The first in an ongoing series, Jimmy Ness will converse with international athletes to discover how basketball is played and perceived around the globe. He’ll discuss the cultural flair they bring to ballin, their greatest successes, off-court challenges and future hoop dreams.
The bustling metropolis of Amman sits within Jordan’s sun-scorched hillside. Pharaoh Ptolemy II dubbed the region “Philadelphus” after his own alias. A millennium and multiple dynasties later; a stateside settler recycled the title for a Pennsylvanian colony. He christened the future home of The 76ers; “Philadelphia,” due to its translated meaning “brotherly love.”
Amman’s basketball ruler Mahmoud Abdeen continues the historic exchange. The MVP of Jordan’s premier league, Abdeen forged his gameplay on Philadelphia royalty. His signature crossover into step-back three was defined by hours of mimicking durag don A.I.
“[As a kid] I remember I was watching Allen Iverson,” Abdeen recalls. “I [would] go to my garden and I was trying to make his move. I had a video of him crossing over, stepping back, like repeating the shot again and again.”
Trained via NBA highlight reel, Mahmoud’s heat-seeking jumper is a crack-shot. A hardwood sniper, the 32-year-old Jordanian meditates to the sound of swishes. He repped Jordan in the FIBA world cup twice and proudly carries the nation on his back.
Like kids all over the world, Abdeen was introduced to ballin’ via Michael Jordan’s global crusade. The Bulls were very much his team. In our interview, his admiration is steadfast; Abdeen is firmly an MJ fan. His childhood ritual was the same as anyone with a loosely enforced bedtime, siblings and access to paid TV.
“The NBA was on at 3am in Jordan, so it’s hard to watch. You have to sleep, wake up, then go to sleep again.
“There was a TV in my room and I was with my oldest brother. He was the one that loved Michael Jordan a lot [before me], so I woke up with him and we’d watch together and then go to sleep. My family didn’t know about that,” Abdeen laughs.
As per tradition; the 6’3 point guard initially played soccer. Jordan’s national pursuit, they’ve been kicking goals since the Ottoman Empire. From Aqaba to Irbid, every alleyway and street corner is a pitch in the making.
During Mahmoud’s adolescence, Basketball was a relatively niche activity. Incidentally, his cousin was also a rare player. He suggested on a whim that Abdeen try-out for renowned local club Orthodox.
“I was 13 years old, so I went there and I practised with the team. The coach loves me, he tells me ‘I want you to play [in] the tournament.’ He put me [in the] starting five and we won first place. So my first year in basketball, I was one of the most important players in the team. I was [in the] starting five and we won the championship.”
A Jordanian kid imitating MJ and The Answer was uncommon; sticking with the pursuit was singular. You had to really, really love basketball. There were half a dozen courts in a nation of 10 million. Just like becoming a nocturnal NBA viewer, chasing a hoops career took some nerve. It was kind of a weird thing to do. But Mahmoud had a mission.
“I never stopped, I had my plan to be a pro basketball player. Even when I was in school and they told me ‘you have to study, don’t go to the practice’ or ‘stop playing basketball’ or ‘stop playing basketball until you finish school.’ I had my own plan. I kept going to practice. You always have to have a plan and you have to work hard and fight for your plan.”
Since his FIBA debut in 2013, Abdeen’s become a basketball prototype. He exemplifies Jordan’s potential. Now over a decade into his career, the point man speaks with the confidence of someone who’s earned their rank. Mahmoud’s become pals with Middle Eastern athletes he grew up admiring. To great personal pride, Jordan’s King and Crown Prince, who watch all national games, witnessed his world cup performance. Fans ask to snap photos in restaurants, he owns several businesses and regularly appears on TV.
Abdeen’s currently rostered to Al Wehdat FC, a former Palestinian refugee camp, now Jordan’s most famous club. He grew up witnessing the team’s soccer accolades, but their hoop endeavours lacked potency. Like Michael Jordan’s unrelenting ambition when drafted to Chicago in ‘84, Mahmoud wasn’t just there for the ride. He wanted his name etched in gold; championship gold. Last year, he delivered. Al Wehdat FC snatched the bag, Abdeen made history and the side’s fanbase found their hero.
“You can’t imagine the fans of Wehdat. I think they’re the best in the world, and I’m not joking about this. Our game was at 8pm, I went for a shoot around at 10am and the fans would be waiting eight hours before the game. Then they open the doors at four, at four-thirty the gym is full. They keep singing until 10pm, even when we finish the game they keep singing, they never stop. You can’t imagine how good they are, ” he proudly muses.
“When we play in China, Philippines, Korea, Thailand, even in New Zealand, we have our fans. I’ve never been to a country and not seen our fans. They support us around the world.”
Abdeen’s pals compare his current game to Kyrie. He’s an ankle snapper, nice under the rim and dangerous beyond the arc.
Mahmoud says although basketball’s changing, he loves the two-man game. His coaches moulded him based on Steve Nash’s repertoire. They’d analyse Phoenix Suns matches and would conjure pick and roll strategies inspired by Nash.
As only the second generation of pro baller, Abdeen’s career was largely uncharted. He says parents, even coaches, don’t take the full vista of athletic careers seriously. Despite partnerships with Huawei, Swatch and Hyundai, he still encounters orthodox attitudes.
“Everyone [has] asked me in Jordan, what’s your job?” Mahmoud notes. “I’d tell them I’m a pro basketball player, they’ll ask me again ‘okay, and what’s your job?’ They expect me to say I’m in a company or something like this. It’s hard to tell someone that I’m a pro basketball player.”
Abdeen’s lifework is printed across his shoulders. He dons the number zero as a mandate for change. It was the last digit humanity discovered, but of key importance. The omega of numbers, its discovery irreversibly impacted formulas of mathematics and science. Zero also revolutionized technology as a coding language. Mahmoud sees his path as the epitome of this numeric flint-spark.
“I have to change it so that everyone in Jordan knows that it’s very good for your son [or daughter] to be a pro-player. We don’t have this mentality in Jordan,” he asserts.
“I think after I stop playing basketball, I will make [it] my business to change sport in Jordan. Not only basketball, but all of the sports. Everything, even the mentality of the parents. I have to change everything.”
If anyone can widen Jordan’s sports vista, it just might be Mahmoud Abdeen.