Hawks center Nazr Mohammed was in the Cincinnati airport on that afternoon 18 months ago when he got the message from his sister: Their father, Tahiru Abdul, had been killed, allegedly by an employee at the auto-body shop he owned in Chicago. The assailant, a man Tahiru Abdul had hired as an act of kindness, had allegedly used a baseball bat to settle a financial dispute. (He pleaded not guilty to murder charges.) Nazr had been raised by his father since he was a toddler, when his parents split and his mother, Mary, moved to her native Ghana. "I hate to say that something like that puts your life in perspective, but it did," says Mohammed. "It made me become a leader of the family. I had to start thinking about things like sending my sisters to college."
At the time, Mohammed, the fourth of his father's 11 children, had the financial means to help take care of his seven sisters and three brothers—after being drafted as a junior out of Kentucky in 1998, he signed a three-year, $2 million deal with the 76ers. However, the duration of his earning power was far from clear. He had spent his first two seasons in Philly marinating on Larry Brown's bench, scoring a total of 96 points. When his mother flew from Ghana in December 2000 to see Nazr play for the first time, he appeared for all of 59 seconds. "I realized there was no guarantee I'd have a job the next season," the 6'10", 250-pound Mohammed says quietly. "Coach Brown offered me to a lot of teams for a second-round pick, but nothing went through. I felt like [getting] me for a second-round pick was a pretty good deal."
Mohammed's big break came last February, when he was traded along with center-forward Theo Ratliff, forward Toni Kukoc and guard Pepe Sanchez to Atlanta for center Dikembe Mutombo and forward Roshown McLeod. With Ratliff sidelined for the final 28 games because of a broken right wrist, Mohammed made the most of his first chance to play regularly, averaging 12.3 points and 9.0 rebounds. In the off-season he re-signed for $25 million over five years and at week's end was averaging 10.5 points and 8.6 boards while starting 34 games in place of the oft-injured Ratliff. He had pulled down 11 or more rebounds in six of his last seven games, racking up 22 points and 19 boards (10 of them offensive) in a 116-107 loss to the Bucks on Jan. 19. "He's a tough rebounder, the type of guy who does the little things," says Hawks forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim. "We'd be in a lot of trouble without him."
Not blessed with the speed or hops of his younger brother Alhaji, a sophomore point guard at Louisville, Mohammed is adept at wielding his rear assets to maximum effect, especially for clearing space under the offensive glass. "He's not that athletic, so he has to use his girth and torso for positioning," says Atlanta assistant Rick Mahorn, who was the High Priest of Hindquarters with the Pistons and the Sixers in the 1990s. "He's got gifts and a nice soft touch."
Mohammed, who had Tahiru Abdul's likeness tattooed on his left biceps, thinks his father would be proud of how he's persevered. "If there's one thing I regret, it's that he didn't get the opportunity to see me have the little success I've had," says Mohammed, who hasn't been able to bring himself to erase Tahiru Abdul's number from his cell phone. "It makes me mad even to think about it."