Abdul Jeelani, the talented, but troubled local basketball standout who was inducted into the Racine County Sports Hall of Fame in 2013, died Wednesday night at the age of 62.
Jameel Ghuari, a friend of the family and former teammate of Jeelani’s at Park High School and UW-Parkside, confirmed Jeelani’s passing late Wednesday night. Jeelani passed away at Wheaton Franciscan-All Saints hospital.
Ghuari said Jeelani was stricken with a heart attack at his Racine residence Wednesday.
"He had a lot of business to take care of and he got a little tired," Ghuari said. "He went home to rest and he just had a heart attack."
Ghuari also said Jeelani was depressed after recently learning he would have to wear a colostomy bag.
"He was going to wear a bag for the rest of his life and I don't think he saw that," Ghuari said. "I don't think that was the reality he wanted to live."
Jeelani, who was born Gary Cole Feb. 10, 1954 in Bells, Tennessee, was a 6-foot-8 forward. He graduated from Park High School in 1972 and went on to earn NAIA All-America honors at Parkside in 1975 and ‘76.
For Ghuari, when it comes to who was the greatest basketball player to come out of Racine, Jeelani must be a prominent part of the discussion.
"To me, he was easily the best scorer to ever come out of Racine," said Ghuari, who started with Jeelani during the 1969-70 season at Park and from 1972-75 at Parkside. "Scoring for him was such a natural thing.
"He was very intelligent about the game. When he saw you do something, he could pick it up and add it to his game."
The Cleveland Cavaliers drafted Jeelani in the third round of the 1976 NBA draft but waived him before the regular season. He was signed by the Detroit Pistons in September 1977, but waived prior to that season.
Jeelani had several stints overseas during his first three seasons in professional basketball, mostly with Lazio in Italy, and finally caught on with the Portland Trail Blazers for the 1979-80 season.
One of his most notable moments as a professional came Oct. 11, 1980, when he scored the first points in the history of the Dallas Mavericks, which started as an expansion franchise that season.
“That’s worth the Hall of Fame,” Jeelani was quoted as saying in an Oct. 14, 2013 story in The Journal Times, just before he was inducted into the Racine County Sports Hall of Fame. “That’s a great trivia question.”
The most points he scored in an NBA game was 31, which came March 15, 1981 in a 135-110 loss to the Trail Blazers at Portland.
After one season with the Mavericks, Jeelani accepted a four-year contract worth $750,000 with Liberto Livorno, a pro team in Italy.
Jeelani fell on hard times after his playing days. According to the 2013 story, Jeelani became addicted to drugs and alcohol in the mid 1990s following a combination of life events including a divorce and his mother’s illness. He was homeless in Racine for a time in 2010 before pulling himself back up with the help of friends.
Ghuari said Jeelani first experienced drugs well before that time.
"We all came up during the time when drug use was going on," Ghuaru said. "He wasn't by himself. We all experimented. The difference with him was he got hooked and it was a tough battle for him."
Jeelani later pursued a degree in counseling and worked with Ghuari, the executive director of the George Bray Community Center.
How will Ghuari remember his friend and former teammate?
"He was my brother," Ghuari said. "At the end of the day, we all have to go through this. We all have to leave here. None of us come here to stay and that's what my mom always taught me.
"We come here to experience something spiritual and then it's time to go. I think Jeelani left a mark and he also developed himself spiritually. Now, we can say he could have been more successful in his career, but, to me, he was as good of a basketball player that ever came from Racine."