Rise From the Ashes
By Vincent Briedis
A fall glow from the setting sun radiates down on Virginia’s Davenport Field as the left-handed slugger places his left foot in the box, followed by his right. Settling into his stance and standing mostly upright, legs close together with hands back and even with his rear shoulder, the batter eyes his nemesis on the mound.
Gently shifting weight back and forth from his back to front foot, the batter eyes the pitcher’s offering and immediately attacks. The ball and bat violently collide, sending a surge down the right field line, and swiftly standing on third base with a triple is Virginia junior guard Mustapha Farrakhan.
It is prior to the start of the 2009-10 season and new men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett orchestrated a friendly softball game, pitting the coaching staff, along with the first years against all other team members.
A life-long baseball fan, Farrakhan manned first base in an infield that featured Mike Scott at third base, Sammy Zeglinski at shortstop and Sylven Landesberg at second base. The camaraderie builder saw the upperclassmen take victory over the first years and the staff.
“We won and now have our team picture from that day, bats and all, hanging in our locker room,” commented Farrakhan. “I have loved baseball my entire life and I still throw the ball around with my dad and little sister (a high school softball player) when I am home during summer breaks.”
Growing up in Harvey, Ill., Farrakhan is the consummate Chicago White Sox fan, but it was Seattle Mariner Ken Griffey, Jr., who adorned the walls of the southpaw growing up.
“I loved Griffey,” said Farrakhan. “I had his poster on my wall, I wore No. 24 in every sport I played and I fashioned my batting stance just like him.”
While the story about No. 24 thus far revolves around a certain first-ballot hall of famer, there is a more poignant one too. It was the high school basketball number of Farrakhan’s late uncle, Billy Tinsley. Tragically passing away at the age of 17, Farrakhan wore the number as a tribute to his mother, Karen’s brother.
“I would wear No. 24 in high school partly because of Griffey, but mostly to honor my Uncle Billy,” said Farrakhan. “When I arrived at UVa, Mamadi Diane had No. 24, so I took No. 2 – which has always been my favorite number. My mom gets emotional when she sees me play because I remind her so much of her brother on the court.”
Which means that Wahoo Nation is gifted with an athletic glimpse of a life cut too short, as Farrakhan is a key contributor to Virginia’s meteoric rise this season from 10-18 last year to the early conference leader.
Playing only 10.4 minutes per game a season ago, Farrakhan is more than doubling his time on the court this season and his numbers are positively reflecting the increased playing time as Bennett’s first or second option off the bench.
Farrakhan only had 14 assists in 23 games last season. He passed that mark this season with two assists against Cleveland Sate in Cancun on Nov. 25, the sixth game of the year. Points and rebounds are significantly up as well for the junior and he credits his overall success to Bennett and his staff.
“The team as a whole has more of a vocal relationship with the staff,” said Farrakhan. “All the coaches are very approachable and we are not afraid to make mistakes or fail. We practice so hard on being humble and doing the things we know we can do. We practice everyday to not get out of character. If something goes wrong – Coach Bennett and the staff give you the confidence that you can still get through and fight through it.”
The Cavaliers started out rather pedestrian at 4-4 as the kinks of a new system had to be worked out. But once the winter break hit, so did a winning streak that included topping three ranked teams (UAB, Georgia Tech and Miami), giving Virginia its first 3-0 start in ACC play since the 1994-95 campaign.
“Things just kind of came together as a team over Christmas break,” said Farrakhan. “Personally, I used to be real hard on myself when I made a mistake. If I made a mistake in practice I would be mad at myself and have a hard time letting it go. It was during the beginning of break this season that the coaches told me to not worry about it and just keep playing – play through it. They do a great job of instilling in us how to play through adversity and know how to play with composure, because that is what would happen to me, I would want to do things so perfectly and if I made a mistake I would be highly upset. Now the staff tells me to keep playing and don’t worry about it and that has been a big help for me this season.”
The added confidence has sparked UVa runs this season when Farrakhan comes off the bench.
“I try and bring the energy and always play energized,” said Farrakhan. “I aspire each game to be one of the guys who really gets after it and I want to lift my teammates in anyway possible by playing complete basketball.”
Farrakhan has succceeded in such goals of late. In Virginia’s wins over the three ranked opponents, he averaged 12.7 points, 2.7 assists and 2.0 rebounds in 21.0 minutes of action during those triumphs, while only yielding two total turnovers. He also shot 62 percent (11-of-18) from the floor and 67 percent (4-of-6) from beyond the arc in those victories, nicely supplementing Virginia’s primary scoring tandem of Sylven Landesberg and Mike Scott.
Despite the recent successes, Farrakhan and the Cavaliers have remained grounded, especially with the majority of the ACC slate remaining.
“No words can describe what the ACC is like every night,” said Farrakhan. “It feels like older times – the clashing of gladiators in hallowed arenas. Despite our successes we are still a work in progress. We need to get better, but its great to know we are working hard and things are starting to come through for us now. ‘Stay humble and keep working’ is what Coach Bennett keeps telling us, keep knocking at the door, keep knocking and plugging. Good or bad, we will still be a family and we will still be together and getting it done the right way.”
As the rugged ACC schedule continues the fans will file into John Paul Jones Arena to bare witness as the Cavaliers persevere a rise from the league ashes. Like so often happens in the sports realm, there are so many other under currents, so much more that meets the eye than what a fan sees in the arena of competition. A new coach and a new staff, building a stronger edifice for continued success. A team buying into their leader – players buying into themselves as one unit and a kid from the suburbs of Chicago playing the game with such passion and energy to remind himself and his family that to live in the hearts of others is not to die.