Cleveland International Film Festival } April 7 – April 18, 2021 } Playhouse Square

For the Love of the Game

March 31, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers


Tim O’Donnel, the director of “Life Without Basketball,” followed his subject, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, for four years. Over such a time period, O’Donnel became almost family with the Abdul-Qaadirs.

He remarks, “We would hop in the family van and go on road trips, to the mosque, and events, and it always felt like I was back home with my own family.” O’Donnel followed Bilqis and her family through a difficult time of transition where basketball, Bilqis’ love, was no longer possible.

Prior to being the subject of “Life Without Basketball,” Bilqis shattered male and female high school basketball records with 3,000 points in high school. She went on to play Division 1, meet President Obama, and sign an agent. She was also known for practicing her Muslim beliefs, which meant playing while showing no skin, except her hands, and wearing a hijab.

However, FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, ruled that she would be unable to compete professionally while wearing the hijab. The film follows her transition from basketball star to advocate, a journey that O’Donnel calls “both beautiful and heartbreaking.”

The film progresses as Bilqis moves from player to coach to advocate, as she finishes graduate school, gets married, and moves to Memphis, Tennessee. Yet, O’Donnel says, “The minute she wasn’t allowed back on the court at the pro level, a piece of her identity died.”

As an observer during this time of struggle, O’Donnel had nothing but praise for Bilqis. “I’ve never seen so much resilience and grace,” he says. “She turned that pain and sadness into motivation to help others.”

The film covers how she endured and fought for the rights of others, but the story is not limited to Bilqis’ experiences. It touches upon broader themes as well. “We hear from other Muslim youths and how the current climate has affected and increased stereotypes and acts of hate,” says O’Donnel.

Although this was not the initial intention, it was a natural byproduct of being present, notes O’Donnel. “We tried not to force aspects we thought were important into the storytelling, but rather let everyday life pull out the themes,” he says.

As Bilqis continues to travel as an advocate and motivational speaker, she, her family, O’Donnel, and the rest of the crew are left with a treasure trove of four years of their lives. “Now that the film is finished, every screening feels like home movie night,” O’Donnel says. “Most of the times all of our families are in attendance. And we laugh, cry, and cheer for the center of the story—Bilqis.”

—W. Connor Drake

PHOTO: Filmmaker Tim O’Donnel takes audiences on a journey with Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, pictured. We not only witness her love for the game of basketball, but also see her tenacity as she fights against discrimination from the International Basketball Federation and its ban on headgear.

PDF  Download Related PDF [1.5 MB]

Related Screenings:
03/31/19 @ 7:10 PM – Life Without Basketball
04/01/19 @ 4:45 PM – Life Without Basketball
04/02/19 @ 9:30 AM – Life Without Basketball

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