Nov. 14, 2022, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- It’s 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and Islam Hoxha is pacing the hallways of the Gerald R. Ford Fieldhouse.
A first-year assistant coach for the Grand Rapids Community College’s men’s basketball team, Hoxha said he gets nervous before every game. But on this mid-November day, he and the Raiders are 2 ½ hours away from tipoff against their archrivals, the Lansing Community College Stars.
And although Hoxha is new to the GRCC program, he knows that his head coach, Joe Fox, spent three seasons working under the leadership of Hall of Fame coach Mike Ingram at LCC, so this game has particular meaning for Fox. Which means it has particular meaning for Hoxha. Which means even more pre-game jitters than normal.
Still, basketball, Hoxha knows, is not life and death.
He knows this because he knows life and death.
“I do still have memories of Kosovo,” he said of his home country, while safely ensconced in the cozy confines of the fieldhouse. “I can remember riding on my dad’s shoulders as he carried me, as my family fled to the mountains in search of safety, running from the people who wanted to kill us.”
That was 1998, and Islam Hoxha was 5 years old. He and his family were caught in the middle of the Kosovo war, an approximately 16-month conflict that pitted forces from Yugoslavia against the Kosovo Liberation Army. Really though, the violence of the war had been going on for most of Hoxha’s life, beginning already in the early 1990s when the KLA formed to fight the persecution of Kosovo Albanians.
So, after running to the mountains, the Hoxha family just kept going, first to Macedonia and eventually to the United States.
Hoxha was 7 years old and starting over in a new country, fluent in the languages of Albania, Bosnia and Serbia but knowing no English.
He smiled as he recalled that time in his life.
“We were welcomed,” he said. “We had families who sponsored us and helped us. At school, we were put in a class with other refugees, so we could learn together. We had English language services available to us, and we just had so many people who helped us. I can’t thank them enough.”
Part of his refuge, he says now, was sports. His dad had been a professional soccer player, so at Forest Hills Northern, Islam was a standout member of the school’s soccer team. He never played basketball though, neither in high school nor in college, first attending GRCC for two years taking hospitality courses and then finishing up at LCC in the hospitality program.
So, how did a soccer-playing native of Kosovo end up as an assistant coach on the GRCC men’s basketball team? Well, part of the story includes a woman. And part of it is hooked to Hoxha’s bold approach to life.
Again, he smiles as he recounts the story.
“I had met someone on a trip back to Kosovo,” he said. “We were dating and then she became my fiancé and now she is my wife. But before that happened, I went back for a year to be with her. And one day, I went to see the local basketball team practice. And then I went to see their director of basketball operations, and I said to him, ‘I would like to join your staff as a volunteer.’”
And that’s how Islam Hoxha became an assistant coach for the 2021-22 season for the KB Rahoveci Vreshtarët in the Kosovo Basketball Superleague, the top professional league in Kosovo and a member of FIBA, which governs the sport of basketball worldwide.
“We had a coach from Greece, another from Turkey,” he said. “We had a dozen (NCAA) Division I players from the U.S. It was the learning experience of a lifetime.”
Now Hoxha is back in the U.S., working at Corewell Health (formerly Spectrum Health) as a patient services representative even as he plans to enter a new GRCC neurodiagnostic apprenticeship program that sees the college partnering with Corewell to fill a growing gap in the health care system.
And he is sharing his experiences in Kosovo – and his deep love for basketball – with the GRCC basketball program, its 15 players and his fellow coaches.
“I love basketball because it’s a beautiful game,” he said simply. “But another reason I love it is because I know I am helping young men achieve some goals they have set for themselves. It’s meaningful to be a part of their lives and always be there for them when they need advice, knowledge or just someone to talk to.”
And, he added, there is a strong element in his coaching philosophy of paying it forward.
“Coming to the United States as a refugee, a lot of people helped my family and me in the beginning and I could never be more thankful,” he said. “So, helping these young men get to where they want to be in life as people and as athletes is definitely a way in response to everyone who has helped me.”
Fox said that in Hoxha’s short time with the program, he already is making a big difference.
“It's hard to overstate how he has helped us in his first semester on campus,” Fox said. “Coming from the world of professional basketball, he sees the game with a different eye. The guys really respect his knowledge of the game and love learning from him. Beyond that, the players also respond to his positive energy.”
In return, Hoxha said he is thrilled to be learning from Fox, whose coaching roots run deep. Gary Fox, Joe’s dad, was a longtime coach at Greenville High School, and George Fox, Joe’s granddad, won a state championship with Magic Johnson at Lansing Everett.
“Coach Fox already has helped me a lot with learning the game further,” Hoxha said. “And, hopefully, me bringing some knowledge from the European way will help further bring success to the program.”
Hoxha noted that before the game against Lansing Community College the team ran a new warm-up, based on large part on what the team at KB Rahoveci had used to get ready for games.
“If we don’t win tonight,” he had said with a laugh prior to tipoff, “we might not ever run it again.”
But at the end of the contest, the big scoreboard at the fieldhouse told the tale: GRCC 106, LCC 99, as the Raiders ran their 2022 record to a perfect 4-0 and the new warmup got its first “W.”
Nervous no more, Hoxha could only smile as he walked with the team from the floor to the locker room after a hard-fought victory.
Prior to the game, just two hours earlier, he had leaned in with his fellow coaches and the players for a final cheer before the Raiders took the floor.
Together they had shouted, “One, two, three, team. Four, five, six, family.”
In that moment, it was hard for Hoxha to not think about the path his life has taken and the journeys he has been on with both his biological family and now his GRCC basketball family.
And while he knows his players aren’t literally riding on his shoulders to safety, as he once did with his dad, Hoxha said he hopes they’re perhaps doing so metaphorically.
“To me, personally, that chant is powerful,” he said. “It means I know I am changing someone’s life for the good every single day.”
This story was reported by Phil de Haan.