Muslim basketball league builds bridge between sports and religion

The Hamilton Muslim Basketball Association has been running since 2004. Muslims join to play amongst each other while non-Muslims come for the competition and a chance to learn about a new culture — but now the league is in a dire financial situation.

Players say the league has a perfect balance of competition and showcasing 'the best of our faith'

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. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

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."

Muslim players in the Hamilton Muslim Basketball Association bow their heads during an evening prayer. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

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 playoffs are in full swing at the Hamilton Muslim Basketball Association and each year's winner gets a trophy. The winning team also gets to retain its two best players. When the league wasn't cash-strapped, they bought Raptors tickets for the winning team. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

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.

Richard Brooks, 45, sits with his family as he speaks with fellow players. Each year, the league changes his jersey number to match his age. He says he and and his family have learned a lot about Muslim culture because of the league. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

"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."

Balal Lone is a doctor by day and organizer of the the Hamilton Muslim Basketball Association — he also plays on a team. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

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.

Players within the Hamilton Muslim Basketball Association say it is one of the most competitive leagues in the area complete with trade deadlines, free agents and a draft. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

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."

Players in the league often try to sink a three-point shot after passing the ball around the key. Audience members can keep track of points via the website's live, real-time scoring updates. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

About the Author

Bobby Hristova


Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca