NBA in Abu Dhabi: global fans in the UAE share why they love basketball's biggest league

Reigning champions Milwaukee Bucks face off against Atlanta Hawks in two pre-season games at Etihad Arena

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For basketball fans in the UAE, it doesn’t get any bigger than the NBA.

The announcement of a multi-year partnership between the American basketball league and the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi brought joy to many fans in the UAE. The first games as part of the new deal will pit the 2021 NBA champions Milwaukee Bucks against the Atlanta Hawks in two pre-season ties at Etihad Arena on Yas Island this week.

John Gil Aposaga, 26, from Bacolod City, Philippines, has been a fan of the NBA since he was 12, when he would watch French basketball star Tony Parker play for the San Antonio Spurs. These days, he enjoys watching Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets, citing Irving's ball control and mentality on the court.

Aposaga is also a point guard like Irving and Parker. He plays for Team Tambay in an amateur league in Abu Dhabi almost every day after work.

“I started playing basketball when I was 8 years old,” he says. “The NBA is the most famous league in the world, especially in the Philippines.”

When he first heard that the league was coming, he was excited for the opportunity to see some of his favourite players, although he won't be able to make the NBA games this time around. “Thank you for the opportunity to hold games here in UAE. Please continue a world tour like this,” says Aposaga. “Many people can't afford to go to the US and watch the NBA live. It's a dream come true to those ballers out there.”

John Gil Aposaga takes a shot during an amateur basketball game. Photo: Alan Su

Meanwhile, Dubai resident Harry Constantino, 31, who is from Pagadian City, Philippines, shares the same enthusiasm.

“In the Philippines, we love basketball. We watch everything from our local leagues to international pro leagues,” he says. “I was hooked to the NBA when I saw Kobe Bryant playing.”

Like Aposaga, he continues playing the sport when he has free time, often joining Filipino and invitation leagues, playing as a shooting guard or forward depending on what a team needs. He says he is already impressed with the partnership between the two sides.

“They are doing a really great job. They are bringing the players here that we look up to,” he says. “From what I see, even before [the deal], basketball in the UAE is starting to grow. They are already organising invitational leagues and starting to bring international players into their local leagues as their reinforcements to begin with.

“Bringing the NBA games here will definitely boost basketball’s popularity.”

However, it isn’t only the Philippines that has fans ready to celebrate the NBA in the UAE. Jinshuo Ma, from China, lives and works in Abu Dhabi. He studied Arabic at the University of Sharjah and goes by the Arabic name Khaldun.

With the NBA investing in its brand internationally, including in China, it's not a surprise that Ma is a fan. ESPN has valued NBA China at approximately $5 billion.

Ma says he's been a fan for more than five years with Derrick Rose his favourite player. He also played basketball recreationally in Sharjah for the university team as a point guard.

NBA fandom isn't just centred on male fans. Karen Cano, 26, and her friend Luciana Redi, 25, from Argentina, currently live in Abu Dhabi and were at the opening day of NBA District at Manarat Al Saadiyat, an event that Cano described as “amazing”.

Karen Cano, left, and Luciana Redi at NBA District at Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi. Evelyn Lau / The National

She became a fan during the pandemic, citing family influence, as her three older brothers are followers of the sport. “I was really excited when I heard the news that basketball is coming to Abu Dhabi,” Cano says.

While she a huge fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, her favourite player is Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan.

Zack Rawlings, 36, came to the fan zone with his wife Auriel and young son Colin. The American family have lived in the capital since 2017 and although the time difference makes it difficult to watch games live, Rawlings says that if you have a love for something, you’ll make the effort for it.

Like Cano, he names Jordan as the player that helped him fall in love with the sport. When he heard that the league was coming to Abu Dhabi, he wasted little time in securing a spot for the family.

“Immediately I went on Ticketmaster, looking for tickets. I just searched the web to see if anything was out,” he says. “As soon as I heard about it, I was amped and ready to go. I miss going to the games.”

"This is a great facility they picked out here. How they've got it set up is wonderful, there are things to do for the family and the kids. If anything, if the NBA is coming here, I think they should probably do heavier promotion when they come because they'll get the crowd.. And, we've got a brand new arena. So we're Abu Dhabi ready for them so you know, bring on the teams."

Scroll through the gallery below to see images from NBA District at Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi

Updated: October 07, 2022, 5:10 AM