Diana Saleh doesn’t pay much mind to those who tell her something isn’t possible for her.
“I hate when people try to talk fear.”
The story of the 6’3″ center’s path to Division I basketball at Lipscomb has always been unorthodox. From her unbridled desire to accomplish what seems impossible off the court to her work ethic and dedication on it, Saleh knows no boundaries.
With the recent loss of Lipscomb’s starting center to injury, Saleh’s story seems to look more like a movie script with each passing day.
This particular movie, though, boasts a script that would be the envy of any screenwriter in Hollywood.
There is indeed a fearlessness inside the Michigan-raised sophomore, whether or not people talk fear around her.
The fearlessness Saleh displays is, much like her, unique. It’s characterized by quiet, calculated confidence, the same confidence that exudes from her presence on and off the court.
Whether the task at hand is a first-ever interview, blazing a trail for the next generation of female athletes, or juggling one of the hardest degree programs on campus with her basketball schedule, Saleh approaches it all with an assurance that can only come from past experience.
And when it comes to know-how in stripping down stereotypes, Saleh has a world-class resume.
Her very arrival at Lipscomb circumvented the status quo. Saleh’s hometown of Dearborn, Michigan, a suburb of nearby Detroit, could hardly be more different from Nashville.
“I’ve been in Dearborn my entire life,” Saleh said. “It’s a high population of Arabs, and I would say it was kind of like a bubble. So coming here was a huge cultural difference, a shock. It took me a minute to adjust to everything.”
And adjust she did, with the help of a welcoming Bisons squad.
“It’s great here. My teammates are so accepting, and [there are] just a lot of great things here. We have a great team, a great family atmosphere.”
In many ways, though, Saleh’s cultural change was not as simple as integrating into a new team dynamic. Before arriving in Nashville, she had hardly even left home.
“Honestly, Dearborn is probably the only place I’ve been in my entire life. The only time we’ve ever traveled has been to Ohio, Chicago, and to Lebanon, where I’m from.”
Like Saleh and her family, many Dearborn residents have ethnic roots in the Arab world. Even before the 21st-century influx of immigrants from the Middle East, though, Dearborn has been a city stained by demographical tension.
Henry Ford, the infamous creator of the assembly line, hailed from Dearborn. After the influence of Ford Motor Company’s presence in the area, Dearborn quickly industrialized.
As African-Americans moved in to seek industrial work, Dearborn quickly grew a reputation as a “sundown town,” with mayor Orville Hubbard saying that “as far as he was concerned, it was against the law for a Negro to live in his suburb,” as chronicled by historian James W. Loewen.
Now, new ethnic tensions simmer in a mostly split Dearborn. A current population of around 100,000 residents includes 40,000 Arab-Americans; only 61% of Dearborn residents speak only English.
Saleh grew up on the east side of town, where Arab identity wasn’t just lived, it was almost assumed.
“Coming from an area like that, everyone is Arab, everyone is Muslim, which is what I am.”
The city is essentially split between east and west: the west side of town is more affluent and white, while the east side of town is home to the Islamic Center of Detroit, the Arab American National Museum, and the largest population of Muslims per capita in the United States.
“When you go up there, it’s like a world inside of a world,” Saleh said. “When they say ‘east’ and ‘west’, it’s like cultural difference, it’s really different.”
“East is where all the Arabs are, and it’s closer to Detroit, and then you have west Dearborn, where it’s a higher population of white people and then like the really rich Arabs and white people. It’s a whole world up there; I wish I could paint a picture of it.”
Perhaps the best way to paint the picture of the city’s divide is the high school rivalry in town. Dearborn High School represents the west side of the city, whereas Fordson High School, Saleh’s alma mater and made up of 96% Arab-ethnicity students, sits on the east side.
Fordson was named for what used to be the village of Fordson, a village which occupied the now-east side of Dearborn before the two incorporated together as a city. The village itself is named for Henry Ford, who defined the legacy of the area in more ways than he could have realized.
Of course, there’s also the more lighthearted topic of Fordson’s nickname: the Tractors and Lady Tractors.
“I can’t vouch for Fordson,” Saleh said with a laugh. “Great coaches, great school, I loved representing it… but the whole tractors on the jersey thing just wasn’t for me.”
Saleh saw success as a Lady Tractor in a variety of sports, lettering in volleyball and track for three years. Midway through high school, though, she began to push herself and pursue playing basketball beyond Fordson.
“With the COVID stuff, I was in a tough place. I was getting recruited by junior colleges, like some small four-year universities, but I had just two years of experience in basketball at the time. Just high school, no AAU, and to make it to this level, [recruits] play [travel-team basketball] and spend so much money.”
