Abdul-Malik Abu didn’t wear a green ribbon, like the cheerleaders and other students in attendance Wednesday night. He wore only his N.C. State uniform, and that may have been even more appropriate.
The senseless murders of three young Muslims on Tuesday in Chapel Hill shook the entire Triangle to its core, but nowhere more than N.C. State, where all three went to school, and shook Abu as much as anyone.
Abu came to N.C. State last summer as a freshman, a devout Muslim from out of state in search of a community. He found it in Deah Barakat, who shared his religion and love of basketball, who was shot and killed Tuesday along with his wife and sister-in-law. Thousands pinned green ribbons to their lapels at Wednesday’s N.C. State game against Virginia at PNC Arena, the first mass campus gathering since the tragedy.
In a lengthy Instagram post Wednesday morning, Abu’s grief was plainly acute. He posted a photo of himself with Barakat and his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, taken last summer, and thanked them for their “unconditional love.”
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“I wouldn't say we were best friends, or I see them every day,” Abu said after Wednesday's 51-47 loss. “He was one of the people you meet that make an impact on your life right away, with his happiness, his joy, his support for me before I got to State, when I got to State always excited to see me. He was always ready to spread good and positive vibes.”
In the photo, Barakat is wearing an N.C. State intramurals jersey. Basketball was a big part of his life. In a Vine video from January that surfaced Wednesday, Barakat is shown taking a photo with Tar Heels star Marcus Paige in a gym on the North Carolina campus. As Paige goes to shake his hand, Barakat pulls his hand back and makes the Wolfpack hand signal. As he walks away, a disbelieving Paige says, “You're a Wolfpack?!”
That playful moment captured for posterity is a window into the Barakat his friends and family described in the aftermath of his death, the Barakat who Abu came to know. When Abu was considering attending N.C. State, the Wolfpack coaching staff sought to assure him that there was an active and welcoming Muslim community on campus. That's when he met Barakat, who along with Abu-Salha was a member of N.C. State's Muslim Students Association.
That's one of the reasons Abu, a much-pursued recruit, chose the Wolfpack, even though Barakat graduated in 2013, before Abu arrived on campus, and Abu-Salha graduated last fall. That's how Abu ended up attending Barakat and Abu-Salha's Dec. 27 wedding.
There was only a moment of hesitation whether Abu would play, early in the day when N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried worried that Abu could become the target of random violence against Muslims. As the circumstances of the murders became clearer, Gottfried left the decision to Abu, who had no doubt that he wanted to play.
“As a collective group, we're all grieving, because we feel like this could have been avoided,” Abu said. “At the end of the day, it's a community thing, a we thing. It's not just a Muslim problem or a North Carolina problem. This is something that has to be addressed on a different stage, more than I can do. I just wanted to do my part for the family, and that's who's most important.”
After he slammed home an alley-oop early in the first half, he screamed and pointed to the sky. It was Abu’s tribute to a friend who loved basketball and loved the Wolfpack. Abu loved him back, loved them all.
“Rest in peace brother and sisters may Allah bless all three of you with the highest heaven,” Abu wrote on Instagram. “I know you’ll always and forever be a NC State supporter. Rest easy my dude.”