Hoop Dreams: Syrian Refugee Hopes Basketball Stardom Translates To NBA

Hoop Dreams: Syrian Refugee Hopes Basketball Stardom Translates To NBA

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Hozaifa Almaleh was living the dream. A basketball star in his home country of Syria. That is until a war forced his exodus to Chicago, but with that came the opportunity to focus on an even bigger dream — playing in the NBA.

“I used to walk around. I get a lot of people want to take a picture with me, and stuff,” Almaleh said. Soccer is the most popular sport in that country, but Almaleh said basketball comes next. The 29-year-old, 6’5” shooting guard played most of his career on one of two teams in Damascus, called Al-Jaish, which means “the army.”He also played on Syria’s national team, which meant competing in basketball tournaments all over the world.

“It was a fun life. I used to wake up in the morning, go downstairs, next door just to buy the newspaper so I can read my name, see my picture,” he said. “I was happy, I’m playing basketball, everybody know me. Wherever I go, people say your name. That’s nice. It was nice for me.”

But as unrest grew in Syria, playing for the government-sponsored league became dangerous. Almaleh said that after games, he and his teammates would discover their locker room littered with leaflets, telling them to quit playing.

In 2014, after a player from the national team was killed, Almaleh left Syria for good. Like so many other immigrants, he imagined practicing his trade in his new country. But playing professional basketball in the NBA means being one of the best players in the world, not just in Syria.

In Chicago, Almaleh joined an American Basketball Association league team called the Windy City Groove.

“All these players here, like, they just want to go overseas,” he said, taking a brief rest as the team continued drills. “But for me it’s right the opposite. I don’t want to go overseas. I just want to play here.”

Almaleh has already played internationally, for Syria as well as a year in Ecuador. At this point it’s NBA or bust. Meanwhile, playing on an ABA team has been a big adjustment for him. The league is a couple notches less professional than where he’s played before. It’s also a lot less pay — something he didn’t realize when he joined the team two seasons ago.

“I got myself a Mercedes and stuff,” Almaleh laughs. “I was new, I didn’t know. Then I just found myself, like, this is not going to work. I lost my car and I lost a lot of stuff.”

Almaleh’s coach, Matthew Muhammad, said reaching the NBA from an ABA team like the Windy City Groove is “a long shot.” He added that if an NBA scout were to come check this team out, a couple other players would be more likely to draw notice.

But Almaleh has another view on this. He said it would be great PR for the NBA to sign its first Syrian player at a time that the Syrian refugee crisis seems so hopeless.

A couple months after that conversation, Almaleh and I drove to Hoffman Estates for a promotional event the Chicago Bulls were holding at the Sears Center Arena. They were introducing their new development-league, or D-League, team, called the Windy City Bulls. Almaleh mentioned that maybe this new team could be his route to the NBA.

When I asked how Almaleh’s semi-professional team, the Windy City Groove, was doing, he confessed he had missed most of the season. “This is really like — how do you say? — dilemma for me,” he explained, “But I have to take care of other things, my business and everything.”

Almaleh at his import-export business. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)

Instead of going to practices and games, Almaleh had been spending his time establishing an import-export company with a friend. He said it’s not a forever job; it’s just an opportunity to learn the basics of being an entrepreneur.

Almaleh majored in business in college in Syria and has been interested in becoming an entrepreneur. But he always thought he’d finish out his basketball career first. He said that letting go of that expectation and imagining a future on sidelines of the court has been the hardest adjustment of his life.

“I don’t mind. I like to take the challenge. I like to learn more, because I believe that life are full of lessons,” Almaleh said. “But I have to admit it - it’s not easy for me at all. At all.”

But there’s also been a big upside to the different future he’s creating. He’s met someone special, and they’re talking marriage and kids. Almaleh says this is a big reason he’s re-evaluating his NBA aspirations.

“I want to be able to provide and show her and show myself and everybody that this is my new family,” said Almaleh. “I want to take responsibility toward this family.”

Even with his newfound determination about business, Almaleh’s not ready to give up on the basketball dream entirely. Like so many immigrants who come to the U.S. with a dream of making it big, he’s juggling possibilities and adjusting to realities. Almaleh plans to try out for the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League. But he’s also pursuing new business ventures that have basketball at their heart, such as starting a basketball academy for kids.