by Andrew Keh
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By Andrew Keh
BOSTON — When Jamad Fiin notched her millionth follower on Instagram a few months ago, her friends bought her a batch of celebratory cupcakes.
The number of her followers started rising rapidly in April soon after a video she posted went viral. Friends took screenshots of her profile page as the figure ballooned — 500,000, 750,000 and so on. Then, one day, there it was: one million.
It was a lot of people and, as indicated by the cupcakes, clearly a big achievement. Less clear was what, exactly, she was supposed to do next.
“I’m just trying to get the hang of everything,” Fiin, 22, said one recent afternoon.
When it comes to being famous, the internet has a way of flipping the old order of operations. Online, fame does not materialize only after sustained sweat and toil. It can be the very starting block from which you begin a career.
Fiin’s first brush with it came five years ago, on her 17th birthday, when her cousin uploaded a clip of her playing basketball. In it, Fiin, who is Somali American and wears a hijab in observance of her Muslim faith, finishes a silky left-handed drive through a crowd of boys.
For her, it was a routine play. To the wider world, it was, apparently, something remarkable, a four-second subversion of some narrowly conceived image of how a girl wearing a head covering should behave. The next morning, she watched, amazed, as the view count on the video exploded, eventually rising into the millions.
The flame was lit, and periodically, at her own deliberate pace, she would update her account with more photos and videos, all while juggling classes and playing basketball at Emmanuel College in Boston, a Division III program.
Her efforts garnered her hundreds of thousands of followers, many of them from the Somali and Muslim communities worldwide. The rapper Drake followed her, which made one of her friends cry. Her teammates and coaches started snapping to attention whenever she reached for her phone.
“I’d be like, ‘Hold on, let me fix my hair, because you have too many followers,’” Meghan Kirwan, an assistant coach, said.
This digital fame did, eventually, bleed into the physical world. Drivers have waved at her at stoplights. People approach her on the street for pictures. To her surprise, these encounters are increasingly with people outside the Somali community.
Fiin’s budding renown has placed her in a growing cadre of sports influencers online. Many, like her, are former college players, athletes with above-average skills and, crucially, better personalities. They are professional athletes without competing in professional sports. They trade stadium floodlights for desktop ring lights.
It was a video filmed on the Boston Celtics’ court during Ramadan this year that pushed her over a million followers on Instagram. The clip’s allure, again, arose from the simple disarming of stereotypes: Wearing an abaya — and a crisp pair of Nike Dunks — she dribbles behind her back, pulls up at the 3-point arc and drains a jumper.
Today, she has more Instagram followers than all but two Celtics players.
“Kids now, their top career choice is not rock star, athlete or actor,” said Dan Levitt, the founder of Long Haul Management, which represents Fiin and other sports influencers. “It’s digital creator on one of these platforms.”
Levitt is one of many people waiting to see what Fiin does next. Fiin said her managers had gently prodded her to make more content. They have other clients making seven figures a year, monetizing their personal brands with advertisements, sponsorships and merchandise.
Fiin, though, is at a crossroads. She is one class away from obtaining her M.B.A. from Emmanuel, where she played last season as a graduate student and led the team in scoring. A member of the Somali national team, she holds on to a dream of playing professionally, maybe in Sweden or Turkey, even though making content full time — including on TikTok, where she has another two million followers, and YouTube — would be far more lucrative.
Her focus for now has been hosting basketball events for Somali and Muslim girls through her new nonprofit, Jamad Basketball Camps.
Fiin’s most recent event, a two-day tournament, took place last month in Boston. It drew around 75 girls from around the country who paid nothing to attend and received sneakers from Puma, a sponsor.
The operation felt unpolished at times, but sizzled with energy. When Fiin was not lugging boxes or taking calls, she posed for selfies and signed autographs. A camera crew from a digital media outlet followed her.
“It’s crazy,” said Alexis Sanders, 20, who went to the event to support her former teammate. “She’s, like, famous-famous now.”
Before this — before the fame, before the camps, before Drake — Fiin had to fight to play the game. Other parents in the Boston Somali community used to call her mother and ask why her daughter was playing sports and running with boys. It was not until the eighth grade that her mother let her play on a team.
That old tension is what propels everything today. Fiin is shy by nature, but she wants to be more famous, wants even more eyeballs on her, because she wants to embody something she never saw as a child.
She wants people to keep being surprised by her — until the sight of a girl in a hijab swishing a step-back 3 isn’t surprising anymore.
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