Annette John-Hall: An ex-basketball star gives something back to Philadelphia

Mustafa Shakur (right) and Rahim Thompson, director of his hoops tournament, hope to broaden the event beyond sports.
Mustafa Shakur (right) and Rahim Thompson, director of his hoops tournament, hope to broaden the event beyond sports. (ANNETTE JOHN-HALL / Staff)
Posted: July 12, 2011

The sun bore relentlessly down on the blacktop at Cherashore Playground in North Philly over the weekend. Skirmishes broke out. Things got heated.

You couldn't help but wonder who was going to shoot next.

A jump shot, that is.

See, basketball, not guns, has always been Mustafa Shakur's weapon of choice. Basketball is what got him through the dog days of summer, opened his world, and eventually earned him a spot on an NBA roster.

Now that he's in a position to give back, Shakur has returned to his childhood playground at Ninth and Chew to be part of the solution.

Which, not coincidentally, is the name of his inaugural event Saturday, Part of the Solution Community Day, which featured a basketball clinic, food, games and a three-on-three tournament, conceived by Shakur to encourage and empower the neighborhood - kids as well as adults.

From what I could tell, the three-on-three tournament was reserved for serious big-boy ballers.

"I grew up remembering [former NBA star and Simon Gratz alum] Rasheed Wallace having a camp every year, but it was mostly for middle-school kids," says Shakur, a Friends' Central grad. "I tried to add a component for everybody. . . . Some of these dads brought their kids to hear Andre Iguodala speak this morning. Now they're out here playing."

Talk about building social capital. It's one thing to treat kids to a talk and a T-shirt, but it becomes something else entirely when fathers get involved.

Community cred

Shakur, 26, has the kind of community cred that comes only from having grown up in Olney, on the 5600 block of Warnock Street, the youngest of six children.

While his talent was obvious from the time he was 5, big brother Mujahid remembers telling him, "If you want to be good, you have to learn how to shoot with your left hand. . . . We used to set up bottles and run drills. The lights didn't go off until 2 a.m. We'd be out here all night."

Looking back, Mustafa Shakur says, he can see how basketball straightened his path. "You always came across a friend or two who sold drugs and wanted you to help them out," he says. "But I'm the type of person, anything I do, I'm going to put my all into. Selling drugs wasn't something I was willing to put my all into."

"I was shocked"

Shakur sprouted to 6-foot-4 and was rated the top high school point guard in the country. He played college ball at Arizona, a big-time basketball school. His chances of cashing in on a multimillion-dollar NBA payday was as sure as a breakaway layup.

Only it didn't happen.

Curiously, he went undrafted in 2007, a combination of declining stats during his senior year and a draft loaded down with point guards. He signed as an NBA free agent, playing in the Developmental League, bouncing around through Europe as a basketball nomad, before landing with the Washington Wizards in January 2011.

"I was shocked," Shakur says. "Things didn't work out the way I thought they would, but I had to pick myself up and continue to work."

It's those kinds of painful life experiences that Shakur wants to share with young people. To instill in them that life often trips you up. So what do you do about it? Not everybody is going to play in the NBA. What is your Plan B?

Shakur's goal is to develop his entrepreneurial skills, a la Magic Johnson. His NBA future is far from guaranteed, given the looming lockout and his free-agent status.

Contract or no, Shakur says Part of the Solution is something he will always put his all into. His vision is to make the event a one-stop shop where young people can come for mentoring, motivation, and rites-of-passage programs for future careers that probably won't have anything to do with basketball.

Then again, maybe they will. A quote emblazoned on the tournament's T-shirts hints that with persistence, anything's possible.

It reads: "How long should you try? Until."

Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, or on Twitter @Annettejh.

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