Hear that swish? That’s the Salam Stars crushing it on the court. The all-female varsity basketball team is made up of Muslim students from the Salam School, an Islamic school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We’re girls who just want to play basketball,” says Jumana Badwan, senior captain of the Salam Stars.
All the players wear hijabs and modest athletic wear. In an ideal world, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But other players and spectators at their games routinely makes judgments about their outfits and their religion. “Sometimes, we see them laughing. Sometimes, we see them whispering to each other,” Badwan says.
Sometimes, the negative attention is more overt. “I tell my teammates to just ignore it, and if they can’t ignore it, just show them by playing basketball, you know? Just push hard. Push through,” Badwan says. “What they say—don’t let it get to you.”
The approach is working. Last season, the Salam Stars had a record of 14 wins and four losses.
The girls can take comfort in knowing other athletes are competing in hijabs these days—women like fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, notably the first American Muslim athlete to wear a hijab while representing the U.S. in the 2016 Summer Olympics; Zahra Lari, a figure skater from the United Arab Emirates; and Malaysia’s Nor “Phoenix” Diana, the world’s first hijab-wearing pro wrestler.
To motivate themselves, the Salam Stars have adopted a team motto—more than the score. “The meaning behind it is that it’s not just about the score. It’s how you work together, the hard work you put in, the commitment you give to the team and the way you play on the court,” Badwan says. “No matter how good, or bad the team is, you play your hardest.”
When Kassadi Macak, the team’s head coach and athletic director at the Salam School, began working with the Salam Stars four years ago, the team was more like a club that played for fun. They didn’t practice every day like a normal high school team, and they didn’t play a regular schedule of games. “I had to change all of that,” Macak says, noting, “A lot of the girls started in seventh or eighth grade. So they had only been playing for two years, and they didn’t know the fundamentals, or the basics of basketball at all. I had to lay down the groundwork of what the lane was, what the paint was.”
The players learned fast, and they were committed to getting better, which explains last season’s impressive win-loss record. Macak holds the girls to a high standard. “It’s expected that you’re at practice every day—even if you’re hurt, you should be here,” she says.
Badwan confirms Macak is a tough coach. “But only because she wants us to put in the effort. She wants us to get better,” Badwan says, “and she wants us to keep working hard through our struggles.”
Macak has coached Badwan throughout her entire high school career. It’s been rewarding for her to watch the student become both a great basketball player and an inspiring leader. “I decided to make her captain because how she leads on the court by example. She keeps a cool head. She knows what to do in certain situations,” Macak says, “and the girls look up to her for sure.”
While Macak has guided the Salam Stars on the court, she feels like she has learned as much from the girls as she has taught them. “I grew up like five minutes from this building,” Macak says, referring to the Salam School. “I had no Muslim friends. I lived in my little bubble.”
“For me, as an outsider who is not Muslim, I feel like I was welcome with open arms,” Macak says. “We’re a small family, and we take on any task together, and we support each other.”