In the beginning, Aly Khalifa’s knowledge about BYU basketball came from unlikely sources. 

The 6-foot-11 center signed with the Cougars in mid-April after playing a couple of seasons at Charlotte and entering the transfer portal. 

“All I knew was that BYU had the loudest arena that anybody had played at. The student section is crazy, that’s what I had heard. I didn’t know where it was but I knew it was in Utah, somewhere. That’s all I knew.” — BYU transfer Aly Khalifa

At first glance, it would seem unlikely, too, that Khalifa, a Muslim from Alexandria, Egypt, would choose to compete for a school in the Rocky Mountains owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

When BYU coaches reached out to him, he knew very little about the school or the program.

But what the peripatetic Khalifa did know about the Cougars sprung from conversations with friends that had played regularly against BYU, like Saint Mary’s Kyle Bowen and Alex Ducas, and San Francisco’s Josh Kunen. They played together at the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, Australia.

“All I knew was that BYU had the loudest arena that anybody had played at. The student section is crazy, that’s what I had heard,” Khalifa said. “I didn’t know where it was but I knew it was in Utah, somewhere. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know much about BYU. I knew it was a Mormon school. That’s it.”

Khalifa’s best friend, Efe Abogidi, hails from Nigeria. They were roommates for three years at NBA Global Academy. Abogidi was part of the Washington State team that defeated BYU in the 2022 NIT quarterfinals at the Marriott Center.

“Whenever he told me about BYU, he said, ‘Aly, it’s the loudest arena I’ve ever been in. I couldn’t hear the dribble. He couldn’t hear it.’ He said, ‘Washington State was winning by a lot but the fans didn’t even leave. They stayed for the whole game. It’s just amazing.’”

Abogidi now plays for the Ignite of the NBA G League.

Recently, Khalifa realized that he had once played against current BYU forward Fousseyni Traore in the 2017 FIBA Under-16 African Championship. 

Traore helped lead Mali to the title. During that tournament, Mali and Khalifa’s Egypt team faced each other. Both players wore No. 15. Khalifa has mentioned it to Traore. 

“I knew he looked so familiar,” Khalifa said. “I asked him, ‘Did you play in Mauritius in the final against Egypt?’” 

Yes, it’s a small world, after all. 

When BYU was recruiting Khalifa this spring, “Fouss contacted me a lot,” said Khalifa, who has two years of college eligibility remaining. Perhaps nobody in Provo was more thrilled about Khalifa joining the program than Traore, who has had to play out of position the past couple of seasons. 

“He was so excited because he wants to play the four,” Khalifa said. 

Although Khalifa has no real ties to BYU, he had some familiarity with the program and some surprising connections. Khalifa will join a couple of other Muslim players — Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki — already on the roster. 

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All that aside, Khalifa is the type of player that coach Mark Pope and the Cougars desperately need as they prepare for their first season in the Big 12.

“What sticks out the most about Aly is his skill level for his size. Being able to use the ball as a real weapon, not only for himself around the basket, but for others, is very rare at 6-11. He makes everyone else better,” BYU assistant coach Nick Robinson told BYUtv. “To average 2.7 assists at 6-11 at all levels is really unique, not to mention his 1.7 to 1.8 turnover-to-assist ratio is really, really unique.”

Playing like the ‘Joker’

The reason why Khalifa’s game is “unique” stems from the fact that he has patterned his game after two players who are unique. 

When Khalifa started playing the sport, he tried to play like former Dallas Mavericks superstar Dirk Nowitzki. But the past few years, Khalifa has been trying to be like two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, who are currently facing the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

“I’ve been watching a lot of film of Jokic, just the way he passes the ball and makes everything easy. I always say that Jokic gives me hope that anyone can make it,” Khalifa said. “Where he came from and how he’s doing right now, he’s doing everything at his own pace. He doesn’t care how fast the NBA is. He’s going at his own pace and nobody can guard him, basically.”

When Khalifa took his recruiting visit to BYU, Pope, who played for the Nuggets from 2003-05, called coaches from the Denver franchise to gain some insight about what they do to maximize Jokic’s skill set. 

“Jokic and Dirk are my biggest idols,” Khalifa said. 

Last season at Charlotte of Conference USA, Khalifa averaged 11.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. He shot 51.1% from the field, including 38.1% from 3-point range and 74.4% from the free-throw line. 

Khalifa scored at least 20 points five times and recorded three double-doubles for the 49ers, who posted a 22-14 record and captured the CBI championship against Eastern Kentucky. 

‘The Egyptian Magician’

While Jokic embraces the “Joker” nickname, Khalifa has a moniker of his own — “Egyptian Magician” — for his passing and playmaking ability. 

He’s not entirely sure how that nickname originated, but he thinks it started while he was playing in Australia. 

“I made a behind-the-back pass or something,” he remembered. “But really, at Charlotte they called me the ‘Egyptian Nightmare.’ The commentator called me that. I’m not dunking on people. I think ‘Magician’ fits better.”

Arkansas’s Trey Wade (3) tries to shoot over Charlotte’s Aly Khalifa (15) during Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in Fayetteville, Ark. | Michael Woods, Associated Press

How does Khalifa describe his style of play and what strengths he’ll bring to BYU? 

“I think my biggest strength is passing the ball, contributing not just by scoring and shooting the ball; I felt like I shot the ball really well. Mainly, it’s being the smartest player on the court and being the second point guard on the court, like a point forward,” he said. “Taking the play and making the play for others. I like passing the ball. I like seeing my teammates score. That makes my day every practice.

“Just passing the ball and shooting the ball at a high level. I feel like, especially in the Big 12, with all the athletic bigs, they’ll all be shot-blockers staying under the rim; but I feel if I can pull them outside, because I shoot the ball well, it’s going to help my teammates get layups, basically, at the rim. I need to get better at a lot of stuff. BYU is going to get a winner and I’m very excited.”

Khalifa emphasized that he’s a pass-first player that has great court awareness. And he loves to make his teammates better. 

“In some games, I didn’t score but I was the highest plus-minus on the court. I don’t really care about scoring, to be honest,” he said. “Last year, the team needed me to be more aggressive around the basket and shoot more. But if we have the scorers, I don’t need to score. I’ll just break the defense down by outsmarting them — that’s how I play.”

How does Charlotte coach Ron Sanchez describe Khalifa? 

“He’s rare,” Sanchez has said. “If you ask him, it’s never about his individual notoriety or accolades. For him, it’s about us being successful.”

Going Down Under

Khalifa started playing basketball in Egypt when he was 8 or 9 years old, following the example set by his sister, Nesma, who played at the University of Cincinnati and currently plays professionally in Egypt. 

At first, basketball was simply a hobby and he didn’t think there was a future in it for him until he was 12 or 13, when the Egypt National Team contacted him. 

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“I realized, ‘Wow, I’m actually pretty good at basketball,” he remembered.

At 15, Khalifa left his family and traveled to Australia to attend the NBA Global Academy on a scholarship. The top male and female prospects from outside the United States train there under the direction of NBA-hired coaches. 

The NBA Global Academy has produced NBA players like Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles, Patty Mills and Dante Exum

Khalifa arrived in Australia not knowing English. He learned the language during his three years living Down Under. 

“I went to Morocco once with the National Team, but Australia was my first time to a Western country,” Khalifa said. “It was my first time living in a different country.”

The flight he took from Egypt to Australia marked his first time traveling alone. He was without his family. 

“It was really hard. I had games and school and I had to learn English. I didn’t think about how hard it was back then. Now thinking about it, it was really hard. I didn’t know the language. I watched movies and TV shows in English,” Khalifa said. “I went through some hard times at the beginning.

“It was a big sacrifice, being without your family and friends for a couple of years to play basketball. It was so hard. After I learned English, I realized it wasn’t a hard language to learn. It was hard to think about back home that I would ever perfect English or be decent at it. 

