On June 17, 2008, I turned 28. I also got to watch the Lakers get spanked in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, a 39-point shaming by the Boston Celtics. Nothing can more deeply wound a Lakers fan than to see his (my) team lose to the Celtics, let alone for the ninth time in the NBA finals, never mind by nearly 40 points in Boston. It's not tremendously unlike watching Gollum get out of Mount Doom with the Ring, while Frodo and Sam's Fellowship team bus gets attacked by Mordor's drunken citizens. I watched the Lakers' humiliation wearing my wife's birthday present to me -- the Lakers warm-up jersey in their home white. Fat lot of good that did. Don't even ask me when I next had the courage to wear it. (I still love you, babe.) These great franchises have now met 12 times in basketball's greatest championship, and between them they have won more than half the NBA's titles: L.A. has won 15 in 31 tries, the Celtics 17 out of 21. They are meeting right now, as you read.
I was born in Massachusetts, raised between there and Connecticut, and have lived practically all my life in the American Northeast. I love it here, and as much as I enjoy visiting new places, I'm reaching that homebody stage where a vacation in Maine embodies the best of all possible worlds. Growing up, I was ostensibly part of a liberal society, a place that often tolerated but rarely embraced. I was an academically successful, culturally alien, metaphysically tragic individual outpost, distant from my parents, weirdly unrelated to my friends and left out of my local mosque, since there were so few in my age group and no durable connection to an elder generation. My too-tanned skin color, my funny name, my incomprehensible religion, my taste for American food and grunge music -- these were all sources of amusement, puzzlement or, at times, harassment. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar meant the (dream) world to me. Nor was it just me: If you visit the Muslim community of Western Massachusetts, you'll find that they and their children, some of us now scattered across America and even other countries, feature an unlikely number of Lakers fans.
On June 15, 2010, the Lakers -- 2009 defending champions -- turned in an impressive performance in a must-win match. Game 7, with both teams tied 3-3, will be, once more, on my birthday. You can guess what I'd like to get for my 30th. (Note to friends reading: I will also expect physically real gifts.) It's almost impossible to overestimate the importance of this game to these teams, to Kobe Bryant, to his legacy and even to the NBA, which is just thanking Allah (who is in fact the same God as God) that the Phoenix Suns did not meet the Orlando Magic in a Finals likely to have been welcomed like Sex and the City 2. It's also amazing how important this remains to me. My first NBA Finals memory was the 1987 match-up between the Lakers and -- who else? -- the Celtics. We won. For only the second time (against them) -- ever. The 1980s were also the rejuvenation of the NBA, with the Lakers and the Celtics representing two Americas, two great teams from either end of the country battling it out. The Lakers won their first title of that era in 1980, the Celtics in 1981; the Celtics won their last title of that era in 1986, and the Lakers in 1988. It wasn't just Kareem Abdul Jabbar who drew me in, not even all the excitement, the energy, the amazing talent.
Because the Celtics were obviously white. They were an America we were too recently arrived in to be part of, to know how to, to want to, to understand or be understood by. How could my Anglo classmates get my experiences, the way my parents were, the reasons for our being here -- or why calling Iraqis ragheads in the Gulf War (1.0) hurt me personally? Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge. Boston was an Irish, working-class town. The Lakers, on the other hand, were from the glamorous megacity with African-American superstars. Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper -- need I go on? Many people make much of how diverse sports teams, especially in international competition, help a majority population come to terms with its minorities. Arabs playing for the French soccer team, or Turkish players on the German team, stick their talented feet in the door, maybe making possible appreciation, tolerance and then acceptance. It works the other way around, too. As a child of immigrants, I was torn between parents who didn't feel fully at home here -- it is perhaps humanly impossible to let go of one place entirely in favor of another -- and an America that I accepted in idea but that didn't always accept me in practice. An African-American convert to Islam became my bridge.
I had friends who, even after years of knowing me, would casually refer to me as black. While part of me felt very cool, another part of me was horrified that these folks didn't know what black was and who wasn't. I had another school acquaintance who couldn't understand why Muslims were neither Catholic nor Protestant. But I could always point to Kareem and say, he's like me. (Though in practically no ways is Kareem, an athletic superstar and celebrity, anything like goofy me. Practically all we have in common is that we are both Muslim, he by conversion and I by birth, we have both written books, his have sold, he coaches Andrew Bynum and I watch.) For Muslims who were coming of age in the 90s, Hakeem Olajuwon played the same role as Kareem did -- and Muhammad Ali before both of them. They were bridges from immigrant attachments to an America that had room for us. (Barack Obama campaigned as the ultimate bridge, linking all the planet.) Because, you see, every idea in the world is contested. When some in the Muslim majority world call for Sharia, they mean very different things by the exact same word, sort of like when people endorse democracy, it tells you nothing of their political proclivities -- whether they are Tea Party agitators, welfare statists, humdrum centrists or far-left socialist radicals. America has been different things to different people.
Religion has often been the only force allowing many Muslims, from colonized -- and African-Americans were, in a sense, the most horrifically colonized -- and traumatized traditional societies to make the transition into a mobile and capitalist world order. Islam isn't supposed to be a time period or a place, but a spiritual solace, a moral compass, a basket of practices, which assist and soothe and direct when you have to leave everything behind, or when you need to decide how best to move forward. There could be something that transcended ineffective government, dying language, satellite television and labor flows. I'm always amused when people make the argument that we shouldn't tolerate mosques here because "they" don't tolerate churches there. Many American Muslims are here precisely to get away from there. (The Muslim-majority world frequently brings to mind a well-armed Clippers team.) Other American Muslims are here because their ancestors were brought here from over there, in chains. How do these populations get fused, to form a common Muslim identity in an America that we all belong to and contribute to? Abdul-Jabbar, Ali, Olajuwon -- they helped thousands of Muslims find a way to practice Islam in America, feeling rooted, authentic and welcome. They helped us decide how to become a part of the place where destiny had brought us, whether on a plane or by sea, years back or centuries ago.
All we had to do was watch and cheer. Everything else happened along the way.