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NPR News

The historical significance of Kyrie Irving's athletic dominance during Ramadan

Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets drives against Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference first round in the 2022 NBA playoffs at Barclays Center.
Al Bello
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Getty Images
Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets drives against Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference first round in the 2022 NBA playoffs at Barclays Center.

The sheer athleticism it takes to compete in the NBA, when combined with fasting in observance of Ramadan, has placed Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets and other Muslim athletes in a league of their own.

During the month of Ramadan, many Muslims engage in fasting from sunrise to sundown. The timing of Ramadan is dependent on the lunar calendar, and this year it was from April 1 to Sunday — which happened to be during the NBA playoffs.

After scoring 34 points in a playoff series game on April 12, Irving shared how he was able to perform at a high level while observing the holy month.

One reason why elite athletes like Irving have been able to compete during Ramadan stems from how a body can cope with change, Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a sleep specialist, told NPR over the phone.

Most athletes fasting during Ramadan are able to "adjust because once they've established a routine, which included the sleep, changing the calories and of course, the limited hydration ... most of the shock to their system would be in the first week," said Ahmed, who is a professor at NYU Langone Long Island School of Medicine and co-author of a paper analyzing the impact of Ramadan on Muslim soccer players.

"So it's by the end of the Ramadan or by later in Ramadan, they've actually made the adaptations and coping quite well," she added.

Aside from Irving, Omer Yurtseven (Miami Heat), Gorgui Dieng (Atlanta Hawks), Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics) and Enes Kanter Freedom are other Muslim players competing in the playoffs.

Freedom wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in 2019 describing his experience of fasting while playing.

"I want to be an example for children everywhere, showing them that you can thrive when challenged — fasting for Ramadan, for instance, but also going all out in the NBA playoffs," Freedom said.

For Irving, there also have been moments where he needed to break the fast with a snack, which is OK for Muslims.

While fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, it is not obligated for everyone given their circumstance. The purpose of Ramadan is not to be punitive, and religious leaders agree there are other ways to honor the faith if fasting is not possible.

"They should be given the understanding that this is not supposed to be burdensome if they feel they're so sleep-deprived, and they're so hungry, and they're so thirsty, and it's taking their mind off the game. And their job is to perform for the game. That's their personal decision," Ahmed said.

Islam and the NBA

In the 1990s, Houston Rockets star Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon was vocal about his fasting.

He was also cognizant of the negative stereotypes surrounding Muslims and felt it was important to use his platform to positively share his faith.

"I feel much better. I feel lighter, faster, much more mentally focused," Olajuwon said in 1996. "When God prescribes something, it is for your best interest."

Being Muslim in America, let alone as a public figure, has not always been easy.

Before Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was intent on changing the public perception of Islam. The six-time MVP and 19-time All-star converted to Islam at the age of 24 and left his birth name of Lew Alcindor behind.

"I have never wavered or regretted my decision to convert to Islam," Abdul-Jabar wrote in 2015. "When I look back, I wish I could have done it in a more private way, without all the publicity and fuss that followed. But at the time I was adding my voice to the civil rights movement by denouncing the legacy of slavery and the religious institutions that had supported it. That made it more political than I had intended and distracted from what was, for me, a much more personal journey."

Like Olajuwon, Irving remains one of the most outspoken athletes in and out of the NBA when it comes to his faith.

"I am not alone in this," Irving said last month. "I have brothers and sisters all around the world that are fasting with me. We hold our prayers and our meditations very sacred and when you come out here, I mean, God's inside me, God's inside you, God's inside all of us. So, I am walking with faith and that's all that matters."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 1, 2022 at 9:00 PM PDT
This story has been updated to reflect that Enes Kanter legally changed his name to Enes Kanter Freedom. He also played for the Boston Celtics before being traded to the Houston Rockets in February 2022. The Rockets waived his contract. Freedom is currently a free agent.