Meet Mahmoud Abdelfattah, the Groundbreaking Head Coach of the Houston Rockets’ G League Team
CANTON, Ohio -- It wasn’t until Mahmoud Abdelfattah spoke with an old college teammate that he realized he was blazing a trail.
Do you know that you’re an answer to a trivia question?
When the Houston Rockets hired Mahmoud as head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on October 1, the 31-year-old officially became the first Palestinian and Muslim to ever hold the position in NBA and G League history.
“I really have not thought about it much,” Mahmoud tells CloseUp360 during a sit-down chat in Canton, Ohio. “But, I mean, it feels good. I'm just thankful for the opportunity. Hopefully it just shows that, man, if you just work at it, everybody can do it.”
Mahmoud wants to be a role model for the youth, for his community and for his culture. Taking the road to get to where he’s gotten exemplifies being one.
Mahmoud Abdelfattah is the first Muslim and Palestinian head coach in NBA and G League history. (Courtesy of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers)
In the early 1970s, Abdelhakeem and Afaf Abdelfattah left Palestine to seek better opportunities in the United States, and raised a family in Chicago, Illinois. They had seven children: four boys and three girls. Mahmoud is the second-youngest among his brothers (Ishaq, Najeh and Nader) and sisters (Buthiana, Hadeil and Aber).
Before diving into the world of coaching, Mahmoud was a player, and a talented one, at that. He played four years on the varsity boys’ basketball team at William Howard Taft High School in his hometown and continued his career at nearby Wilbur Wright College. He became a Junior College All-American and NJCAA Region IV standout while earning honors as the team and regional MVP, and a first-team All-Conference performer.
While things were going well on the court, tragedy soon struck off of it. During the winter of his second year at Wilbur Wright, his mother, Afaf, suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 55, when Mahmoud was just 19 years old. Mahmoud turned to his father and six siblings to cope.
“Without them, I wouldn't be where I am today,” Mahmoud says. “There's nothing like family. I mean, with whatever anybody goes through, you will never make it, and you've never made it without somebody's help and family at some point in time. They're there to get you through those times.
“And, I mean, my family was always there for me, especially when I lost my mom. God rest her soul.
Afaf meant everything to Mahmoud. He admires the fact that she came to the states with English as her second language, and became the first one from her village in Sinjil, Palestine, to get her masters in psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She shaped his life and was an example through her actions, teaching him the core beliefs he will always sternly stand by—being the best Muslim he can be and, in turn, being the best person he can be.
Mahmoud’s father pushed him to do what made him happy after her passing. So Mahmoud kept charging down the path he’d started and moved on to Division II St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Though he enjoyed playing, Mahmoud felt he didn’t have the talent to make it as a professional, so he used his knowledge to help coach his teammates in the games. With his help, the Huskies advanced to the Elite Eight during his senior season in 2010.
After a successful final year in college basketball, Mahmoud had discovered a new calling.
Mahmoud played college basketball at Division II St. Cloud State University. (Courtesy of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers)
Sindarius Thornwell is a fiery competitor on the court. And after being coached by the likes of Frank Martin at the University of South Carolina and Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers, he’s typically played for people who share a similar temperament.
But when Sindarius thinks about Mahmoud—and how he jokes with his coach in Rio Grande Valley—he can’t help but grin.
“Dang, Mahmoud, yell at us! Mahmoud, yell at me, man!” the 25-year-old guard says. “I just need him to yell at us one time. Just snap one time!”
Unlike Sindarius’ previous coaches, Mahmoud tends to keep an even keel. He is a master at finding a balance between building individual relationships and telling it like it is, while maintaining his composure regardless of the situation—a change that initially left Sindarius unsure of how to react.
“I've never played for a coach that's calm,” Sindarius says. “I'm more of an aggressive [person], so sometimes in those type of moments, I'm the aggressor and Mahmoud's just looking at me, like, 'Sin, we're together. I'm with you.’
“It's different for me, and it's something I had to learn because I'm used to a coach yelling at me and just cursing me out and just telling me how bad of a player I am, and not somebody that's mellow.”
Mahmoud’s coaching style, while distinct within his field, is steeped in pedagogy. His late mother was heavily involved in education throughout her life. His older sisters followed a similar path. Buthiana is a preschool teacher and Hadeil is an assistant principal with 20 years of experience. Watching them take on a leadership role was a prominent factor in pushing him in that direction.
From a player perspective, Mahmoud’s former coaches left a great impression on him as well. At Taft, Nick Nishibayashi was a people person. At Wilbur Wright, Joe Wharton was laid back and let guys do their thing. At State, Kevin Schlagel showed him a stricter side where understanding the rules took precedence.
Over time, Mahmoud has taken every characteristic he’s seen and molded it into his own methodology.
Jaron Blossomgame senses Mahmoud’s passion every time he speaks. The third-year forward describes him as “even-keeled,” with an innate ability to relate and communicate with his players. That, in turn, motivates them to deliver results to Mahmoud.