“Now, here I am, I’m speaking English. It was a difficult adjustment — different culture, different food, different people. Nobody spoke Arabic in Australia. But it really helped me, too. The guys really cared about me and they helped me learn the language. I’m very glad that I had a lot of friends that I keep up with me. I’m glad they were there when I was there.”

At the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence in Canberra, Khalifa helped his team win two consecutive Academy Games titles in 2018 in Australia and in 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Academy Games included prospects from NBA Academies throughout the world, from places like China, India, Mexico and Senegal. 

Arriving in Charlotte, USA

While playing in Australia, he drew attention from college coaches. He ended up signing at Charlotte with Sanchez.

Coming out of high school, his grades necessitated him sitting out for a season. Remember, he didn’t know English until he landed in Australia. 

“Charlotte stood out by taking care of me,” Khalifa said. “The coaches were great with me; they were the main reason why I went to Charlotte from the beginning. My experience at Charlotte has been great. I really love Charlotte.”

Adjusting to the United States from Australia was a big transition for Khalifa in terms of the culture and the style of play.  

“It was very different. Obviously, the pace is in the U.S., there are more athletic guys and it’s a faster game. It’s really different from Australia. I needed to adjust from Egypt to Australia — that was the biggest adjustment in my life,” he said. “The game in Australia is really physical, which is really different from Egypt. I came to the U.S. and everything is fast-paced.”

Charlotte runs a slow-paced Princeton offense.

“I’m glad I redshirted that year to sit down and analyze and see how to play the game before I stepped on the court. That really helped me for the year after, which was my freshman year,” Khalifa said. “The game is way faster in the U.S. and the guys are way more athletic than back home. One of my advantages is, I feel like I just need to outsmart players and how to get to spots. You don’t need to be the fastest to win, basically. This has been my biggest adjustment.”

After playing a couple of solid seasons at Charlotte, he decided to make another major career move. 

“It was a business decision to leave Charlotte to help me to get to where I want to be,” he said. “I felt like I needed to go to a higher level school. That’s why I entered the portal.”

BYU and the Big 12

When his name popped up in the portal, BYU coaches started their pursuit of Khalifa right away. 

“The coaches showed me love and kept up with me from the first day I entered the portal,” Khalifa said. “They stood out from everybody that recruited me, the way they cared about me and the way they see me fit in their system. The community as well in Provo loves basketball. It’s like a big family in Provo.

“Obviously, the Big 12 was a big thing to attract players. The Big 12 is the best conference in the U.S. By BYU joining, it’s the first thing they said when they recruited me. It’s one of the biggest keys as well.”

For Khalifa, the chance to play against some of the best teams, and players, in all of college basketball was a huge selling point. 

“I only played one or two high major schools at Charlotte. At BYU, I feel like night in and night out, we’ll play a high major school — the best teams in the country,” he said. “We’re going to host them, we’re going to go play there. It’s kind of a dream since I came here to Charlotte my freshman year, just to be able to compete against these big names. We’re all really excited about it.”

‘He’s like a big brother for me’

Like Khalifa, Pope is a big man. 

Pope played center in college, at Washington and Kentucky and then in the NBA for several seasons. He knows what it takes to play the position at a high level.

Besides that, Pope and Khalifa have formed a strong relationship. 

“He’s like a big brother for me,” Khalifa said. “He checks up on me every single day basically.” 

Pope told Khalifa he wants to plan a trip to Egypt to meet his family. 

“I don’t think any coach in the country does this stuff,” Khalifa said. “I don’t know if he will but the effort to try is just enough for me. I’ve never had a coach go to Egypt to see my family in my life. Even the Egyptian coaches didn’t do that. It’s so different. It shows a lot about his character.”

Arkansas’ Connor Vanover (23) guards Charlotte’s Aly Khalifa during a game Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in Fayetteville, Ark. | Michael Woods, Associated Press

Khalifa’s recruiting trip to Provo fell during Ramadan, observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer and reflection. It requires fasting from dawn to sunset.

Pope fasted with Khalifa during that time. 

“He tried,” Khalifa said. “He didn’t eat as long as I was with him until we ate. He told me he was going to fast with me. It also shows a lot about his character.”

