Sanar Shamdeen packed his basketball into a small grocery bag that hung from the handlebars of his bicycle. Every day during summer break, he made the same ride from his childhood home in Springfield to Annandale High School.
“I still remember going into the gym in the summer on my own, when I wasn’t supposed to be there, to work on my game,” Shamdeen, who graduated from Annandale in 2013, said. “The custodians were friendly, they would let me stay.”
“I would always tell him ‘I can’t open the gym for you, but if you go talk to a custodian, they may open it,’” Anthony Harper, who coached Shamdeen in 2010 and 2011 at Annandale, added. “He’d go and jimmy the doors or sometimes the head custodian would let him in.”
Born near the Iraqi-Turkish border in the northern Iraqi city of Zakho; Shamdeen and his family migrated to the United States in 1996, when he was one year old.
Shamdeen found the game at a neighborhood park in Springfield as an elementary school student. He’d sit off to the side, transfixed as the older kids ran up and down the cracked concrete. Shamdeen remembers the heaviness of the ball, and shooting “granny shots” because he couldn’t get the ball 10-feet in the air. But what sticks out most is repeatedly asking the older kids if he could play with them.
Persistence has been paramount for Shamdeen, who seems to have stopped growing at 5-foot, 8 inches.”
“I used to wish I would get taller,” Shamdeen said. “I respect the game of basketball and believe you get out what you’ve put in. I’ve put a lot of hours in and I’m going to continue to do so for as long as I can.”
“He was always a gym rat. He was one of those kids that if you put a ball out there, nine times out of 10 he’d go to the gym instead of class,” Harper said with a chuckle, before emphasizing Shamdeen’s academic success. “I don’t know how he managed to do both, but he found a way. Basketball was always going to be his ticket – he loves it so much.”
At Annandale High, Shamdeen’s greatest success came his sophomore year, as a key contributor on a 20-win Atom team that made it to the 2011 Virginia AAA State Tournament. Though the team lost in the first round to I.C. Norcom and future NBA player Dorian Finney-Smith, it was the best season in school history.
“Playing as a sophomore was the best year,” Shamdeen remembered. “We had three seniors that had been starting since freshman year. Going to the state tournament – furthest in school history – I learned a lot being an underclassman starting.”
Shamdeen’s four three-pointers and 12 points were huge for the Atoms, who gave Norcom everything it could handle, before finally falling 49-43.
“He could get his shot off from just about anywhere on the court,” Harper said. “He came out that game knocking down threes. During the season, we had coaches like ‘where’d that kid come from, I don’t remember him.’ Our biggest thing for him was just to spot up and find a clean shot.”
Despite averaging 19 points per game his senior year, Shamdeen was little recruited at the college level.
“As soon as I hit the age of 13 or 14, I wanted to play in college, Shamdeen said. “Around 16 or 17, I realized that I’ve been doing this every single day of my life, so why not try and put your mind to it and try to get paid doing something you absolutely love?”
Shamdeen ended up at small, Division II, Alderson Broaddus University, in Philippi, West Virginia.
“It was in the middle of nowhere,” Shamdeen said. “there wasn’t much to do [except play basketball], so that was perfect for me.”
After scoring only 36 points combined, spread out over 23 games, during his first two collegiate seasons, Shamdeen developed into an important rotation player for the Battlers. In 2015-16, he averaged over five points a game – netting a career high 21 against Trevecca Nazarene. The following season, as a senior, Shamdeen appeared in a career high 29 games, starting eight, and averaged over four points and nearly two assists per contest.
“My first two years, I couldn’t really hit a pull up shot,” Shamdeen said. “If it wasn’t a three, I would have to get to the basket, or shoot a floater, which hurt me. I really worked on my pull-up in the midrange area and that’s where I try to get a lot nowadays.”
Iraq is hardly the basketball oasis budding young players dream about. For Shamdeen, a dual Iraqi-U.S. citizen, it was his best gateway into pro hoops.
“[My parents] always tell me stories, when they were running from Saddam Hussein, and his people killing innocent Kurds,” Shamdeen said, from a hotel in Baghdad. “They would see dead bodies on the ground from starvation; being too cold.”
When the opportunity to play for Al Shurtah Police Club in the Iraq Super League presented itself, Shamdeen, like pretty much every American who has played pro hoops in Iraq over the past several years, felt a sense of trepidation, before deciding to let basketball guide him into the unknown.
“I texted the coach six different time saying, ‘are you sure it’s safe?’” Shamdeen remembered with a laugh. My coach kept telling me he wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t safe. My family was also extremely scared for me at first. You honestly forget you’re even in Iraq because of how nice certain places are. Hopefully it stays like this.”
Shamdeen described the Baghdad hotel he has been living in for the past several months as “definitely not five stars,” but solid nonetheless - though he laments the absence of decent Wi-Fi.
“Life in Baghdad has been cool so far,” He said. “I stay in a hotel with two other imports and almost everyone that stays here is an athlete – volleyball, soccer, handball – We [Americans] try to stick together, whether it be eating, playing PS4 or going to the mall.”
On the court, Shamdeen has helped pace Al Shurtah into a first-place tie with Al Nift, as the regular season winds down.
“The Iraqi local players – some can play; mostly the national team guys – you can tell there hasn’t been much good coaching at the youth age,” Shamdeen said. “So, it’s hit or miss. There are loyal fans here. If you play well, you’ll get a lot of friend requests on Facebook. Basketball is getting bigger in Iraq, but it will never compete with soccer.”
Games are played in front of small crowds – Shamdeen estimated the best arena draws between 200 and 400 fans – often with a thin layer of cigarette smoke wafting through the gym. In 2015, the Wall Street Journal noted that team benches were once airport lounge seats and the best tickets in the house are VIP seats on living room sofas. Shamdeen described screaming fans banging on drums and blowing horns.
“This year, the league has 10 teams,” Shamdeen said. “Four of them are absolutely awful. The other six have two imports and are a lot better. The top couple would be considered among the better Division Two [NCAA] teams.”
Shamdeen cited his inability to get into the gym to hone his craft at all hours of the day as the most frustrating part of professional basketball in Iraq – but said he understood the instability of the area preventing that.
“To come back to Iraq and see everything the citizens have been through and what they have to deal with is humbling,” Shamdeen said. I have so much respect for the guys here.”
Looking ahead, Shamdeen hopes to make his on-court debut for the Iraqi national team this summer as the country tries to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. He also hopes for an opportunity at a higher-tier league in another country next season.
“There’s nothing I’d rather be doing,” Shamdeen said. “Basketball is so important. I’ve been doing it every day since I was a kid – every single day. I respect the game. I’d like to inspire other kids that are undersized; to give them hope that if they work hard, anything is possible.”