by Paul Vecchio
Wadie Kawar, a senior on the UB men's tennis team, got a surprise in October during "Midnight Madness," the university's annual kick-off celebration of the UB basketball season in Alumni Arena. As 3,000 fans roared in the background, he was astonished by the introduction of freshman Zaid Alkhas, a 6' 9' forward from Amman, Jordan, who had come to UB on a basketball scholarship. Kawar is also from Amman.
Although Jordan is a country of three million people, nearly half of whom live in Amman, the two men couldn't believe that they hadn't previously met, given the press attention both had received as athletic heroes in their homeland.
For that one moment, the world seemed very small, indeed.
"I didn't know Zaid was here at all until Midnight Madness," said Kawar, the No. 1 singles player on the Bulls tennis team, who this spring earned Mid-Continent Conference Player of the Week honors, despite missing the tournament because of a broken bone in his foot. "I was really surprised when I heard his name. He's younger than I, but I knew about him. I'm into basketball and I read about him in some of the papers I had received from home."
Alkhas was equally surprised. "I didn't know him personally, but his name was in the newspaper a lot," he said.
For Alkhas, his chance meeting with a compatriot was a welcome reminder of home that took some of the chill off his first Buffalo winter. Although he had satisfied all of the university's entrance requirements, Alkhas had to meet additional NCAA requirements for scholarship athletes. As a result, he was forced to sit out the 1995-1996 season and learn about American culture without the comforting familiarity of basketball. Despite these difficulties, he earned a 3.1 grade point average for the fall 1995 semester and continues to thrive academically at UB. Meeting Kawar helped him make the transition to a new city and a new life.
"I told Zaid it was going to be very tough, but that this is a good chance for him and could open a lot of doors for him," said Kawar. "I don't think he understood the system very well, but [Bulls Head] Coach [Tim] Cohane and the guys were taking care of him. I told him about Buffalo and all the different things there are to do here, because I knew he was having a tough time. He thought he was the only one here from Jordan, so I think having me here really helped him."
"It has been real nice," agreed Alkhas. "My first three months, I was so lonely. I didn't know anyone and it was hard for me at the beginning. So it was good for me when I met him. He helped me adjust to my life here. We hang out together, talk a lot, and do some shopping sometimes. He made it a lot easier for me."
While Alkhas was carving out a niche in Jordanian basketball circles, Kawar was pursuing his tennis dream, albeit in a circuitous manner. He was actively recruited by several U.S. colleges and universities during high school, but the 1991 Persian Gulf War made it difficult for Kawar to contact them. Jordan was aligned with Iraq; all outgoing mail was censored. He did not learn of his admission to his first choice, California State University at Fresno, until after he had accepted an academic scholarship to Canisius College in Buffalo.
"Once I got to Canisius, I found out that Fresno State had offered me an athletic scholarship, so I transferred there," he said. The trip West was short-lived, however. "I made the team at Fresno, but academically it wasn't what I wanted. It was too much tennis and too much pressure."
Kawar had played against UB while at Canisius and had been impressed by what the university had to offer. Before long he left sunny California for a new school and a new home in Buffalo.
Alkhas, meanwhile, took a no-less-direct route to Buffaloby way of Greece.
"I was playing in the World Cup for basketball in Greece and we were playing the United States' under-19 team," said Alkhas (his teammates call him "Zeke"). Also attending was Coach Cohane, who had come to see a talented U.S. team that included future collegiate stars Stephon Marbury (Georgia Tech), Samaki Walker (Louisville) and Jahidi White (Georgetown).
"I think Coach Cohane went to the game to see those guys and didn't expect to see much from the other team," said Alkhas. But Alkhas scored 23 points and pulled down 12 rebounds against the best the U.S. had to offer; the Jordan team lost by just seven points. A few weeks later Alkhas had a scholarship offer from Cohane and was on his way to Buffalo.
Wadie Kawar has something in common not only with Zaid Alkhas, but with John McEnroe as well. In the spring of 1994, Kawar was invited by his country to play in the Davis Cup. Although Kawar can't approach McEnroe's record for Davis Cup victories, he did team with another Jordanian to win in doubles in his only Davis Cup match. The Jordanians posted a win over Brunei in the Asian-Oceania Group III Tournament in April 1994.
"I was asked this year to go to the Davis Cup again," he said, "but that would have been my spring break, so I decided not to. With tennis I'm happy with what I've done. Eventually I'm hoping to go into teaching and just compete on the side."
Kawar earned his B.S. in civil engineering in May and was also inducted into Chi Epsilon, the civil engineering honor society. While he has left his mark at UB as one of Coach Russ Crispell's finest players, Alkhas is just starting to prepare for his time in the spotlight.
"Now I'm trying to get ready for next season. I'm lifting weights and hopefully will be bigger and stronger next season and can show people what I can do," he says.
His friend and countryman will be watching.
Kawar, who has been accepted for graduate study in environmental engineering at both UB and Cornell, plans to follow his friend's career in the 1996 season and beyond. "I think he'll do well," he says.