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Southside Baller

So I was at a Talib Kweli show at the Museum of Natural History last weekend, and I bumped into an old buddy that I studied abroad with in Paris back in 2003-04. He was a former collegiate athlete who played soccer at Morehouse College, and his story was the first feature I ever put together. Set partly against the backdrop of Paris, the piece never made it into print. Feeling a wave of nostalgia, I decided to dig into the vault and pull out the story. It’s both a window into the life of an interesting guy as well as a case study of my formative years.



Khalil Um’rani sits in his eighth-floor bedroom, which overlooks the sprawling east side of Paris. A storm is moving in, the jet-black clouds inching closer to the outskirts of the city. However, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris the sun is shining bright.

“More rain out in the banlieue,” Um’rani observes. He huffs. “Whatever, I just go and play soccer, then get the hell out.”

While the thirty-minute trip he takes out to the suburbs of Paris every week may not be a long journey, it is indeed a voyage to a different world. But then again, Um’rani is a voyager. One who happens to be pretty good at a game more global than even Um’rani himself.


He grew up on the Southside of Chicago with a passion. He looks like a soccer player, tall and lean, his features sleek. The contrast between his dark skin and light eyes gives off an air of competitiveness. His friends were athletes too, but while they were practicing cross-over dribbles and touchdown-jigs, Um’rani was traveling two hours out to the suburbs of Chicago to play club soccer.

“My friends didn’t even understand where I was coming back from,” Um’rani remembers. “And they definitely didn’t understand what I was doing with these weird white boys.”

Even he may not have been able to answer that question, but Um’rani knew one thing: he wanted to play soccer. Ever since seeing it on television and wishing he had a goal in his backyard, soccer was it for Um’rani. So he went to the only school on the Southside, Hyde Park Elementary, which offered the sport. He was the best. He then tried his hand at youth soccer, scoring 20 goals in an eight-game season. Undisputed.

Club soccer seemed to be the best venue for this talented young player. But that meant dedication, time, and money. And that was just for his parents, Rashad and Deborah.

“Soccer was what he took to,” his father recalls. “It was kind of an oddball hobby, but it was what he wanted to do.”

Um’rani knows that his parents had to make sacrifices in order for him to play, especially when he decided to go out for the city’s most elite club team, the Chicago Magic. Um’rani joined the team in sixth-grade, and continued right through high school. Spending an average of six hours per-day dedicated solely to club soccer, Um’rani honed his self-proclaimed “fast and gritty skills” into a package worthy of competing at the next level.

Sure, he played high school too, starting and scoring 19 goals as a freshman for St. Ignatius College Prep. But in terms of significance, high school soccer was a distant second to club.

“Club soccer is a year-round event,” Um’rani says. “Kids are dropping two, three grand a year to play. All the coaches are professional, and, as opposed to high school, you don’t have to watch your teammates smoking weed before games.”

On the club, it was all business: kids who wanted to be there, kids who wanted to be discovered. Whenever college coaches came to Chicago, they came to see the Magic.

“Recruiting is all in the club leagues,” Um’rani explains. “It doesn’t matter if you score forty goals in a school season, you’re not going to get the looks.”

Um’rani started to get the looks junior year in high school, after the Magic joined forces with Chicago’s other major club, the Sockers, and won Nationals in Florida. A little more than a year later he was headed to Atlanta to play Division II soccer at Morehouse College.

It was there that Um’rani learned valuable lessons. They were not, however, lessons that he wanted to learn. He knew something was wrong when he red-shirted his freshman year, but still appeared in a few games under the names of active players. The team finished 16-3, but because Morehouse is an independent school, it did not receive a bid to the Division II tournament.

The following season, two players left school early to turn pro.

“We won like two games that year,” he recalls. “And we would be taking these long road trips to Alabama, Tennessee, just to get blown out the water. I had never lost like that before. It really makes you feel powerless.”

While Um’rani felt at a loss, he had no idea of what was to come. The previous coach of the team, Dr. Augustine Konneh, had been fired the year before Um’rani arrived amid allegations that he had used ineligible players. The scandal came to a head after Um’rani’s sophomore campaign.

