To say that 2014 graduate Mark Ghafari led a storied basketball career at Kalamazoo College would be an understatement. The 1,444 points scored in his four seasons with the Hornets along with the two-time All-MIAA selections, the 13 academic achievement merits, and a preseason All-American award speak for themselves.
But none of these accolades, records, or spectacular performances can compare to Ghafari’s recent entrance into the world of professional basketball, cementing him amongst the two percent of NCAA athletes fortunate enough to play their sport for a living. In the spring of 2014, Ghafari signed a three-year contract to play for Al Riyadi Basketball Club based in his parent’s home country of Lebanon after being spotted by an agent during his senior season at K.
“It’s every young athlete’s dream to play sports professionally,” said Ghafari. “I had been to Lebanon almost every other summer when I was growing up and watched some of the professional teams play. I knew that I would have an opportunity to play there based on what I saw.”
While his grandparents and several other family members living in Lebanon aided Ghafari’s transition into the new culture, he admitted that the move was not as easy as he would have hoped. Apart from the language barrier and cultural differences, Ghafari was suddenly ostracized from most of the people in his life along with his home in Michigan.
“It was a really, really big adjustment for me,” said Ghafari. “Most of my family is back home in America, most of my friends are back home in America, my girlfriend is back home in America so it was tough on a personal level to say goodbye to all of them, and it still is tough.”
An equally imposing, but exciting transition awaited Ghafari on the basketball court. He was suddenly tossed into an arena packed with fans and playing with and against players with greater skills and pedigree than his former NCAA Division III opponents. Ghafari’s team alone, Al Riyadi, is filled with NBA-caliber talent.
The team’s center, Loren Woods, played six seasons in the NBA while one of the team’s recent acquisition, Brian Cook, played with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neil on the Los Angeles Lakers as a part of his 12-year NBA career. Ghafari has also had the opportunity to be mentored by fellow Al Riyadi Point Guard Ali Mahmoud, who is the starter for the Lebanese National Team and is considered as one of the country’s all-time greats.
“The higher level of competition helps me but it also hurts me,” said Ghafari. “You have to adjust to play against them but at the same time you get to play at a much higher level of players so they make me a better player while I’m on the court.”
Despite these challenges, Ghafari has been able to make an immediate impact on the team and provided depth off the bench early in the season when Mahmoud suffered an injury. During this time, Ghafari saw nearly 20 minutes a game where he averaged around seven points, three rebounds, and three assists. Even though Mahmoud has now returned to the lineup and Ghafari sees fewer minutes, his work ethic and contributions remain unchanged.
“Playing with him is an unreal feeling,” said younger brother and current Kalamazoo College senior Carl Ghafari. “First of all, he’s obviously an amazing player and the connection we had on the court was like no other. He is a workhorse and if he wants something, he will go and get it. That’s just who he is.”
While Ghafari originally planned to play out his three-year contract in Lebanon and then enter the professional world as a financial analyst, the lure of making a career out of basketball has been stronger than he had anticipated. Although it is a tempting opportunity, Ghafari remains focused on preparing his options for returning to the US after his stint with Al Riyadi is over, even though he admits that anything could happen.
“I’m just preparing myself for life after basketball,” said Ghafari with a smile. “As of now, I have my three-year contract so I’m going to see how that goes and where ever life takes me after that, we will just play it by ear.”
But the younger of the Ghafari brothers has a much different take on his older brother’s future plans.
“He wants to do this for five to ten years,” said Carl Ghafari. “This is his dream. He loves basketball and that’s why I’m so happy for him. It reminds me of when we were little kids and I would tell him he was going to make it to the NBA. Now to see him become a professional basketball player has been amazing.”