The guy who salvaged UCLA's season -- at least for the moment -- could be found last summer dribbling a basketball over the streets of Meknes, Morocco, looking for a place to play.
Mustafa Abdul-Hamid was spending the time overseas to fulfill a requirement for his academic major, global studies. The ball was his constant companion.
"It was this $100 official NCAA basketball and I was dribbling it in the oily dirt, the streets, all over," Abdul-Hamid said. "I finally found a court, ironically, in what is probably the only church in the country."
Staying sharp was important, even if his three-year UCLA career had amounted to only 82 minutes of playing time. Abdul-Hamid's view was, "I know I'm not LeBron James, I don't have God-given ability, but to impact society in different ways, you have to be strong and you have to develop. It takes work. That's where basketball comes in."
Abdul-Hamid rolled the dice by coming to UCLA, and spent much of the last three years chasing around Darren Collison, the Bruins' star point guard. But the connect-the-dots sketch that has UCLA heading into its game at Oregon tonight just a game out of first place in the Pacific 10 Conference leads directly back to the 6-foot-2 redshirt junior from St. Louis.
His buzzer-beating jumper gave UCLA a 62-61 victory over Washington a week ago. He then followed that up with three consecutive jumpers to kick-start the offense in a victory over Washington State two days later. That win moved the Bruins to 9-10 overall, 4-3 in conference play and into a five-way tie for second in the Pac-10 behind California.
"A lot of what he has done is self-made," said UCLA Coach Ben Howland, who put Abdul-Hamid on scholarship before last season. "He puts in time and a lot of the extra work."
As a result, he was ready when sophomore Jerime Anderson suffered a hip-flexor injury two weeks ago, leaving Howland short on guards.
Abdul-Hamid's jumper against Washington helped UCLA rebound from a 21-point spanking by USC. The encore started with his missing his first two shots against Washington State. But he had the gumption to take a third . . . and a fourth . . . and a fifth -- and the latter three, two of which were three-pointers, pushed an 18-17 UCLA lead to 26-21.
"There was a little more pressure when I missed the first shot," Abdul-Hamid said. "Some guys ignore pressure, but the best way to do it is accept it and embrace it. If you get another shot, you hurt your team if you don't take it."
He spent the rest of the weekend celebrating in his own way: "I studied presidential communication, its role and how the media impacts the messages by the president. . . ."
Abdul-Hamid's world extends beyond the doors at Pauley Pavilion.
He was an intern in Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office and has also worked for Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. In Morocco, he said, he studied "representations of geopolitical conflict in Arab and Western news media" when he wasn't searching for a place to play basketball.
Abdul-Hamid eventually found not only a court but a workout buddy as well -- Hicham Arzouki, who resided in an apartment near the church.
"He came down and we shot a little bit, then played," Abdul-Hamid recalled. "Hicham is the most genuine person I have ever met. His family sent me home with gifts, food, pastries, embroidered things. They are good people. One of the best friendships I have ever had came through basketball."
His increased role with UCLA came through hard work.
There was only mild interest, from mid-level college teams, in Abdul-Hamid during his senior year at St. Louis Country Day School. "I always seemed to be the second guy on everyone's list," he said.
He came to UCLA's summer camp in 2005 with AAU teammate Alex Tyus, who now plays for Florida. Abdul-Hamid impressed Howland, but only after missing his flight and arriving late.
"We were waiting to fit them in and I got to talking with Mustafa," Howland said. "I thought, 'What a great kid.' The more I found out about him, the more I liked him."
Abdul-Hamid was accepted to Harvard and the University of Chicago, with "tremendous financial-aid packages to both," he said. But basketball at UCLA was too tempting.
"When I sat down and thought about it, this is where I had to be," he said.
What he didn't anticipate was three years of chasing Collison around.
"As a walk-on, you don't ever touch the basketball," Abdul-Hamid said. "You play defense all the time. 'Hey, Mustafa, get in there and guard Darren.' It was quite a learning curve. When Darren is coming at you at 100 mph, you better get moving."
Still, the work had a purpose.
"Someone goes down, the next guy on the bench has to be ready," Abdul-Hamid said. "It's the most mentally stressing thing you can imagine, getting ready to go in and then not getting to play. But to do it right, you can't give up."