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Feature

Jamal Abu-Shamala

Jamal Abu-Shamala finished last season as the Gophers' leading three-point shooter and scored in double figures five times.

Mr. Perseverance

All that Jamal Abu-Shamala wanted was a chance. Lucky for the Gophers, he got it.

By John Rosengren

Dec. 5, 2006

When Jamal Abu-Shamala got his chance to try out for the Gopher men's basketball team last year as a walk-on, he knew the rap against him: At 6-foot-4 and only 190 pounds, he couldn't be strong enough to play at the top collegiate level, detractors said. And having played at a small high school in Shakopee, Minn., he couldn't possibly be skilled enough.

Those perceptions had been enough to keep Division I schools from offering Abu-Shamala a scholarship, even though he had been a finalist for the prestigious Minnesota Mr. Basketball honor his senior year. But he didn't let the naysayers squelch his dream of playing for the University of Minnesota. "I found that a challenge," Abu-Shamala says.

Abu-Shamala met that challenge and then some. This season the sophomore guard is expected to be a key contributor on the Gopher team after having scrapped his way to a starting position and a scholarship last year. He ended his freshman year as the Gophers' leading three-point shooter and scored in double figures five times. He also proved to be a dependable rebounder, grabbing a career-high nine rebounds against Maryland in late November.

Abu-Shamala knew he could play big-time college ball; he just wanted the chance. He got it a year ago when former Gopher head coach Dan Monson--impressed by Abu-Shamala's state high school tournament effort, in which he led his team to the Class 3A title with a 19.8 scoring average--invited the Sabres' captain to audition for a varsity spot. "That's all I needed to hear, for him to give me the opportunity to walk on and prove myself," Abu-Shamala says.

There was one small problem: college tuition. Abu-Shamala lived with his mother, Carolyn Kenmore, a single parent who was unable to work due to injuries suffered in a car accident. Paying next month's rent was a big enough challenge, let alone setting aside money for college.

Enter Mark Stensrude. As a 10-year-old boy, Abu-Shamala had met Stensrude through the United Way's Big Brother program. Over the years, Stensrude and his wife, Cathy, and their three children had embraced Abu-Shamala as part of their family. Now, Stensrude helped Abu-Shamala navigate the financial aid process and offered to pay the balance of his college expenses. Abu-Shamala balked, not wanting to burden his surrogate family, but the Stensrudes assured Abu-Shamala it was something they wanted to do for him.

When Abu-Shamala was offered a scholarship for the second semester, he was shocked and delighted: "That was the best news of my life. It was nice to know the financial burden was lifted off me. I could focus on the season."

Even with his coach's and the Stensrudes' encouragement, Abu-Shamala found the doubts seeping in. He had grown over the summer, but he worried that he still wasn't big enough to play in the Big Ten. With a July birthday, he was young for his year in school, and he wondered if maybe he should redshirt his first year.

But injuries to four Gopher regulars (Vincent Grier, Maurice Hargrow, J'son Stamper and Kevin Payton), along with academic difficulties that rendered Rico Tucker and Brandon Smith ineligible, thrust Abu-Shamala into early action as a guard.

One November night before the regular season started, Monson sat down with Abu-Shamala and Stensrude after practice in Williams Arena. "You're playing well right now," he told Abu-Shamala. "We want you to start contributing in a bigger way."

When Abu-Shamala was offered a scholarship for the second semester, he was shocked and delighted: "That was the best news of my life. It was nice to know the financial burden was lifted off me. I could focus on the season."

The adjustment to college proved challenging, not just on the court but in the classroom as well, even for someone who had finished high school with a 3.5 GPA. Abu-Shamala found it difficult to juggle coursework and basketball. Life was reduced to class, practice, study and sleep. Wake up and repeat. "If you're not focused on what you've got to do the first year, it can backfire on you," Abu-Shamala says.

His focus took him to the gym in the evenings once he finished his studies. Even though he felt drained from the day, he worked on his shooting for an hour or more. Alone in the gym, he practiced his shot from different spots on the floor. It cleared his mind and built his confidence.

The focus and hard work paid off. He earned a 3.0 GPA carrying a full load of credits (he plans to declare his major, most likely in business marketing, this year). And Abu-Shamala worked himself into a starting role in January. He proved himself an excellent outside shooter--he was four-for-four outside the arc and scored a team-high 15 points against Northwestern in February--and established himself as a solid contributor.

Abu-Shamala's scholarship was renewed for the 2006-07 season. Now 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds--and with an extra layer of self-confidence--Abu-Shamala heads toward the Big Ten season with renewed ambition to continue to develop his game and help the Gophers to improve on last year's 5-11 conference record. With no starters returning, Abu-Shamala is in a position to play a pivotal role on the young team.

Once again, Abu-Shamala has proven himself in the face of challenges. "I've seen that in him since day one-he has the drive and determination to do great things," Stensrude says. "That's what I admire so much in him: Whatever is thrown at him, he meets it and beats it. He's an inspiration for me too."

John Rosengren is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. This article originally appeared in Minnesota magazine, November-December 2006, the magazine of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association.