Every basketball career has its obstacles, some major, some minor, that come along the way. Then there are compelling stories of pure survival, as in the case of Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul veteran guard Ali Muhammed, whose success has come on top of a childhood surrounded by crime, drugs and a lot of uncertainty.
The soon-to-be 38-year-old Ali is a former Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion with Fenerbahce now playing in his 15th professional season, chasing more EuroLeague glory to go with the clutch Final Four performances already under his belt. He has spent the last nine years of his career with just two different Turkish clubs, including the last six with Fenerbahce.
All his success playing at an elite level has been the easy part of his life.
"Once I found myself in jail, and I wasn't getting out, I just had to make some certain decisions."
"With all the things that I've been through, as far as my mentality, it prepared me to get to this point," Muhammed says. "I have to appreciate that. By going through that stuff, it made me into the person that I am. And it made me have this type of character. There's a no-back-down attitude and always a fighting mentality, even despite my size. So, I think all of that I went through, it appears it was beneficial to me, to be here now."
At only 1.78 meters, Ali Muhammed is also someone who started his pro career by changing clubs eight times in his first five seasons. And he was quite fortunate just to make it out of the Chicago housing project where he grew up, let alone to play professionally. His childhood involved drama that is even too much to comprehend.
Ali's mother, father and older brothers were in and out of jail throughout his childhood for dealing and doing drugs. His brother Brian, three years older than him, was killed in a shooting at age 13. Ali, who went by Bobby Dixon at the time, was later arrested for dealing drugs before his senior year in high school, spending months in jail and boot camp.
Boot camp is where he graduated from high school, and at 18 years old was faced with a life full of more uncertainty. Great determination and a love for basketball ended up saving his life, however.
Growing up, Muhammed loved all sports and played any sports. He first remembers trying with baseball and boxing, while basketball was something he started practicing a little later.
"My first time playing basketball was in an alley," the Fenerbahce guard says. "That was like one of the things you did as a kid growing in projects; you start playing in an alley first. And it wasn't your typical basketball rim; it was a milk crate. You cut out the bottom of the milk crate and nail it up to the light pole. I didn't get to the gym until I was about 11 or 12 years old."
"You got to take responsibility for your own life no matter what happened."
What got Muhammed hooked on basketball was a visit to a local gym in Chicago, where as an 11-year old he saw NBA stars and fellow Chicagoans Michael Finley and Tim Hardaway play a game. One of them, because of his small size and penchant for pulling up for long shots, left a life-long impression on Ali.
"I was a little kid on the floor and just watching. I was amazed at Tim Hardaway. When I saw him play, he was just pulling up from deep, shooting threes. I was thinking, 'How is he doing it?' I was amazed at that," he says. "Ever since then, I was in love with trying to do that."
Though little, Muhammad was quick and could score on just about anyone. He didn't play organized basketball until reaching Sullivan High School, where he started to make a name for himself in his second and third year. But then he got into a lot of trouble before his last year, ending up in a county jail for three months followed by four months in a boot camp.
"Once I found myself in jail, and I wasn't getting out, I just had to make some certain decisions," he recalls. "'Am I going to continue down this path and do the same thing I've been doing, or do I want to change and try to do something different?'
"And, you know, the smart person will change. Evidently, you're not that good at it if you are in jail, and I'm smart enough to understand that. And then, right then and there, I just told myself then I'll never put myself in that position again, and I started to take it step by step."
Things could have easily gone the other way, the wrong way, but he did not allow that. The teenager managed to keep his focus on the right things and stay away from the trouble that was all around him.
"At the end of the day, most people are good at blaming other people for their situation," he says. "Me, I wished to be honest with myself; you can't always be the victim. You've got to take responsibility for your own life no matter what happened.
"So I took it upon myself and I told myself that I'm not doing this again. I'm not going down that path no matter what the circumstances."
Ali Muhammed knew he had to turn to basketball, and he put all his energy into it. When it came to basketball, it was nothing but a tunnel vision for him.
