Professional basketball player
Nazr Mohammed, a successful center and power forward in the National Basketball League (NBA), became the first individual of Ghanaian descent to play professional basketball in the United States when he joined the Philadelphia 76ers in the fall of 1998. Since then he has made important contributions to several playoff-bound NBA teams, and in 2005 he helped the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA championship from played the starting center position. Mohammed endured several shocks in his personal life during the early years of his career, including the murder of his father in a junkyard on Chicago's South Side in 2000. But in the face of adversity his trademark persistence kicked in and propelled his career to a new level.
Knew How to Work Hard
Nazr (pronounced NAH-zee according to his official NBA biography) Tahiru Mohammed, one of 11 siblings, was born in Chicago on September 5, 1977. His father, Alhaji Na T. A. Mohammed, known as Tahiru, had come to the United States from Ghana in the early 1970s and rose out of poverty, starting a restaurant, several gas stations, a clothing store, and a shipping office, and eventually owning a fleet of taxis. Mohammed grew up on Chicago's South Side, in a neighborhood he described to Phil Jasner of the Philadelphia Daily News as "lower-middle class. I stayed on the last block between the good neighborhood and the bad neighborhood…. The projects were on one side, nice houses on the other." His parents were separated, and his mother, Mary, lived in Ghana. Mohammed's father was a major authority figure in his life, however, and Mohammed had an image of him making the hajj, or Islamic pilgrimage, to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca tattooed on his left arm.
Mohammed honed his basketball skills with his younger brother Alhaji, who later played varsity basketball at the University of Louisville and in international leagues. Attending high school at Chicago's Kenwood Academy (a public "magnet" school that requires an admission exam), the six-foot, ten-inch Nazr ballooned to 315 pounds. He was a good shooter, but at that weight he didn't seem to have the mobility for college basketball, much less the professional level. The coach who saw the potential in the oversized youngster was University of Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, who was stuck with a pair of undersized centers and decided it would be easier to work Mohammed into shape.
"Coming in here, Nazr knew he had to do a lot to play in this program," Kentucky teammate Allen Edwards told David Seigerman of CNN/Sports Illustrated. "He had to lose weight and become a lot quicker. He did that. He made the sacrifices." Teammates became used to seeing Mohammed running back to the hotel from road-game practices rather than taking the team bus, and he dropped 30 pounds in his first year at Kentucky, 1995-96, on his way down to a professional playing weight of 240. He saw little court time during Kentucky's 1996 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship run, but he became the team's starting center for part of his sophomore year as Kentucky again made the finals, and in 1997-98, as a junior, he led the team in rebounds, made the All-Southeastern Conference team, and was a key contributor as the Wildcats won their second NCAA championship in three years.
Persevered Through Tough Times
Mohammed was the 29th player selected in the 1998 NBA draft. He was originally drafted by the Utah Jazz but was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers before the season began. The first game did not occur until February 5, 1999, because of the player lockout that followed labor conflict between NBA players and owners that year, and Mohammed's career got off to a slow start. He played in only 26 games in his rookie season, all as a substitute, and the following year he was plagued by injuries and again saw limited playing time. In December of 2000 his mother flew from Ghana to see him play, but he was on the court for only 59 seconds.
He might have been distracted even when he did get into the game, for he suffered under the pressures of violent crime that year. First, on July 2, 2000, Mohammed and a group of other players were robbed at gunpoint outside a South Side Chicago restaurant; Mohammed lost a watch valued at $8,000. Crime dealt the Mohammed family a more severe blow later that month: Mohammed's father was killed at an auto-body yard he owned, in a robbery attempt by a man whom he had tried to help. "My father was a strong man, with a strong will. I thought he would outlive me," Mohammed told Jasner. "When it happens that way, sometimes it's hard to believe. I can't erase his cell number from my phone. I can't erase his pager. It's like I think he'll call me one day."
Began to Reap Rewards
Midway through the 2000-01 season, Mohammed was traded to the Atlanta Hawks in a complex multi-player deal. In Atlanta, Mohammed began to come into his own as a player. He got into 28 games with the Hawks, 19 of them as a starter, and averaged 12.3 points per game and nine rebounds per game over the remainder of the season. He also experienced positive developments in his personal life: he and his wife, Mandy, were married in 2001. The couple had a daughter, Amani, and a son, Nasir.
The following year saw Mohammed gain attention from fans and administrators around the league; he played in all 82 games, starting 73 of them, and he posted averages of 9.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, both career highs. Although slowed by a foot injury in the 2002-03 season, he was the subject of trade talk and was dealt to the New York Knickerbockers on February 15, 2004. Once again, his new team inserted him in the starting lineup and was rewarded with a consistent presence resulting in a successful drive to the playoffs.
At a Glance …
Born Nazr Tahiru Mohammed September 5, 1977, in Chicago, IL; son of Ghanaian immigrant Tahiru Mohammed, an entrepreneur; married Mandy; children: Amani, Nasir. Education: Attended University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, business administration, 1995-98. Religion: Islam.
Career: Utah Jazz, professional basketball center and power forward, 1998; Philadelphia 76ers, 1998-2000; Atlanta Hawks, 2000-03; New York Knickerbockers, 2003-04; San Antonio Spurs, 2004-06; Detroit Pistons, 2006-.
Awards: NBA championship, with San Antonio Spurs, 2005.
Addresses: Office—Detroit Pistons, 5 Championship Dr., Auburn Hills, MI 48326.
A pattern was developing: Mohammed was never a star—his 2001-02 season totals remained his best—but he was an imposing presence under the net who could fit into a variety of offensive plans, and no sooner did he settle in with one team than he became a candidate for end-of-season dealmaking involving another team that thought it could make better use of his skills. Midway through the 2004-05 season, on February 24, 2005, Mohammed was traded by New York to the San Antonio Spurs. The move looked brilliant from San Antonio's point of view; Mohammed scored in double figures in several key games late in the season and in the postseason playoffs. The Spurs cruised to the NBA championship, and Mohammed acquired his first championship ring.
The following year Mohammed shared starting duties with Croatian-born seven-footer Rasho Nesterovic. Frustrated with his diminished court time, he accepted a five-year deal from the Detroit Pistons that was set to pay him $30 million. The Pistons were looking to replace their departing center, the flamboyant Ben Wallace. "I'm not going to try to emulate Ben's game," Mohammed told Marty Burns of Sports Illustrated. "I'm not going to go out and try to get 20 rebounds a game or block ten shots. I'm just going to do what I do: rebound, play solid D, and score when the opportunity arises." That attitude carried Mohammed through another half-successful season. He started strong, but was largely displaced when the Pistons acquired another rising star, center Chris Webber. Despite more talk of a trade, he remained on the Pistons roster as of the beginning of the 2007-08 season.
Detroit Free Press, November 25, 2006; February 24, 2007.
New York Times, March 7, 2004, p. SP3; July 5, 2006, p. D6.
Philadelphia Daily News, October 5, 2000; February 25, 2001.
Sports Illustrated, February 4, 2002, p. 88; October 23, 2006, p. 88.
Sporting News, January 29, 2007, p. 42.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), March 7, 2004, p. 8.
USA Today, June 13, 2005, p. C7.
"Athlete of the Day Spotlight: Nazr Mohammed, Kentucky," CNN/Sports Illustrated,http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/basketball/college/events/1998/tournament/men/spotlight/mohammed.html (December 5, 2007).
"Nazr Mohammed Info Page," National Basketball Association,http://www.nba.com/playerfile/nazr_mohammed (December 5, 2007).
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