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Pixela Pictura Films presents "Life Without Basketball"

Do sports and religion mix? Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir is a record-breaking basketball player, she is also a Muslim. When Bilquis was ready to go to pro she never imagined that it would be her hijab that prevented her from playing, but that’s exactly what it was. She was scouted favorably and was ready to play pro ball when a FIBA rule put a halt to her career. Throughout the four years of filming, we see Bilquis go through many life changes all the while she is still fighting this FIBA rule. In the end, its a bittersweet win for Bilquis and she is left wondering if she will ever play ball again. This is her story.

Cast of Characters:

Jon Mercer……..............Producer and Director

Tim O’Donnell…............Producer and Director

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir….Star of the Film, Record-Breaking Basketball Player

A.W. Massey…...............Bilquis’ Husband

Tariq Abdul-Qaadir….....Bilquis’ Father

Alooah Abdul-Qaadir…..Bilquis’ Mother

Dribbling Down Barriers is a training program that was created to use basketball as a platform to promote diversity, inclusion, and most importantly, develop athletes both on and off the court. To learn more visit https://dribbledownbarriers.com/

Life Without Basketball is distributed by Gravitas Ventures

It premiered at DOCNYC in November 2018.

You can watch the film on iTunes and Amazon

Heather Grayson:

Could you give up everything you've ever dreamed of for your faith? Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir did just that.

B.C. Wehman:

In high school, Bilquis broke Rebecca Lobo's scoring record, setting the state record for the highest all time high score for women and men. A record she still holds today.

Heather Grayson:

She was the first Muslim in a headscarf to play NCAA Division 1 basketball. In 2009, she was invited to a dinner celebrating Ramadan at the White House.

B.C. Wehman:

And she was the first basketball player to fight the FIBA ruling against wearing headgear. Throughout this four year journey, we watch as Bilquis moves forward in her faith and becomes an advocate for Muslim women, especially basketball players.

Heather Grayson:

We watch as she graduates from high school, begins her career and gets married.

B.C. Wehman:

All while maintaining her battle with FIBA. In the end, it's a bittersweet ruling as FIBA does lift the ban against headgear, but the question remains will Bilquis ever play ball again?

Heather Grayson:

Hi, I'm Heather Grayson, writer, producer and director, who craves passion in filmmaking, and documentarians are just that. I write fiction, but I love to watch the truth.

B.C. Wehman:

My name is B.C. Wehman. I'm an actor, a writer and entertainer, all sorts of creative endeavors. But what I love most, being a storyteller. It's why I love documentaries. They're extraordinary stories from every day extraordinary people.

Heather Grayson:

This is Behind the Doc, and today we are behind the scenes with the documentary Life Without Basketball.

B.C. Wehman:

Former Indiana State Sycamores Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir would like to continue her basketball career overseas, but at the moment can't because of an unfamiliar rule sports center. Megan McEwen explains how Qaadir is hoping to get this rule changed so she can continue to play.

Megan McEwan:

For the first time in her playing career, Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir hit a roadblock. Basketball's governing body FIBA has a rule that bans players from wearing equipment that may cause injury to others, including headwear, hair accessories and jewelry.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

All of these years that I've played and I finally get to a point where I can get there and I get stopped. I can say, I've never really had any type of adversity like as big as this one.

Megan McEwan:

This is a recent example of how sports and religion do mix.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

My head covering goes against their religious views but they want to keep the court or the games religiously neutral.

Megan McEwan:

If FIBA changes their rule, Bilquis would be able to play the game she loves and maintain her religious identity.

B.C. Wehman:

We are excited today to be talking about the film Life Without Basketball joined by the directors, the producers, Tim O'Donnell and Jon Mercer.

Tim O'Donnell:

Thanks so much for us. We appreciate it.

B.C. Wehman:

Before we get started, Tim and Jon, why don't you just tell us your name, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Tim O'Donnell:

Hey, I'm Tim O'Donnell and lucky to be co-director and co-producer with Jon of Life Without Basketball. This is our second feature length documentary. I went on to teach and Jon can tell you a little bit about his background and how he ended up [syncing 00:03:19] up.

