UPTOWN — Basketball has done far more for Alhaji Mohammed than allowing him to escape the projects of Uptown.
The sport also has helped him cope with the murder of his father — and the unrelenting feeling that he could have prevented it — as well as the death of his mother.
Basketball enabled the 32-year-old guard to earn a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Louisville and has been his way of making a living as a professional overseas player for more than a decade.
Justin says his "haunting" interview with Alhaji is one he'll never forget:
"So many things have happened in my life, I'm out of tears. I don't know the last time I cried. I feel nothing, no emotion at all, none," said Mohammed, who recently was named MVP after leading his Romanian team, CSU Asesoft Ploiesti, to a championship.
"Basketball takes away any kind of pain I feel," he said. "Anything going on in my life, for that two, three hours when I'm in the gym or playing, my mind is free. It's clear."
Escaping a 'Lost World'
When he was growing up, there were many nicknames for the high-rise, low-income housing project in Uptown at Lawrence and Winthrop avenues where he lived.
The 19-story building at 4848 N. Winthrop Ave. was known as L-W, L-Dub, The Dub and 48. It was also called "Lost World."
"He came out of a building where a lot of people don't make it," said Mohammed's sister, Precious Tahiru. "There's a lot of shootings in that area, and we have lost a lot of people to guns."
Mohammed has 12 siblings, including current Bulls center Nazr Mohammed, and many of the brothers and sisters packed into three-bedroom apartments during Alhaji's childhood.
When he needed money for food, Mohammed and his best friend, Jermaine Boyd, occasionally would stand on opposite street corners and trick drug users into giving them cash. Mohammed would take the bills, and then he and Boyd, who would pretend to be holding narcotics, would run away.
"Jermaine and I, we always said we were saving people's lives that way," Mohammed said. "They'd be mad, but at least they couldn't do drugs that day either. Those were times when we were just really hungry, and we would figure out a way to get money."
While gunfire and drug deals took place around him, Mohammed determined as an 8-year-old he wanted play basketball for a living.
"I just felt like basketball was the way out," he said. "Most people want to go to school to be a lawyer, a doctor. Basketball was my way out."
Even as a young boy, Mohammed was "obsessed" with buckets, according to Boyd and Tahiru.
To hone their craft, Mohammed and Boyd would hang milk crates as hoops behind the building. When those wore out, the pals would head to Great America, where they'd sharpen their shooting skills on tight-rimmed baskets.
Mohammed said he was one of the worst players during kids games in Uptown. That inspired him to play every day, always carrying around a basketball.
"He always knew he was going to play ball," said Boyd, who still lives in Uptown and coaches several teams at neighborhood school, McCutcheon Elementary. "And nobody worked harder than him."
His other motivation came from following the examples of his father, Alhaji Sr., and mother, Ayishetu — Ghanaian immigrants who toiled to start an auto repair business on the South Side and raise 13 kids.
Mohammed never had a chance to say goodbye to either.
'I Had To Mourn in My Own Way'
On the morning of July 23, 2000, Mohammed was sleeping on the couch of his father's residence in suburban Country Club Hills when his dad woke him up and asked him to come to work with him.
Mohammed declined, and he would never see his father alive again. Later that day, Mohammed Sr. was beaten to death with a baseball bat at his auto shop by an employee, Walter Hughes, in a dispute over money, police said. Family members found Mohammed Sr.'s body at the shop the next evening.
"For a long time, I blamed myself," Mohammed said. "I always wondered what would have happened if I did go — we both would have died, or I could have saved him."
Hughes received a 42-year prison sentence. Mohammed never has reached out to him and said he never will.
"I don’t think they could put me in front of that man," Mohammed said. "Two things would happen: He would kill me, or I would kill him."
On his right arm, Mohammed has a tattoo of his father pictured in prayer when he was in Mecca. His mother's name is tattooed onto his chest, with a pair of numbers — 436 and 940 — on the back of Mohammed's neck.
The digits are for the flights Ayishetu took to and from Ghana for a trip to fix up her family's home in the country's capital, Accra. Ayishetu died of a blood clot on the flight back, on Nov. 1, 2009.
"I talked to her one time while she was in Ghana, but I didn't really get to say goodbye," Mohammed said. "I had to mourn in my own way."
For Mohammed, that meant honoring his parents before basketball games while he bounced around pro clubs in Spain, France, German, Iran, Kuwait, the Netherlands and Romania. Mohammed always carries a photo ID of his father and a picture of his mother, and he holds them during pregame prayers asking them to protect him and keep him free from injury.
Mohammed noted he still stores his mom and dad's cellphone numbers in his phone.
"I'll never erase them," he said.
Loves 'Seeing the Looks on Their Faces'
Mohammed spends most of his offseason in Louisville, where he works out with his friends and occasionally his NBA-playing brother, who's now 36. This week, he went to Boston to sweat in the gym with Celtics guard Rajon Rondo and other players.
"I think his game has improved so much because he lives in the gym," Nazr Mohammed said. "He's constantly in the gym working on his game, working on his body. ... He's working on anything that will give him an edge."
Nazr Mohammed added he has "a great deal of respect for my little brother."
"He's made a name for himself and he's having a great, successful career in basketball, and that's all you can ask for in this competitive market," Nazr Mohammed said.
The younger Mohammed will be back in Chicago for a few days later this summer, in part to visit his parents' side-by-side graves at Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side. He leaves flowers for his dad and places Kit Kats and Snickers atop his mother's headstone.
"Those were things she liked to eat," he said.
When he's back in Uptown, Mohammed carries a wad of $2 bills, which he distributes to the neighborhood's youngsters, especially those living in his old building.
"I love seeing the looks on their faces," he said.
Mohammed said he thinks about Uptown "all the time" because it shaped him. He rarely talks about his past because he said most people simply don't understand.
"Sometimes I try to explain it to people in Europe or my teammates, and they look at me like I'm crazy," Mohammed said.
And basketball, Mohammed said, kept him from experiencing a similar emotion.
"This is what changed my life, and it still changes my life," he said.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: