Isolation Play

In a land where he's seen as the enemy, Khalid El-Amin just keeps playing his game.

Updated: April 15, 2003, 2:26 PM ET
By By Ze'ev B. Avrahmi with Chad Millman
He did not just say that, did he? The roly-poly Muslim guy. The one sitting in a jammed ice cream shop on Tel Aviv's busiest street. He did not just say the B-word. Come on. He's gotta know better, right? He didn't just say "bomb!" in this place, at this time, when unattended bags are eyed like, well, bombs; when guards stand at the doorway of every shop and screen customers with handheld metal detectors, the outlines of their guns visible underneath thin windbreakers. Twenty-four hours earlier, a Palestinian leader of Hamas was gunned down by Israeli soldiers. The retaliation will come, the guards think. Someone from Hamas is dead. Someone in Israel will be dead. That's how this game is played.

But the Muslim guy -- swaddled in sweats, licking an ice cream cone -- has obviously blocked that out. He wants no part of this game. He just wants to hoop. Like he did in high school in Minnesota, where he won three state titles and played in Magic's Roundball Classic with a kid named Tracy McGrady. Like he did in college, where he was the fool-you-with-my-doughboy-body point guard on UConn's 1999 national championship team. He lived with a Jew then. They shared space and time and laughs, even a bathroom. No problem. It was an Israeli who suggested he come here, to the Middle East, after it was clear he acted too much like a scorer to be an NBA point guard. So Khalid El-Amin doesn't want to talk about bombs or gas masks or Hamas or the Israeli Army or Muslim-hating Jews or Jew-hating Muslims. He plays down the fact he's a follower of Islam playing basketball for a team in Israel called Ironi Ramat Gan. "I'm just a basketball player," he says, with the same no-big-deal attitude he uses to deal with taunting fans in the stands or armed guards at ice cream shops. He doesn't acknowledge what everyone else sees. Which is why he can sit in a crowded parlor on Tel Aviv's busiest street, licking his chocolate chip cone, and scream, "Man, this the bomb!" without worrying if his next lick will be his last.