By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
On a cold afternoon in March, Khalid El-Amin limps through the front door of his family's Minneapolis fish restaurant more than 45 minutes late, though he gives no indication he's in a hurry.
He pauses in the middle of the small, otherwise vacant dining room to wave a quick hello to his sister-in-law behind the cash register, then drags a chair out from underneath a table and slowly eases his heavy frame into it.
"Sorry," he says, flashing a toothy grin. "Just finished my first physical therapy."
By any reasonable standards, El-Amin looks like he has no business on a basketball court. He claims to be 5'10", but even that seems generous. He weighs more than 200 pounds, giving him a thick frame more suitable to a football player.
As soon as he sees the notebook, he breaks eye contact and turns his gaze down at the table in the practiced style of the hoary post-game interview.
"NBA's the best players in the world," he says. "I mean, it's great to make it there, but you gotta stay there. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to stay longer than I did."
El-Amin is only 31 years old, but he's lived long years as a journeyman. He talks about his short NBA career as if it took place a lifetime ago. He's played in so many different European countries that it's difficult for even him to remember them all.
"You know, in Europe, the game of basketball is kind of different," he says. "It's all about the team game in Europe. If you score 40 points and you lose, no one really cares about that it seems like, because you lost the game."
He still talks like he's ready to walk out on the court tomorrow, but his leg won't let him. When asked about it, El-Amin downplays the injury. He hasn't bothered to watch the replay yet, so he can't really explain how it happened.
"It was just a routine play," he says. "Next thing I knew, I was on the ground."
THE TWIN CITIES has never owned much of a reputation for producing professional basketball players. In the last 30 years, only about a dozen Minneapolis and St. Paul natives have made it to the NBA.
It's hard to say exactly what accounts for this, but it may be a symptom of the Midwest location, says Gary Wilson, a north Minneapolis coach of more than 40 years. Because Minnesota is covered in snow for the majority of the year, youth sports programs rely mostly on indoor facilities, and have struggled with overcrowded courts throughout the years. In the Twin Cities, basketball has never been a priority when it comes time to balance the budget.
"We need bigger facilities," says Wilson. "That's the thing we don't have."
Of the Twin Cities players who have made it to the NBA, most have not stayed long enough to make an impact. The exception to the rule is Devean George, a 6'8", 235-pound forward who was in the league for 11 years, most recently playing for the Golden State Warriors.
The idea of a short, chubby guy like El-Amin making a name for himself as a basketball player sounds impossible. El-Amin's unconventional stature even earned him a nickname early in his career: Doughboy.
But El-Amin has always been tireless. As a kid growing up in north Minneapolis, he made public courts at nearby parks his second home. He started playing for his high school varsity team when he was 14 years old.
"You can count the kids on one hand who played varsity basketball as eighth-graders," says Cliff Brown, former coach for the North High Polars. "He was unbelievably focused on what he wanted to do and what he wanted to accomplish at a young age."
El-Amin led the Polars to three state titles in high school, tying the record for most consecutive championships in Minnesota history. He was the Minnesota State Player of the Year three times.
El-Amin's dedication has not wavered in the 15 years since high school. After failing out of the NBA in his early 20s, El-Amin resigned himself to obscurity playing for a handful of listless teams around Europe. He has spent the past 10 years stubbornly trying to fight his way back the NBA.
Earlier this year, he finally caught a break. El-Amin made it into the Euroleague tournament playing for a Lithuanian team, BC Lietuvos Rytas, at the highest level of basketball in the world outside of the NBA.
"This is how he was really reborn after a few off-years," says David Landry of ESPN-affiliated Ball in Europe. "I mean, the Lithuanian media was loving this guy."
But the freak injury sent him home prematurely. And while El-Amin is optimistic that he'll play next season, this could very well be the one blow that keeps him down for the count.
"The more significant the injury, the harder it is," says Dr. Dan Kraft, a member of the American College of Sports Medicine. "The older the athlete, the more uncertain the healing becomes."
EL-AMIN DID NOT grow up in a family of great means. His father drove a school bus for the Minneapolis Public School district; his mother worked as a secretary.