Despite playing in Thomas Jefferson’s summer league basketball tournament without food and water during Ramadan, Abu Agyeman found the strength to lead the Raiders to a semifinal berth. Courtesy of Richard Balster

Agyeman thrived in summer league after connecting faith and basketball

Abubaker Agyeman is one of a kind.

The junior forward for the Thomas Jefferson Raiders is one of maybe a handful of Ghanaian-born basketball players in the state.

Roughly 25 percent of the religious composition in Ghana is Muslim, so Agyeman grew up through the teachings of Islam. He began participating in its holy month of Ramadan, specifically its tradition of fasting for the month from sun up to sundown, off and on once he turned 8 years old.

By the time he turned 11, Ramadan started to coincide with Agyeman’s summer basketball schedule. He wanted to be true to his faith as well as the game he’s loved since he was 5. So, he began to slowly integrate fasting into his basketball routine off and on, and, from May 26 to June 24, Agyeman fasted full time during Ramadan while working out and playing basketball.

It was the first time the sophomore fasted completely through the holy month. Despite an inability to eat or drink water during Jefferson’s summer league games, Agyeman proved to be an asset for the Raiders in the paint. He helped lead them to the semifinals on June 29 against Auburn Riverside at the West Seattle Tournament.

“It wasn’t easy,” Agyeman said. “I’ve been fasting since I was a little kid. This summer has been tough because I was used to fasting during basketball off and on before this year, but fasting while training the entire summer has been a really good experience.”

Growing up, Agyeman knew he was a little different from children around him.

In addition to coming from another continent, Agyeman soon realized the majority of his peers were not Muslim and likely did not observe or even know what Ramadan was.

When Agyeman discovered a young up-and-coming NBA player named Kobe Bryant on television one afternoon, the feelings of isolation decreased.

Agyeman discovered that he and Bryant both shared a love for the game of basketball. But that was all. Agyeman still felt something was missing from his life. He yearned for a greater sense of belonging within the basketball community.

So, in the hopes of quashing those feelings, Agyeman sought help from the Internet. Once online, he found the two names that affirmed his love for hoops and his belonging in the sport: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Both NBA greats were post players, like Agyeman. And both were of the Muslim faith, just like Agyeman. During a period of his childhood when he thought he could not feel more out of place, Agyeman found solace through the two Hall-of-Famers.

After extensive research, however, Agyeman discovered, while Abdul-Jabbar was Muslim, there were no reports of him ever fasting during Ramadan.

So, Agyeman was drawn more to Olajuwon, especially after learning Olajuwon grew up in Nigeria.

“We’re like — neighbors,” Agyeman said with an excited smile. “And it was just cool to see someone who’s already been there, succeed at that level of basketball while being Muslim, too.”

Once Agyeman found Olajuwon, he couldn’t get enough.

Agyeman began to study Olajuwon’s moves and mannerisms on the court. As Agyeman grew through basketball, he modeled his style of play in the paint as best he could after the Houston Rockets’ big man.

Once Agyeman made the Jefferson basketball team as a freshman in 2015, basketball was becoming more serious than ever, and he had a decision to make: Forgo the Ramadan tradition of fasting and focus solely on working out during the summer, a choice that would likely disappoint his family, or make religion and basketball work together and thrive while balancing both.

Once Agyeman started with the Raiders C-team that fall, he was determined to make it work.

“I definitely had my eye on him for while,” Jefferson varsity head coach Sudon DeSuze said. “He can just do so much. He’s tall. He’s long. He defends the rim well. He is an incredible practice player, so we just got to get him to turn that corner, let him know he can do what he does in practice consistently in games.”

Even as a member of Raiders basketball, Agyeman continued to watch Olajuwon film. With the advances in technology, he had the ability to pull up highlights on his phone.

Once Agyeman got a handle on Jefferson’s system, he didn’t just watch “The Dream” anymore. Over the course of his first two years, Agyeman worked to incorporate some of Olajuwon’s specific moves into his own game, including Olajuwon’s famed “Dream Shake.”