On the first day of his recruiting trip to Provo, Khalifa got a glimpse of what it would be like to be at BYU. He and Pope ate at the coaches’ office at 11 p.m. 

Later, Pope and Khalifa left the facility to return to the hotel when a group of about five enthusiastic students in a car recognized the coach and reacted. 

“They started shouting coach Pope’s name and honking,” Khalifa said. “It was so fun. I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ It’s an amazing community and they all care about basketball and sports in general.”

During his recruitment, Khalifa visited just two schools — Florida and BYU. 

Schools like Texas Tech and Oklahoma from the Big 12 and Colorado and Vanderbilt also showed considerable interest. 

After he announced his decision to play for BYU, Cougars fans responded on social media. 

“Twitter was crazy. I got 100 followers. They showed me a lot of love,” he said. “Whenever I ask something on Twitter, they all respond. It’s so fun. That’s what college athletes want from fans — love and support. I’ve gotten that from BYU already.”

Khalifa said he’s enjoyed his interactions with all of the BYU basketball coaches, including Pope. 

“I love coach Pope. The relationship with the head coach is very important,” he said. “I had a strong relationship with coach Sanchez. I’m excited to come to Provo and work with coach Pope.”

Khalifa traveled to BYU in late May to get settled in before departing on a trip home to Egypt. At the time, Khalifa said he wasn’t sure if he’d compete for the Egyptian National Team this summer “because I feel like it’s more important to spend the summer in Provo because it’s a new team and the summer is really important to get the team together.”

In August, the Cougars will be traveling on a foreign trip to in Italy and Croatia. 

“That’s really important for us as a team,” said Khalifa, who added that he’s planning to return to Provo on June 23. 

Muslim connections

For Khalifa, the adjustment to Provo will be easier because of Traore and Ally Atiki because they share Khalifa’s Muslim faith. 

“I had never been on a team with African Muslims. That they are very happy and love it there shows a lot,” Khalifa said. “Outsiders would say, ‘Aly, you’re a Muslim. Why would you go to BYU?’ I’m like, ‘There’s two Muslims on the team already and they love it there.’ BYU people love Fouss and Atiki. They are fan favorites.”

Khalifa could be another BYU fan favorite this season. He’s eager to play the five spot — which has been a void for the Cougars the past two seasons. The undersized (6-6) Traore has been playing in the post for BYU. Khalifa’s arrival will allow for Traore to play at the four, which is his natural position. 

“I can play the five. I can shoot as well,” Khalifa said. “I can play the four as well. That’s one of the plans, me and Fouss to play the four. He can guard the four because he’s quick. It’s going to be interesting.”

‘We’re going to do big things in the Big 12’

Though Khalifa comes from a country nearly 7,000 miles away from Provo, it appears he’ll fit in at BYU as the Cougars make the transition to the Big 12. 

One of the first things Khalifa knew about BYU was that it belonged to the West Coast Conference and played games against Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. 

Now, he can’t wait to compete for the Cougars in the Big 12.

Khalifa — who has gone from Egypt to Australia to Charlotte to Provo — has high hopes for the upcoming season and he’s bullish on his new team’s potential.

“I feel like we’re going to do big things in the Big 12, especially the first year. I don’t think anybody is expecting us to do well,” he said. “It’s motivation, especially for me personally. I feel like we have big talent.”

Khalifa is looking forward to playing with fellow transfers Dawson Baker and Ques Glover, as well as returning players like Traore, Dallin Hall, Spencer Johnson and Jaxson Robinson

“They’re all really talented and they’re ready to be in the Big 12. They’re working hard every single day. I’m so excited to work with those guys. As soon as I committed, they showed love for me and that was different for me,” he said. “It was like, ‘Oh, wow. They really care about me.’ The connection off the court is way more important than on the court. I feel like we already have that. We all love each other even though we don’t know each other.”

Michael Woods, Associated Press
Charlotte forward Aly Khalifa shoots against Arkansas during a game Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021, in Fayetteville, Ark. Khalifa will be a member of the BYU basketball team next season. | Michael Woods