Owumi's tenure with Al-Nasr was interrupted by the Libyan uprising and resulting civil war. Imprisoned in his Benghazi apartment for more than 2 weeks with no food, phone, Internet, or hope, Owumi wondered whether he would make it out of Libya alive. Despite his weakened condition and the dangers lurking in the city, he was able to escape Benghazi and flee the country. Smuggled to a refugee camp in Egypt, he was, much to his surprise, contacted by an Egyptian team seeking his services. And so, in a bizarre, storybook ending, Owumi finished the year by helping lead the team to an unlikely league championship, earning league MVP honors in the process.
Qaddafi's Point Guard is a book about hope and longing, conflict (cultural, political, and military), and ultimately, triumph—to overcome obstacles and survive against the most desperate odds.
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About the Author
DANIEL PAISNER is the author of over fifty books, including New York Times bestsellers Serena Williams's On the Line and Denzel Washington's A Hand to Guide Me. Paisner lives in Port Washington, NY, with his wife and three children.
Read an Excerpt
FEBRUARY 17, 2011—8:42 A.M . EET
Just up from a late practice the night before. Had my driver, Osama, stop for some pizza on the way home. He knows just a few words of English. He knows my name, Alex. He knows come and practice and bank and market. He knows the pizza place I like, where they make it fresh. He pretty much has all my basic needs covered.
He's a funny guy, a good guy. Always talking shit about Qaddafi. I can't understand a word he says, but I can tell he's talking shit. It's like he's spitting the word Qaddafi onto the dashboard in front of him, like it disgusts him to even have the man's name on his lips. Osama's like a lot of the Libyans I've met in the short time I've been here--very expressive. We don't speak the same language, but their body language gives them away. When they are happy, I can tell. When they are angry, I can tell. When they are confused or overwhelmed, I can tell this, too, and with Osama I can tell this most of all. His mood is in his smile, in the way he spits Qaddafi's name from his lips.
I'd fallen asleep watching a European basketball game, and the television is still on when I wake up. It's a good thing I set the alarm. Without it, I'd be dead asleep. With it, I'm just dead tired. The plan is to hit the gym early, eight forty-five, just me and my coach. I want to stretch, get some shots in, work on a couple of things. We've got a big game this weekend against our rival, Al-Ahly Benghazi. It's like the Celtics and the Lakers when our teams play, only with rocks and soda bottles being thrown onto the court. Last time we played was my first game for Al-Nasr, in a nice arena in Tripoli. Both teams are from Benghazi, but there's so much noise and excitement around these games that they need to put us in a big venue. The fans get into it, and so do the players, even if it's just to avoid the rocks and the soda bottles, even if it's a neutral-site game. Either way, it'll be bloody, brutal. I want to be ready. I have not come all this way to play professional basketball in Libya, then sleep through my alarm just because I'm dead tired.
Osama's running late. He's not answering his phone, so I call my coach, Sherif Azmy. Coach Sherif is a local legend, the John Wooden of the Middle East. He's got this reputation for running his players like crazy. He's originally from Egypt, used to play himself. Knows his stuff: fundamentals, Xs and Os, all of that. Learned the game in the States, going around to Five-Star camps and clinics. Guys who play for him say he runs them so hard, it takes a couple of years off their careers, but he knows the game. He plays to win. Treats his players like family. Some, anyway.
Coach Sherif answers his phone like it's already in his hand. He must recognize my number, because he answers in English. He says, "What?" (His English is good, but he doesn't want to wear it out.)
I say, "Coach, it's Alex. I'm still waiting for Osama. I'll be a few minutes late."
He says, "No, no, no. What are you talking about?" Like I'm crazy for even calling. Like I've got no idea what's going on.
I say, "For practice."
He says, "There is no practice, Alex. Don't you see outside?"
I cross to the window to see what he means. My apartment is on the seventh floor, overlooking the main square, the heart of Benghazi. The apartment actually belongs to one of Qaddafi's sons, Mutassim, a lieutenant colonel in the Libyan army. He's cleared out to make room for me for the run of the basketball season. It's furnished with his fine things--beautiful couches with gold trim, a big-screen television, interesting art. He's about ten years older than me, but his tastes seem to come from another time. Still, it's an amazing place. And convenient: two blocks from the arena where we play our home games; two blocks from the Al-Nasr Sporting Club, where we practice and train; one block from a place that reminds me of a Ruby Tuesday, where I take a lot of my meals.
