Tuesday, April 15, 2008

That Muslim Boy is Quite a Hazzard

Happy birthday, Mahdi Abdul-Rahman! Sorry for making a mockery of your name and religion for the sake of a very, very bad pun.

You may be asking yourself, who the hell is Mahdi Abdul-Rahman, and why should I care about him? At the very most, he's the NBA's first Muslim player or something like that, right?

Wrong, my friends. M.A.R. is college HOFer, an Olympic gold medalist, former PAC-10 coach of the year at UCLA, and father of DJ Khalil, who has produced (shitty) tracks for De La Soul, Planet Asia, Ras Kass, Keith Murray, G-Unit, Raekwon, Xzibit, Phil Da Agony, Cypress Hill, Talib Kweli, 50 Cent, Sway & King Tech, Jay-Z, The Game, and Nas.

In his career, Rahman outscored his closest fellow NBA birthday holder, some bag of beans by the name of Michael Cooper, by about 2000 points.

Although UCLA's greatness is generally associated with Kareem and Bill Walton, it was Rahman who got the ball rolling. In 1964, his second season on the squad, the team went to their first (ever) Final Four, and the next year, they went undefeated (Rahman was joined by Gail Goodrich, no slouch himself). When the team won the championship, Rahman was named MVP, All-American, and College Player of the Year (remember, Wooden was still coaching...Rahman). At the end of 1964, Rahman joined the Olympic team (featuring, among others, Larry Brown and Bill Bradley) and smoked the Russians at basketball, as was our custom at the time.

Rahman's UCLA number is retired, but Kevin Love now wears it, because Rahman graciously gave him permission to do so. Rahman's NBA career was highlighted by being the first star to play for the expansion Seattle Supersonics, and a narrow, game 7 loss to one of the great Bill Russell Celtics teams that saw Rahman's Lakers, featuring Gail Goodrich, Rudy LaRusso, and Elgin Baylor almost take down an all-time team of Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Bill Russell, Don Nelson, and K.C. Jones.

Rahman was a good ballplayer, but there are plenty of those throughout history. Fortunately, I came across an interesting piece of information about him that clearly illustrates a point in his career when he came close to throwing it all away only to press on and continue his path to a career as a professional basketball player.

Walter was one of the first players that was coached by the great John Wooden. He was found by Wooden's first player to make the NBA, Willie Naulls, who played for the New York Knicks and had a cousin on the Philadelphia Warriors. By virtue of the family connection, Naulls saw a fair amount of hoops action in Philadelphia, which included a young Hazzard dominating the high school scene.

Naulls called Wooden and Wooden got the kid in there, but Hazzard did not meet the academic standards at UCLA, so he enrolled at Santa Monica City College. Through some egregiously poor planning (unimaginable today and hard to believe on Wooden's part), no one had realized that Hazzard would not be allowed to play because of a SMCC rule barring out-of-staters. (Santa Monica City College did not mess around with its integrity.)

There was nothing left for young Walt to do but play in the local AAU league for a team coached by a former UCLA player. Wooden only had to see him play once. As he said in his book: "'Walter,' I told him after that first game, 'you don't have to worry about making the team when you get to UCLA next season. And, you've got a scholarship all the way.'"

With only an AAU season under his belt, Hazzard became the starting guard at UCLA immediately. He was great, the team was great, and the rest is history. I'll let John Wooden take it from here:

"The next year, however, Walt erverted to his one bad habit. When he came to us he had a tendency toward fancy play and did a lot of behind-the-back and blind passing and fancy dribbling. [Imagine a little bit of stress showing on Wooden's face when he uses the term "fancy dribbling".] He had found out during his sophomore year that I did not permit this type of play, but somehow, perhaps because of his success as a sophomore, he began to revert to his old habits."

"Our first road trip game that year was with the University of Colorado at Boulder. Walter got carried away and was too fancy for me so I pulled him out, and he sat the rest of the game out on the bench. We lost it and it was tough to take because our chances of winning had been greatly diminished with him on the bench. They beat us rather handily, however, and his presence might not have made any difference. "

"The next night we played at Colorado State. Again I had Walt on the bench at the start and for much of the game. We lost this one, too, by one point in a double overtime."

"Shortly after, I had a call from Rev. Walter R. Hazzard in Philadelphia. It seems that Walt had called him and said he was going to quit because I wouldn't let him play basketball the way he knew best. But Mr. Hazzard said, 'I'm on your side, Coach Wooden. I told Walter not to come home if he quits--there would be no place for him here.' Of course, he did not mean it that strongly, but he wanted his son to stand up to adversity."

"Walter stayed on and had three great years."

Funny what one decision can do.

As always, e-mail me at dontgiveupthebasketballblog@gmail.com

Information from "They Call Me Coach" by John Wooden, a somewhat self-aggrandizing but very good book by the man among men in NCAA history.

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