Originally published in the Boston Globe
SPRINGFIELD – Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir walks quietly through the halls of the New Leadership Charter School. She is soft-spoken and polite. The youngest child of a devout Muslim family, the 5-foot-3-inch senior believes in modesty, and is determined not to call attention to herself.
It is an impossible dream.
Bilqis cannot help standing out. For one thing, she is the top-ranked student in her class. She wants to study pre-med in college with an eye toward being a cardiac surgeon. “The heart,” she says, “is most interesting to me.”
Then there is her presence on the basketball court, where she is a magnet for the eyes of all fans, and not just because she competes with her legs and arms completely covered beneath her uniform, and with a hijab (or head scarf) over the top of her head. The point guard dazzles every night with a game that is a nonstop whir of creative fury. She darts into the lane against much bigger players, flicking in layups and reverses and hitting teammates with no-look passes. She drains pull-up jumpers and step-back 3-pointers. Despite a steady diet of double-teams and box-and-one defenses designed to stop her, she is averaging, this season, an astonishing 41.3 points per game.
A fifth-year varsity player, Bilqis (pronounced BILL-KEACE) will attend the University of Memphis this fall on a full scholarship and will become the first player at a top tier Division 1 school to compete in full Muslim dress.
Her look has drawn some curiosity, and, at times, some taunts.
“Sometimes they yell out, ‘Terrorist!’ ” said teammate Ashanti Miller. “She gets mad, but she doesn’t lash out. I don’t know how she handles it. She just takes it.”
In post-Sept. 11 America, Bilqis isn’t the first Islamic athlete to endure virulent trash talk. But over time, she says, such abuse has become less frequent.
Of course, the fact that she’s got more game than any player on the floor tends to silence the crowd.
Or bring them to their feet. Last week, before a packed gym of friends, family, fans, and media, the 18-year-old Bilqis became the top scorer in Massachusetts high school history, breaking the mark of 2,710 points that basketball legend Rebecca Lobo set in the winter of 1991-92.
Like the game she plays, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir was born in Springfield. She grew up in a home that fostered her academic focus, her devotion to Islam, and her passion for all things basketball.
Both of her parents, Alooah and Tariq, grew up in the city. Neither was raised Muslim.
The daughter of an engineer and a high school teacher, Alooah was raised as Karen Aloo Humphrey and attended St. John’s Congregational Church. In ninth grade she started going out with Charles Cross, a bright and athletic teenager with an endearing sense of humor. They eventually went their separate ways, not reconnecting until Cross moved back to the area in the late 1980s, some two decades later.
He went looking for Karen, and found her – sort of. “I could see she had changed a bit,” he recalled with a wry smile. “The attire was different.”
She was now Alooah, having converted to Islam in 1975. She was, to say the least, a busy woman. She had six children, three girls followed by three boys, ranging from 13-year-old Tahira to 4-year-old Yusuf. She home-schooled all of them, having become disenchanted with the local public schools after teaching in them for four years. She also ran Alooah’s Family Daycare out of her home (still going strong after 30 years). What’s more, she had recently been widowed, her husband, Jamal Abdul-Ali, having succumbed at age 43 to pneumonia.
Into this world stepped Cross, who had been living for years in New York and Florida, with, he acknowledges, a lack of direction. “At that time, my life was in question,” he says. “I knew that I needed something different. She said, ‘You think you might ever embrace Islam?’ ”
In 1989, he recited the Shahadah (the Islamic creed) and became Tariq Abdul-Qaadir. He and Alooah were married that year. In November 1990, they had their only child, a girl named after the Queen of Sheba – Bilqis.
“Qisi started right in that room right there,” said Alooah on a recent Friday afternoon, pointing to the living room where several toddlers napped on mats beneath a green Nerf basketball hoop. She was 3 years old, playing on a Little Tikes basket, getting one shot after another blocked by her brothers. “If she’d hit a shot, we’d make a big deal of it,” Alooah recalled. “She kept playing and playing. She didn’t care how big you were. She was determined.”
She played on teams with and against boys throughout her childhood. “The boys kind of understood that I wasn’t just an ordinary girl playing basketball,” she said. “They needed me [in order] to win.”
By age 10, she was playing with high school students at the AAU level. Her biggest basketball influence was her brother, Yusuf Abdul-Ali. “His game is like a flow,” she says. “That’s what I want mine to be, nice and smooth.”
In 2004, Yusuf led his New Leadership team all the way to the state title game, the first-ever appearance for a charter school. Often at halftime that year, the on-court entertainment was provided by 13-year-old Bilqis, dribbling her way through teenage boys and going hard to the hoop.
The next season, while Yusuf moved on to a full scholarship at Division 2 Bentley, Bilqis was unleashed as an eighth-grader on the New Leadership varsity, playing her first game Dec. 15 in Pittsfield at St. Joseph-Central.