B.C. Wehman:

Yeah, absolutely. Go ahead, Jon.

Jon Mercer:

Sure. Yeah, it's funny. We went to middle school and high school together and I don't have a film degree. At some point after graduation it seemed like a direction that I was interested in and I interned my way into the field and started working in post production for a number of years. Tim had gone through a similar evolution and found filmmaking and documentary filmmaking and yeah, grew up together, played sports together and really reconnected all these years down the line when we found ourselves working in the same industry.

B.C. Wehman:

Excellent. Welcome you guys. So glad to have you excited to dig into this film. And then when Bilquis joins us, dig into that. So this will be fun. We watched it today. It's a great movie and I'm excited to talk to you about it.

Tim O'Donnell:

All right, we're ready.

Heather Grayson:

I loved how when we first started the film, we heard that basketball noise hitting the court and then we get to her, it showed so much of what the film was going to be, but it showed her as a person. So I truly enjoyed that very first scene and I just wanted to say that. I'd love to hear how you guys really first started to think about making this film and how was it to approach her? What were you thinking about and what did you want to show your audience?

Tim O'Donnell:

I think me and Jon met Bilquis and immediately fell in love with her, her family and the Muslim culture. And I think one of the things early on me and Jon were really interested in was this idea of classic American blue collar home in the Muslim community, which we don't get to see as much on a personal level. So, there's Bilquis amazing story of battling the hijab rule, not being able to play, being covered even though she played high school and college at the pro level. She was blocked from this archaic rule and that is a big massive global story. But, when you watch the film you'll get to know her family, which is really important to her. And you'll start to see those everyday moments, eating meals, praying together, those quiet moments, which we felt was really important for a lot of viewers to see.

B.C. Wehman:

It took you four years to put this together. When you first started, what was your initial, I guess, vision for her story? Because I don't think you could have imagined, hey we're going to do this for four more years and follow this case. And then at what point did you realize, oh we're going to commit to this for a long time to tell a whole story?

Jon Mercer:

I think when you begin a project like this, you never really know what the duration of it's going to be. I think Tim and I found a little bit out about Bilquis and her situation. It seems like a really important story that was being overlooked and it seemed like it was really an important time to start telling it. When we first started filming with Bilquis, she had just ended her college career and was a few months after she had encountered the FIBA ruling that, ultimately cost her, her professional career.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

Coming out of, my senior year, I went to the Combine, I played in front of all these Scouts and I'm just like, [inaudible 00:06:30] you might not be a pro. I prepared myself to be put in a place where I might not play. And actually I wasn't thinking it because I was Muslim. It was because maybe I'm not good enough.

Tim O'Donnell:

We just had to jump right in and start. And then, the reality of fighting an international organization is that it takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of resources. We're investigating a little bit about what happens to individuals when they exit the world of a professional athlete. What happens to individuals when they encounter an international organization and what's that process like? How do you prepare yourself to take on that battle and what's it like in the meantime where things really just aren't happening for you and your understanding by on the sidelines

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

Right now, I don't know who I am. I can comfortably say that because I was so used to being a basketball player, I want to be great. I want to do something that can affect people still. And I think basketball always gave me that, that thing to affect people and it's just like, I am anybody without basketball?

Jon Mercer:

They start to reveal things to you and your space is to really just sit back and take that in and give them a little bit of room to tell you what's going on.

Tim O'Donnell:

And for every moment you're seeing in the film that stands out, there's at least 40 other moments that are hours of us just squatting uncomfortably in a corner somewhere without a tripod to get there. So stripping away that equipment sometimes meant just being in a weird position. I'm sure a lot of filmmakers know that. That weird position where you're just stuck and you don't want to move. And obviously it's for a greater purpose.

B.C. Wehman:

Gosh, it has so many different narratives happening at the same time. As you mentioned, it talks about her family, which is an amazing story. And breaking down these barriers and painting this picture of a Muslim family in America. It obviously talks about the international ruling journey. But I thought there was a lot to be said about adversity and what that prepares you for in life and how sports is. I think she learned a lot from her sports career. I think people can, and I wonder if you took some of that too.

