He understands the game and he can really play,” Abdur-Rahman said of the newly-minted consensus Region 5 Player of the Year. “He’s our quarterback out there. His game is a lot like [Los Angeles Clippers point guard] Chris Paul.”
Seniors Jihad Hameen (6-2, guard), Joel Nurridin (6-5, forward/center) and Majid Omar (6-0, guard) round out a talented nucleus for the Caliphs.
“Jihad is just a calm killer,” Abdur-Rahman said. “He’s like our Scottie Pippen. He can do it all, flat out. Joel is such a warrior. Since ninth grade he’s been working hard, battling centers much taller than he is. He plays so hard, it’s amazing. And Majid is this skinny kid who is fearless. When we need a big shot, a spark, here he comes.”
The Caliphs are relentless on both ends of the floor, Abdur-Rahman said, due in large part to the strength and conditioning program they use that was established by his longtime friend, Stan Williams.
“We’ve known each other since we were 10 years old,” Abdur-Rahman said of Williams, who also helps with strategy. “He’s my right hand man. We couldn’t do this without him.”
Williams is such a devout Christian that Abdur-Rahman calls him “The Pastor.” But their difference in religions has always been a non-factor.
“A real, true Muslim loves all his Christian sisters and brothers,” Abdur-Rahman said. “That’s why I don’t have a problem with anyone. I stay honest and humble and treat people with respect.”
He has instilled that in his team as well, which has helped them break down barriers and prejudices everywhere they go.
“People always come up to me and tell me how our kids are so disciplined and respectful,” Abdur-Rahman said. “That’s how we are. We’re going to play hard and be a real problem for you on the court, but we’re going to show you the utmost respect.”
Abdur-Rahman hopes his team’s combination of talent, tenacity and humility will pay off with a state championship.
“The only banners we have in our gym right now are from the girls team,” Abdur-Rahman said. “I use that to motivate them. They are a very calm group, sometimes even too calm, to me. But they never get too high or too low, and I know they are motivated to do this. We were built for this moment.”
Here are a couple of college signings that were overlooked last week:
Landmark Christian had three athletes ink National Letters of Intent last week. Lindy Long will run cross country at Air Force, lineman Reed McGuire signed to play football at Air Force and Cole Higbie will play defensive back at Wofford.
Our Lady of Mercy two-way lineman Matt Frank signed with Air Force. He and defensive back/receiver/athlete Rashard Fant (Indiana) became the first players in the history of the Mercy football program to sign with Division I-A schools.
Calvary Day School lineman Justin James signed with Western Carolina. All five football players mentioned here were two-time All State selections.
All Region 5
Player of the Year: Moses Johnson, Greenforest
Ekua Awotwi, Atlanta International School; McKenzie Bolden, Holy Innocents; Autumn Burnette, Mt. Vernon Presbyterian; Erika Cassell, Holy Innocents; Hannah Ferry, Pace Academy; Candler Gregory, Strong Rock; Evelyn Hobbs, Pace Academy; Ellery Koelker-Wolfe, Paideia; Reshaundra Owens, Holy Innocents; Nia Smith, Paideia
Player of the Year: Muhammad Hamilton, W.D. Mohammed
Sam Asbury, Holy Innocents; Malachi Dozier, Landmark Christian; Jordan Harris, Pace Academy; Jihad Hameen, W.D. Mohammed; Arminas Kelmelis, Mt. Vernon Presbyterian; Toshi Mehinti, Greenforest Academy; Joel Nurrideen, W.D. Mohammed; Justin Ross, Landmark Christian; Darryl Stewart, Holy Innocents; Matt Tankersley, Eagles Landing Christian Academy