Ken Sadlowski, then the St. Joseph-Central coach, had not had an opportunity to scout the opposition. In pregame warm-ups, the point guard for New Leadership didn’t seem that exceptional. She was tiny – just 4 feet 10 inches and about 80 pounds – so her No. 1 jersey flopped around on her. (Having not yet reached puberty, she was not required to cover herself in Islamic garb.)
Then the game began. Bilqis was everywhere, driving the lane with utter fearlessness, and stealing the ball again and again and again – 16 times before the night was through. “It was almost like she was faster than light,” Sadlowski recalled last week.
When Sadlowski looked at the scorebook after the New Leadership win, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir had scored 43 points.
Later that year, she received her first recruiting letter from UCLA.
As a freshman, Bilqis had to cover up for the first time. Though she was well-steeped in Islam and had grown accustomed to fasting at Ramadan and praying five times a day (sometimes seeking the solitude of the nurse’s office at school), she was still a self-conscious teenager; fitting in mattered deeply. Alooah recalls dropping Bilqis off for the first practice in her new garb and seeing the tears welling up in her daughter’s eyes. “Come on, you can do this,” Alooah said. “It’s going to be OK.”
Her uniform was a work in progress: billowing sweat pants and a long cotton shirt beneath the jersey, a head scarf tied in back. Bilqis was hot and uncomfortable. “Some games were like, ‘Oh, this is crazy,’ ” she said, “But I played through it, because I never wanted to stop playing. I wasn’t going to let covering stop me.”
By the end of that season, she had already scored 1,000 points.
Last year as a junior, her career total hit 2,000. By then, she had achieved a new level of comfort. The physical part of it came through her discovery of lighter fabrics with moisture-wicking qualities that kept her cool. In a larger way, she began to sense that she had an opportunity to challenge stereotypes about Muslim women and to provide some inspiration. As her mother saw it, and as Bilqis began to see it, too, there was no inconsistency between her religious traditions and being a woman with high ambitions – and a ferocious game.
Basketball has evolved some as well. In 2004, the University of South Florida became embroiled in a controversy when player Andrea Armstrong converted to Islam and wanted to modify her uniform accordingly. She was initially told by her coach, Jose Fernandez, that such attire was not appropriate for games or practices. Ultimately, the coach and the school relented, but Armstrong wound up leaving the team anyway.
More recently, the number of Islamic girls participating in sports in traditional clothing has increased. From 2005-07, Dewnya Bakri was a reserve guard for the NAIA program at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, playing in her hijab and full covering.
Bilqis has known for a while that she was destined to break some barriers as a prized recruit at the Division 1 level. She wanted to find a basketball program and a university that would serve as a second home.
University of Memphis first-year coach Melissa McFerrin was hoping to provide it.
“I’ve watched Qisi play since she was in eighth grade and have absolutely loved her style, loved her passion about how she plays the game,” says McFerrin. “This is the kind of kid I want to start my program with.”
When Bilqis and her family visited, McFerrin made sure to connect them with an Islamic student group. The Abdul-Qaadirs also visited a nearby mosque.
“I’d like to really inspire a lot of young Muslim girls if they want to play basketball,” she says. “Anything is possible. They can do it, too.”
She is already an inspiration for some of her peers at the New Leadership Charter School. Teammate Tiffany Clark credits Bilqis with “showing me the right way to do things.” It was through Bilqis’s example, Clark insists, that she turned from a wavering student to a senior on the honor roll. “She’s focused all the time. She’s always on task.”During games, says her coach, John Williams, Bilqis is unselfish, always looking to set up her teammates. Still, in leading the Wildcats to their fifth straight winning record, she has had to score a lot. In tallying 702 points this season, she has accounted for a whopping 72.9 percent of the team’s total. Her career mark of 2,895 points makes her a good bet to hit the 3,000 milestone, with three regular-season games and at least one playoff contest ahead.
Surpassing Lobo’s state record for either gender became a foregone conclusion early in the year. Bilqis almost managed to do it in front of Lobo Jan. 16. Lobo came to Springfield College that night to see New Leadership play against Millbury as part of the HoopHall Classic. Bilqis needed 38 points to tie the record, and struggled at first against a powerful opponent. In the last quarter, she caught fire, building her total to 36, and then firing up a 3-pointer in the game’s final minute. It rimmed out, leaving her at 2,708 points and knocking hard at the door of history.Then last Monday night she took the floor at Commerce, a home game rescheduled from New Leadership’s gym at the Rebecca Johnson Elementary School to accommodate a crowd of 1,000 people. When Bilqis came out for layups she couldn’t resist sneaking a wave to her family. Her parents were there, her grandparents, her brother Yusuf. The mayor of Springfield, Domenic Sarno, was on hand. Melissa McFerrin flew up from Memphis.
When Bilqis hit the first of two free throws to put her over the top, the game was stopped for a full 10 minutes. The gym was completely unified in focus, fans and players on both teams standing and clapping.
“I think everybody was more excited than I was,” she later reflected. “I didn’t realize it was going to be this big.”
When the game resumed, Bilqis went back to the foul line, took the basketball in her hands, and bounced it once.
Then she tossed it cleanly through the hoop.