Muslim basketball league builds bridge between sports and religion
Players say the league has a perfect balance of competition and showcasing 'the best of our faith'
Most basketball games start with a tip-off, but in Balal Lone's league, a prayer comes before anything else.
He and his brother, Omair, have been running the Hamilton Muslim Basketball Association for years — they both joined when they were teenagers.
"When I was younger and heard about this league, I was so excited because you identify as Muslim and you see this is something that's your own," Balal tells CBC News.
"Our league promotes brotherhood. It's a place to come together and unite together, it's a safe place to play basketball and build bridges with one another."
In addition to quick prayers before their games at Mohawk College, Muslim players do their evening prayer, and brief talks about life values and what they learned after each match.
"The reminder is Islamically-based, but it applies to everybody. We're not just shoving Islam down your throat," Balal says.
"We talk about the importance of loving your parents, being kind to one another or kindness toward others."
The men's basketball league, which started in 2004, is another hub for the community's younger members to congregate outside of traditional mosque gatherings.
Though, Balal says almost half of its players aren't Muslim.
Non-Muslims have 'phenomenal' learning opportunity
One of those non-Muslim players is Richard Brooks.
While most players are in their late 20s, Brooks is 45. He started playing after spending years watching from the sidelines.
He shows up two to three hours to warm up before his games. His family cheers him on from the sidelines whenever he hits the court — and they've also learned a lot.
"At sundown everyday, the league stops and some of the Muslim players participate in prayer. That was new knowledge to me," he says.
"I bring my wife and children, they ask about what's going on and it's a great experience for them to be educated and learn about other cultures … it's phenomenal to have a positive experience joining the Muslim community and we get to spread the word as well, as a non-Muslim."
Talha Gilani, a 25-year-old who is Muslim, started playing because all his friends joined. He says the league has found the sweet spot for those in and out of the faith.
"It's very competitive, there's a lot of camaraderie, there's a lot of stakes, especially with the championship," he says.
"They do a very good job of integrating [religion] in, not making it uncomfortable for people who are non-Muslim but at the same time, showcasing the best of our faith and our core values."
League faces financial woes from provincial cuts
Competition is so tight in the the league ,Balal says, that there's a large enough waiting list for prospective players to be used as free agents who fill in for members that can't attend games.
It has eight teams, 15-game season plus playoffs, live scoring updates online, trades with a deadline and a draft at the start of each season. It costs roughly $250 to register and about $23,000 to run.
Women had their own league, but Balal says they now play other sports.
Balal adds that cuts from the Ford government have taken away subsidies he and his brother used to help with some of the costs, leaving them to cut a youth men's league and operate in a deficit.
But the games are still fierce with competition and he hopes to keep the league alive for as long as possible.
"It helps us keep our identity."