College Basketball

Pack forward balances faith, fast, basketball

N.C. State’s Abdul-Malik Abu (0) celebrates the Wolfpack’s 58-46 victory over North Carolina on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
N.C. State’s Abdul-Malik Abu (0) celebrates the Wolfpack’s 58-46 victory over North Carolina on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Like many of the approximately 3 million other people in the U.S. who practice Islam, Abdul-Malik Abu chooses to fast when the sun is up during the month of Ramadan.

The main difference between Abu and others who fast is that the 6-foot-8 forward also has to keep his weight up during the month to prepare for the next basketball season while going without food and water for more than 14 hours each day.

Last summer before his freshman season, Abu struggled, losing approximately 12 pounds during the first week of Ramadan. But a year later, the Boston native proudly says he has kept his weight at around 240 pounds entering the last few days of the Islamic calendar’s ninth month thanks to increased focus and discipline on his part and support from N.C. State’s athletic staff.

“I just try to use (fasting) as my biggest strength,” Abu said. “I try not to use it as an excuse for anything but your best performance in all things like the classroom (and) weights. I still have to manage my five times a day prayer in between class and weights. When I’m done with weights, basketball and class, I have the rest of the day to rest up and wait for the sun to go down, keep praying, eat, and do it all over again.”

A Boston native, Abu said on a typical day in which he has a practice, workout and class during Ramadan, he usually sleeps less than four hours at night. After leaving the mosque five minutes from the team’s practice facility, where he worships at around 11:30 p.m. or midnight after a ceremonial prayer, Abu said he tries to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to get the necessary food and fluids to get him through the next day.

N.C. State nutritionist Amanda Poppleton said that at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, Abu, 19, could expend as many as 4,000 calories during a typical day doing two to three hours of exercise – calories that would need to be replenished at night. Many nutrition websites and organizations recommend that 2,400 to 3,000 calories per day be consumed by males ages 19-30 with average levels of activity.

Carbohydrates like rice and proteins are usually what Abu uses to refuel, but perhaps more demanding than going without food is having to perform on the court and in the weight room while dehydrated.

Poppleton explained that in addition to recommending that Abu snack throughout the night, she suggests that he take in 183 ounces of fluid – or six 32-ounce bottles – each day, a figure that is even tougher for Abu to reach during Ramadan.

“That’s an astounding number to me,” Poppleton said. “(Yet) he still manages to practice with a smile on his face and everything.”

Tough work

In addition to dedicating himself to staying replenished at night, Abu also noted that strength and conditioning coach Bob Alejo has helped him maintain his strength this summer. But although appreciative of the work Poppleton, Alejo and the rest of the N.C. State staff do, Abu said with a chuckle that some of his toughest moments come after practices and workouts – when there is always something good to eat within reach.

“Our nutritionist is always ready to feed us,” he said.” I’ve got to kind of watch everyone eat. After class or workouts, everyone is like ‘You want to go get food?’ I kind of drift of into the shadows until the sun goes down, and then I’m ready to eat. The hardest part is not being around (the team) as much (because) I’m not eating meals.”

4,000 Calories Abdul-Malik Abu needs each night to maintain weight

3,000Calories an average male needs to consume a day

632-ounce bottles of fluid Abu needs to drink during fast

Ramadan now falls during a crucial part of the offseason for Abu, but as a prized recruit in high school, the time between mid-June and mid-July was vital for recruitment because of the number of AAU events that took place. Ranked No. 32 in the ESPN 100 for the Class of 2014, Abu would have to try to impress college coaches while playing several games per day with no food or water in between, but he says the offseason work he is putting in now is just as tough, if not tougher.

“When I was in AAU, I wasn’t on the scale 24/7, so I just played,” he said. “I would lose a lot of weight, but it was just natural for me.

When I was younger, I could play three games a day and it was fun. It was basketball, and in games you can pace yourself. You can pick and choose your points where you want to attack. At practice, you kind of have to give it your all through drills, through everything. They’re both very unique in their own ways, but I used to play three games and be okay. (Still,) the third game would be kind of death. I wouldn’t have anything, but the first two games I would be alright.”

Looking for results

Abu’s hard work on the court was one of the reasons powerhouse programs like Connecticut sought the big man’s services, but ultimately the sense of togetherness in head coach Mark Gottfried’s program and in Raleigh’s Muslim community led Abu to commit to the Wolfpack.

“It’s pretty convenient to keep your faith and your hobby together hand in hand,” he said.

As he enters his second year in the program, Abu will be expected to translate his offseason work into results in the box score when the season begins. Without standout guards Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey – who are attempting to earn NBA roster spots – and forward Kyle Washington, who transferred to Cincinnati, Abu’s freshman clip of 19.1 minutes per game will likely increase, but his coaches are looking for his 6.4 points per game and 4.8 rebounds per game averages to also go up.

With forward Lennard Fennard recovering from surgery on his right leg and center BeeJay Anya battling weight issues once again, how Abu starts the season will be critical for a young Wolfpack team.

“The challenge that we made to him really a few days after the last game of the season, is, ‘How can you become a more effective, high percentage scorer? Can you become a legitimate scorer in the low post, where we throw the ball into you, consistently make a 15, 16-foot face-up jump shot?’” Gottfried said at his summer press conference last week.

So far this summer, Abu has taken the necessary steps to become a focal point in N.C. State’s attack along with point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber. And although his teammates do not understand how he manages to fast during the summer, they might be even more impressed once the season starts.

“I always tell people when it’s your faith and something you truly believe in, it’s not like a chore. It’s not a hardship. It’s like my biggest strength,” Abu said. “When I can drink water. I feel like I’m capable of anything if I can do it without it.”

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