Talk with Jamal Abu-Shamala about his journey from small high school standout to starting small forward in the Big Ten and you can instantly tell by the sparkle in his eyes and rasp of his voice that he has been, and will continue to be, motivated by his skeptics.
But tonight, when the Minnesota men’s basketball team challenges Michigan at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Abu-Shamala will have a reunion of sorts with one of his biggest supporters – first-year Wolverines’ coach John Beilein.
While at his previous stop, West Virginia, Beilein was the only Division I head coach to travel to Abu-Shamala’s hometown of Shakopee and recruit him in person.
And, had the Mountaineers had one more scholarship available, Beilein said, Abu-Shamala would have been granted it.
“We had to make some big decision on him. We believed he had the talent, but we didn’t have the need at that position,” Beilein said.
“We were going out on a limb, if one kid had said no to us, he would have been our pick. He was a very good player.”
It can be argued that the lengthy 6-foot-5-inch, 210-pound junior forward has a right to hold a grudge with Beilein for being looked over. That is anything but the case; Abu-Shamala goes as far as calling Beilein a “good man,” who he greatly respects.
What can’t be argued is that Abu-Shamala is, to this day, motivated by the other 326 Division I head coaches who didn’t give him the time of day.
“Everything I’ve had, I’ve had to earn it and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Everything I’ve gone through has made me a better person,” he said.
Coming out of Shakopee High School, where he led his team to the state championship his senior year, Abu-Shamala’s goal was simple: play Division I college basketball.
But despite averaging 19.8 points per game and being an all-state selection and a finalist for the prestigious Minnesota Mr. Basketball Award – given to the state’s top player – Abu-Shamala received little attention on the recruiting front.
Before his senior year of high school, Abu-Shamala only heard from Division II teams. And even after guiding his team to a state title and being named one of the best players in the state, only a handful of teams – Belein’s Mountaineers, Rice, San Francisco, Boise State and Iowa State – showed mild interest.
The tallest player on his team, Abu-Shamala was asked to play every position in high school. Looking back, he says, that might have hurt his recruiting stock.
“I had some teams watch me during the year in high school and never got offered by any of them because they didn’t really see where I fit in, what position I really was, because I played every position,” he said.
Without a scholarship offer, the Shakopee native considered the prospect of walking on at a few other schools, including Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin.
But his heart was in Minnesota.
Since elementary school when he watched the Gophers reach the Final Four under former coach Clem Haskins, Abu-Shamala wanted to play at Williams Arena.
So, despite being surprised that Minnesota coach Dan Monson and his staff had not shown much interest in him, Abu-Shamala met with Monson about a possible role on the team. The Gophers coaching staff was honest with him. They told him they were not sold that he could play Division-I basketball and told him they could only offer him a walk-on spot.
Rather than feeling insulted and spurning the Gophers, Abu-Shamala decided to accept Minnesota’s offer and to prove his skeptics wrong.
“I felt I could play at this level and I wanted to prove to everyone I could, so I took that as a challenge and I came here and tried to do everything I could to prove myself,” he said. “It was tough not being recruited and all that, but now that I look back, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Still, there was one other major concern: paying for tuition and housing.
Abu-Shamala came from a single-parent home with his mother, and she was struggling to make ends meet because of an injury that wouldn’t allow her to work. Putting Abu-Shamala through college would be a difficult task.
Fortunately, Mark Stensrude was there to lend a hand. In fourth grade, Abu-Shamala met Stensrude through the United Way’s Big Brother program. Over the years, Stensrude turned into a father-like figure for Abu-Shamala.
Stensrude offered to pay for the then-18-year-old’s college expenses. Abu-Shamala was reluctant to put the financial burden of his college tuition on his surrogate family, but finally accepted the offer when the Stensrudes convinced him it was something they truly wanted to do for him.
Abu-Shamala said he will be forever grateful for the support Stensrude and his family has given him, including the generous financial gift.
“Every step of the way he’s been there, guiding me and providing whatever I needed to achieve what I wanted to achieve,” he said. “It’s like they are my second family. They come to every game. His kids, I look at like they are my little brothers and sisters.”
Making the most
When he finally was able to don the maroon and gold, Abu-Shamala made his presence known right away.
As a true freshman, he started 10 games and was key in helping Minnesota rebound from a dismal start to advance to the postseason.
Abu-Shamala’s impact did not go unnoticed.
Finally convinced in Abu-Shamala’s abilities, the coaching staff offered him a scholarship second semester of his freshman year. For Abu-Shamala, it was one of his proudest moments.
“That was one of my biggest accomplishments,” he said. “That’s pretty high on the list, next to winning a state championship. Getting that was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Earning a scholarship made Abu-Shamala anything but complacent. As a sophomore he continued to develop his game. On Feb. 24, Abu-Shamala put up a career-high 27 points against Michigan. For the season, he shot 43 percent (44-102) from behind the arc, the second-best percentage in Minnesota history.
On the horizon
Two weeks into team practices this season, Abu-Shamala suffered an injury that kept him out of Minnesota’s first preseason game on Nov. 1.
While washing dishes in his dorm, Abu-Shamala cut his right shooting hand to the bone and needed six stitches for the wound.
When diving for a loose ball against North Dakota State on Dec. 3, he received a black eye for his efforts. Deep thigh bruises have also lingered with him all season.
Abu-Shamala’s toughness and work ethic has not gone unnoticed by new Minnesota coach Tubby Smith either. He has already noticed the qualities that have made Abu-Shamala a fan favorite.
“Jamal is one of those young men you appreciate because you know he is giving it his all,” Smith said. “He may make a mistake, but it’s not because of a lack of effort or lack of mental focus.”
Off the court
Abu-Shamala was an academic all-state selection and honor graduate in high school and is now a business and marketing education major.
But perhaps better than his three-point shooting or grades in the classroom may be Abu-Shamala’s character.
Sophomore guard Travis Busch, who has known Abu-Shamala since fifth grade and is one of his closest friends, said there is much more to Abu-Shamala than what the average fan sees from him on the court.
“He’ll do anything for you. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He really thinks about others,” he said. “I give him a hard time because he is such a good guy and there is nothing you can say bad about him.”