I look out the window at a crowd of protestors on the street below. My view is obstructed by the other buildings, but it appears to be the same crowd from the day before, from the day before that. The same size, the same temper. Mostly men, some military. For four or five days now, there has been unrest. Shots have been fired into the air like exclamation points.
Since December, there has been a wave of protests throughout the Arab world. Demonstrations. Rallies. There has been the sudden overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt. Last week, on what the newspapers are calling the Friday of Departure, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation, following weeks of mostly civil disobedience. The news set off wild celebrations in the streets of Cairo and across the Middle East. I know this mostly because the pictures from these protests pop up on my home screen every time I go online. I do not know this from looking outside my window, from talking to people. I am too focused on basketball, on my team, to think too long, too hard about anything else.
Even so, the spirit of this Arab uprising is in the air and all around. It is impossible to miss. Here in Benghazi it has been a peaceable movement. That is how it starts: There is a call for change. There is anger and tension, yes, but there is also order and civility . . . for now.
Whatever is happening on the street below, it comes to me through my window like a lot of noise. It is nothing. And yet across the world, through the Internet, news of the protests on the streets of Libya reaches my family in the States like a warning. Just yesterday, before practice, my oldest brother Joseph pleaded with me on Skype to pack my bags and come home. He said, "You have got to get out of there, Alex. It's bad."
I said, "It's nothing. Everything's fine. You'll see."
Today, now, it still feels like nothing--just shouting and chanting and meaningless gunfire. I say as much to Coach Sherif. I say, "This has been going on for four days," I say. "This is nothing new."
He says, "No, Alex, it's turned. They're killing people. Look."
I look and look, but I cannot get a full view through my window, so I tell Coach Sherif I'll call him back. I set the phone down on the kitchen counter, then I open the heavy door to my apartment and take the steps to the roof two at a time. I live on the top floor, so it is only one flight. I have been to the roof almost every day since I arrived in Libya at the end of December. It's where I hang my clothes to dry when I do my wash. It's where I come to unwind, to take in the panorama of my strange new surroundings. From the roof, I can see the main square in front of my building. I can see across to the arena and over to the soccer field where I sometimes do my running. Today I look down and see the full swarm of protestors below--about three hundred people, some of them wearing the deep green of the Libyan flag, pressed up against each other like they are at a concert. They are jumping, shouting, dancing. Almost everyone has a fist in the air in a show of defiance. There seems to be a great too many of them squeezed into a not-so-great, too-tight space.
The protesters all appear to be facing the same direction, looking at the same thing. I follow their gazes to a row of military police wearing white hats with a Libyan-green stripe. They are thirty, forty strong. They move slowly across the square to fill the space between the police line and the swarm of protesters. My first thought is that the police are only trying to break up the crowd, which has been bottlenecked into this narrow, open space.
My next thought, still, is that this is nothing. There is no evidence of violence. There is only the threat of violence. There is only more of the same. And so after two or three minutes, I race back down the stairs to my apartment, wondering again what's taking Osama so long to get here. Wondering what had Coach Sherif so agitated.
Just ... wondering.
ONE | LAGOS
THE FIRST TIME I TOUCHED A BASKETBALL I was barefoot on a dirt court, looking up at a square hoop. The hoop was square because it was really a milk crate nailed to a tree. My brothers had cut the bottom from the crate and hung the thing just high enough to be out of reach, but not so high that the oldest of us couldn't maybe dunk on it.
Something to shoot for, you know.
