By Chuck Culpepper
April 5, 2019
It looks as if immigration, that ceaseless churn on a tireless planet, has hit another of its patented half-court shots. How on the turbulent Earth did the fourth son of immigrants from a giant country long discouraging toward female athleticism end up as the exhilarated play-by-play voice of the very American women’s Final Four?
It’s a multi-continental marvel of a nonfiction plot. Adam Amin, 31 years old last spring and already on ESPN, drew raves when he lent a minimalist call to one of the all-time tiptop female (or male) plays, Arike Ogunbowale’s rainbow of a shot that won a title for Notre Dame and wows from basketball royals.
Amin hushed in Vin Scully mode to let the moment go untrampled. Then he bonded again with his two star broadcast partners, resting his head on Kara Lawson’s shoulder, reaching to pat Rebecca Lobo’s shoulder. Then he leaned back, looked skyward and mouthed words clear even to the lip-illiterate: “I love you.”
That’s how a 5-foot-3, 110-pound hell of a man who could play some cricket in the 1950s and 1960s in Karachi, Pakistan, and who later came to adore, of all things, the Chicago Cubs, wound up as a touching tangent to the women’s basketball Final Four. That was April 1, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio, just 27 days after the sudden end of the 80-year life of Mohammed Amin, Adam’s father: 40 years around Karachi, 40 years around Chicago.
“And who would have thought that he would legitimately live two, completely separate — like, not a lot of people can define chapters in their lives that strongly,” said Amin, who returns with Lawson and Lobo to call this weekend’s Final Four in Tampa. “That is, two very distinct, symmetrical chapters of a very interesting and kind of adventurous life.”
Go ahead, delete the “kind of.” At an age often deemed too late to immigrate, Mohammed Amin in 1978 made the excruciating decision to leave Pakistan, a budding family, a job as a bank vice president, all to forge a fresh life for his wife of 10 years, Zubeda, and his sons born in 1969, 1973 and 1977: Ismail, Abdullah, Mustafa.
Mohammed Amin and his brother worked for a factory making windows for high-rises in Chicago. He spent seven years gathering finances and paperwork to complete his family’s 10-time-zone relocation. He fell in love with the 1979 Cubs of Reuschel, Sutter, de Jesus, Buckner, Kingman. He revered Rick Sutcliffe by the time Zubeda and lads finally arrived in 1985.
Eventually, he and Zubeda would start an Indo-Pak grocery store, a fast-food restaurant called Mr. Beef. They would find a house in Addison, out near O’Hare airport. Mohammed would work security for 22 years at 110 pounds and wink at the humour therein. They would buy more real estate, and rent it out.
By then, a fourth son had arrived, in December 1986.
Along had come this tyke who’d sit on his father’s lap and watch the Cubs. At 6 he fancied himself as Cubs catcher Rick Wilkins, such that Abdullah might call him to the TV with, “Hey, you’re up to bat!” At 8 in Mr. Fair’s music class, Adam and a (female) classmate concocted sports reports in which Adam strained to impersonate Pat Foley, the Blackhawks’ play-by-play voice. At 9, 10, 11, he revelled with all Chicago in the Jordan-Pippen Bulls, which he and his father would discuss in English, saving Urdu for lesser matters such as real life.
By Addison Trail High, Adam hurled himself into umpteen activities: helping junior-high kids, helping special-needs kids, School Theater, excelling at violin, working in his parents’ store. He, a Muslim kid, decorated a classroom Christmas tree.
He also played volleyball. “He crossed over a lot, because he was in plays, he was in sports,” said Tom Hubner, his volleyball coach and economics teacher. “You name it, he said yes. I think that socially, it helped him. The more you’re involved, the more you break down barriers. That’s what I always tell kids, ‘Get involved.’ He knew everybody. And everybody knew him.”
Around age 16, Adam also began calling volleyball. Eyeing a game tape one day, the coach discovered a familiar narrator. “I was laughing because it was him goofing around, but also amazed at how good he was,” Hubner said.
“I guess, at that point, a very antiquated way to think about it, was, ‘Well, you know volleyball’s a feminine sport: ‘Girls play volleyball,’?” Amin said. “And then I played it and I was like, ‘I’m gonna get hit in the face.’ I think from that point on, I was probably like, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t really matter.’ It’s not about feminine or masculine. It’s just, it’s sports. It’s all heart. We’re all bad at it. I think, we’re all terrible at this. So let’s not parse this too deeply. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s competitive. We all just want to play. And I think from that point on, it was never really about girls or boys or what sport I was covering. It was just covering something. Do the job. Be a professional.”
Out of college at Valparaiso, he did radio in Spirit Lake, Iowa, steadily toward seemingly every sport out there for ESPN even as the whole idea of a sportscasting career puzzled his parents. Hubner, a wrestling aficionado, flipped to college wrestling one day and there stood Adam. He did volleyball alongside Karch Kiraly. He did what would have sounded cockamamie to his father: broadcasts alongside Sutcliffe.
Adam and his brothers made Mohammed weep on Father’s Day 2015 when Adam brought him a Camry, “the most stereotypical South Asian car, like, ever,” Adam half-joked. Adam worked and worked, broadcasting women’s sports enough that two parents raised in a country with few-ever female Olympians (and no medals) came to love women’s sports.
Of his father, he said, “I’d do a Florida softball game, and he’d call me the next day, and he goes, ‘I really like that pitcher.’ What’s her name, Barnhill? She is really good. She’s hard to hit.’”
When the 2016 World Series Game 7 found Adam at ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., he and Mohammed spent the last three outs on the phone, Adam weeping, Mohammed saying, “We did it.”
Sports served as conduit, like the time they talked it until Mohammed suddenly switched from English to Urdu to say, “Hey, you know I don’t care what type of girl you marry, right?”
Clear into the 2010s, it became ritual that Mohammed would text Adam, “What time and what channel?” He texted that on Monday, March 5, 2018, and Adam replied, “ESPNU at 3:30. Then ESPN2 at 6,” meaning the American Athletic Conference women’s basketball semi-finals from Uncasville, Conn. After those, Abdullah called Adam. While driving Zubeda in the Camry, Mohammed had suffered a heart attack and diverted onto Exit 13, not far from Addison.
Soon Adam rode in a car toward Boston Logan International Airport, when another call from Abdullah came around 11 p.m. A mighty life had ended, and Adam wailed so that the driver reached back his hand to hold Adam’s. Devastated, he typed his father more texts: “I’m so proud to be your son. Everything I wanted to be, everything I am, it’s all because of you.”
He struggled through the funeral, a barefoot pallbearer in traditional garb on the cold sidewalk, and then by that weekend, he did what Mohammed Amin would do. He resumed work, NBA on radio from Minneapolis, flinging himself into games before a needed breakdown on March 20 in a stopover at his downtown-Chicago apartment.
Twelve days after that, Mohammed Amin from Karachi, who was “a hell of a man,” Adam said, came to matter at the American women’s Final Four in Columbus. Though his remarkable, symmetrical life might find an essence in many of its strands, none would be any more telltale than those closing words from Dad: What time is the game and what channel?