It’s almost 10 p.m. and the approximate 11,500 seats in Worthen Arena are empty. Basheer Jihad just scored 21 points in 16 minutes of playing time.
Still in full uniform more than 30 minutes after the final buzzer, Jihad took the floor with two assistants to work on his inside scoring. Repeatedly, the junior forward stood with his back to the basket, pivoted with his left foot and threw up a soft, one-handed shot for a score.
It doesn’t matter to Jihad if he’s just played a game, gone through a two-hour practice or conditioned with weights or cardio, he always wants to put in extra time perfecting his game.
“They're not gonna give me anything easy,” Jihad said.
Through 19 games this season, Jihad averages 19.1 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game, both team highs. Although Jihad has since found it harder to dominate since becoming the No. 1 player on opposing team’s scouting reports, Ball State men’s basketball head coach Michael Lewis said Jihad is the most consistent because he is the Cardinals’ hardest worker.
As a natural introvert, Jihad uses time alone on the court as a source of peace, but Lewis’ latest challenge to Jihad is to bring teammates along with him.
“You got to go get a young guy to come work out with you, you got to go grab two or three guys,” Lewis told Jihad. “It may not be exactly what you want, but it's what's best for the team.”
Lewis said the biggest reason Jihad was able to make the jump from rotational player to No. 1 option was his hunger for that role. While Jihad helps keep the Cardinals afloat thanks to his statistical production, Lewis wants to see the soft-spoken Jihad become more of an outspoken leader.
Jihad knows Ball State may be depending on him to become more extroverted, and he said he’s willing to give it a try. In fact, if he doesn’t end up playing basketball at a professional level, Jihad is majoring in psychology so he can use the listening skills he has picked up from his natural demeanor to become a psychologist.
“I like helping people out with their problems,” Jihad said. “I learned that from talking with Jaylin [Sellers] and Payton [Sparks]. Jaylin and I used to have long talks, like three or four hours.”
Sellers and Jihad were roommates during their two years at Ball State, and Sellers recalled the two staying up until dawn some nights talking through their problems outside of basketball and their aspirations in it, just like Jihad did. In fact, Sellers said he trusts Jihad enough to talk about things he wouldn’t with anyone else.
Even though the two are more than 1,000 miles apart, Sellers said he and Jihad still try to keep in touch with each other at least once or twice a week. Now, Jihad and Sellers are the leading scorers for their respective teams.
Like Lewis, Sellers said he has seen Jihad’s talent and work ethic taking him to the top since day one.
“He’s pretty much got the whole package,” Sellers said. “To see him get good opportunities and do those things he said he would do just puts a smile on my face.”
Sellers was one of the select few Jihad went to practice with during those times of extra work, sometimes even after those long talks.
“Whether it was 1:00 in the morning, we would just go to the gym and clear our minds or just put us at ease,” Sellers said.
Jihad called Sellers and Sparks his best friends, but after coming into the program together in 2021 and playing together for two full seasons, the trio are no longer teammates.
Top of the scouting report
When Lewis came to Ball State two years ago, Jihad was in the transfer portal. Former head coach James Whitford and his staff recruited Jihad to Muncie, and after he was fired, Jihad considered leaving the Cardinals.
Deciding whether or not he wanted to bring Jihad back to Ball State was one of Lewis’ first tasks, and Jihad wasn’t the only one who entered the portal, as Sellers and Sparks also considered leaving.
Lewis brought all three back for his first season as head coach, but Sparks, Sellers and two other starters left the program after the 2022-23 season. Heading into 2023-24, Ball State needed new players to step into larger roles, and Lewis had his eye on Jihad, who only started one game and averaged seven points per game the prior season.
“You'll have players, they want to be something, but they're really not sure how to go about it, and they think they can do it, but there's a little doubt,” Lewis said. “I don't think ‘Sheer had that doubt.”
“Confidence is key in this game,” Jihad said.
Lewis said since day one, Jihad had the label no player wants to have: “Potential.” He said when players’ potential is talked about ad nauseam, it is hardly ever realized.
But he felt Jihad was different due to his work ethic, six-foot, nine-inch frame and versatile play style.
“That's something I pride myself on,” Jihad said. “I know that's going to be what's gonna make me some money one day.”
Honing his craft
Lewis is happy with Jihad’s production on offense in the post and from the perimeter, but he wants to see the forward make smarter decisions with the ball and limit his turnovers. In 10-of-19 games this season, Jihad has had at least four turnovers.