It wasn't even a proper basketball when we were superlittle. We played with a soccer ball. Everybody in Nigeria played soccer, so there was always a ball around somewhere. Hardly anyone played basketball. We lived in a village just outside Lagos, the biggest city in the country, and best I could tell, the only kids who played basketball were me and my brothers. We had our own little court, our own rules. Basically, it was every man for himself: No fouls. No out-of-bounds. Two-on-two, the As versus the Js. It was me and my brother Anthony against my brothers Joseph and Johnson. I was the youngest--probably six or seven--when we started keeping score. We had an older sister, Malinda, and then after me there was another sister, Melissa, and our baby brother, Justin, but it was just the four older boys playing basketball. We went at it all day long. We played to thirty-two by twos. Winners out. We didn't call it winners out or make-it-take-it or any of those names you hear on the playgrounds in the States. That's just the way we did it.
We kept track of wins. After a while, we'd wipe away the total and start fresh. Joseph and Johnson always had the most wins. They liked to brag about it, hold it over our heads. It wasn't really fair, the way we had the teams split up. Joseph was older and bigger than Anthony. Johnson was older and bigger than me. We were overmatched this way and that. But these were the teams. Johnson, to this day, is probably one of the most gifted athletes I've ever seen. His thing was to move that crate higher and higher on the tree, and he'd spend hours jumping and jumping; when it got to where he could dunk, he'd get out the ladder and move the crate higher still. By the time he was eleven, the crate was ten feet up, and he was dunking like it was nothing at all. At one point, he had a forty-three-inch vertical leap, which was just sick. World-class sick--better than all but a handful of guys playing in the NBA.
Anthony and I couldn't really compete against that kind of size and that kind of talent, so we developed a very physical game. It was a matter of survival. To this day, I'm a very physical player. Also to survive, I spent a lot of time working on my outside shot, because there was no way I could play with those guys above the crate. Joseph and Johnson would dunk on us all day long, and we'd fire up jumpers just to keep the game close. That's probably where I got my shot, because the soccer ball was almost as big as the milk crate. There was no backboard, so you had to have excellent touch. You had to hit it clean. We didn't understand the concept of "nothing but net"--never heard that phrase--but that was basically the idea, because if you tried to bank the ball off the rough of the tree, it would bounce every which way.
I played all out, all the time. I would get my shoulder right in your stomach. I'd go right into your chest. Basically, going up against my older brothers like that, you had to go through them. They were beasts. To get to the crate nailed to the tree, you couldn't go around them. You could only go through them or shoot over them. It helped that we played without fouls, because we fouled each other like mad. From time to time, we'd put it together and find a way to win, but for the most part, Joseph and Johnson just killed us. Every day, they just killed us.
We had a bunch of cousins up and down our street, but they never played. Mostly, it was the four of us, picking apart each other's games, lifting each other's games, beating the crap out of each other on our crappy dirt court. Basketball was becoming more popular in Nigeria at the time, because everyone was following Hakeem Olajuwon. He was also from Lagos. He was the number one pick in the NBA draft the year I was born--the same year Michael Jordan was drafted--so that was a big, big deal. Back then he was known as Akeem, "Akeem the Dream." All the noise and fuss over Hakeem Olajuwon wasn't enough to get everybody to stop playing soccer and switch to basketball, but he was like our local hero. Kids looked up to him--not just because he was tall but because he was one of us. We were drawn to him, each in our own way. It was kind of amazing to see Hakeem Olajuwon play at such a high level, because he was like all the other kids in our village. Growing up, he only played soccer. He was a goalkeeper. He didn't start playing basketball until he was fifteen years old, and even when he made it to the NBA--even when basketball was becoming more and more popular--there was no place for a kid in Lagos to play the sport in any organized way. There were no facilities--no basketballs!--so watching Olajuwon became another something for me and my brothers to shoot for.
Table of Contents
February 17, 2011-8:42 A.M. EET 1
1 Lagos 7
February 17, 2011-9:13 A.M. EET 27
2 Boston 33
February 17, 2011-9:29 A.M. EET 53
3 Georgetown 57
February 17, 2011-9:41 A.M. EET 83
4 Antibes 89
February 17, 2011-10:22 A.M. EET 117
5 Skopje 119
February 17, 2011-10:35 A.M. EET 147
6 Benghazi (Before) 149
February 17, 2011-10:38 A.M. EET 165
7 Benghazi (After) 169
8 Sallum 207
9 Alexandria 233
10 Home 265
About the Authors 277