Far From The Tree
Mustapha Farrakhan has the skills to land a D1 Scholarship, guaranteed playing time and even a spot in the NBA. But is his game good enough to carry the weight of his name?
They come here to be watched. That's the whole point. The teenagers invited to Richmond each June for the NBA's Top 100 prep camp are all hoping to get noticed. Split among four courts at the Siegel Center on the Virginia Commonwealth campus, they peek at the bleachers after every dunk, watching the watchers, trying to see if the 50 or so Internet scouts and TV and newspaper reporters are impressed. A mention could set up the preps for a rankings boost just in time for the sneaker camp circuit and maybe get them a long look from a major college program.
Over on Court 3, in the far-right corner of the gym, Mustapha Farrakhan Jr. applauds each of his teammates' makes. He swishes a three and nods at the guard who set him up. When his team falls behind, he hits another deep three and barks,
"Let's go!" That's what point guard prospects do when they know people are watching.
And a lot of people are watching Farrakhan. In Richmond, the most conspicuous among them is a rotund dude in a red T-shirt, the one with his belly pressed against a rail above the court—the one trying to not be noticed as he scopes the kid, then the bleachers, then the kid again. By the second day of camp, his cover is totally blown. Paunchy Guy springs to his feet whenever anyone who's not a camper tries to approach Farrakhan off the court. That's what bodyguards do.
As Mustapha's teammates crowd around him after another strong performance, they seem to be the only ones oblivious to the weight of his family name. Their high fives and fist-bumps would help any player stand out. Even better for Farrakhan, he's showing that he fits in.
IT'S MID-AUGUST now, no more camps, no more time for procrastination. Senior year is fast approaching, so Li'l Mu (who's 6'3") stretches his bony legs under his family's dining room table and hunkers down with a No. 2 pencil, carefully filling out the Scantron bubbles of his ACT application. His PDA buzzes nonstop with text messages from other top-ranked preps he has befriended over the summer. It's a welcome distraction. "This thing is long, man," he says, rolling his head back and sighing. "Ma, when do I have to send this in?"
The 17-year-old Farrakhan, an honor student and the captain of the Thornton Township (Ill.) basketball team, carries the high cheekbones and proud posture of his grandfather Louis, the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, whose smile looms over Mu's shoulder from a banner-size portrait hanging on the wall. After his selection to the all-star game at the Nike Invitational, Mu went from being a below-the-radar mid-major recruit to getting courted by Vanderbilt, Virginia and the Big Ten (Wisconsin, Illinois, Penn State). Hoops watchers buzzed about his range and his fearlessness against supposedly better talent.
But now that he's made a name for himself as a smooth and unselfish player, Farrakhan is forcing everyone else to reconcile their new perceptions with some old ones. "Because of how people perceive my grandfather, I always thought they probably wouldn't want me on their college team," he says. "I know I have to earn everything, and I don't mind. But it's always going to make it hard."
Within days of Nike camp's wrap, the Internet bubbled with columns and blogs on the young Farrakhan, one even proclaiming that it's "a sure bet grandson Mustapha hates Jews and 'Crackers' just like dear old granddaddy." College coaches had already begun cautiously probing at the camp, most sending black assistants to test the waters with Mustapha Sr. before showing interest in his son. One Big 12 coach let slip that he had envisioned a bow-tied army blocking his path; instead, he found himself shaking hands with a father clad in denim shorts and a baseball cap.
The Farrakhans are quick to stress that they're just a typical family. Of course, it's not that simple. Mustapha Sr., the Supreme Captain of the Nation of Islam, is often rumored to be the successor to the 73-year-old Minister, who's in poor health. The family lives in a well-appointed home, in the comfortable Chicago suburb of Crete. (It isn't quite the palace an NBA player would buy for himself, but it's definitely the type he'd buy for his mama.) There, Li'l Mu attended the area's mostly white schools until 10th grade, when he transferred to Thornton for tougher competition. With four extroverted sisters (three older, one younger), Mu had trouble getting a word in at the dinner table, but he hosted frequent sleepovers as a kid. What he didn't do was spend the night at someone else's house. The Farrakhans are forever worried about their safety, double-locking the doors and incessantly checking their rearview mirrors. When you're the brood of an accused anti-Semite and race-baiter, you tend to be a little more careful.
