Bulls' Mohammed with work to do before season starts

Sam Smith talks with Chicago’s Nazr Mohammed about returning home and playing for the Bulls, as well as giving back to the city where he grew up.

I like this quote I once read from Maya Angelou about home. She wrote, “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”

Nazr Mohammed didn’t exactly say it quite so elegantly. But in his 14 years journeying around the NBA through seven different cities, there’s always been the heart and spirit of Chicago within him, where he was born and raised, where the strength and resolve of his late father, Tahiru Abdul, was a guiding force for a young man who was not supposed to have a professional career.

He was a lumbering, heavy kid, well over 300 pounds when he went to the University of Kentucky in 1995, beginning an odyssey that has carried him to play for an NBA championship team and be a starting center for almost half his career.

And now at 34, Mohammed finally comes back to Chicago after signing with the Bulls to effectively replace free agent center Omer Asik.

“Being a Chicago guy, playing for the Bulls is one of those things I always dreamed about,” Mohammed said in an interview last week. “My career was going OK and I began to think it never would happen. It kind of left my mind after signing with Detroit (2006). But when the opportunity came, I was really excited to get a chance to play in front of my family and friends, and especially the way I was pursued by coach (Tom) Thibodeau. He and Pax (John Paxson) and Gar (Forman) made me feel real special and that I’d be a piece as far as backing up Joakim (Noah). It’s a perfect situation for me to come home and back up a center on the team I grew up watching.

“It’s not pressure,” Mohammed added. “I’ve played on a big stage throughout my career. I’m a different player from Asik. I’m better offensively. I bring a different dynamic to the team. I’m one of those players willing to do whatever coach Thibs wants, the little things, everything.”

Mohammed has career averages of 6.6 points and 5.2 rebounds. But he has averaged as much as 10.9 points and 8.1 rebounds starting for the Knicks in 2004-05 before being traded at the 2005 deadline. Plus, he’s played in more than 50 playoff games. He’s smaller than Asik, maybe a bit under 6-10, but more a physical, banging player with a softer offensive touch.

And certainly a big heart as one of Mohammed’s first pieces of business in returning to Chicago will be to give back. And as much as he’ll compete on the court, he says he’s also anxious to begin a competition off the court among his fellow NBA players in and from Chicago to score for the Chicago public schools so they can begin to rebound.

Nazr Mohammed
Mohammed was on two national championship teams during his career at Kentucky.

(Brian Bahr/NBAE/Getty Images)

Toward that end, Mohammed is hosting a fundraiser Aug. 24 at Pazzo’s, 311 South Wacker, to raise money for capital improvements at Kenwood Academy, where Mohammed attended high school. The cost is $50 and $75 at the door. Tickets can be obtained from the Mohammed Foundation, 250 West Main Street, Lexington, Ky., or on Mohammed’s web site, NazrMohammed13.com. Mohammed’s foundation will match all the donations received.

I love efforts like this because they produce tangible results. Not that any charitable efforts go unavailing. But I like activities like this, similar to the coat drive Kyle Korver has in the winter. Kids directly benefit. Improvements will begin almost immediately at Kenwood. Kids will be helped.

The idea began for Mohammed during last fall’s lockout. He’d been in contact with an assistant principal at Kenwood. He visited and was disappointed to see the deterioration.

“I saw so much hadn’t been touched,” said Mohammed. “There were needs throughout the school, gym, labs, theater, painting. It almost seemed like it hadn’t been touched since I left. At first, I thought I’d make a donation. But so much needed to be addressed, I realized my donation might not do enough and came up with the idea for the fundraiser.”

It’s another reason Mohammed is glad to be back in Chicago. So he can lift a hand to help where he knows it’s so needed. Mohammed knows the difficulty of life in so many of the neighborhoods as he lost his father in one.

Tahiru Abdul owned an auto body shop on the south side. A man he hired in an act of kindness, Walter Hughes, beat him to death in a robbery. Hughes was sentenced to 42 years about a decade ago. Nazr had been raised by his father after his mother moved to her native Ghana when he was a toddler. With 10 siblings, Nazr became a family guardian after his father’s death.

And family remains strong. He had several team possibilities, and more money from the Nets. But he has three children he wanted to get settled and ready for school and didn’t want to run the risk of being separated from his family going to another city with the chance for everyone to return to Chicago.

He also hoped to remain with a winning situation. Mohammed admits his greatest time in basketball was with the champion Spurs in 2005, and he enjoyed his time with the Thunder last season going to the Finals even though he didn’t play in the Finals with Miami using a small lineup. But he had a contribution of seven points in nine minutes in the playoff clincher against the Lakers. And he always has been a good influence around a young team.

Isiah Thomas was in Chicago last weekend for a south side march against violence and for the official naming of a street (near Homan and Jackson) for his mother, which became Mary Thomas Way. Thomas signed Mohammed when Thomas was Knicks general manager and said of Mohammed: “He’s a good rebounder and always has been an excellent post defender. I found him to be very good with teammates and in the locker room, a good addition to the team. Plus, he’s always been socially conscious, like a lot of the Chicago guys.”

Mohammed said another of the reasons he wanted to play for the Bulls was a chance to play with Derrick Rose after playing with Kevin Durant, both humble young stars he admires.

“It’s definitely tough not having Derrick to start, but it also says a lot about coach Thibs and the guys on the team that even with Derrick out a lot last season they could tie for the best record,” said Mohammed. “I’m excited about that and confident we can get over the hump. And then when Derrick comes back, I know the important thing in the NBA is to be peaking at the right time of year.”

But first there’s some public school business to be done.

“This is for Kenwood, but not just people from Kenwood,” says Mohammed. “We want to get things going for other schools. I’m hoping other players begin to help, make it a competition. Schools like ours can’t always depend on state funding and the neighborhoods don’t have the money like some places. Maybe this can be a great competition to help kids all over out city.”

You can’t help everyone. But you can help someone. Mohammed means to start with Kenwood, and who knows where it can lead. Just like with the Bulls. And as Angelou also wrote, “Nothing will work unless you do.”