Arab American hoops star headed for NBA?
By Nick Meyer | Friday, 04.03.2009, 08:48 PM

On Sunday, March 15, the St. Mary's College basketball team gathered in Moraga, California, to watch the NCAA basketball tournament's selection show.

Omar Samhan averaged more than 14 points and 9 rebounds for St. Mary's.

Among them was Omar Samhan, their starting center and second-leading scorer. The Gaels had just finished a 25-6 season and stood a good chance of making the 65-team field despite losing their league championship game to Gonzaga.

CBS television cameras were on hand to capture it all, anticipating a positive reaction.

But after the last announced match-up between Oklahoma and Morgan State flashed on the screen, the CBS cameras turned off, and just like that, the party was over. Samhan and his teammates were devastated.

"Really, we had won 25 games at that point and beat a lot of good teams on the road. We definitely thought we would be in," Samhan said.

"A lot of the announcers thought we'd get in but when we didn't make it, it was a real blow."

Samhan, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound junior of Egyptian descent who has an excellent chance of being drafted in the NBA after his senior year, tried not to let the snub bother him.

He admitted that it was hard to get excited about playing in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), which invites the best teams that didn't make the NCAA Tournament, but he and his teammates were able to focus and win three games before bowing out to San Diego State.

It wasn't a storybook ending for the Gaels, but it still was a fine season considering their stellar 28-7 final record despite missing their best player, point guard Paddy Mills, for most of the season.

Omar Samhan celebrates during a game for St. Mary's College in California. Samhan is expected to be a second round draft pick next year in the NBA. Mark J. Terrill/AP

Samhan, who started out in soccer before hitting a growth spurt in sixth grade that sent him above the six-feet-tall mark, knows the best is yet to come for both himself and his team. With Mills back next year at full strength, he expects nothing less than a tournament bid.

He also just might have a chance to play the game he loves professionally.

"I’ve talked to some scouts and stuff and they definitely want me to come back for my senior year," he said, adding that he is projected by some to be a second-round draft pick next year.

"I never thought it would get this far but I love to play basketball and I worked hard at it growing up. The next thing I knew, I was getting all kinds of offers from different schools."

Among the ten colleges offering scholarships to Samhan, a native of San Ramon, California, which is home to a decent-sized Arab and Muslim population, were Gonzaga, a basketball power from Washington, and Texas Tech, a strong athletic school from the powerful Big 12 Conference.

But Samhan wanted to stay close to home, even though it meant enrolling at St. Mary's, the tiny 2,651-enrollment liberal Catholic school in Moraga with mandatory religion classes.

"My parents are pretty liberal, they wanted me to go where I wanted and had the best chance to play," he said. "Just coming here it's funny how religions have a lot in common, we all share a lot of similarities in our culture and beliefs and stuff like that."

The transition was made easier thanks to a bond with Reda Rhalimi, a former St. Mary's center of Moroccan descent who was also a Muslim and ended up playing pro basketball in Italy.

Samhan admits he had a hard time when Rhalimi left but eventually St. Mary's began to feel like home for him.

"I tell the priests who teach my religion classes that I'm Muslim and they think it's cool, they embrace it and ask me questions and everything. People don't look down on me for being different, it is pretty cool."

Samhan, who is studying communications, will have his eyes on the Final Four in Detroit this weekend. He played against superstar center Hasheem Thabeet of Connecticut when both were freshmen and more than held his own, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds compared with Thabeet's 9 points and 6 rebounds, although St. Mary's lost. Thabeet will lead his Huskies against Michigan State in the Final Four. Samhan assessed their chances to bring home the championship.

"I've got UConn winning it all, they're so talented and good at so many positions," he said. "You're dealing with pros on a bunch of different levels. MSU is really well-coached and has great talent too though. We're fortunate that there's no Cinderellas this year and we get to see the four best teams in the country battling."

Next year, Samhan hopes that there will be least one Cinderella, however: St. Mary's. It may sound like a long shot, but not many people thought that one of the NBA's top rising center prospects would end up playing at the tiny college, either.

By Nick Meyer

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