"Once I get my mind locked on to something, and it's something that I want, it's hard to get my attention to something else. This is how I am."
Things started clicking, on and off the court. He got into college playing basketball at Troy State, while his mom got out of jail and turned around her life, too, with help from her son.
"My mom started doing the right things, going to work and staying away from certain elements that would put her in a [bad] position. And I tried to motivate my mom and tell her that this is what we're doing, and no matter what we will be going through, I'm always going to be there and try to help her. Telling her to stay positive, stay clean, and we're gonna do it together."
But more challenges were ahead. Muhammed turned pro in 2006, and was faced with going overseas to play in France. It is never easy for young players coming out of school into a foreign country, not speaking the language and living alone. It was the same for him, but he had no intentions of backing down after all he went through to get into the position to play basketball professionally.
"It's all these different type of challenges and elements you've gotta deal with, but going through everything I've been in my life, that kind of prepared me for situations like that. 'What I'm going to do? Go back home?¡ Or just stick it out, tough it out. And that's what I had to do."
Ali toughed it out quite all right. He did change clubs often at first, but it took him just two years to reach EuroCup level with Benetton Treviso, and three years to make his EuroLeague debut with ASVEL Villeurbanne. One might think he made it once he got to the EuroLeague, but Muhammed will argue the opposite, that the challenge only begins there and then.
"I think once you get to that EuroLeague level, other guys underneath you now they're looking at you as a target," he explains. "Because everybody wants to be in that position. It's not that it gets easier. No, actually it gets hard. You've got to really focus in every game when you get to this level.
"Everybody is hunting, right? And you've been hunting your whole career. Now, you are being hunted."
After that debut season with ASVEL, it took him couple more years to get back to competing at the elite level. And a decision to join Turkish side Pinar Karsiyaka Izmir changed his life.
Ali admits he felt his career was a bit on a downward trajectory at that moment, but once he joined the club from Izmir ahead of the 2012-13 season, his career took a rapid rise. He led Karsiyaka to the 2014 Turkish Cup title, before his time with the club from Izmir culminated with leading the team to a historic 2015 Turkish League crown, earning a place in the EuroLeague.
But Muhammed never did play a EuroLeague game for Karsiyaka, because the following summer he joined Fenerbahce, where Coach Zeljko Obradovic wanted him as he was putting together a perennial EuroLeague title contender. Along the way came an opportunity that Muhammed says is the one you don't turn down, an invitation to take Turkish citizenship and play for Turkish national team, which also lead to a name change, from Bobby Dixon to Ali Muhammed.
"It's a big honor for a country to adopt you, asking you if would like to represent that country playing basketball," Muhammed says. "That is just a testament about how much work you put in, and of course I accepted it. It was an easy decision. "
Muhammed is now in his ninth year playing basketball in Turkey, which he is quick to call his second home.
"Everything in life is about adjusting to circumstances and I just try to use that in basketball, too."
"Turkey gave me a lot. They helped me with my basketball career. Playing here helped my family's financial situation. And then, the people here show me so much love. So, of course, I consider this my second home."
Muhammed made more history in Turkish basketball, helping Fenerbahce win the 2017 EuroLeague title. He has played in each Final Four since 2016, reaching a total of three championship games in the process. With more than 160 appearances in the competition, nearly 1,500 points and 400 assists, and more than 300 three-point shots made, Ali Muhammed has been leaving his mark in the EuroLeague for nearly a decade.
More importantly, however, is the way he made it in basketball, the mindset and approach he took, both of which are lessons for any young person.
"I don't look for excuses, I just try to fix the problems with solutions," Ali explains. "I basically just tried to control the things that I could control. By working hard, being professional, being a good positive character guy, and basically controlling everything that I can. So if things were not working out on court as I wanted to, that means I'm not doing something right. So I got to address it.
"Everything in life is about adjusting to circumstances and I just try to use that in basketball, too. When you look for solutions you've got to adjust to whatever it is that you're doing, so that's the only thing that I tried to do. No matter what it is, or where I'm at, I feel like I can adapt because I am a person who tried to learn from every experience."