Dec. 6, 2001
ATLANTA – Life’s not exactly a bowl of cherries for any freshman trying to make the grade in Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. Just imagine trying to pull it off for 29 straight days without even a cup of water or a bite of food from sunrise to sunset.
That’s the routine these days for Georgia Tech’s sparkling newcomer Isma’il Muhammad who fasts throughout the day (no food or liquids) in observance of Ramadan, a part of his Islamic faith.
An Atlanta native, Muhammad came to Tech from W.D. Mohammed High School where he long has devoted his life to the principles of Islam.
“But this is the toughest time now,” Muhammad said this week. “It’s the first time I’ve sort of been on my own during the fasting period. At the Mohammed School, I always was around many others who were fasting.
“It’s especially tough because I go through three different workouts each day without water or nourishment. I lift weights in the morning, go through individual drills in early afternoon and then team practice later in the day.”
When Tech ( 3-4) plays arch-rival Georgia (5-1) Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Muhammad will be right in the middle of a fasting period. That means not a sip of water during any rest period.
The observance of Ramadan ends Dec. 16.
Muhammad says the fasting is designed to allow those of the Islamic faith to practice self-restraint. “On a larger scale, the purpose is to teach people to abstain from things such as drugs or alcohol, etc,” he said.
“My only concern was the fact that Isma’il could not have any fluids during practice,” said Head Coach Paul Hewitt. “But I knew he had managed this process before and would do so again. He is a very focused and very mature person–one who takes his goals in life very seriously.”
Rob Skinner, Tech’s Director of Sports Nutrition, has worked closely with Muhammad to ensure that the student-athlete receives the proper calories and liquids from sunset to sunrise.
“This has been a good learning experience for me as a nutritionist” Skinner says. “I thank Isma’il for giving me so much insight. I have stayed in tune with our basketball coaches. Coach Hewitt has been told exactly what time the sun will set each day. If Tech is in the midst of a practice, he immediately gives Isma’il a break so he can drink some water and eat some dates that I have made available to him. Then, of course, he sits down to a full-course meal after practice when he is free to eat anything he chooses except pork.”
One of Muhammad’s toughest challenges comes in early morning when he has to get out of bed around 5:30 a.m. to have some fluids and breakfast before sunrise. He also undergoes an individual prayer session early each morning.
“This is a faith issue so we do everything in our power to be cooperative with Isma’il,” Skinner says. “Our job is to make sure he is able to properly observe the rites of his religion.”
Even with the restrictions, Muhammad has raced to a fast start in his Tech basketball career. A 6-5, 218-pound forward, he has averaged 7.0 points and 3.0 rebounds in the six games in which he has appeared. One of his most outstanding performances came against Wisconsin in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge when Tech rallied from a 20-point second half deficit to win, 62-61.
He had nine points, five rebounds and two steals in that victory and drew high praise from Coach Hewitt, who said, “Isma’il was the player who turned the game around.”
Tech’s second-year coach believes Muhammad has a bright future. “With his energy level and talent, Isma’il has a chance to be a great player in this program.” Hewitt said.
College basketball so far has turned out to be much like Muhammad had expected. “The competition, of course, is much better than in high school,” he said. “Guys in college are so much bigger and stronger. I’m sure it will get even tougher when we get into the heart of the ACC schedule.”
Muhammad says playing in the ACC is exciting, to say the least. “It’s amazing how good all the teams in the ACC really are,” he said. “How many conferences have four teams ranked in the Top 25?”
Isma’il is extremely high on the four other freshmen on the Tech team–Ed Nelson, B.J. Elder, Anthony McHenry and Luke Schenscher. “We have formed really good relationships,” he said. “We all like to work hard and are adjusting well.
“I think we have an outstanding future. In the years to come, I believe we can help take Georgia Tech back to the NCAA Final Four. But I’m not looking past this season. I think we can make a strong run at an NCAA Tournament berth this year. Of course, we still have some jelling to do.”
Muhammad says Tech’s senior guard Tony Akins has provided outstanding leadership for all the Jackets’ new players. “Tony always gives me good advice,” he said. “If I get down on myself, he’s there to give me a word of wisdom.”
The record shows that Isma’il, the son of government postal workers Abdul-Aleem and Rasheeda Muhammad, was outstanding in so many ways during his time at Mohammed School. He was an honor roll student and a member of the prestigious Beta Club. He also was a big star on the basketball court where he was a two-time first team Class A All-State player who posted a school record career scoring average of 27 points a game.
He was heavily recruited by colleges across the country and finally narrowed his choice to Miami of Florida, Alabama and Tech. “The big reason I chose Tech was because of the style of play under Coach Hewitt,” he said. “I really like the up-tempo game. Our pre-season practice this year was very demanding. But I can say for sure that I am in the best physical condition of my life.”
Isma’il says he also has adjusted well to academics at Tech where he plans to major in business management.
Right now, however, he’s managing things of a different kind, like his devotion to Georgia Tech, the basketball program–and especially to his faith.