Tim O'Donnell:

I think yeah, it's interesting how something like middle school or high school sports can leave a lasting impact on somebody or an impression that even subconsciously will always be there. We care so much about sports and the arts and they end up playing a pivotal role throughout your life. For me, it ended up being a different sport. It ended up being wrestling and a lot of those threads tie together and it continues with Bilquis's story and even a newer way because the adversity and the endurance and what she went through tied together with faith and spirituality. And I don't think there could be a harder test than saying why don't you change the way you view and perform in a religion? How you interpret it to give up and play the sport that is your life.

Tim O'Donnell:

Basketball ball is life. She says it again and again, ball is life. And it's true, especially basketball culture. It's Bilquis and a lot of kids and it becomes a way of life. It becomes an identity. And then for a rule to come up to say, all you got to do is just remove your hijab. I couldn't imagine a harder test. Yeah, there was a lot of vulnerability and I think it goes back to Bilquis and her family on trust and we feel lucky that we have the relationship with Abdul-Qaadirs. On a personal level, we feel like we're extended family and we definitely consider them our extended family. And so to allow filmmakers to come in to the home and be around you for years during some very vulnerable times where she was questioning things and on her own path and being very willing to allow us to record during those moments. It says a lot about her.

B.C. Wehman:

It was great hearing her story, but I loved seeing her family. It was just all the different moments that you used, whether it was just IHOP dinners or during Ramadan and all these moments really painted this close, supportive, amazing family, particularly her father's story. So you must have had a lot of footage of them. How difficult was it to pour through all that to create the story that would resonate as well. Did you have a ton of footage left on the cutting room floor so to speak?

Jon Mercer:

One of the things I love in the film is when she's starting to work with her basketball team. These are middle school age girls playing in a faith based league down South.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

I'm not trying to really mold them into super athletes or super basketball players, but for them to just enjoy and just teach them lessons on and off the court and through basketball.

Jon Mercer:

Before that, she joined the program and she was working as an athletic director and coaching soccer. It's an international school. Soccer, international football is the main sport. So we filmed a whole season of soccer. We thought that was going to be the coaching moment and all of that went aside. The core family moments really stayed and as we were stripping things away, it became really apparent that this is the story.

Heather Grayson:

And you're right. Yeah, that was the story. It was definitely you guys piecing together, yes this is her life, but to actually get down and see how this is affecting her. How is her family supporting her? This is more than basketball.

Tim O'Donnell:

Me and Jon always joked that each person had their own film. Tariq is an amazing person. Alooah, Bilquis's mother also an incredible character.

Alooah:

There's a lot of division, and I don't know if it'll ever all go away, but you hope that there might be a day where it doesn't make any difference what's your name is, what color you are, what you really believe in your way of life, your practice. It's acceptable and accepted.

Tim O'Donnell:

Well, Tariq, immediately he sort of offered up that he did some jail time, but we didn't know why. Relationship when it was appropriate and we were sitting down and we waited some of the family footage that you saw in the film. That's Tariq's footage.

Tariq:

I was incarcerated in New York. Being locked up, you don't know when somebody's going to go off, so you have to take care of yourself. At that time, Ramadan had started, I did a couple of prayers with them and ate with them and I don't even think I was fasting. I knew about being Muslim, but I didn't know the details of it, what it was really about what, how it would actually change your lifestyle. Looking for something to do and I was hoping that it wasn't going to be drugs again.

Tim O'Donnell:

Tariq passed us CD after CD of all this footage and ended up in the film video. It's a way to hold on to history, to memories, to family moments to that inescapable thing time.

B.C. Wehman:

How does a family that records themselves a lot where you made it very clear to record themselves a lot, how were they upon seeing, I guess the finish cut of the film? What was their reaction? Were you nervous when you sat down with them? What were they like during that process or did you show it to them along the way, rough cuts or dailies for lack of a better term?

