Youssef: Belleville’s blossoming big man

Mohamed Youssef had just begun to become interested in the game of basketball. Youssef was in sixth grade when he first signed up to play on his Belleville grammar school team and was learning the ins and outs of the sport.

But between his seventh and eighth grade seasons, Youssef hit the crossroads.

“I didn’t make my middle school team,” Youssef said. “I stopped playing and fell off. I thought I was wasting my time.”

At that point, Youssef could have walked away from basketball forever.

But as he entered Belleville High School, Youssef decided to give basketball one last try.

“I got a little taller and stronger,” Youssef said. “I was willing to start anew with new coaches.”

But disaster struck.

Youssef fell and fractured a bone in his wrist, ending his freshman year after only two games.

Undaunted, Youssef was ready for yet another comeback.

“I went to the weight room and worked very hard,” Youssef said. “During the summer, I gained a lot of muscle. I was kind of scrawny, but I got bigger. I worked hard on my game.”

Youssef’s dedication caught the eye of Belleville head basketball coach Jim Stoeckel.

“I thought he had promise,” Stoeckel said. “He had good size.”

Youssef grew to 6-foot-4, giving him even more of a status on the team.

“He showed flashes that he could play,” Stoeckel said.

Last year, Youssef was a starter on the Belleville varsity, averaging a little more than 10 points per game.

“He had a decent year last year,” Stoeckel said.

“I ended up doing my thing,” Youssef said.

But before he began his final year with the Buccaneers, Youssef wanted to make sure he was ready.

“It’s my last year doing this and I wanted all my work to pay off,” Youssef said. “I had the motivation to play better.”

So Youssef went back to the weight room and worked on his individual skills.

“I wanted our class to have something hanging in the gym,” Youssef said. “When you walk into the gym and see all those banners, there’s nothing from our year. It’s empty.”

But in the middle of the summer, when most individual skill improves, Youssef went with his family to their native Egypt. There aren’t exactly a ton of places to play basketball in Egypt.

“To be honest, when I was in Egypt, I didn’t have a basketball, but I worked just as hard,” said Youssef, who was born in the United States, but has family in Egypt. “I worked on my jumping skills. I did push-ups. They only play soccer in Egypt. But I didn’t fail. I worked hard.”

Youssef returned to Belleville and has been nothing short of brilliant since the start of the high school basketball campaign.

“He’s a monster,” Stoeckel said. “He’s now dunking with ease. He goes after every ball. I knew he was going to be good this year, but he’s been dominant this year. He’s putting it all together this year. He’s playing with a little swagger to him. He finds the ball well, blocks shots and is very strong going to the rim.”

Youssef has also watched the Belleville program blossom, from a winless campaign four years ago, then six wins last year and nine wins a year ago.

Now, the Bucs have a 5-4 record and Youssef is a major reason why.

He’s averaging a double-double, namely double figures in scoring and rebounding. Youssef is averaging 16 points and 13 rebounds per game. Ever since he exploded for 34 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in a win over Livingston, Youssef has averaged 19.6 points and 13.4 rebounds. He also had 21 points and a season-high 19 rebounds in a win over Technology of Newark.

For his efforts, Youssef has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.

It was the Livingston game that served as the turning point for the Belleville standout.

“To be honest, I put a number inside my head and decided to go for it,” Youssef said. “I said I would get 25 points. I got to that point and just kept balling. I got to a number I was never expecting to get.”

While Youssef is fond of the point total, it’s the rebounding numbers that impress him the most.

“I feel rebounding is the most important part of the game,” Youssef said. “It’s what I do best. I feel like the work I put in during the offseason has helped me get better in rebounding.”

So, as it seems, the workout drills in Egypt without a basketball helped him develop.

“I really feel I got better this summer,” Youssef said. “I know when you practice hard, you can end up with a season like I’m having. It’s all because of the hard work.”

Youssef has hopes of playing in college. Passaic County Community College is one school showing some interest.

“If I have a chance to play in college, I’m going to take it,” Youssef said. “Of course, I think I can do it.”

“He could play on the college level,” Stoeckel said. “He still has a lot to learn, but he still could be a lot better.”

That idea would be extremely frightening to possible college opponents of Youssef.

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”