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Original Issue

The Court Is His Canvas Tariq Abdul-Wahad is art fancier by day and artful guard by night

At the risk of painting NBA players with too broad a brush, most
of them treat an off day on the road as a triathlon of sorts:
sleep in, watch an in-room movie and then saunter through the
mall. Yet for Nuggets swingman Tariq Abdul-Wahad, a free day is a
chance to discover a museum. As much aesthete as athlete,
Abdul-Wahad often hails a cab at his hotel and finds his way to,
say, the Art Institute of Chicago, a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit in
Dallas or any of several museums in New York City. "Art is almost
addictive," Abdul-Wahad says. "The more you know, the more you
want to know."

Abdul-Wahad, the only NBA player born and raised in France, grew
up a jump shot from the Louvre but didn't discover his passion
until he took an art-history course in college. "After that, I
was hooked," he says with a slight French accent. "I changed my
major to art history immediately."

Now he is out to convert others. On Feb. 22 he gave a tour of the
Denver Art Museum to a group of 10- to 13-year-olds, and he plans
another next month. "In Europe, hanging out at a museum is much
more acceptable for kids," says Abdul-Wahad, who favors Baroque
and Islamic art. "I want them to see that something on a wall
that triggers thought is more stimulating and more interactive
than MTV."

As a player Abdul-Wahad might be likened to a Dutch master. He
is technically sound and unfailingly rational on the court, and
even his rare flights of fancy have purpose. Acquired by Denver
from the Magic last month with Chris Gatling for Ron Mercer,
Chauncey Billups and Johnny Taylor, Abdul-Wahad fits in well
with the Nuggets. He's a versatile athlete: a proficient scorer
(11.6 points a game through Sunday) who doesn't demand many
shots and who isn't allergic to playing defense. What's more, at
6'6", he's one of the league's best rebounding guards.

Abdul-Wahad's mother, George Goudet, was a professional player of
distinction in France and taught him the game. At 6'1", she could
take her son to l'ecole, as it were, until he was 15. By then he
was one of the best players in the country. After two seasons at
Michigan and two at San Jose State, Abdul-Wahad was taken with
the 11th pick of the 1997 draft by the Kings. Born Olivier
Saint-Jean, he adopted his current handle, meaning "morning star"
and "servant of the one God," after converting to Islam in '96.
"In the U.S., there are a lot of misconceptions about Islam,"
Abdul-Wahad says. "It's a way of life that teaches modesty, and
it helps define me."

Basketball, on the other hand, is merely what he does. The game
is a means of earning money to support his family--Tariq and his
wife, Khadija, have a two-year-old son, Amine, and a one-year-old
daughter, Hind--with enough left over perhaps to open a gallery
someday. "I enjoy basketball, but I can't believe how nice people
are to me because I have the NBA tag," Abdul-Wahad says. "When
I'm done playing, we're just going to be regular people."

To paraphrase: Art is long, life in the NBA is fleeting.

--L. Jon Wertheim