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These Muslim players are out to compete with the best of the best

by Jim Lemuel Wilson, August 12, 2019 2:10pm

Surrounded as they may be by Catholics in Manila, Muslim players Chester Saldua, Med Salim, and Choi Ignacio are willing to adapt and do whatever it takes to be among the best of the best.

Being a minority, they have to go through a lot of adjustments to blend in. Lucky for them, their coaches and teammates have been very understanding of their religious practices and beliefs that they don’t feel any difference at all.

Take new Davao Occidental Tiger Saldua’s case for example. Saldua was born in the US and spent his childhood in Jordan, where his Palestinian mother had a lot of relatives. A Muslim since birth, Saldua and his family moved to the Philippines when he was still a kid. He attended his last year of elementary education here and has made the country his home.

Saldua was a football player for the University of Perpetual Help System DALTA in Las Piñas before he was recruited to the football team of the College of St. Benilde. He spent two years with CSB football team before joining Team B of the Blazers basketball team.

He also attended Colegio de San Juan de Letran, went back to Perpetual, and then moved to Philippine Christian University. Nursing an ankle injury in college, Saldua got a chance to showcase his skills in the Maharlika Pilipinas Basketball League via the Navotas Clutch in the league’s first season. Going through all that takes a lot of adjustments.

“It’s always an adjustment because, of course, you have team dinners, you try to bond with your teammates a lot and one way to go is to go out and eat, which is also very difficult because they always treat you like you’re special in a way. And you just don’t want to hassle anybody,” Saldua told Courtside Philippines in a phone interview.

But Saldua has now found a new home with his teammates in Davao.

“But everybody has always been so understanding about it, and a lot of players stopped eating pork like Kuya Mark Yee, he stopped eating pork. In Davao, right now, a lot of players don’t eat pork, and they're very strict on their diet. So on Davao right now, it’s very easy for me,” he said.

Salim and Ignacio, too, have been welcomed by their teammates in the Zamboanga Family’s Brand Sardines.

“Hindi ko na-feel na naiiba ako kasi nga, yung mga nakasama ko, tanggap din naman nila na Muslim ako at masaya sila na may kasama silang Muslim. Yung iba lang siguro, ‘pag kumakain ako... yung sa pork, nag-a-adjust din sila sa akin,” Salim shared.

“Wala namang special treatment. Pare-parehas lang. Hindi naman namin na-feel na iba kami sa kanila,” Ignacio said.

Both Salim and Ignacio were born Muslims, started playing basketball in Zamboanga, and played for the National University Bulldogs, though not together. And they have been fortunate to have a teammate each to share their religious practices.

“Yung import namin sa NU (National University Bulldogs) before, si Issa Gaye, kasama ko din sa dorm, kaya minsan sabay kaming magdasal sa dorm. Maganda rin yung bonding. Nakakatulong din naman na mas magkakilala pa kami,” shared Salim.

Ignacio, meanwhile, played with Muslim baller Ar-Raouf Julkilpi—who he sees as his brother—when he was still part of the Basilan Steel. They, too, got to practice Islam together. Asked if praying together helped them as teammates, Ignacio replied: “Oo, nakatulong po talaga, nare-relax po kami, yung mind namin. Nakakatulong po talaga.”

Outside of being a minority, Muslim players, too, have a certain disadvantage as their fasting practice can affect their physical performance.

“We fast from sunrise until sunset. So I can break my fast before the game,” Saldua said, referring to the MPBL’s late-game schedules. Saldua has got used to it, but it still is a huge challenge for Salim and Ignacio.

"I've been doing it for so long that my body has gotten used to it," Saldua said.

“Nasubukan ko naman din po sa training na mag-fasting. Pero mahirap din i-araw-araw. Kung hindi din kaya ng katawan, okay lang din naman rest muna kasi nga may ginagawang iba. Pero kung may day na wala namang training, or kung kaya kahit may training, mag-fasting,” said Salim.

Saldua, Salim, and Ignacio are just three of the Muslim players that we have right now, but other Muslim players are also making them proud. Incoming University of the East baller Abdul Sawat is one, and he is hoping to be able to perform both in college and, hopefully, in the pros.

“Maraming bago [sa University of the East Red Warriors] pero sana maging okay. Sana in a couple of years makapag-PBA,” Sawat said.

Yousef Taha, meanwhile, joined the PBA in 2012 and has played for several teams. He is now with the TNT KaTropa, hoping to help his team win the 2019 Commissioner’s Cup crown against the San Miguel Beermen.

These players and our Muslim kababayans are celebrating Eid al-Adha which, Sawat said, is like the New Year’s Day celebration. Cheers to you all!

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