‘Basketball comes third’: Faith and family led Kings coach to Sydney

By Emma Kemp

New Sydney Kings coach Mahmoud Abdelfatta.Credit: James Brickwood

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″Have you ever been to the States?” When Mahmoud Abdelfattah asks this question, he most definitely does not mean New York. Do not say New York, do not say New York. “New York.” The corners of his mouth curl up slightly, and he emits a “pfft” as if to spit in the general direction of New York. Abdelfattah is from Chicago – the real deal.

He has a Spalding slung under one arm, down by his side, and is reeling off the states in which he has lived. Illinois. Minnesota. Texas. He does not get to NSW, and frankly it does not have the same ring to it anyway. “Always on the hustle,” pipes up our photographer taking his picture. Abdelfattah’s face lights up. “My wife says that.”

New Sydney Kings coach Mahmoud Abdelfattah at the Auburn Basketball Centre.Credit: James Brickwood

He has been hustling well this past decade. It was only about 10 years ago he was still teaching high-school hoops. Since then he has coached in college and the G-League, and been an NBA assistant at the Houston Rockets. Now he is head coach of the Sydney Kings, a month into the pre-season and already appearing well at home with the defending two-time NBL-winning champions he has just taken over from the departed Chase Buford. The Kings opened their season last weekend with a 96-81 win over the Illawarra Hawks.

A lot has changed at the Kings since the latest grand final win in March, with last season’s entire starting line-up and coach replaced. Right now, the new cohort is huddled around a courtside screen for a tactical video session. Some players, such as NBA veteran Denzel Valentine – an even more recent signing than his new coach – and the returned Jaylen Adams, stand as they watch. Others sit on the polished floor. All are being peppered with questions as if they are some of the school children Abdelfattah is qualified to teach. He ends with a “god bless”.

During the subsequent drills session he is animated but not given to smiling. Sharp-witted and just as quick on his feet, he commands conscientiousness. He has what one might call “presence”. This all makes the fact he is 34 years old feel a bit discombobulating. It is the kind of one-sided achievement-to-youth ratio that has everybody else 34 or older wondering what we’ve been doing with our lives. After a post-practice pep talk and another “god bless”, he arrives at the court next door to have his photo taken.

Abdelfattah gives instructions to import Denzel Valentine during pre-season training.Credit: James Brickwood

Now that the real work is done, he is ready to joke around. “Who’s who? You gotta ask these questions – you never know, you might be the owner of the newspaper.” We confirm neither of us owns the newspaper. “God has blessed us,” he says. Abdelfattah is laughing this time, but his faith is infused into his identity. It is not just in name that he is the first Muslim or Palestinian head coach across the NBA, G-League and NBL; his religious values inform his leadership style and his approach to personal success.

It obviously impressed Kings chief executive Chris Pongrass, part-owners Andrew Bogut and Luc Longley, and majority owner and chair Paul Smith, because he was offered the job a couple of days after interviewing. “I was just myself,” he says. “Through interview processes, people try to be who they are not, and they try to be the people others want them to be.

“Not me, because the day I get this job you know who I’m going to be. And it’s not like ‘wait, hold on, we didn’t talk about that’ – they know who I am. Religion comes first. Family comes second. Basketball comes third. The time I will commit to basketball is going to be more than the other two, by far. But where my mind is, and what I care for, it’s for the other two. It’s never going to flip-flop. And that’s put me in the position to be here and given me my work ethic.”

‘I want to do a better job of understanding where I’ve come from.’

Last month, during his first press conference, Abdelfattah said he had spoken with Buford about what he could expect at the club and Australia in general. A journalist asked where Buford had recommended he live, and Abdelfattah answered Bondi, which is about as original as New York. He did not mention to the gathered media that he actually lives in Olympic Park and specifically chose that location. It is just up the road from where the Kings train at the Auburn Basketball Centre and, more importantly, just up the road from the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque.

“The Turkish mosque is right here, it’s literally right across the street,” he says, pointing over his head. “On Fridays, when we have Jumu’ah prayer, which is our sermon, I walk straight over from here. I’m at the mosque for morning prayer at 5.20, so that dictated that for me. And then it’s by a train for my wife. It’s safe, and it’s close to the facilities.

“There are mosques by the beach but they are smaller mosques. At this one they’ve got middle school, elementary school, a home for the elderly – it’s like a neighbourhood.” This part of Sydney rivals most others for food. “Yes, yes. Oh my god, Lebanese food, oh my goodness. I tell everyone how we do it culturally. There’s only one of you? Here’s five dishes, try ’em all. Welcome.” He spreads his arms, figuratively laying out the banquet for one. “Food brings happiness, peace. It’s conversation.”

