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Near the Grizzlies' bench at General Motors Place in Vancouver, rookie power forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim fidgets. He has stood patiently through The Star-Spangled Banner, but now O Canada! is about to begin and he tugs at his sweatpants, too antsy to bear another note. For though he has a three-year, $6.3 million contract and a 6'9" frame—which snaps to attention just in time for the second anthem—Abdur-Rahim is barely a month past his teens, only 40 games removed from high school and the tattered hightops he paid for by mowing lawns. And so he fidgets like a kid, bouncing in place, eager to play ball.
Once the game tips off, however, there's nothing remotely childlike about Abdur-Rahim. The third pick in the draft after his freshman season at Cal, he averaged 18.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in December to share NBA Rookie of the Month honors with Nets guard Kerry Kittles. That was the first league-wide award ever won by a member of the two-year-old Grizzlies, and it was no fluke: The player nicknamed "the Future" at Wheeler High in Marietta, Ga., poured in 34 points at Golden State on Jan. 8 and then went for a franchise-record 37 against Sacramento three days later.
"Shareef is going to be a freak in the NBA," says Vancouver assistant coach Lionel Hollins. "He'll make a move on the baseline to beat a defender and we'll just look at each other and shake our heads, my gosh." Adds Dallas assistant coach Lanny Van Eman, "I've seen him three times this year, and each time, he's better."
Off the court Abdur-Rahim's age does occasionally show. During two-a-day practices in September, he missed a hotel shuttle because he stayed late to shoot jumpers, then was found several hours later dozing on the trainer's table. He bought video games before purchasing all his furniture. And each night, he eagerly puts on a sparkling new pair of sneakers to, he says, "make up for lost time."
A Muslim, Abdur-Rahim prays five times a day, using a compass to locate Mecca. His faith has given him an inner peace and an outward dignity. During the month of Ramadan, which started on Jan. 10, adult Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. "It is not compulsory for children to fast," says Shareef's father, William, who is a prayer leader at Masjid Al-Muminum (Mosque of the Believers) in Atlanta. "But to give you an idea of the kind of person Shareef is, he asked to join in the fasting when he was six. Now he looks forward to it, like an old friend coming to visit."
Indeed, it is during Ramadan that Abdur-Rahim has played his best. Twice he guided Wheeler High to the Class AAAA finals and earned Mr. Basketball honors even though he fasted in midseason. In his one year at Cal—where he averaged 21.1 points and 8.4 boards to become the first freshman recipient of the Pac-10 Player of the Year award—Abdur-Rahim's stats rose when his daytime dining ceased. And this year, the end of Ramadan will coincide with his appearance in the rookie game during the NBAs All-Star weekend in Cleveland.
It was just after his first fast that Abdur-Rahim found a flyer at school for a recreational basketball league. He carried it around in his back pocket all day, checking periodically to make sure he hadn't lost it, and then raced home to beg his father to sign him up. "I'm still like that with basketball," Shareef says, "like that kid shooting baskets by himself at midnight, simply for the love of the game. Basketball has done so much for me that I don't want to corrupt that love by playing for the money, the fame or the hype."
Vancouver drafted him as a small forward but quickly learned that he lacked the outside touch needed to man the 3 spot. One week into his pro career, Abdur-Rahim's other shooting problem—firing away at will—forced coach Brian Winters to remove him from the starting lineup for nine games. "It takes all young guys a while to get acclimated to the league," says Winters. "Shareef is extremely mature off the court, and he has realized that in the NBA the sign of maturity on the court is consistency."
Seeing Abdur-Rahim struggle, team president Stu Jackson announced that every staff member would have to contribute to helping the Future. Jackson counseled him over lunch each week and invited him into his home. Veteran guard Blue Edwards provided pep talks and strategic reminders on the court. And Hollins sharpened his long-range shooting, stretching a rubber band between Abdur-Rahim's thumb and pinkie to help get the ball out of his palm and onto the tips of his fingers. "We're a good match," says Jackson. "Shareef and the team can grow together."
They will share the growing pains as well; through Sunday, Vancouver was a grisly 8-32. The losing has been hard on Abdur-Rahim both physically (he is working on bulking up his slender 230-pound frame) and mentally. Should Vancouver still be a laughingstock in 1999, he says he is not sure that he'll stick around.