In March, I wrote a cover story about how basketball has achieved near-religious status on Indian reservations around the United States. A couple of weeks later, I wrote a column about Sohaib Fellah, a young man who was on the coaching staff when Amphi High School won the state basketball championship on one day, and was leading a street-corner rally calling for the ouster of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi the next.
I never thought the twain would meet. But meet, they have, in a most-fascinating manner.
It's a Saturday night in downtown Sells. It's rather cold for early November, but a couple of kids are shooting baskets on the outdoor courts at the rec center. Only a handful of customers are in the Bashas' supermarket. Most everybody else is at Baboquivari High School, outside of town. (And when I say outside of town, I mean way outside of town. You would think that a small town would have a high school that's actually in the town. All I can say is that whoever made this real estate deal is a lock for the Scammers' Hall of Fame.)
Inside the gym at Babo (as it is affectionately known) are hundreds and hundreds of members of the Tohono O'odham Nation. They have come to watch the first-ever home game of the Tohono O'odham Community College men's basketball team. And there on the court, running the show for the TOCC Jegos, is none other than Sohaib Fellah.
How he went from coach to player is a great story. But first, that nickname: According to the TOCC website, "jegos" (pronounced jug-ohs, with the accent on the first syllable) is "the windy dust storm that comes before the monsoon rain."
Fellah starred in football and basketball at Amphi High. In The Skinny, the late Chris Limberis once referred to Fellah as "a bright kid who plays with remarkable control." Limberis wrote that the 2005 Amphi squad, which went 25-4, featured "Anes Solieman, (who) was an agile and crafty force inside. ... Marwan Shehata and Fellah were flat spellbinding, draining threes and applying pressure defense."
After high school, Fellah went to college, but didn't play college ball. His older brother, Anas, had been a walk-on for one of Lute Olson's teams. Fellah did play in several adult-recreation leagues around town. His team, consisting of all Muslims—including the aforementioned Shehata and Solieman, as well as guys with the first names Omar, Ahmed, Abdul and Osama—won several league titles.
He got a job coaching the Amphi boys' junior varsity team and had stupendous success. Under head coach Ben Hurley, Amphi has become an Arizona powerhouse, losing the 2010 state championship game and then winning the state title in March.
Having coached J.V. ball for four years, Fellah wanted a new challenge. He heard that the community college was starting a team and asked head coach Matthew Vargas if he could be part of the effort. Just about that time, Catalina Foothills High School was quite stupidly firing its head boys' basketball coach, Michael Steward, who had taken his team to back-to-back final fours. (I've known Stew for 20 years. He's an excellent coach and a scrupulously honest person.)
So Stew and his Catalina Foothills assistant, Tim Larsen, were available, and Vargas snatched them up. That left Fellah with an opportunity only to volunteer. But after watching Fellah scrimmage with the team over the summer, Vargas asked him to join the team as a player. (Every single coach I've ever known, if given that opportunity, would jump at the chance.)
On that Saturday night, the Jegos were hammering Run and Gun, a traveling men's team from Tucson. Fellah wasn't even close to being the oldest guy on the floor. One of his teammates, Manalito Jose, a playground legend around Sells, is 34. Roland Ramon—who was the Jegos' second-leading scorer, with 16 points, including several long three-pointers—is also in his 30s. (Just by coincidence, the leading scorer for Run and Gun was a Tucson High grad and former City League teammate of Fellah, Omar Meziab, who had 23 points, and was 15-of-16 from the free-throw line.)
An all-new college campus is going up on state Route 86, out by Kitt Peak, but for now, the team must practice in the Babo High gym before the high school day starts. That means that the coaches and players who live in Tucson have to gather on West Ajo Way a couple of hours before sunrise and catch a shuttle to Sells for 6:30 a.m. practice.
When asked about the brutal schedule and his up-and-down playing time so far this season, Fellah had no complaints. He's livin' the dream.