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From the Court to Cairo: Alaa Abdelnaby Celebrates for Egypt

Feb 12, 2011 – 10:00 PM
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Kevin Blackistone

Kevin Blackistone %BloggerTitle%

Late last month, when the protests that would revolutionize Egypt first began to roil, Alaa Abdelnaby got a call from his agent. The agent wanted to know if his client was interested in hitting the U.S. television talking-head circuit to discuss what was unfolding in the country considered the heart of the Arab world.

Who better than Abdelnaby, after all? He was born in Egypt, kept an apartment in Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, and lived in northern New Jersey, where he was reared and went on to some fame in the United States as an NBA power forward and first-round draft pick from a Duke team that finished the 1990 NCAA tournament as a runner-up to the national championship.

"I thought about it," Abdelnaby, now a college basketball analyst for CBS and Westwood One, told me Saturday by phone from New Jersey.

But after his mother cautioned him, his father went even further, and Abdelnaby recalled how he kept his Alexandria apartment's windows closed "because you never know who is listening," he decided to keep his thoughts private -- until now.

"Because," he explained, "of my family back there."

Some of his family on his father's side was in the government, he said. ("Not on a high level where they were robbing and stealing," he said, "but nonetheless they're ... painted with the same broad brush.") Other parts of his family were on the outside looking in.

Yet, all were living under President Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship that Human Rights Watch -- an independent global watchdog organization on human rights – stated recently continues to suppress political dissent, arbitrarily detains thousands of people without charge, muzzles media and uses deadly force against migrants and refugees attempting to flee.

Hence, Abdelnaby's reticence.

He wasn't alone. Through a spokesman, the Egyptian goalkeeper coach for the U.S. Soccer team, Zak Abdel, also declined to speak publicly last week.

"Nothing was going to happen to me here," Abdelnaby said.

But he knew all too well how Mubarak's government maintained power the past 30 years until Mubarak was chased from office Friday. Abdelnaby said in one extension of his family, through marriage, was a governor who survived more than one assassination attempt.

Abdelnaby, now 42, recalled during a visit to Cairo in the NBA offseason in 1995, how shocked he was to find a quartet of military officers outside his hotel room door one morning. Abdelnaby was in Cairo on business then for an Arab television network with which he worked. But the military officers surprised him with an itinerary the government decided it wanted him to follow, meeting with various ministers and attending several events.

Abdelnaby said he protested but wasn't released from government duties until a connection to Egypt's royal family negotiated his release.

Abdelnaby said the last time he was in Egypt was 2009.

"I usually stay about three weeks," he said of what are usually annual trips he makes to Egypt. "But about 10 days into it, I'm ready to go home. Because life there is so limiting.

"It's sad when you walk to the market and you see poverty that breaks your heart. It's not for a lack of wanting to do for self; it's a lack of opportunity, a lack of hope."

"It was organic. It was about people. It was about youngsters who were dissatisfied. It didn't morph into something full of hate."
-- Former Egyptian-American basketball star Alaa Abdelnaby on the Egyptian protests
Mubarak was said to have amassed $70 billion over the years while watching more than 40 percent of Egyptians slip below or close to the poverty line.

"If you don't have family that's established with work, I'm speaking of nepotism basically, you have an even harder chance of breaking through that social caste," Abdelnaby said.

Abdelnaby said he's realized for years how lucky he was to have a mother and father who gambled on leaving their homeland behind for Bloomfield, N.J. Abdelnaby sprouted to 6-10, became a basketball player rather than a soccer player as most good athletes in Egypt aspire to be. He averaged 15 points and six rebounds as Duke's starting center in the '89-'90 season. Afterward, he played five NBA seasons with three franchises and earned nearly $3 million.

It was against that background that Abdelnaby said he was stunned three weeks ago when he got a news alert on his cell phone about the uprising in his birth home. When internet communication was shut down with his family there, he said he was able to get some land-line communication with a cousin who operates a school-clothing factory. The cousin was making clothes all day and patrolling his neighborhood with a handgun at night, Abdelnaby said.

When an alert sounded on his phone the other day that indicated Mubarak was going to announce his resignation, Abdelnaby said he drove to his mother's house after work to witness the historic moment with her. They were angered and saddened when Mubarak only said he would eventually transfer power to his vice president.

But one night later, Abdelnaby and his parents celebrated with a night on the town after it was reported that Mubarak fled the country, and the military, which sided with the uprising, was trying to hold order.

"I'm proud of the way it (the revolution) was conducted," Abdelnaby, who was a political science major at Duke, said, sounding as if a weight was lifted off his chest. "If not for a couple of days, when there were basically thugs trying to intimidate people, it was more or less very, very peaceful. I'm proud of that.

"I'm proud as an Egyptian, as an Egyptian-American, because I didn't want to see the effigy of Obama being burned because I'm an American. I didn't want to see death to America, I didn't want to see all of these Islamic slogans," Abdelnaby, who is Muslim, said.

"It was organic. It was about people. It was about youngsters who were dissatisfied. It didn't morph into something full of hate."

Abdelnaby said the rampaging that caused damage to some buildings in Cairo never made it to Alexandria anywhere near his flat. He said he hoped to get back there this year towards the end of the summer, and when he does, open his windows to the Mediterranean Sea for the first time without fear of anyone overhearing his conversations.
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