Family Sacrifices Paved Way for NBA Dreams
Abdel Nader, Hamidou Diallo and Dennis Schröder share a bond on their way to the NBA.
By Nick Gallo | Digital Content Reporter | firstname.lastname@example.org
In short shorts and a bow tie, a classic British-style schoolboy outfit popular in his old country, 7-year-old Abdel Nader walked into the lion’s den of Chicago’s Apollo Elementary School.
“Everybody is looking at me like, ‘Yo, what are you doing?’,” Nader recalled.
The newly-arrived Egyptian immigrant didn’t know any better, and he wouldn’t for a while. How can you understand why you’re being teased when you don’t even know the language?
“They were gettin’ me,” Nader chuckled. “Those kids get after it if they get the chance.”
Nearly two decades ago, in a sea of late ‘90s jeans and t-shirts, flannels and hoodies, someone who looked different and talked different strode into school wearing something very, very different.
“I was just confused. I wouldn’t even call it culture shock, because I didn’t even have a culture of my own yet,” Nader explained, recounting that teachers thought he wasn’t smart because he never spoke in class. “I was still growing up. It wasn’t like I lived in Egypt until I was 16 and then I came over and there were completely different norms. I didn’t even get the time to adjust to those norms.”
Through basketball, Nader received a college education, found his calling and carved out a comfortable place in American society. Now, in 2019, Nader has two Thunder teammates in Hamidou Diallo and Dennis Schröder who can relate with their own growing pains.
Each day the 10-year old Nader waited at Chicago’s Washington Park until everyone left the basketball court, then he’d go out and play by himself.
Eventually a kid named Latrelle began to join him and make him play one-on-one. Silently they’d play, until one day when Latrelle finally stopped and asked, “Do you have any video games?”
“No,” Nader replied, dejectedly. “Do you?”
“No,” admitted Latrelle. Then a lightbulb turned on. “Let’s go to my cousin’s house!”
Young Abdel had made a friend.
Nader’s parents, Ahmed Youssef and Amina Rehama, never had the time or energy to make friends between constantly working and focusing on family. They brought Abdel and his older sister Sheri over to the United States from Alexandria, Egypt, when they were just toddlers.
They stayed in tenant homes to live near an uncle who had married an American woman years before. The Naders weren’t technically refugees, but the United States government understood why they came west, gave them refugee visas and provided a landing spot for families like theirs to get on their feet.
“I’m just grateful. They didn’t have to do what they did. It took a lot of courage to do what they did. They left everything behind. I don’t know if I could have done that.”
Eight immigrant families -- from Asia, Africa, India and Egypt -- lived on one floor in those Chicago tenant homes, sharing time in the communal bathroom despite the language barrier. There was no time for Ahmed and Amina to worry about bridging the gap and making friends though. Their sole focus, as it has been for the last 20 years, was to provide for their children and open doors for them.
“They sacrificed everything for a better life for me and my sister,” Nader said.
Ahmed, formerly an educated, high-ranking officer in the Egyptian military, left his relative comfort and career in his home country to find employment as a janitor in Chicago.
Amina worked as a hospice nurse. It was far from glamorous, and often a humbling and difficult life. But compared to what they left behind – a country mired in the excesses of total government control and the denial of personal freedoms – America was a dream.
“The way they described (America) to me is that it’s a place to rebuild,” Nader said. “There’s no limits.”
Back in Egypt in the ‘90s, the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, who eventually served for a total of 30 years, was taking an alarming turn. In 1995 and 1999, two foundational freedoms held dear in the 1st Amendment of the United States’ Bill of Rights, Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Association, were hampered by punitive laws, effectively neutralizing avenues for political discourse, dissent and expression.
Terrorist attacks against Christians, foreign tourists and government officials were becoming more prevalent, as were assassination attempts on Mubarak due to his diplomacy towards Israel. Despite all of that turmoil, Mubarak was the longest-serving ruler in Egypt since the early 1800s.
“We were supposed to be in a regular democracy,” Nader noted sarcastically.
For fear of legal punishment, Mubarak’s photo was hung in nearly every room of each Egyptian house. The economy was, to put it kindly, tilted towards government officials and celebrities. Nader recalls being unable to walk down city streets without seeing tanks or soldiers.
“There wasn’t really any opportunity for like a low-class or middle-class family to benefit themselves,” he said. “Basically everybody was living in poverty.”
Still, even now understanding the danger and hopelessness of the situation they left, Nader is in awe of his parents’ choice to risk it all and come to the United States. It took a massive leap of faith, trust in America’s stated ideals and an incredible amount of hard work and humility.
“I’m just grateful. They didn’t have to do what they did. It took a lot of courage to do what they did. They left everything behind,” he said. “I don’t know if I could have done that.”
Nader’s story is unique to many, but when the forward came to the Thunder last summer, he met two teammates whose parents made comparable sacrifices.
Rookie guard Hamidou Diallo’s family charted the most similar path. After coming over from the West African country of Guinea, Diallo’s parents, Abdoulaye and Marima, had their four children and raised them in a small apartment in Queens, N.Y. In Lefrak City, an enormous high-rise apartment complex that houses 14,000 residents on 40 acres, the Diallos had to navigate the challenges, temptations and dangers of a crowded living environment.
The day-to-day might not have been easier, but the opportunities for the Diallo children have been miles beyond what was imaginable back in Guinea. Hamidou had a late growth spurt, enrolled in Putnam Science Academy prep school in Connecticut and spent two years at the University of Kentucky. His other siblings have excelled in their own rights, and on the night of the NBA Draft in 2018, Abdoulaye and Marima were able to watch their son blaze a rare and prestigious trail, one that would have been far less likely if not for their move to the States.
“My parents sacrificed a lot for me and my siblings,” Diallo said. “They wanted to come over here and make sure that me, my sisters and brother have a good career and have a chance to better us and better the family. I just thank my parents each and every day for that.”
For point guard Dennis Schröder, the immigrant experience happened in two parts, in divergent but equally transformative ways to Nader and Diallo. A year before Dennis was born, his mother Agifatou took a chance on a German man named Axel Schröder and left the West African country of Gambia for a life in Braunschweig, a city just west of Berlin.
Without that decision by his mother, Dennis would never have been identified as a basketball prodigy, been able to look up to an idol like Dirk Nowitzki or hone his craft in the structured German environment. He also would have never chosen to ditch his trusty skateboard and devote his life to basketball in honor of his dad, who passed away when Dennis was a teenager.
“I promised my dad that one day I would be in the NBA to help my whole family,” Schröder said.
His mother always encouraged him to be bold and take chances – both as a basketball player and a person – and by dying a gold streak into his hair, to stand out in the crowd.
With that family pride burning inside him, Dennis knew that he must make a choice like his mother once did. He had to leave his home country of Germany and head across the Atlantic for the opportunity at a better life and a career in the NBA.
Staying in Europe and playing professionally might have been the easier, more comfortable decision. For Schröder, the decision to head West was one borne of gratitude for the same risk his own mother took, and for the legacy of the late father who raised him.
“Off-season is important to me to go back and see everything I saw growing up in Germany,” Schröder said. “That’s why I go to Gambia, Africa where my mom is from, because there are people that really don’t have nothing but they have to be thankful every day.”
Dennis Schröder: Part 1 - The Journey
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Dennis Schröder: Part 2 - The Pride.
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The NBA is comprised of human beings from all over the world, but there’s something special about the journeys for these three Thunder players. Their paths all converged in Oklahoma City – a place that likely none of their parents knew existed when their sons were born and didn’t have an NBA team until 2008.
Basketball is a global game, and one that embraces players no matter where they’re from, as long as they can make the cut.
For this Thunder trio, a hardscrabble, transition-laden background might have been just what was necessary to endure the rigors of competition, travel and dedication required of an NBA player. They’re all together now in OKC, and they have their parents, even if they’re too modest to take the credit, as a shining example of what’s possible for the next generation with the proper sacrifice.
“That’s where I got my work ethic from,” Nader said of his parents. “They’re extremely proud. I always tell them I have a lot more work to do.”
Nick Gallo has been with the Thunder since 2012 and serves as the team’s Digital Content Reporter for okcthunder.com and Sideline Reporter for Fox Sports Oklahoma.