An Ode to a Squash Legend

By S. Amjad Hussain

I write this column to mark the passing of Hashim Khan, the great squash legend and a personal friend. He passed away in Aurora, Colo., on Aug. 18, at the age of 100.

With his passing, one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of squash has come to an end. He was undisputedly the greatest squash player the world had ever known. Behind the bigger-than-life persona, however, was an unassuming man who despite reaching the pinnacle of sports remained humble.

He was born in a small, dusty little village near the frontier town of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan. His father was the custodian at the Peshawar Club, a segregated club for the ruling British. The game of squash fascinated the young boy, who would, after school, walk five miles from his village to spend time around the squash courts.

He would run eagerly to fetch the ball when it bounced over the walls of the open-air court. When the officers retired for their evening drinks, the youngster would sneak into the court and play, sometimes with a partner. But often, as he once told me, it was “Hashim against Hashim.”

Mr. Khan’s father died when he was 11. Despite his mother’s protests, he quit school and became a ball boy at the club. Over time, he mastered the game. At age 28, he became the professional at the club.

That same year, he married Mehria, a girl from his village. They had 12 surviving children. All of his eight sons are squash professionals across the United States and Canada.

Mr. Khan won 34 international titles between 1944 and 1958. He later added seven major North American titles to the list. Most remarkably, he won his first British Open at 35, an age when most squash players hang up their racquets.

He became No. 1 ranked master — a player over the age of 50 — in the world in the 1980s. He continued to play into his 90s. It was only in the past few years that he put down the racquet.

He was officially recognized across the world, but he was particularly proud of the honors bestowed on him by Pakistan, which included the nation’s highest civilian award. Other honors: The naming of a railroad station in the Khyber Pass and the building of a large squash complex in Peshawar in his name.

I first met Mr. Khan in Detroit in 1964 at a Pakistani function. When he realized I also come from Peshawar, he asked me — as an elder would in Pashtun culture — why I had not contacted him earlier? I made some flimsy excuse and promised to stay in touch.

Thus began a wonderful friendship that spanned 50 years and gave me an unprecedented opportunity to understand the man behind the legend.

Mr. Khan lived the ancient code of Pashtunwali that commits one to protect his honor, to avenge a grievous insult, and to extend unfettered hospitality.

I observed his unconditional hospitality up close. My friend Peter Cardillo once showed up at the Uptown Athletic Club in Detroit hoping to get a lesson from the master. Despite being booked back-to-back, Mr. Khan accommodated him. Mr. Khan refused to charge for the lesson, saying he could not charge a friend of a friend. He later sent Mr. Cardillo an autographed racquet.

For many years during the academic year’s spring break, my family would travel to Colorado for skiing. Mr. Khan insisted we stop for a meal at his home before heading for the slopes. His gracious wife often would say that if you pass through our village, you must come to visit. Wherever they lived was their village.

In 2009, Josh Easdon, a well-known New York squash pro, made a documentary on Mr. Khan’s life. I was invited to talk about him through the prism of Pashtun culture. The documentary Keep Eye On Ball: The Hashim Khan Story is a beautiful documentation of a remarkable life.

I visited him a week before he died. He was frail and on oxygen, but his spirits were high. He welcomed me with a broad smile and open arms. He asked me the inevitable question that he always asked each time we met or spoke: Do you still play squash? He inquired about our mutual friends and my children. We talked about many shared memories.

Throughout our conversation, he kept telling his family not to let me leave without having dinner. He was a consummate host to the end.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon. This writing first appeared in The Toledo Blade newspaper on September 15, 2014. It is being reproduced with permission.

 

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Categories: Arts and Life, Globalization, Storyline

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