Story by Chase Burgess
A 16-hour flight and a three-hour train ride is all that separates Omar al-Refae from his home in Amman, Jordan. Refae, a double major in Computer Information Systems and Health Information Systems, is a sophomore who is on the junior varsity basketball team at Missouri Valley College.
Refae’s love of basketball started when he was in elementary school. He had a small hoop in his backyard that he would practice on. Refae began playing organized basketball the summer between his fourth and fifth grade year. He attended Al Reyada Scientific High School in Amman, Jordan where he averaged 16 points, five rebounds and three assists per game. Refae played for the club team ASU Sports on the under 15, under 17, and under 19 teams. While playing for ASU Sports, he was coached by a man from Brooklyn, New York.
“I’ve had coaches from the United Sates, Greece, and Jordan which have all given me a perspective as to how basketball is played in different regions of the world,” said al-Refae.
Refae is a fan of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers and the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s University of North Carolina Tar Heels. To say al-Refae is a big fan of the Tar Heels would be an understatement.
“I love Roy Williams. I own and have read all of his books.” al-Refae said. “The thing that grabbed me the most was the fact that Michael Jordan played for them.”
Refae first saw the Tar Heels play back in 2003 when they played the University of Illinois Fighting Illini on ESPN in Jordan. Refae plans on attending graduate school at UNC after he graduates from Valley.
“When I was 14 years old, I called the assistant coaches at UNC. They laughed when they found out how young I was,” al-Refae said.
Although they didn’t offer him a scholarship, the UNC coaches helped point al-Refae in the right direction.
“They told me to start looking at smaller schools, so I found Missouri Valley and I got in contact with assistant coach Ramone Powell. A couple phone calls later, I had a scholarship.”
In his second year in the program, al-Refae is a leader on the court for the junior varsity team.
“He’s the most experienced player and he’s a very vocal leader,” teammate Matthew Frisk said. Frisk, a freshman from Stover, Mo., is one of the guards on Valley’s junior varsity. “If you make a mistake, he’ll come up to you and explain how to fix the mistake. He’s very helpful to the freshmen.”
Refae works out two to three hours a day on his own on top of attending mandatory practices.
Refae plans on playing professional basketball in Jordan after he receives his master’s degree from UNC. Jordan’s professional basketball league, the Jordanian Basketball League, differs heavily from the NBA. The JBL has only 10 teams, limitations on quality of players on each team, no salary cap, and they use the International Basketball Federation’s, FIBA, rules. Each team is allowed to have only four players who are not from Jordan. These players are called “imports.” This rule is in place to help develop the sport of basketball in Jordan. Each team is also limited to no more than six players from a list called the “Elite 30.” This list details the top 30 players in the JBL.
“Fundamentally, the two leagues are the same, however the NBA is much more athletic,” al-Refae said.
Refae is a leader not only on the court, but off the court as well. Refae works as a resident assistant (RA) in an area where many basketball players live on campus.
“He doesn’t let his RA job get in the way of how he treats his teammates on the court. If a guy on the team gets written up they understand that he’s just doing his job,” Frisk said.
“Omar has been an excellent res-life staff member. No matter who Omar is interacting with, he treats them fairly and consistently,” Brett Fuchs, director of Housing and Residence Life, said.
Being one of only three Muslim students on campus, al-Refae is no stranger to being the punch line of stereotypical jokes about people from the Middle East.
“I’ve never experienced any racism here, but some people joke too much about it. I have thick skin, but sometimes it becomes too much. Overall, people have been very supportive and welcoming.”
It doesn’t matter what country you are from, what religion you are, or what people assume about you and your family. What does matter is how far you will go and how hard you will work to reach your goals. Most people would look at a junior varsity player at an NAIA school such as Valley and wonder: why would you work so hard? For al-Refae, the answer is simple. Basketball is his love, his passion, and hopefully his future.