Tim O'Donnell:

No, we waited. There was a trailer that was out, we actually put a trailer out relatively early. When it was time to share the film, we had this great, great moment of, like we all do maybe as filmmakers that maybe played around with video early on and you would make a film and you'd get the entire family together and you would sit in the living room, TV room and everyone would just sit and find a spot and watch whatever you made. And I definitely have a history of that and I have a big family, so not everyone can make it on the couch, so people are laying on the floor and that kind of thing. And we had the same thing with Bilquis. We went to the Abdul-Qaadir home in Springfield, Massachusetts and Bilquis put out the word and there might've been a close to 20 of us in the TV room.

Tim O'Donnell:

And I'll never forget it. I was laying on the carpet watching the film. A lot of laughter, a lot of things that maybe people who don't know the Abdul-Qaadir's wouldn't laugh at, but there's just a lot of laughter, a lot of chat. And I think we knew because of their relationship and how we crafted the film that they would be accepting of it. But it was a pretty amazing moment after when everyone was thanking us and I never thought of it as a thank you. That's not why we were making the film, but there was a lot of thank you's and then, we went on to screen the film a lot of different events and film festivals and we continued that same tradition where, lots of family members would attend these festivals. Tariq and Alooah would be part of the Q&A with Bilquis and Jon and myself. So it just continued that family element.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

I think there's a power in energies. I'm going to follow my heart. Throughout all of these obstacles and choices that I had to make over the years, these were the things I was following. I'm going to just continuing to pray, continue and follow these signs. And I think that's something that of course is hard to do, just trusting in what people think is blind faith. I have no blind faith because we don't know the future. I'm big on thinking about things ahead and I don't want to do that. I want to be present.

Heather Grayson:

Hello, Bilquis. I'm Heather, it's so nice to speak with you.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

Hi Heather. Thank you for having me. This is great.

Tim O'Donnell:

Hey Bilquis, it's Tim.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

Hey, Tim.

Tim O'Donnell:

Nice to hear from you.

B.C. Wehman:

Thank you for joining us. Let me just start right off the bat because we've been talking to Tim and Jon a little bit. They were with you for four years. Did you get sick of them during the process?

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

No I didn't get sick of them. They became my brothers throughout this whole process. So it was really nice. I gained two family members, honestly.

Heather Grayson:

That's amazing. What were you feeling when these two guys came up to you and they were like, "We want to film you". What were your thoughts? Concerns?

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

At that point, I was pretty much open to anything because the situation with FIBA wasn't really going anywhere. When they said they were interested in my story and making maybe just a two to three minute video or whatever their goal was, I was pretty much like down for it. And my father was really into homemade videos and so growing up there was always a camera in my face. So I was comfortable with it. It was really exciting to just hear that news from them.

B.C. Wehman:

Speaking of your father, I have to tell you, Bilquis. Your family they seem amazing and they were one of my favorite parts of the film. We did appreciate your story, but seeing your family and were they excited to be in it? Were they nervous for you to be filmed and have your story really made public? How were they about this whole process?

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

They loved it as much as I did. Especially my dad. Like I said, he's a ham for the camera, so I'm sure he loved all the interviews. My mom was a little timid with the camera. She's not the type to really enjoy it, but of course she was all for the film. We welcomed Tim and Jon in our home in the wee hours of the morning and just in very intimate settings. And my family was really just really excited and we really couldn't wait to see the finished product and we were all very pleased with it. They did a great job with keeping it original and raw and just honest.

B.C. Wehman:

So that's good. I was wondering, were they nervous about seeing it or were they excited? Did they love it? Were they like, why'd you put that in there? Was any of that during it or was it just a celebration of you and your journey and just your amazing story?

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

It was a lot of mixed emotions, especially for myself because it's really awkward to see yourself on the big screen. And then just to see myself, I changed physically, mentally, emotionally throughout the whole film. And I don't understand how they took four years of footage and put it into an hour and a half I guess. So it was interesting to see how they chose certain parts of the journey and made it all fit together. So it was really amazing.