Abdelfattah was born and raised in Chicago as the second-youngest of seven siblings – he has three sisters and three brothers. His parents both immigrated to the city from Palestine in the late 1960s, during the mass exodus from territories captured by Israel.

“We had some talks about it, but truly not much,” he says. “That’s one thing for me: I want to do a better job of understanding where I’ve come from. I know who I am – I’m Palestinian. But do I really know the geography? Do I know the history? I don’t. I know the lifestyle because I visited 25 years ago, but it’s been a very long time.”

Until the eighth grade he attended a private Muslim school, and then did his high-school years in the public system. It was after that, while studying at public community college Wilbur Wright, where he was an All-American, that he was recruited by St Cloud State University in Minnesota. During that time, under coach Kevin Schlagel, he realised he wasn’t good enough to make the NBA.

Abdelfattah’s faith is infused with his identity as a man and a basketball coach.Credit: James Brickwood

“That’s when I realised the difference of my talent compared to the others,” Abdelfattah says. “People say they want to be an NBA or footy player since they were two years old. I am sure 99 per cent of people want to do that, but a very small per cent get there. So when I went to St Cloud State, I knew I wanted to be around coaching, because the opportunity the coach gave me to fulfil my dreams and get my school paid for – I had zero debt – I wanted to be able to help somebody fulfil their dreams and get their school paid for, be able to make a living and care for your family.”

He was still completing his Masters in Education Administration, to complement his Bachelor of Education, Physical Education Teaching and Coaching, so joined the coaching staff as a student-assistant. It was a baptism of fire. At 21, he was only a year older than some of the former teammates he was now coaching, and still roomed with a couple. When he was running drills he could see them pulling faces and making comments, and had to learn fast how to be a friend to everyone while staying true to his new role.

After a period away, he returned to the NCAA Division II side, and from there got his professional coaching break in the G-League. With the Rio Grande Valley Vipers he won two G-League titles – one as an assistant and one as head coach.

“Two days before our first game, our head of media came up to me,” Abdelfattah says. “And he’s like, ‘Hey, you’re the first Muslim and/or Palestinian head coach in all of the NBA or G-League’. And I’m like, ‘You mean forever?’. He will also be the first in the NBL, and one of the first across all Australian sport.

He was promoted to head coach just before the 2019-20 season and shortly after returning from Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca where he had prayed he would get the job. After 2021-22, he was named NBA G-League coach of the year and in 2022 the Vipers’ NBA affiliate Houston brought him in as an assistant.

Each of these moves, towards the obvious long-term objective of an NBA head coaching gig, Abdelfattah puts down to his faith. That was not always a given. He remembers his parents praying five times a day since he was a child, but he himself participated only “once in a while”. It was his mother’s death from a heart attack when he was 19 which fundamentally altered his attitude towards religion.

Abdelfattah with Andrew Bogut and Sydney Kings chief executive Chris Pongrass late last month.Credit: Getty

“The older you get, it’s not easier, but it’s more understanding,” he says. “That’s what really changed me, just being the best individual I can be. I really realised you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Losing my mum was the hardest thing, but it was probably the thing that changed my life the most for the good. From that point forward, I was more into religion and praying, and over the last 10 years it just clicked for me.

“We’re here for a test. I mean, everything we do is for a test and to want to be better. It’s common sense – there are rules in your job you have to progress. If you don’t, you’ll get fired. If you do well, you get promoted. So in life, you get rewarded at the end. For me, that’s why every day is a blessing.

“I try to think about the positive and the glass half full. Things can happen good and bad, it just depends how you look at it. Sometimes you win or you lose the game. Some coaches, you can’t even approach them after. I hope – and I think – you won’t know whether we won or lost based on my body language or the look on my face.”

Abdelfattah defines his playing philosophy as up-tempo but also malleable to the idiosyncrasies of the roster.

Unsurprisingly, he has been asked “a million times” about the pressure to match the feats of Buford, who also happens to be 34. He reaches for a couple of analogies about new chapters and new pages, and then simply adds, “use whatever words you want to use” to describe the team’s wholesale changes.

The main message is his desire “to be the coach I always wanted to play for”.

“I can either make them hate this job or make them love it,” he says. “I’m caring, I’m genuine, I’m loving, but there’s also no middle ground. It’s either you do it or you don’t, and that’s how we’re going to be. Prayer is at 5.20am – you either miss it or you don’t. Practice starts at this time – you’re either late or you’re not. One second late is the same as 50 minutes late.

“If the players agree to it, and we’re all on the same page, we may win more than we lose. We hope we’re a successful team at the end of the season. But if they’re healthy, in a good place mentally and I can get the most out of them, that’s all you can ask.”

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