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Big diamond in the rough

Finding Haidar a series of fortunate steps for Husky hoops program

November 13, 2012
By Michael Bleach - DMG Sports Writer ( , The Daily Mining Gazette

HOUGHTON - Ali Haidar did not pick up a basketball until he was 16 years old.

Five years later, the 6-foot-7 Michigan Tech forward was named the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year.

The time in between strongly resembles a Disney movie montage.

Article Photos

Michigan Tech head coach Kevin Luke, left, instructs Ali Haidar during a timeout in a December 2011 home game against Tiffin. Haidar, now a senior, is the returning GLIAC?Player of the Year. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)

Once Haidar found his way to the hardwood, he never wanted to leave it again. The senior estimates he would spend six to eight hours in the gym daily his junior and senior years of high school, working on everything from obvious aspects like shooting and ballhandling to the more nuanced details such as post footwork.

It was this basketball bug that first brought Haidar to head coach Kevin Luke's attention. It is this intense, burning desire that sets Haidar apart from other "raw" athletes college coaches offer a scholarship to.

"That was all I wanted to do," Haidar said. "Even during school days in high school, I would stay in the gym as long as I could. It was just 24/7, all the time.

"When I first started and I told everyone I wanted to play in the States, everyone, even my family, was like you have no chance because you started so late. But that motivated me to work harder to achieve my goal."

A butterfly flapped its wings in Lebanon and Haidar shot lay-ups in Windsor, Ont., Canada. It took a host of details - if any of which changed, things might have been different - to bring Tech and Haidar together.

A Lebanese-Canadian, Haidar's mother Mona moved from Lebanon over to Canada when Ali was 14 years old. It took roughly a year and a half for the paperwork and finances to match up so Ali could join his mother in Windsor in February 2006.

It was Mona's fierce desire to improve options for herself and family that brought the Haidars to Canada, and this same desire that she passed to Ali that has set him apart on the court.

"She moved for a better education, for better chances for us," Haidar said. "I would never have been in basketball if I didn't come to Canada."

Once across the Atlantic, Haidar needed a shove towards the hoop.

J.L. Forster High School coach Patrick Osborne provided that. Osborne took a step most high school basketball coaches take - identify any tall kids in school, see how fluid they are - but his enthusiasm matched Haidar's, and Osborne's patience allowed Ali to flourish.

"My high school coach (Patrick) Osborne, saw me and was like, 'Do you want to play basketball?'" Haidar said. "I really did. He kept working with me every day since then."

This unlikely compilation of events - work ethic, opportunity, environment - created Haidar the ballplayer, but Tech and Luke still needed to find him.

Thankfully, Luke's sunny personality had made him a few friends in the coaching business.

Haidar spent time in the summer honing his abilities in University of Detroit pick-up games, where UD assistant coach Jay Smith noticed him. Smith, formerly the head coach of Grand Valley State and Central Michigan (where he tutored future NBA veteran big man Chris Kaman), alerted Luke he might have found a diamond in the rough - one who happened to want to be an engineer.

"Smith gave me a heads-up that there is a kid in Windsor who wants to be an engineer," Luke said. "A big, strong kid. So we made a connection with Osborne, his high school coach and then in a few weeks actually we were flying down there."

Luke offered Haidar a spot soon after.

"They were my first and only school to contact me," Haidar said with a laugh.

Still, college basketball is littered with failed foreign prospects whose abilities never matched up with their potential. Arriving in Houghton the same season as Haidar, assistant coach Josh Buettner proved to be the perfect big-man coach for the still-developing Haidar.

A two-time All-American when he was at Tech, Buettner spent three years playing professionally in Europe and knew which direction Haidar's post game needed.

"I look at my films from freshman year and I can't believe I was that (bad)," Haidar said. "I am blessed to have an All-American to be coaching me. My game has changed dramatically."

"Buettner spent a lot of time with him," Luke added. "He really has developed his game. And Haidar really enjoys being coached by Buettner because Buettner has the credentials. He was a two-time All-American, he played in Europe. He is a good mentor for him and that is critical."

Through his first three seasons, Haidar improved in steep increments, averaging 9.9 points per game his freshman year and 16.1 in his sophomore campaign before earning the GLIAC Player of the Year honors with 19.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game last year.

In his senior year, Haidar now needs to improve his decision making, as he turned the ball over 79 times last season (against 41 assists) and will surely see double-team action every game.

"He has come a million miles, and as far as his decision process and basketball I.Q., it is getting better all the time," Luke said. "He still has a ways to go, but when he gets it, he is going to be a force to be reckoned with."

With Haidar, anything really is possible.

He has expressed a desire to play in Europe once he graduates from Tech, so don't expect the work ethic that got him here to wane any time soon.

So every time he screams, "C'mon Ali!" at himself during a practice or game - a frequent occurrence - it is just an expression of that desire.

"Let me tell you something," Haidar begins conspiratorially. "Against Finlandia I didn't miss any layups in the first half. Then I miss one (in the second half) and (Luke) gets on my (case) and starts yelling at me. So if I hold myself to higher standards then I won't get yelled at from him."



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