The Parkview Parochial Basketball League of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has a new entrant in the league, and it brings with it opportunities for lessons in diversity and religious tolerance.  

This season, the league welcomed the Salam School to its association. Salam School is a Muslim grade school and high Wiam Elkhalifa of Salam School, Milwaukee, drives to the basket with Grace Umek (22) from St. Gregory the Great School, Milwaukee, defending during a seventh grade girls basketball game at Blessed Sacrament School, Milwaukee, Dec. 20. The St. Greg Trojans were victorious, 39-13. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)school, located on Milwaukee’s South Side near 13th Street and West Layton Avenue.

Salam School had played in the North Shore League for 14 years, but because of the long commute, the decision to change conferences was a comfortable transition.

“Sometimes we would have an hour-long drive to the games,” said Othman Atta, executive director of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, whose son plays for Salam’s eighth grade team. “It’s less taxing on our parents and players to travel.”

The students of Salam also welcome the new competition.

“It’s better to play with different kids than with people we already know,” said Jenin Nadi, a seventh grader on Salam’s girls’ team.

“Our school is very small; we have approximately 740 students,” said Atta. “Joining the Parkview League gives us a chance to be more competitive.”

The Parkview League includes 30 schools and operates with 27 gyms that span from the southern to western communities, such as Nativity Jesuit Middle School, Milwaukee, and St. Anthony on the Lake, Pewaukee. The league also organizes volleyball games and tournaments. It is comprised of mostly Catholic schools, but recently included the Milwaukee Montessori School and the Indian Community School.

The Salam Stars eighth grade boys’ record is 2-4, sixth grade boys are 4-1, fifth grade boys are 1-5, and the seventh grade girls are 1-4. The humbling start to the season has given Salam’s players motivation to improve their game.

“The Parkview League will be a challenge this year; it includes bigger schools,” said David Petrick, Salam’s athletic director and boys’ basketball coach. “We have to focus on the fundamentals of the game and learn the importance of playing up to our new competition.”

Given current events surrounding Muslims and the Islamic faith, league standings are not the team’s top priority.
“As you can imagine, there are certain challenges with what’s going on in the world,” said Petrick. “It’s tough on our kids to hear all the things that are being said in the news and media.”

On the court, there have been no reported incidents of disrespect or foul play.

“Our kids are more focused on their game; no one points their finger at the other team,” said Ream Bahhur, a math teacher at Salam. “The other teams are very nice, and our players put the onus on themselves. At the high school level, however, there may be some animosity.”

Atta, a member of an interfaith dialogue committee between the Islamic Society and the archdiocese, believes basketball is a good learning opportunity to facilitate a strong interfaith community in Milwaukee.

“A lot of stereotypes are learned early on in childhood,” said Atta. “From a unifying standpoint, it’s great to see these kids find a commonality through sports. Basketball isn’t about faith, but it teaches teamwork and sportsmanship.”
The Parkview League also recognizes the importance of including Salam to its program.

Esraa Salim secures the basketball, keeping it away from St. Gregory the Great defender, Katie Minik during the Dec. 20 matchup. (Catholic Herald photos by Allen Fredrickson) “It’s a really good thing, not just because it’s incorporating another religious institution, but it’s another venue for all the kids to play together,” said Bob Roloff, the basketball director for the league. “All the players are very similar; there’s not a big difference.”

Alicia Román, a scorekeeper for the Blessed Sacrament gym, welcomes the new team.

“It’s important to have Salam join our league, I can see all the players are really excited to play with each other,” she said.

Maggie Umek, whose daughter plays for the St. Gregory the Great Trojans, is also pleased with the new addition.

“It’s good for our kids to experience diversity at an early age; they will see it in college and later in life,” she said.
Many of Salam’s players are first-generation Americans whose parents are recent immigrants.

“There are very few opportunities in those countries,” said Mohammad Akhter, whose daughter plays for Salam. “This gives the children a second chance to have new life and to learn how to disprove the common misconceptions about various ethnicities and the Islamic faith.”

While Salam’s boys’ team wears standard basketball apparel, the girls’ uniforms include traditional clothing, such as Salam basketball coach Julianna Snow shouts words of encouragement as her seventh grade girls from Salam School, Milwaukee, compete in basketball against St. Gregory the Great at Blessed Sacrament School, Milwaukee, Dec. 20.athletic pants and a headscarf known as a hijab.

“Our hijabs are kind of like the logo on a football helmet; it represents our faith,” said Nadi. “Occasionally it may get in the way of our eyes or fall off and be sweaty, but it’s important for us to wear it.”

The hijab displays a woman’s modesty in the Muslim culture and is customarily worn in public. Depending on religious holidays, fasting can also be a factor with the players’ training regimen.

“Every faith requires sacrifice,” said Akhter. “Following our beliefs and customs is essential for our tradition.”

Salam School’s team name, the Stars, is also an important symbol of their faith because the stars and moon are used to time religious festivals. The literal translation of Salam from Arabic means “peace.”

At the heart of the basketball program is Salam School’s mission statement: “Empowering our students to achieve Islamic and academic excellence. Salam School seeks to develop citizens who embody the spirit of Islam and strive to improve their society through faith, perseverance and service to others.”

Regular season play in the league concludes Feb. 28. The ultimate goal, however, for any of the eighth grade teams in the Parkview League is to earn an invitation to the 58th annual Padre Serra basketball tournament at Mount Mary University. Salam has reached the tournament once and hopes to return.

For the remainder of the season, the team looks to improve.

“Our players are quick and are good at defense,” said Julianna Snow, Salam’s seventh grade girls’ coach. “We just need to practice more and get used to playing as a team.”