“He's thinking about the team 24/7,” Jaron says. “He eats, sleeps and drinks basketball. Like, it's all basketball, 24/7. And he's a great guy. It's what makes him great, it's what makes the reason he got the job. He really puts the guys first, and I think that's what matters the most."
Details and organization are critical to Mahmoud. He operates with a professional expectation of everybody he works with—be on time, pay attention and respect one another. The values he holds so dear in coaching go back to the ones he applies to everyday life.
The Muslim faith requires Mahmoud to abide by a strict regimen. He fasts every Monday and Thursday. He prays five times a day, beginning with a wake-up call before sunrise and concluding after sunset, but still finds plenty of time to work out and strategize in between.
He’s always available to players and coaches that call him. Sometimes, he even initiates the conversations just to check in and see how things are with the people he works with.
Such a schedule requires meticulous time management. Vipers assistant Devan Blair jokes that Mahmoud’s is so good that it’s annoying.
“His whole day is down to the exact minute,” Devan says. “I give him crap all the time.”
Devan quickly found that out first hand. As a first-time assistant coach on Rio Grande Valley’s bench, he had to learn ways to sort out pregame shooting times. Mahmoud, who had been in that position during the previous two seasons, showed him the ropes by rattling off the responsibilities required to successfully juggle the job.
Mahmoud broke it down to Devan.
Be done when there’s 36 minutes on the clock in order to devote time on final film study. The first group goes at 5:02 and ends at 5:07. That allots 15 minutes for every group to get the same amount of time to get shots up, treatment and whatever else needs to be done.
Practices are just as exacting. Some activities will run for seven minutes. Drills might go for 13. The same goes for break times. Mahmoud’s staff doesn’t question it. Nor do his players.
“That's why he's so comfortable and at peace with most of his decisions,” Vipers assistant Sam Daghlas says. “Because he's on time with everything and he gives everything the designated time, and then he moves on to the next thing once that time's up."
Sam’s relationship with Mahmoud began when the former was head coach of the Jordanian national team in 2017-18. He discovered Mahmoud’s work ethic immediately as an assistant. It was a unique approach to the game that he came to appreciate. So when Mahmoud requested that Sam join him in Rio Grande Valley in a reverse role this past summer, the decision was easy. Sam felt that using his knowledge of previous head coaching experience could help take some things off of Mahmoud’s plate.
And, like Mahmoud, Sam is Palestinian and a practicing Muslim, though their shared heritage was not the main reason they came to connect. Both are early birds due to their religion, hold the same standards and constantly think of ways to improve in their respective basketball duties.
“I think we complete each other in a way,” Sam says.
Mahmoud’s path to the pros began with a direct message on Twitter.
After graduating from St. Cloud State, Mahmoud stuck around as a student coach to begin his career on the sidelines. He worked around the AAU circuit and at Perspective Charter Schools in Chicago—where Anthony Davis emerged as a high school phenom prior to Mahmoud’s arrival—before becoming a part-time assistant at State in 2013.
During that first year as a college coach, Mahmoud saw a tweet from Cody Toppert, a former player-turned-trainer who was helping prospects boost their stock at the pre-draft NBA Combine in Chicago. Mahmoud reached out via DM to tell him about all of the open gyms in the area. Cody responded swiftly and brought him aboard to assist for 10 days.
Cody and Mahmoud became good friends, all the while mingling with personnel from different organizations and players aspiring to get to the next level. Over the years, through working the Combine and having dinners and get-togethers after hours, both grew close to the Houston Rockets’ staff. In 2015, Cody—who is now an assistant coach at the University of Memphis—landed his first then-D League (now G League) coaching gig as an assistant in Rio Grande Valley, where the Rockets’ developmental league affiliate plays.
Two years later, while Mahmoud was starting his fourth season as an assistant at St. Cloud State, he saw the Vipers post an opening for an internship position. He sent his resume in August, but didn’t hear back for a month. Then, he got a call from Cody.
The Vipers were set to get their interview process underway in late September. Cody—who that year became the head coach of the Northern Arizona Suns—passed Mahmoud’s application along to his former employer. The Rio Grande Valley hiring team was intrigued and contacted Mahmoud for an in-person interview. Despite State’s season-opener being a week away, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity in Texas.
So on October 22, 2017, Mahmoud hit the road.
“I made the trip down to the Valley,” he recalls. “There's like a 26-hour drive, made it about 29 hours. I didn't sleep. I was excited to get down there.”
Mahmoud did so well in the interview that, not long after, the Vipers added him to their staff as a basketball operations intern. Since then, he’s climbed the ladder from intern to assistant to head coach in the span of 25 months—a rapid rise boosted by his work ethic and diligent time management.
“Things happen for a reason,” Mahmoud says. “I mean, if you look back five years ago, it's like if someone were to tell me, 'Hey, you be the part-time guy at St. Cloud State and in five years you’ll be the head coach at the Valleys, I'm, like, 'Oh, okay, sure, I'll keep doing that.' It just worked out. I mean, there's no words to explain it.”
