Mahmood Ghouleh and Omar Mansour had important decisions to make. That both of them ended up at Universal School in Bridgeview, a small and private Islamic institution governed by Muslim professionals and designed to turn Muslim children into well-rounded individuals, wasn't surprising.
Ghouleh, a 2004 graduate of Reavis High School in Burbank, was playing basketball at Morraine Valley Community College when he received a telephone call "out of the blue" from athletic director Bill Finn.
"I could go to New York to play basketball for a Division II college or I could coach basketball at Universal School," Ghouleh said. "I had no idea how he knew about Universal. I had never heard about Universal. But I'm Muslim. I don't like to be very far from home. So I took the job."
At 26, Ghouleh is in his fifth year as Universal's head basketball coach. After beating College Preparatory School of America, another Islamic school in Lombard, 92-48 last Friday, the Stars are 10-0. They'll play at Reavis on Tuesday and at Bremen on Dec. 28.
"I promised them that we would do nothing but win," Ghouleh said. "Previously, the program was new. They won only two or three games a season. But they've never been under .500 since I came.
"When I came in, I promised we would win conference titles and be a very good team. They looked at me as if I was crazy. They were missing structure and organization and fundamentals. To them, basketball was recreation previously.
"It was funny because I had never run across people who knew nothing about basketball before. They only knew how to throw the ball at the hoop. They had no technique. My reaction was: 'What have I got myself into? Maybe I made a mistake here.' I didn't know if I had made the right decision.
"But I couldn't go wrong because I was still around basketball. It's my life. When they started to believe in themselves, that's when I knew this would be a good club. They are very smart kids. It was a matter of teaching. I saw progress in the first half of the first year."
Meanwhile, while Ghouleh was sorting things out and trying to stamp his fingerprints on the program, Mansour was trying to make decision of his own: Should he stay home and enroll at Carl Sandburg in Orland Park? Or should he go to Universal?
After graduating from eighth grade, Mansour trained with Sandburg's basketball team during the summer prior to his freshman year. But his parents wanted their son to attend a private school. He talked to Ghouleh, friends who were attending Universal and teammates on an Indiana AAU team that also attended Universal.
"They convinced me that it was a great school," said Mansour, who is an Egyptian. "A good percent of my decision was based on academics and religion. I have no regrets. I'm enjoying my experience. I enjoy our team. It's like a family. I'm happy I made the decision I did."
Mansour, a 6-foot sophomore point guard, is the epitome of a student-athlete. He is averaging 22 points per game and carries a 3.6 graduate point average on a 4.0 scale. He had 31 points and eight assists in Universal's victory over CPSA.
"I'm trying to get a full-ride scholarship to a Division I school. That's my goal," Mansour said. "And we're trying to build a good team. Last year, we were pretty good (18-4, losing to St. Benedict in triple overtime for the regional title). But we have a really good team this year."
To date, Universal, a Class 1A school with an enrollment of 220 boys and girls, hasn't been tested. But upcoming games against larger Reavis and Bremen will give Ghouleh, Mansour and everyone else in the program a good idea of where they stand, if they are as good as they think they are.
Mansour is surrounded by 6-2 senior Hossan Sudek (20 ppg), 6-3 senior Ahmet Sakiri (10 ppg, 13 rpg), 5-11 senior Ahmad Ahmad (8 ppg) and 6-3 senior Suheib Boundai (12 ppg). Seniors Maher Hamadeh and Musa Musleh and junior Saphe Falaneh come off the bench. Against CPSA, Sakiri had 24 points and 16 rebounds.
"I love their dedication and hard work from the off-season," the coach said. "Their goal after last year was to hit the gym every day and add muscle and weight. They wanted to come back hard and try to make some noise. What I think this team will do if we stay focused is get to the sectional this year. I am there to push them. As far as I can push them is as far as we're going to go."
Mansour and his teammates love to be pushed. Last summer, he and his parents went overseas. Omar usually goes plays with an Egyptian team during the summer. But last summer, he chose to stay home.
"I had my own personal trainer and my coach worked with me all summer," Mansour said. "We went one-on-one. I worked on my dribble, my shot and my vertical leap. I took 1,000 shots a day.
"(Ghouleh) won't let anything get in our way. He will do anything to help you to get better. We're trying to build our program. We want to set a tone so everyone knows who Universal is. We want to build a tradition, an identity, a reputation."
Until then, Ghouleh will continue to raise eyebrows. "I get it all the time. 'You're head coach of where?' I love to see the surprise on people's faces when they see what this program is all about," he said.
It took awhile to put the pieces all together. He still has a way to go. Only 14 kids showed up for his first practice. Only seven were there at the end of his first season. He could get the gym for only three days a week for practice. So he took his team to the Bridgeview Park District gym and the Oak Lawn Pavilion or outside courts.
"It's a religious and academic school first. Sports was the last thing on their minds," Ghouleh summed up. "But we've come a long way. Come watch us play to see who we are and how dedicated these kids are."