Heather Grayson:

I really loved the scene when you talked about your shine.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

I don't know, but it just feels like I'm not, I don't have that shine in a way that I felt like I had when I played basketball-

Alooah:

But it's a different kind of shine now.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

But I guess, yeah. So I'm just finding that way through what I'm doing now and the speeches are... It's not the same shine I guess. And I don't know, I guess I just miss it. I'm at a point where it's like, man I want to play basketball.

Heather Grayson:

It was really remarkable how vulnerable you became and how you let them in. So were there times that you just felt maybe I shouldn't be talking about this, maybe these questions I should be keeping personal? Were there any of those regrets or times that you wished that you would have maybe not shared?

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

Actually no. And what I learned throughout just really after becoming a public speaker and after doing thousands of interviews about this situation and then really dealing with Tim and Jon throughout the filming of the documentary. One thing for sure, Jon asks some deep questions and usually Jon he's the quiet one. Tim is a little bit more, just out in the open. Jon will have these really deep eyes and these really deep questions. And he used to hit me in my core. Back to what I was saying, what I learned throughout this journey was I had to be vulnerable and I had to share my struggles. Because what I realize, in life, people need to relate and everybody is not living this picture perfect life. And I knew that if I shared my weaknesses and my struggles that maybe I could relate with somebody who may be going through the same thing or maybe going through something different, but something I said or felt could resonate with them.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

So I think life is about sharing our struggles and sharing our tests and our weaknesses so that we can connect and learn from one another. So I don't regret anything I said, I do understand that people connect. And I think that's the most important part about this film is that people relate no matter if they're White, Christian, Catholic, Asian, whatever the case is. People can actually take something from it.

Speaker 16:

Mom I'm going to hang this up in my room.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

I know. That's what I got it for you for. And you have to read it and know what that means. What does it mean?

Speaker 16:

To not try to be someone else and to be yourself.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

Not to be like everybody else, to be yourself. So you don't want to blend in. You want to be your own person.

Heather Grayson:

How did you feel about being almost a forced advocate? Because you just really wanted to play basketball and that's where your heart was. That's where you started off. And then this became something. What was your internal struggle with that?

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

I had to embrace it because there was nobody else that was going to do it. If I didn't speak up for the girls who look like me, then who was going to do it? And I know that I needed to pave a way, pave a path for the girls who were going to come after me because I knew they were going to be more.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

So what I'm trying to do is I'm trying to work to get that rule out of the way. So if one of you guys right here, you ladies decided to wear hijab and play like I did and become the second woman to play Muslim covered. Woo hoo. Isn't that awesome, to be that? You guys can break barriers. You got to carry my legacy on. My job is to break down the barriers so you don't have to go through what I went through.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

I knew that I couldn't, like you said, I couldn't conform and I had to take a stand and there were times where I wanted to quit. There were times where I was like, you know what, I wanted to take my scarf off. I wanted to play, but deep down it didn't feel right. So I knew what I had to do and at times the interviews, and even sometimes with Tim and Jon, when I knew they were coming in town to do some filming, it was like, man what am I doing this for? Because FIBA is not budging. There was no motivation anymore. But when I spoke to young Muslim girls or girls who lived in poverty or just use basketball as a tool to navigate through life. When I spoke to them, I knew that they were the reason.

B.C. Wehman:

Your journey is incredible when you hear this story, but I do want to, and I know you got to go soon. That very, near the end of the film we get to see kind of a culmination of your journey when you get to step back onto that basketball court after 1400 some days and then nail it. Just kill that court. What was that like to step on and then that first basket and then obviously again and again and again to 38 points. Like what was that like to finally be able to play on an overseas level wearing all the appropriate clothing you've always fought for? What was that moment like for you?