Also, typical teens aren't rubbing elbows with their favorite stars. The Minister's work within the hip-hop community got Mu a spot hanging with Fat Joe's team at Rucker Park last year. And ever since Mustapha Sr. counseled members of Shaq's entourage about a regional beef during the Biggie-Tupac rift in the mid-'90s, O'Neal has remained in close contact with the family, inviting them to stay at his Orlando home and coming to Mu's games when he's in town. The teen even has a photo album of pics Shaq took of him with starters from the 2003 NBA All-Star Game. Shaq's mentoring gives Mu the same access to the high-powered celebrity inner circle that his father had growing up under the wings of Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali.
It also underscores that father and son came of age during very different times for the Nation of Islam. In the '60s and '70s, the Minister was gone for weeks at a time, his face plastered on newspapers and television screens. Mustapha Sr. was keenly aware that his father had taken over for Malcolm X as spokesman for the NOI. Li'l Mu, on the other hand, was only 7 when he attended the Million Man March, and he wasn't even born when the Minister called Hitler a "wickedly great man."
A generation removed from his grandfather, Mu seemingly carries none of the Minister's divisive baggage. Like any teen who tries a little too hard to look like he's not trying hard to be cool, Farrakhan diligently works at fitting in. He joins his teammates in reciting the Lord's Prayer before each game, then says his own silent prayer to Allah. He doesn't fast during Ramadan because he needs to keep his strength for basketball season. He's not a halftime speechifier, but he's notoriously vocal on court and a joke-telling ringleader off of it. "The team just gravitated to him being captain," says Thornton coach Troy Jackson. "It was already so before I even put a name on it, no vote needed or anything."
And yet Mu will forever contend with the fallout from speeches he's never heard because the name on the back of his jersey stands out. Granted, it's not so bad playing in Chicago, the NOI's headquarters, in a mostly black public school league. Here, the Minister is known more for staying fresh to death in a stretch Lexus limo and trying to broker a truce between 50 Cent and Ja Rule on MTV (kind of worked). When Mu first arrived at Thornton, he fielded his share of the requisite Farrakhan questions, but the curiosity of his peers is a little different from what it would be at, say, Cameron Indoor Stadium. "Everyone always asks me what it's like," he says of spending time with his grandfather. "When we visit, it's exactly the same as going to anyone else's grandparents' house."
That's probably true of family cookouts at the Minister's farm in Michigan, but it's not exactly a Huxtable scene when Mu's granddad drops by a game at Thornton and his NOI entourage takes up an entire section of the gym. And while Mu insists that his concerns are the same as any other recruit's in his position—playing time, national exposure, NBA prospects, academics—he must also weigh the likelihood of kidnapping threats and factor in how many mosques are in a specific area so he can attend college in a safe environment.
His father has already started to school him on how campus life might change outside of Chicago. "I don't want anyone to look at him because of what they may perceive about his grandfather and try to attach that to him," Mustapha Sr. says, his voice rising. "But if you want to besmirch my son, well … okay, let's think the same way about you. We don't have a history of lynching nobody. We don't have a history of killing nobody."
The elder Farrakhan talks in the urgent and forceful cadence of his own father, who still smiles down from the wall. Mustapha Sr. points to Li'l Mu: "This is a fruit of my tree, and I'm a fruit of that tree. When you want to take a peek into the life of the one behind him [he points to the Minister's picture], you talk to the children. See if you find racism in them. See if you find hatred in them. We're not about that." Mu's gentle character, he argues, should be the truest window into the Farrakhan family. Every postgame interview with the media, every pregame handshake with opponents—Mu's demeanor, his father insists, will serve to clear up all those preconceived notions of hate.
It's a powerful sermon, and one that's quickly simplified by a 17-year-old who's just hoping he'll choose the right school, hoping for a scholarship, hoping it all goes smoothly.
"If you get to know me," says Mu, looking up from the table, "you'll be like, 'Man, he's a really nice guy.' "
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