By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He hears it when he’s introduced before games at John Paul Jones Arena. He hears it every time he hits a 3-pointer at JPJ, every time he makes a play that forces the opposing coach to call a timeout:
“That kind of evolved this year,” Virginia guard Mustapha Farrakhan said with a smile after practice Monday afternoon. “It’s very cool to hear, and I know certainly I’ll miss it.”
In the twilight of his college career, Farrakhan finds himself reflecting on such things. The 6-4 senior from the Chicago suburb of Harvey, Ill., will be honored Tuesday night, along with classmate Will Sherrill, before the Cavaliers’ final regular-season home game. (Mike Scott, who enrolled at UVa with Farrakhan and Sherrill in 2007, will not be recognized Tuesday. Scott is out with a season-ending injury and plans to return as a fifth-year senior in 2011-12.)
At 7 o’clock, Virginia (5-9, 14-14) hosts NC State (5-9, 15-13). With the Cavaliers’ postseason fate uncertain, this may well be the last chance fans have to see No. 2 play at JPJ.
“I think I’m prepared for Senior Night,” Farrakhan said. “I always thought about it coming up, even at the beginning of the year. I just want to perform well my last time at John Paul Jones.”
To walk off the court victorious Tuesday night “would be a great feeling,” Farrakhan said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, and if it happens, it’ll be a blessing. But if not, we just pick it up and keep moving forward. I just want to play hard and have my teammates play hard on the last day on this floor.”
Farrakhan grew up in the spotlight, with a last name that made it impossible for him to be just another basketball player. His paternal grandfather is Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
“Not many people probably have seen or dealt with the things that Mustapha has, being who he is and who his grandfather is,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I think that does bring a whole other element into play. I think he acts like a normal college athlete, but there are things that are there.”
When he met Farrakhan for the first time, Scott recalled, “I thought he was going to be like some famous guy, but Mu is one of the most down-to-earth, funniest guys I’ve ever known.”
ESPN The Magazine profiled Farrakhan when he was a schoolboy at Thornton Township High. He was a fine player, if not a McDonald’s All-American or a top-50 recruit. His name, though, made him stand out.
“I’ve been dealing with it my whole life,” Farrakhan said before the season. “People know me and of me and of my family. But that’s fine. I’m used to it.
“People would know me because of my grandfather back when I was younger. That’s my family. I can’t stop being who I am, and I love them to death.”
Mustapha said people always want to know “what it’s like to be the grandson” of Louis Farrakhan.
“It just feels like anybody else with their grandkids,” he said. “That’s my grandfather, and I go over there and have fun and eat dinner, played around when I was younger. It’s the same thing.”
Since the day he enrolled at UVa, Farrakhan has been one of the team’s most athletic players, and his outside shot often looks textbook perfect. Not until this season, however, has he played such a prominent role in the Cavaliers’ rotation.
In his first three seasons, he scored a total of 309 points. Farrakhan has a team-high 370 this season and, with Scott out, has established himself as UVa’s top weapon on offense.
Turnovers have been a problem for the left-handed Farrakhan in recent games, but he’s scored at least 20 points five times this season. Of his 35 career double-figure games, 21 have come this season.
“I feel like I’ve grown as a player and as a person,” Farrakhan said. “I’ve been through a lot of adversity with basketball here, just sticking through it. It just shows that hard work pays off and if you keep consistent, you’ll have a chance.”
His first two seasons, when UVa’s coach was Dave Leitao, Farrakhan averaged 6.1 and 10.4 minutes per game, respectively. Virginia dismissed Leitao after the 2008-09 season and hired Bennett away from Washington State.
“Coach Bennett has given me the opportunity to mature as a player on the court and allowed me to play through mistakes,” Farrakhan said. “I’m really grateful, and I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
Farrakhan did not know what to expect from Leitao’s successor, “but Coach Bennett’s a very fair guy, and I’m very thankful that he came to this institution and gave me an opportunity to play.”
In Bennett’s first season at UVa, Farrakhan started 10 games and averaged 21 minutes. He’s averaging 30.5 minutes this season, second only to Scott (33.7) on the team.
“I’ve enjoyed coaching him for these two years,” Bennett said.
When Farrakhan has played well, the ‘Hoos usually have won. He scored 23 points in an upset of then-No. 15 Minnesota, 17 in a win over Oregon, 21 in a victory over Clemson. He put on a remarkable shooting display in a rout of Howard, hitting 8 of 9 attempts from 3-point range. He averaged 20 points in two regular-season wins over Georgia Tech and also distinguished himself in two victories over arch-rival Virginia Tech.
“He’s had to play a lot of minutes, been called upon to guard a lot of the opposing teams’ best scorers on the perimeter and to try to really give us offensive productivity,” Bennett said.
“And he’s had some real nice outings. I think he’s a better player than last year, and he’s been a good leader, and his attitude’s been good. As I said, he’s emotional, and I’ve seen him change, handling that better. I hope he’ll finish strong for our sake and for his sake.”
The Cavaliers’ most improved player this season? Maybe junior center Assane Sene or sophomore point guard Jontel Evans. But Farrakhan belongs in that conversation too, Bennett said, and not only because he has raised his scoring average to 13.2 ppg from 6.5 in 2009-10.
“He’s an emotional guy,” Bennett said. “He can go on runs offensively and get so excited, and then sometimes he’ll battle his emotions and get discouraged or get off the track a little bit earlier.
“And I think he’s improved in handling that. But part of who he is and what makes him good is that he does play with emotion. I’ve seen him improve, and he wants so much to do well for the team and for himself. And I think whenever he has either a bad stretch or an off night, that’s his greatest challenge, to overcome that and get back to it.”
Farrakhan is coming off a game in which he went 4 for 13 from the floor in a one-sided loss to Boston College, so he would have ample motivation Tuesday even if were just another night. Which it is not, of course. It’s Senior Night.
“I’m sure for Mu and Will it’ll be emotional, but you can kind of take it in, as they say, stop and smell the roses a little bit,” Bennett said. “Then you gotta get to the game. It’s just like whenever you play a big game. Yeah, there’s a lot of hype, the way they do the starting lineups, all that stuff. But once the ball’s tipped, you gotta get to the game and level off and play it to win. And that will be focus.”