Khalid El-Amin won't quit
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.
But his parents recognized their youngest son's exceptional passion for the game, and never had a problem paying for expensive tournaments and travel. The family wore out three vans when El-Amin was growing up, hauling him to games all over the country.
Basketball did occasionally get in the way, however. El-Amin was raised in a Muslim household by two parents who volunteered regularly at their mosque, and devoting every weekend to traveling rarely left much time for worship.
Still, the El-Amins made it work. His brother or father would often deliver makeshift services on those long van rides in between games.
El-Amin's obsession for the game trumped everything else in his life—especially school. His mother, Arlene, recalls a time when she discovered he had missed a few homework assignments, and felt the need to intervene.
"I just called the coach and told him, 'He will not be playing until further notice," Arlene recalls. "It didn't sit very well with him."
El-Amin watched four games from the bench in street clothes before he was allowed to play again.
By the time El-Amin reached high school, it was obvious he would never have the height of an NBA player, even if he was the last realize it.
"I never really noticed I was short," he says. "Of course, I knew if I was looking up at a person, he was taller than me, but being short never occurred to me."
FRESHMAN YEAR AT the University of Connecticut, El-Amin was warming up with his teammates when he saw a University of Virginia fan in the stands trying to get his attention. It took him a moment to realize the guy was holding up a Domino's pizza box.
"Hey, Khalid, are you hungry?!" he remembers the fan screaming, waving the box in El-Amin's direction.
As the starting point guard for UConn, El-Amin quickly found that college basketball was far less forgiving than the high school version. His freshman year, El-Amin weighed a flabby 203 pounds. By the end of his first year, opposing fans in cities across the country were jeering "Doughboy" from the stands.
"Sometimes I was like, 'Why are they saying that?'" says El-Amin. "'Am I fat?' I didn't think I was."
The fat jokes didn't crush El-Amin's spirits. He was UConn's second leading scorer in his freshman year. His prodigious ball-handling combined with his common-man physique were a sight to behold—The Detroit News called him a "hero for fat folks everywhere."
"He's just a hard-nosed, gritty, aggressive player," says Jeff Fox, who wrote about UConn for Sports Illustrated. "He didn't let his size get in the way."
The biggest game of El-Amin's college career arrived on March 29, 1999, when UConn faced Duke University at the NCAA championship. Duke seemed poised to take the title without breaking a sweat; gambling sites gave UConn a nine-point handicap.
But with less than a minute left in the second half, it was anybody's game. El-Amin had sunk a shot with 10 seconds left on the clock that put UConn one point ahead.
Seconds later, a Duke player traveled into El-Amin on the way to the basket, giving Doughboy the chance to clinch the lead at the free throw line. He sank both shots.
"And UConn's done it!" screamed the announcer as time expired.
The cover of the April 1999 edition of Sports Illustrated featured a photo of El-Amin mid-sprint with a full-mouthed scream, holding up a single finger above his head.
"Top Dogs!" read the headline.
IN COMPARISON TO players like 6'7" Ron Artest, El-Amin was a speck on the hardwood of the United Center.
After a few seconds in play, El-Amin picked up the ball and drove it toward the net, but a Dallas defender brought him up short just inside the three-point line.
El-Amin frantically pivoted, looking for a teammate to pass to. The Dallas player towered over El-Amin and El-Amin could barely see around him.
With the shot clock about to run out, El-Amin desperately heaved the ball away to no one. He got lucky and picked up his own rebound, and was able to sink a shot immediately afterward to redeem himself.
After dropping out of UConn before his senior year, El-Amin was picked by the Chicago Bulls in the second round.
But this was not the Michael Jordan-led team that El-Amin grew up worshiping as a kid in Minneapolis. The dynasty had officially dissolved with the departure of legendary players like Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman.
Now the team was a motley crew of fresh draft picks who would have never left the bench in a good year, says K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "It was a bad team, and a bunch of borderline NBA players were playing on it."
And aside from his charisma, El-Amin did little to impress—he averaged six points and three assists per game. The short, chubby kid who had dominated the North High School gym was dwarfed by the NBA stars. The Bulls waived El-Amin before the end of his first season.
"He had a nice enthusiasm to him and an infectious personality, but it was a god-awful team and he really wasn't an NBA player," says Johnson. "That's why his career didn't last very long."
After the NBA, El-Amin didn't have many options. He could have gone out for a minor-league team and tried to work his way back up, but instead he signed with a team in Strasbourg, France.
"It was a major challenge for him, and it would have been easy to kind of fold up the tent and go home," says El-Amin's brother Makram. "That was a setback for him mentally."
ON MARCH 3, 2010, El-Amin picked up the ball just outside the three-point line. There were only a few minutes left in the fourth quarter, and Lithunia's Lietuvos Rytas team was trying to catch up.
El-Amin had hit a buzzer-beater to win the game from this distance against Spanish team Caja Laboral a few weeks earlier, and Spain's defense wasn't going to take the chance of a repeat. A 6'9" brick wall of a defender clung to El-Amin like a wet suit.
El-Amin had no chance at the three-pointer. If he was going to make a shot, he'd have to drive into close range.
He'd signed with Lithuania just a few weeks earlier, but was already the team's star player. Lithuania's coach had been fired right before the Euroleague tournament, and sports writers predicted the team's lack of direction would send them home in the first round.
"There was real concern about leadership," recalls Landry of Ball in Europe. "But El-Amin came in there and he was a field general."
The Euroleague was El-Amin's chance to play in the global spotlight for the first time since his stint with the Bulls. Though the Euroleague tournament pales in popularity compared to the NBA, it's the second-most prestigious tournament worldwide, broadcast in 191 countries. This was an enormous step up from the mostly obscure leagues El-Amin had played in Europe previously.
"I would say, in terms of team, this is the culmination of his career," says Landry. "To play in Euroleague, that's the big stage. That's the highest level of competition, and it's really a level of competition where El-Amin can stand out."
With the shot clock running out, the north Minneapolis-born player made a break for the hoop, trying to catch the defender off guard with deceptive speed.
But El-Amin never made his shot. His play was cut short when he collided with another defender and ricocheted off like a ping-pong ball. He spun 180 degrees. Towering figures were fighting ravenously for the ball above him.
El-Amin reached down to the sharp pain coming from his thigh, and felt an indentation in his thigh.
That's when he realized something was very wrong.
The fall had ripped the quadriceps muscle straight off the bone.
IN THE FISH house back in Minneapolis, El-Amin sits with a smile that defies the horrific injury he describes.
But as laid-back as El-Amin appears, he admits the injury has forced him to think seriously about his future. Though he's confident he'll be back in Lithuania at the beginning of next season, he's about to turn 32, and his dream of returning to the NBA has passed its expiration date.
"The injury really made me think about life after basketball."
In part, this means finishing the college degree he left incomplete more than 10 years ago. El-Amin says he plans to enroll at Augsburg College this summer while going through rehabilitation. He's undecided whether he'll pick up where he left off with his television production major.
For El-Amin, life after basketball involves a lot of basketball. He's currently working on expanding a youth sports program in north Minneapolis, called El-Amin Basketball. It's a small operation run solely out of the Boys and Girls Club on the North Side, but this winter he's partnering with larger leagues and sponsors throughout the Twin Cities.
El-Amin eventually wants to build a league similar to the one at the Hospitality Club that he started playing for as a seven-year-old.
Before leaving the fish house, El-Amin waddles over to say goodbye to his sister. When she asks about the leg, he just smiles.
"I'll be back," he assures her. "It'll take a couple months, but I'll be back."
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