Most girls in Arab cultures aren’t encouraged to pursue sports at a high level, and Dearborn is no exception. Once again, though, Saleh’s story is different.
“It’s great that my parents have a different outlook on things. My family is involved with sports. I had a couple of family members who played college football, they’re just big on sports.”
In fact, football fans might recognize the last name Saleh; Diana’s cousin is Robert Saleh, head coach of the NFL’s New York Jets.
In the end, the family’s sporting emphasis was enough to allow Diana the chance to pursue her own athletic dreams.
“Getting my education and having such a great time, [my parents said], ‘You can go,’ but trust me, I called them five times a day.”
At the same time, Saleh is well aware that there could be many more girls at Fordson looking to follow in her footsteps who didn’t have such openings to the world of athletics.
“Looking back, people who are a year younger or two years younger are finally starting to go places. That’s just so great to see because it’s not common amongst Muslim girls. It’s just the culture, the strict culture.”
Teaming up with fellow Lady Tractor and point guard Rana Elhusseini, who also left Dearborn for basketball and plays for Edinboro University, Saleh helped put on a basketball summer camp at Fordson for local girls interested in learning about the game.
“She had an idea to run that summer camp for ages eight-12, and basically, she was trying to give back to the community. She didn’t make any profit on it. Recently with the new rule that you can make money from sports, she didn’t want anything from it. She just wanted to give back to give these girls a chance to play and get better. Me and her could set that for the rest of the girls.”
“It was honestly the most fun thing I’ve done all summer. Seeing all those little kids happy and having more people come in from Michigan, not just from Dearborn, it was great for those little kids.”
Saleh’s younger sister, Dunia, is currently a Lady Tractor, and Saleh gets excited about the prospect of telling younger players about her experience thus far.
“[Young players] think, especially of going away from home and playing a sport somewhere, they’re like, ‘Do you miss your family? How is it like living on campus?’
“Being able to come home and tell these kids, ‘it’s not as bad as you think, you’ll have a blast, you get to explore the world’–because I’m a big believer that you can only grow if you put yourself somewhere that you’re not comfortable–being able to step out and share these experiences to reassure them is great.”
Leaving Dearborn for a new place is one thing; trading a majority Arab population for south Nashville on a Church of Christ-affiliated campus provides a whole new level of challenge–and pushback, as Saleh came to find out.
“I know it was a concern when I was getting recruited. My dad would [ask Lipscomb head coach Lauren Sumski], ‘So, is she going to become Christian after this?’ and [Sumski] was like, ‘No, it’s for educational purposes.'”
After the difficult process of drumming up interest in a player who had only played two years of high school basketball, the scholarship offer from Sumski was one that made Saleh consider attending college in another world.
“I remember getting recruited, and I was looking up pictures of [Nashville] online. It was during COVID, it was a tough year, and the recruitment process was insane. When I came here, it was like, ‘dang, it’s going to take some time to adjust to for sure.'”
It was never going to be easy for Saleh to integrate at Lipscomb, but the leap of faith has been made easier by the people around her.
“Here, I have a bunch of amazing coaches who want to teach me the game and invest in my growth. So I fell in love with the school, the coaches and what they were telling me. They asked what my interests were, and I liked how they got to know us on a deeper level as people, not just what we can do on the court. That sold it for sure.
“They still treat us like people. At most schools, it’s hard to find that.”
When it comes to being a student on campus, Saleh’s experience is mostly the same: there are challenges, but the people around her help make them worthwhile.
“In the classroom, especially, where all the Bible stuff and all that happens, it’s so interesting to learn about all those things. People who meet me always have a bunch of questions about my background, they always assume my race. They’re like, ‘so what are you, what are your beliefs?’ It’s just back-and-forth conversations.
“I’m glad I can educate people in a way, and I’m being educated in return. I can definitely say I grew as a person from all of that.”
While she bridges knowledge gaps among students on campus between two worlds, Saleh is also finding out exactly where she fits in the midst of the two, especially when she travels back and forth between Dearborn and Nashville.
“It’s such a big difference from here to there. The real time where I get to become my true self is in the summer because we go home for a whole month. My family tells me, ‘you look so different, you feel so different,’ and when I come back here, everyone’s like, ‘yeah, you’re definitely Arab again.’ It’s crazy, it’s interesting.”
In basketball terms, Saleh’s time at Lipscomb has been no less strenuous and intensive.
By her own admission, Saleh’s first year on campus brought difficulty on the court, especially behind 2017 McDonald’s All-American selection Dorie Harrison. Over the course of the 2020-21 season, Saleh recorded just seven points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes.