Lewis knows Jihad is making a concentrated effort to try and better adjust to being at the top of opposing teams’ scouting reports and gives him credit for the quickness with which he is adapting at the young age of 20.
“The exciting thing about working with him is you can see growth in what he's doing almost on a daily basis, and that's impressive,” Lewis said.
Jihad said he didn’t start playing AAU basketball until the summer before his freshman year of high school, previously devoting just as much time to soccer and baseball in his youth. Jihad said he started high school at six-foot and graduated at six-foot, eight-inches and he feels his experience playing forward in high school helped him develop into the versatile player he is today.
Despite his standing as the second tallest player on Ball State’s roster, Jihad isn’t a traditional big man. He shoots 39 percent from 3-point range and can drive to the basket from the top of the key as easily as most guards on the Cardinals’ roster. However, he has been asked to establish more of a presence down low this season with the loss of Sparks, something Jihad said he’s entirely comfortable with.
“I like getting dirty in the paint,” Jihad said.
Family and faith
Jihad is one of six siblings, and even plays against his older brother, Yusuf, at least twice a year. Yusuf is a rotational player at MAC-rival Eastern Michigan, and Basheer described the feeling when he is able to play against his brother as “surreal.” Yusuf was initially recruited to Oakland University out of high school but made the jump to Eastern Michigan at the same time Basheer committed to Ball State.
Basheer said the Jihad family never misses a contest between the two brothers, making those combined minimum of 80 minutes all the sweeter.
“You can see on their faces they are proud of us,” Basheer said. “That brings me joy.”
While basketball is what most people who know the name Basheer Jihad associate him with, Jihad said the part of his life he is most invested in is his religion. Jihad was raised Muslim and has been practicing his entire life.
Jihad said he hasn’t encountered any negative experiences or stereotypes that may be associated with the religion, though he said that is likely because he doesn’t look like the majority of Muslims. Additionally, he said his hometown, Detroit, has a rich Muslim culture as compared to the sparse Muslim population in Muncie.
However, Jihad goes to the Islamic Center of Muncie for prayer sessions every Friday and has found a small community there. While he doesn’t have any friends at Ball State who are also practicing Muslims, Jihad said he converted Sellers to the religion at the end of their freshman season.
Sellers called Jihad the “passenger” for his transition of faith and remembers Jihad helping lead his first few prayer sessions at a mosque, but it was Jihad’s grandfather who gave Sellers his first Quran. Like Jihad, Sellers said his newfound way of life helps him just as much on the court as off.
Jihad said the coaches and teammates he has had at Ball State have always been accommodating of his lifestyle, and Lewis even recalled the first time he realized Jihad was Muslim. Lewis held one of his first practices as the new head coach in the spring of 2022, during the time of Ramadan. He noticed Jihad was tiring far quicker than the rest of the Cardinals and followed up with him afterward to see what was the matter.
Jihad told Lewis he hadn’t eaten or drank any water since the sun rose that morning, and Lewis immediately understood. While Lewis hasn’t changed around practice time to fit Jihad’s needs, he has moved Jihad’s strength and conditioning schedule in the spring to an earlier time so his body has more fuel to work with.
Additionally, there are foods Jihad said he can’t eat in which the coaching staff will ensure the food provided for him doesn’t conflict with those restrictions.
Jihad said his Muslim identity doesn’t prevent him from success on the court, but rather, it enhances his abilities due to the mental sharpness he gains from practicing.
“That's what defines me as a person off the court and on the court as well,” Jihad said. “It gives you an extra push to go harder; having that as a path to follow has made me who I am.”
The next steps
Lewis said although he believes Jihad to be the hardest worker in the red and white, he wants to see Jihad continue to improve his conditioning. Although Lewis said Jihad is a good shooter, he wants to see him become a great shooter. Although Lewis said Jihad is good at rebounding within his zone, he wants to see Jihad become a “relentless” rebounder.
And although Lewis said many of these goals may not be tangible until the season finishes and he can go through a full offseason of additional training, he is confident in Jihad’s ability to continue to improve.
“He wants to be good, he has the ability to be good, he has the work ethic to be good and he's coachable,” Lewis said. “That's what makes Basheer unique.”
Jihad said his ultimate goal is to play in the NBA, and while only three Ball State men’s basketball players have ever reached that level, Lewis believes Jihad has the ability to make himself the fourth.
“If your dreams aren’t so big that somebody’s laughing at you, your dreams aren’t big enough,” Lewis said. “He's got a long way before he hits a ceiling.”