Mahmoud coached at the same school (Perspectives Charter Schools in Chicago) that Anthony Davis attended. (Courtesy of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers)
Mahmoud’s transition into the big chair hasn’t been perfect. Sam and Devan both agree that he is still trying to find a comfort zone in being the lead decision-maker for the first time in his career. Mahmoud contends that managing different players and personalities is the most challenging aspect.
In the G League, there is constant roster turnover. A new player can enter the mix at any time. Two-way players are getting called up and sent down. Talents like Sindarius and Jaron are hungry to get back into the NBA as soon as possible, while the younger ones likely understand their learning curve is steeper than that of the veterans. Based on the establishment of the league itself, Mahmoud’s top priority is player development.
“That's his calling card,” Devan says. “Guys know if you're real or if you're fake. Are you putting in the hours with them on the floor? Mahmoud always puts in the hours, and that hasn't changed now. He's still putting in the hours—it's just different hours.
“They're more unseen now because he's on the phone, he's in his office. But now he's trying to figure out the bigger picture instead of, 'My only job today is getting this guy better.' We're still getting players better, but he's getting them better in a different way. He's got to think big picture instead of the small individual [one].”
The Vipers stand at 4-13, towards the bottom of the Western Conference standings, heading into the G League Winter Showcase in Las Vegas this week. They’ve implemented the Rockets’ concepts, building a fast-paced offense and getting out to quick starts. The defensive end of the floor has been inconsistent, though, as evidenced by a double-digit lead disappearing in a 116-109 road loss to the Canton Charge on December 5.
Nobody in Rio Grande Valley anticipated this kind of record out of the gate. Mahmoud’s a positive person, though. He won’t allow defeat to fester.
Once a game is over, he’s mentally on to the next one, no matter the result. By watching film from previous contests twice over—once immediately after and then the following morning—Mahmoud studies what went right and wrong, and how to get better in certain scenarios.
Should he have made that substitution? Was the team’s defensive strategy the right one? Would a different after-timeout play have worked out better?
As the players are learning, so are the coaches. Hindsight is 20/20. It’s why Mahmoud is never too high or never too low.
“That's something he preaches. He lives by that,” Devan says. “Obviously, there's going to be moments of frustration. People are going to vent, and that's natural. That's part of a sports environment, especially when you're losing. Winning cures all things and losing exposes everything.”
In the long run, Sam believes the slow start will be beneficial to Mahmoud.
“I think making mistakes as a head [coach], it only helps you,” Sam says. “Because it makes you go back to the drawing book, and understand why that decision didn't work and what you could've done better. I feel like sometimes, when you become a head [coach] and instantly you have success, sometimes you forget and you end up skipping some steps.”
But Mahmoud is always ahead of the curve. If Step A doesn’t work, he’ll have a Step B and Step C ready to go. It’s a lesson he learned from working under Joseph Blair and Matt Brase, Rio Grande Valley’s previous two head coaches whose success led to assistant jobs in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers and Rockets, respectively.
Chris Finch and Nick Nurse, too, ascended to the league following their individual stints with the Vipers. Joseph, Chris and Nick all led their own championship teams in Rio Grande Valley. This past June, Nick became the first head coach to ever win both the G League and NBA titles when the Toronto Raptors topped the Golden State Warriors in six games during the Finals.
Four of the Vipers’ last five head coaches have gotten to The Association. Down the road, Mahmoud would love to continue the recent trend and achieve his ultimate goal.
“It's all about learning and growing,” he says. “I feel that my growth since I first came down to the Valley, with Matt Brase and those guys, to where I am now is a 180. I just focus on what I have to do now and I know things will work out for the best, no matter what it is.”
When asked if Mahmoud has a future in the NBA, Sam didn’t think twice about his answer.
“Oh, 100 percent. I think he's built for this,” Sam says. “I'm sure the Houston Rockets have been watching him for the past two years and how he's been working. And by him getting that position, I don't think it was an accident.”
Mahmoud went from an intern with the Vipers to the team's head coach in just over two years. (Courtesy of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers)
On December 7, the Vipers suffered a 128-115 loss to the Wisconsin Herd, the top team in the G League this season. As much as the loss stung, Mahmoud had plenty of support. Four rows behind the visiting team’s bench at Menominee Nation Arena in Oshkosh sat 40 of his closest family members, cheering him on through the ups and downs.
“He's just got a crazy family that loves him,” Devan says.
Devan adds, “Everything that means a lot to him, he's very, very proud of and represents it to the fullest. When it comes to his personal values and beliefs, you're not persuading him on those. He is stone cold, 'This is what I believe and this is how I'm going to live my life.' There's no changing that."
Mahmoud’s family taught him the meaning of respect. At his core, it’s what he has lived by from day one.
”Whether they're part of my team, whether they're outside of the profession, whether they're the person at the hotel, the person serving food, it doesn't matter who it is,” Mahmoud says. “Their job title should not determine how you treat people, how you treat them with respect or what level of respect you treat them with. And that's definitely shaped my life.”
He’s a leader. He’s an innovator. And in the years to come, Mahmoud Abdelfattah could be much more than just the answer to a trivia question.
Spencer Davies is a veteran NBA writer based in Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter.