The poignant documentary crosses the intersections of sport, faith, gender, and race.
America’s largest documentary festival is the DOC NYC and starts this weekend. The annual event, based in New York City, features some of the most poignant independent films.
One of those films is Life Without Basketball.
It will premier on Saturday evening alongside some of the most popular entries in the festival. It has already sold out and it’s not hard to understand why.
This feature-length documentary, co-directed by Tim O’Donnell and Jon Mercer of Pixela Pictura, chronicles the story of Muslim African-American basketball player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir.
It’s a riveting film. One that tugs at the heartstrings but it makes one look critically at the spaces in sports where there is discrimination and exclusion.
Abdul-Qaadir is the highest scoring prep basketball player in Massachusetts state history. She played Division I basketball at the University of Memphis and Indiana State. But when she graduated and aspired towards a professional career, a rule from the international governing body of basketball (FIBA) stated that she would not be permitted to play because she chooses to wear a headscarf.
This left Abdul-Qaadir with no choice but to be sidelined. She decided to fight the rule. She was instrumental in campaigning FIBA to lift their ridiculous hijab ban, which they did in 2017.
Life Without Basketball is about her fight, her faith, her resilience and about her life that could possibly be without basketball.
It takes us on Abdul-Qaadir’s journey away from the court when she couldn’t play, to classrooms to speak about this with the wider community, to gyms where she continued training, to the White House to meet President Obama (and beat him in a game of HORSE!), to FIBA headquarters where she was invited to go and discuss her experiences, and to her home where she shares this issue with her family.
I interviewed Abdul-Qaadir about the process of filming and whether she was nervous or reluctant about it. “I was more or so nervous about the questions they asked; especially Jon. He always found a way to ask the most deep questions and I would end up crying answering every time.”
Full disclosure: Abdul-Qaadir is a close friend of mine. In fact, I make a small cameo in the documentary. I met Abdul-Qaadir’s family and friends when I attended her wedding last year. I was taken in with their humour, charm and kindness. They were certainly an incredible support system and this is very much the root of Abdul-Qaadir’s identity. She comes from a family of athletes: her siblings played ball, her niece plays ball, and her husband is a player and a professional basketball trainer. They all support her dream. Their warmth, loyalty and support are also key in this story.
When O’Donnell and Mercer started filming over four years ago, they did not think this project would take them to all over the United States and the Middle East, and use up over 300-plus hours of footage. But one of the most memorable places they visited was the kitchen of the Abdul-Qaadir’s family home in Springfield.
“They treated us like family,” O’Donnell said. “When you think of the amount of trust they had in us, it’s actually unbelievable.”
He explains how Tariq and Alooah, Abdul-Qaadir’s, parents joked and laughed with him and Mercer. He likens them to his own tight-knit clan, and that is very much what is captured in the film. They are a relatable and totally normal American family. There are moments of joy and there is struggle. Watching their child be torn away from basketball, for which she has a God-given talent and an incredible work ethic, is not an easy thing to endure.
It seems as if the Abdul-Qaadir’s could write a manual on how to be patient and persevere in the face of adversity and challenge. You want to climb into the screen and join them in their discussions which are profound, reflective and important.
“[O’Donnell and Mercer] did a great job humanizing and the dynamics of an African-American Muslim family,” said Abdul-Qaadir. “It showed that regardless of our of beliefs, race or culture, we all go through our trials and tribulations. The only difference would be how we navigate through adversity.”
It is wonderful to witness Abdul-Qaadir grow from a young college student facing an obstacle she never dreamed would occur, to a formidable woman with an indomitable spirit. This journey shapes much of who she is now: an incredible public speaker, athlete-activist, mentor and a coach. She has publicly spoken about how this journey has made her rethink wearing her hijab. It has made her think about her own identity as a Black Muslim woman.
To watch her struggle with a hijab ban is very compelling. O’Donnell and Mercer felt very strongly about her being a “real and raw” character. She is humble, and she is not pretentious. O’Donnell also told me that Abdul-Qaadir was not performative, despite the cameras being around her for 50 full days of shooting over a period of four years.
“She didn’t talk to the camera for the sake of talking,” he explains.
I asked O’Donnell, a former teacher, why he felt this story was important to tell. He says that he was intrigued when he initially heard about Abdul-Qaadir’s plight from her former teammate.
“We were shocked when we heard about FIBA’s ban,” he says. As O’Donnell and I discussed the experience of making this film, he also explains how he and Mercer became invested in the family, and also in FIBA’s response. It was always about justice.
As two non-Muslim, male filmmakers, O’Donnell and Mercer got access to various parts of the Muslim community in Springfield and across America, where Abdul-Qaadir spoke or taught. At times they just sat and listened to the stories being shared by women at an Islamic society conference. Perhaps that is why the film is so compelling: O’Donnell and Mercer are able to capture the humanity and the dignity of a story and relay it on-screen.
Abdul-Qaadir reiterates that O’Donnell and Mercer are more than just filmmakers to her and her family. “I trusted them then, and I trust them now,” she said. “I’m glad I allowed them to tell my story and give my family a voice.”
The film isn’t a happily-ever-after tale, but that’s the point. It is a story that has a place in sports history, and that take us on an often-emotional journey. Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir has cemented a place within basketball, when it looked like the world of basketball didn’t want to include her.
Life Without Basketball is an incredible film that crosses the intersections of sport, faith, gender, and race. It is one that can be used to teach, share messages about family, strength and love; and one that subtly uses basketball as a bridge to other important conversations.