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

Oh my goodness. You talking about it gave me goosebumps just now. I'll never forget that day. I'll never forget that trip or that opportunity. And honestly, I almost had a nervous breakdown before the first game. I broke out in tears. I was looking at my husband and I was like, can I still play? That was the biggest question. Do I still have it? And honestly, when you love something and when you put years and years of work into something, it's almost like riding a bike. You'd never forget and when I stepped on that court, I knew that I had to leave it all on the floor because that could have been my last time playing. There was no telling. I wanted to leave it all on the floor and give it all I had because I had lost it before and I knew what that felt like. So I felt I owed the game something and that 38 points is what came out of it, but I'm not going to lie. My knees and my ankles were shot after the game. I couldn't even walk. It was crazy.

B.C. Wehman:

There's a giant ice bath waiting for you after that game.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

Seriously. I had to.

B.C. Wehman:

Oh, this is what it's like to play competitively.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

Exactly.

B.C. Wehman:

Speaking of it, your husband, we don't get to see him a lot in the film. But I know... Are you in AW? Are you working together now? Tell us a little bit about what you're doing now following that. I know you work with a nonprofit and some other things. Tell us a little bit about that and what's it like to work with your husband?

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

Yeah, so right now we are running a... Well we live in Canada. We moved to London, Ontario and here we both work at an Islamic school. So he's a sixth grade teacher and I'm the athletic director. And then we run our own basketball program called Dribbling Down Barriers and we really are catering to the Muslim community. But the doors are open for anyone. And what our goal is with that is to bridge the gap between different faiths, different races, and use basketball as a tool to do that. And we've had some pretty successful programs so far. People love the environment that we're trying to create. And it's cool just to see our fellow Catholic or Christian players come in and when it's time to break for our prayer, we'll pray with all the players and the people who aren't Muslim get to watch and see and just learn and it's amazing to see what sport can do for people from different walks of life.

B.C. Wehman:

I know you're traveling tomorrow, so I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us and thank you once again for sharing your wonderful story.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

Okay. Thank you guys.

Heather Grayson:

Bilquis thank you so much.

B.C. Wehman:

Thank you for joining us.

Heather Grayson:

Amazing.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

All right, have a good one.

B.C. Wehman:

Excellent. I got one more quick question. I'm going to hijack real quick. If someone finds their own Bilquis, someone finds their own muse and they feel they need to make this documentary, what type of advice would you give the young documentary filmmakers, we want to inspire people to get out there and record real life in a way that's true. And you guys did an excellent job during Life Without Basketball. What tips, advice would you give people looking to get into documentary filmmaking?

Jon Mercer:

So it sounds a little obvious, but the difference between being a filmmaker or not is making a film. So a lot of times, if you're approaching a subject and it feels really, really important, it might seem kind of frightening. And you might not feel like you're fully prepared. But I think the reality is you're never actually fully prepared. So the most important thing is just to start and begin the process and to take care and make sure that you're listening and to leave space in your story for it to sort of develop. Let the shaping come afterwards and really just sit back and make sure that you're listening to the people that you're filming with and the people that you're living with.

Heather Grayson:

That's great.

B.C. Wehman:

Excellent. Well thank you both Tim and Jon for joining us. We really appreciated it and as well as Bilquis for joining us, for talking to them about their stories, getting deep behind it, sports. And it was a really great movie. I wish you guys the best of luck.

Heather Grayson:

Yeah, I absolutely enjoyed this film. Thank you so much for talking to us, for joining us.

Tim O'Donnell:

Yeah, this was great. Thank you so much for having us. It's always a great time to just break from actually making films and talk about them. And it was great just getting to chat, hear Bilquis chat about the film and thank you so much for taking the time.

Bilquis Abdul-Qaadir:

It's time to bow out. I'll see you all when I get back to [inaudible 00:29:15]. God willing again. Thank you. I love you.

B.C. Wehman:

Behind The Doc is produced by Evergreen podcast in association with Gravitas Ventures.

Heather Grayson:

Special thanks to executive producers, Nolan Gallagher and Michael DeAloia.

B.C. Wehman:

Produced by Sarah Willgrube.

Heather Grayson:

And audio engineer Eric Koltnow.

B.C. Wehman:

And you'll find us everywhere and anywhere you listen to your favorite podcast.

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