“Last year was a really tough year for me. Dorie [Harrison] came from a Power Five school (the Kentucky Wildcats of the SEC), she’s a high-level player, and having that level of talent [in front of you] is hard.
“Last year when I came in, I didn’t even know that a travel was part of basketball, basically. It was a big thing, like, just learning how to play basketball, even learning how to sprint.”
Again, the influence of her coaches motivated her in a difficult opening year on the floor. Instead of redshirting Saleh in her freshman season, Coach Sumski chose to give Saleh playing time in 11 games in 2020-21.
“Over the course of the year, LA would tell me to be a sponge, basically absorb as much information as I can and apply it. At the end of the year, she told me that that summer, I should have the biggest offseason, so I just continued working right from the end of the season up until now.”
Chris Sumski, Lauren’s assistant coach and husband, has earned Saleh’s appreciation for how accessible he is to her as she develops. In practices and pre-game warmups, it is common to see the two working individually on shooting, scoring in the post, and rebounding while no one else is on the court.
“Chris–I’ve never seen a coach that will be in the gym literally anytime. I’ll be like, ‘Chris, are you gonna be here at 6 a.m.?’ and he’ll be like, ‘yes, we can work out.’ Even on off days, we’d come back from super long trips, and we’d be in the gym the same day.”
“I honestly couldn’t be more grateful for the coaching staff. I don’t think there was ever a moment where they let me talk negative to myself, which is something I’ve been working on. One of my goals is to get rid of the negative self-talk, so they wouldn’t let me do that.
“Sometimes I can recall some moments where I’m like, ‘I suck at basketball,’ and Chris’ll be like, ‘no you don’t.’ It’s so simple, and it’s just like building up my confidence.”
Saleh has seen a significant rise in minutes and productivity in her second year with the Bisons’ women’s basketball program.
“Now, I can actually get on the court and get some reps, but I’m glad I have the teammates that I have that are so talented, especially in my position, that can push me to be a better player. I couldn’t do it without them.”
With a recent ankle injury relegating Harrison to the scorers’ table (she has quite literally assumed the role of clock operator in practices), Saleh says it’s Harrison herself who has set Saleh up to show how much improvement she has made since stepping foot in Nashville.
“Honestly, it’s the way that [Harrison] makes decisions and the way that she’s patient. Especially in the position that we play, having to be so physical and run all the time at such a fast speed, she’s a great role model. I couldn’t ask for a better teammate who could teach me all these things.”
On January 17, Saleh stepped up in the Bisons’ first ASUN Conference win of the year, scoring six points on 3-4 shooting in 18 minutes for Lipscomb against Central Arkansas.
Remember those seven points and seven rebounds she accrued last season? Saleh has already beaten those numbers in individual games this year. She brought in eight rebounds in a win over Shorter in November, then followed that up with a career-high 10 points against Tennessee Wesleyan in December.
As of now, the movie script of Saleh’s life has a happy ending. Saleh is seeing her most minutes yet on the court, Fordson just beat Dearborn on a three-point buzzer-beater on Jan. 21, and Rana was named conference player of the week for Edinboro the week before.
The plot is still developing, of course.
“I just want to continue growing as a person. I feel like I’m always going to have growing to do. Everyone has growing to do. It’s just making sure I actually grow and not ever being complacent with where I am, especially on the court, mastering my position and even expanding my game as much as I can throughout these next two to three years I have left.”
There is one expansion opportunity that remains off the table for now: “I will never be allowed to take a three-point shot; maybe not this year, maybe not next year. Maybe my senior year I might be able to take one!”
Saleh is also developing plans to become a nurse after she graduates, and she’s adamant she won’t be practicing in Dearborn.
“Oh no, no no no no no,” Saleh said about returning to the city that raised her. “I told my parents, we get into it every single day. I tell them I’m not going back home, but I plan on being a nurse; I’m a nursing major. I just always had a passion for the medical field.
“I got my Certified Pharmacy Technician license before I could even use it for a job when I was 17. I’m glad I did that, that I could prove it to myself that I can do this.”
How does she balance nursing and basketball at the same time?
“I’m trying to figure myself out, too,” Saleh said with a smile. “It’s not impossible, I can do it. There’s nothing you really can’t do with just some discipline and focus, that’s it.”
It’s difficult to imagine rooting against Saleh in basketball or in life, and Saleh will be one of the first to mention how many people have helped her get to where she is now. At the same time, though, it feels as though it hardly matters if anyone else believes in her.
Diana Saleh believes in herself, and that alone has her reaching new heights in 2022.
Photo courtesy of Lipscomb Athletics