When Jamal Abu-Shamala graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2009, he played basketball overseas for three years.
Once that part of his life was over it meant diving into the real world. Finding a job. Figuring out a career.
The U helped him start a resume and begin networking, but there were no mentors who had gone through a similar experience to show him the way. Many players faced the same situation after playing in college.
That's why the 29-year-old Shakopee, Minn. native decided to start a Gophers basketball alumni program this summer to give past, present and future players support beyond their playing careers.
"As far as figuring out a path and talking to someone in my shoes who had been through it, that was lacking," Abu-Shamala, a Principal Financial group representative, said. "There’s a need for this. I’ve been wanting to do it. Finally, I got enough guys who were really interested and supportive of the idea."
On Sunday, the Gophers basketball alumni and the team got together for a roundtable at Williams Arena's club room. They split up in groups and had conversations about basketball and life after basketball.
Some of the alumni present included Darryl Mitchell (1979-82), Richard Coffey (1987-91), John Thomas (1993-97) and Quincy Lewis (1996-99).
"For us being former players, it gives us an opportunity to connect with the current team," Thomas, the Ultimate Hoops national training manager, said. "It was important for us to establish that trust factor for them to get a sense of us being down different paths in our career. If we can provide some takeaways for them, I think that’s a benefit for the team regardless of the number of wins or losses they have. It’s about how they set up success for themselves after they stop playing."
The Gophers basketball alumni group got together for the first time July 12 at TCF Bank Stadium. It was basically an event to open a discussion on what former players wanted to do as a group to support the men's basketball program. Gophers coach Richard Pitino and his staff also attended.
"We had 35 players," Abu-Shamala said. "(Pitino and his staff) really embraced it. It’s been great working with them. When you have the coaching staff involved it’s great because there’s credibility. It’s not only for current players. We want to bring back former players to be part of the Gophers family.
"With all the coaches we’ve had over the last 20 years, a lot of these guys haven’t gotten to know each other. It’s different when you’re at a Michigan State and Tom Izzo has been there for 20-plus years, and everyone played for the same coach. We’re doing it to pull everyone back together."
Abu-Shamala said the basketball alumni group is still in the infant stages. It doesn't have an official name or web site. But Coffey, Thomas, Jay Kiedrowski (1968-71), Roger Schelper (1968) and former team manager Nate Grover (2003-06) are board members. Gophers assistant director of basketball operations Caitlin Mahoney, who has spent 15 years with the program, helps them get in contact with ex-players.
Thank you to @JamalAbuShamala for putting together a great event with our former gophers locally. Excited about the future with this group!— Richard Pitino (@MNCoachPitino) July 13, 2016
Abu-Shamala, who is tied for fifth in school history for career three-point percentage (40.2), joined Dan Monson's program in 2005-06 as a walk-on. But he earned a scholarship for the next three years. He was a starter on the Gophers' dreadful 9-22 team in 2006-07. But the 6-foot-5 guard ended his career on Tubby Smith's first NCAA tournament team at Minnesota in 2008-09.
He's been a fan favorite. And now a lot of alumni appreciate his passion for Gophers basketball, too.
"This kind of started by conversations primarily spearheaded by Jamal," Thomas said. "It was something where he said we really need to take action. He’s involved in the business community and for me coming out of playing I didn’t understand my (Gophers) family coming out of the university. It was about how do the former guys create a collective group where we just give back. That’s really what this whole thing is about. All of us came together and coach (Pitino) gave us a blessing."
The Gophers are expecting to be much improved this year, coming off an 8-23 season. But many fans are taking a wait-and-see approach. So it's been important for the alumni to let the current players know they had their back and are excited about this season.
The alumni group had a meeting on Monday night and the board members were "fired up" about the roundtable event. They threw around new ideas about what to do in the future.
"If you played at the U, if you were a manager at the U, if you were a part of Gophers basketball, you’re an alum and you have the opportunity to be a part of this," Abu-Shamala said. "I think this is a great time to start, because I think when things aren’t going as well that’s when people are accepting to the support. And there’s a need. These guys are the future. A lot of us have been through this kind of year. We can kind of give them advice because of our experiences on how to handle that. It’ll be great for them. But this is ultimately something that when we have great seasons will still be there and just as strong."