DeSuze had no idea Agyeman looked up to Olajuwon for religious or basketball reasons.

DeSuze discovered it earlier this season after catching Agyeman finish a textbook, “Dream Shake,” during a junior varsity game.

“It’s funny,” DeSuze said. “He didn’t share that with me until a couple months ago. I was shocked he even knew who [Olajuwon] was. I saw it in his game, though. All those [Olajuwon] moves, the up-and-under, the shimmy shakes. He would do all that in practice.”

That wasn’t all the sophomore forward revealed to his first-year head coach.

DeSuze held exit interviews in early February. He and Agyeman were in the middle of discussing the coach’s vision for him going into the 2017-18 season.

DeSuze explained how he wanted Agyeman on the 2017 varsity summer league roster, but he also wanted summer league to catapult him into next season.

Agyeman couldn’t listen to DeSuze’s revelations any longer. He couldn’t keep his desire to stay committed to his faith from his coach anymore, so he cut him off mid-sentence.

“He was like, ‘Should I even play summer league?’ ” DeSuze recalled. “And I was genuinely confused. I was like ‘What are you talking about? Of course you should play in summer league.’ It was then that he went into how he was fasting and how it was an important part of his religion.”

DeSuze said he was shocked.

He spent the last two years around Agyeman and never had any idea he was Muslim or that he fasts for a month each summer.

Despite the new information, DeSuze and Agyeman did alter the vision for him as summer league practices were getting closer.

Knowing full well Agyeman could not eat or drink water during games or workouts, DeSuze admitted he kept a closer eye on him than he normally would have.

Regardless of the food and water restrictions, Agyeman was there for every Jefferson practice, workout, game and conditioning session.

DeSuze and the coaching staff put him through rigorous post drills just to see how he held up under the circumstances.

Agyeman completed every drill without attitude or complaint.

Since training while fasting was something Agyeman had done to some degree since he was a pre-teen, he figured out early the best way for his body to handle cardio-filled summers.

“It’s the breathing, taking deep breaths,” Agyeman said. “Splashing cold water on my face after a shower proved the best way for me to deal with not being able to eat or drink water during basketball.”

The most important part of Agyeman’s basketball routine during the month of Ramadan was a postgame nap.

He found that sleeping until sundown not only gave him the distraction he needed to battle the thirst and hunger, it also gave him the energy he needed to actually eat when it was time.

Even though he was forced to go all day without nutrients, Agyeman still found the discipline to eat responsibly.

At times, DeSuze worried about Agyeman on the hardwood, but all the sophomore had to do was give his coach a look. If DeSuze saw “the look,” he knew Agyeman wasn’t coming off the floor.

“I could see it in his eyes that he’d be tired and almost struggling,” DeSuze said. “But he would persevere through it and put out competitive times, or he was above average in sprints or running the mile. He didn’t say much, but he gave it all he had with a desire to get better.”

It’s unclear at this point where Agyeman will end up for his junior season.

DeSuze said, there’s a good chance Agyeman will swing between junior varsity and varsity. At the same time, he said the forward has all the intangibles to be an everyday varsity staple in 2017-18.

The one improvement DeSuze needs to see only Agyeman can manage. He said he wants to see a greater sense of confidence from Agyeman.

For DeSuze, it is the final piece to the Agyeman puzzle. DeSuze said he has already seen enough on the court to convince him that Agyeman has the ability to be a varsity player. If the junior can make the connection between his ability and having complete confidence in it, both DeSuze and Jefferson basketball will finally have something.

They will have the one-of-a-kind player they’ve been looking for.

“These are just minor setbacks you just have to push through,” Agyeman said. “It’s all about basketball and my teammates. Because of them, I don’t let the hunger or exhaustion get to me. You just have to continue to play basketball. That’s what it’s all about.”

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