“The NCAA discovered that this guy wasn’t just using ineligible players, he was bringing kids off the streets of Atlanta to play,” Um’rani says.

What resulted was a one-year suspension of the Morehouse program and a student-athlete beginning to appreciate firsthand the flaws of collegiate sports.

“After all this I was just thinking screw-Morehouse soccer,” Um’rani says. “It was evident that soccer and Morehouse were not going in the same direction.”

It was time, Um’rani resolved, to take his own life in a different direction. Having already attended the University of the Antilles in Martinique between his freshman and sophomore year, where he had taken a French culture class, Um’rani decided to study abroad in Paris.

He entered a complete French-immersion program at Paris’s most distinguished University, La Sorbonne. It was in his own quartier, or neighborhood, however, that he made some buddies.

“These kids were as baffled as my boys at home when I told them that soccer was my game,” Um’rani chuckles. “They figured I played le base-ball or le football americain.

They were even more astounded when they saw what this kid from “Sheecago” could do on the field. And he wasn’t even playing his normal position.

“The first time our team, East Paris, assembled for practice the captain came up to me and asked me what I play,” Um’rani recounts. “I told him the best I could that I score the ball. He responded, ‘d’accord, tu peut jouer la défense’. So it was then that I became a defender.”

Um’rani embraced his new role, on a new team, in a new city. From then on every Friday night he would lace up his cleats, and defend like he had never imagined.

His coach, Thomas Jousset, admired Um’rani’s ability to adapt to new situations.

“Khalil became accustomed to our team and style of play very quickly. One must have lots of courage and ability to do something like that,” Jousset believes. “He is very valuable to our team.”

While the evolution of his soccer career had gone hand in hand with the concept of meeting change head on, playing in a foreign league ultimately exposed Um’rani to new cultural experiences that even he couldn’t have fathomed. He remembers playing one of his first games out in the suburbs of Paris. “Our team had lost two in a row, so the guys were already on edge,” Um’rani recalls. “Around the 20th minute of the first half, our libero, or last defender, missed a tackle and the other team scored an easy goal.

“Needless to say everyone was pissed off, but I was astounded to watch as this one kid on my team goes up to the kid who had missed the tackle, and punches him in the face.”

Apparently Um’rani wasn’t the only baffled observer on the field, as one of the few fans hesitantly approached Um’rani with a simple question: Where are you guys from? Um’rani answered that they were from the east side of Paris. The man nodded, remaining puzzled. Does this kind of thing happen often in Paris?

Paris is very segregated,” Um’rani explains. “People from the suburbs don’t understand the city.”



Back in his room Um’rani prepares for his next game, watching as the threatening storm clouds hang over the périphérie of Paris. He’s ready to play, but if the game is called, he won’t be discouraged. For Um’rani, soccer is pleasure these days. Granted, the fierce, competitive fire still burns inside him, but his days of doing battle are over.

Now, he is looking toward the future. And for this economics major that has one eye on Wall Street and the other on international markets, the future looks bright. And his father, who didn’t always understand his son’s passion for soccer, believes that it furnished him with solid foundations.

“Overall the soccer was beneficial,” his father says. “But at this point in his life he’s on another level.”

When Um’rani returns from Paris he will head straight to New York, where he is going to intern this summer at a major investment-banking firm.

As for soccer, Um’rani knows it will always be a part of his life. He will forever be a fan of the game he grew up loving, and he hopes that someday he will help cement the sport in his own backyard.

I would like to start an inner city soccer club,” he explains. “That way kids like me who want to play soccer competitively can do so without having to drive two hours every day after school to get a game.”

For this voyager, it would be fitting that his journey ends where it began: on the Southside, with a passion. Except this time it could be an entire generation that benefits from that passion. And why not? Khalil Um’rani already did the hard part as a kid: he challenged and defeated the status quo.




One Comment Post a comment
  1. Talib Kweli show? I hope he didn’t forget his lyrics. I saw him back in 2004 at Northwestern and he forgot the lyrics to three of his songs and couldn’t perform them. Weak….
    So did Kahlil turn pro or what?

    July 1, 2008

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