For Aly Ahmed, the challenge is the thing.
The challenge, in his younger years, of taking on a new sport. And, later, of coming to a new country, learning a new language, etc. And finally, of mastering a game that so often defies mastery.
And, well, he seems to be getting there. Cal State Bakersfield’s senior center, a native Egyptian, carries a team-leading 14.9 point-per-game scoring average into Saturday’s game at Seattle, which will air on ASN. He is also averaging 6.4 rebounds a night, second among the Roadrunners (12-5).
And, which is more, the 6-9, 250-pound Ahmed has scored 19 points or more in four of his last five games.
“I feel good,” he said, adding that early in the season his play “wasn’t the best.”
“But by playing more games,” he said, “I started to feel more (comfortable). The more it gets serious, the more the guys get serious, and I get more involved. It just puts you in a rhythm.”
The Roadrunners were 13-19 and 14-19 in Ahmed’s first two years in the program, but this season blend experience and youth. Another senior, forward Kevin Mays (12.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg) joins Ahmed in the lineup, as do junior guard Dedrick Basile (10.9 ppg), redshirt junior forward Jaylin Airington (9.8) and redshirt sophomore guard Brent Wrapp (5.4 ppg, 4.4 apg). Redshirt freshman guard Damiyne Durham, the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.9 points a game, comes off the bench.
“We like each other, inside and outside of the court,” Ahmed said. “It’s not just teammates; it’s friends. … We love playing with each other.”
Ahmed spent last summer playing with his country’s national team, which finished second at the FIBA African Championships and thus fell just short of a berth in this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. And after returning to campus he focused on improving his conditioning.
Both things have benefitted him as this season has played out, as has his continuing desire to attack the sport head-on.
“It just keeps getting better and better because of the challenge part,” he said. “Every step of basketball, there’s a challenge. I tried to beat this challenge. Whatever it is, I just tried to beat it. … That’s what I love about the game. The harder you work, it shows up. People enjoy it. I like it.”
He is a native of the Egyptian city of Alexandria (pop. 4.5 million), a seaport in the northern part of that country and a place of major historical, cultural and economic significance. His parents, Mohamed and Maha, are both in finance, working in a bank and as an accountant at a school, respectively.
Aly played various sports growing up, notably soccer, but did not play hoops until age 8, when his height caught the attention of local coaches. So it was that he followed his brother Eslam, four years older, into the game.
Not too long after that Eslam gave it up, but Aly kept plowing ahead, kept improving. At 14 people were telling him he could be the best player in Asia in his age group. The following year he began playing internationally, traveling not only throughout Africa but to such far-flung spots as Thailand and New Zealand.
Named MVP of the FIBA Under-19 World Cup in 2009, he was presented with a choice: Sign a professional contract overseas or heed the siren call of some American schools. He chose the latter, landing first at Trent International School outside Houston.
The language barrier was great; he spoke only Arabic when he first arrived. But he took on that challenge, too, during his year and a half at Trent. Then he spent a season at Midland (Texas) College, two hours south of Lubbock, before landing in Bakersfield in 2013.
He missed eight games his first season while some eligibility issues were ironed out with the NCAA, finishing with averages of 8.9 points and 6.6 rebounds a night. He bumped those respective numbers to 13.9 (tops on the team) and 7.2 last season, and has continued to make strides this season.
“The program here is amazing,” he said. “They care a lot for the guys. Some guys can’t see it, but if you are mature enough, you understand that they care a lot about you. … They’re on top of you, if you’re not good at something. It’s really amazing. I like it here a lot. I’m glad I ended up here.”
He will graduate this spring, and hopes to play professionally somewhere next season.
It’s just another step, just another challenge. He relishes every last one of them.
Above: No matter what the challenge has been – learning a new sport, a new language or changing schools, Aly Ahmed has risen to achieve. (Courtesy Mark Nessia/CSU Bakersfield)