Jr NBA Abu Dhabi is a sporting example of community effort

Volunteer coaches and supportive parents help to realise the dreams of hundreds of budding basketball players

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The first Jr NBA season, beginning in Abu Dhabi in March, played host to Olympic gold medallist Clyde Drexler at the opening ceremony, while on May 28 seven-times NBA champion Robert Horry met young players and presented awards at the closing ceremony.

The juniors league, the result of a collaboration between the National Basketball Association and the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi, provided an opportunity for 450 boys and girls from schools across the emirate to practise and compete.

“I want to pinch myself, being here with the NBA with a legend like Clyde Drexler,” Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi, told the students at the draft event. “And I wasn’t as lucky as many of you. I didn’t have coaches.”

It was heartening to hear Al Mubarak acknowledge — in the same breath as referring to high-profile players — the crucial role that coaching volunteers from the local community played in the lives of these basketballers and their contribution to making the inaugural season of Jr NBA a success.

Beyond the call of duty

Basketball enthusiast Levent Edepli is a career support programme manager at NYU Abu Dhabi. He has also been volunteering as an assistant basketball coach since 2016, with his team winning the Abu Dhabi Intercollegiate League every year since he joined.

Volunteer coach Levent Edepli with one of the basketball players he mentored for Jr NBA Abu Dhabi. Photo: sport360 / DCT Abu Dhabi

Edepli also coaches the middle school team at the American Community School, where he’s a parent, and is working to develop a year-round basketball programme at ACS.

And so, coaching the Jr NBA on behalf of the school was a natural fit, even if his role was unexpectedly expanded.

“A few days before the tournament, organisers asked me if I could split my roster into two teams because of another school dropping out. I agreed. To do that, I filled the additional spots with other students who haven’t played with us before, but were interested in learning. That gave us an opportunity to expose more students to the game of basketball,” he says.

Currently, Edepli coaches three Jr NBA teams (two for boys and one for girls): the Detroit Pistons, Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs.

By any means necessary

Walter Clarke Jr is an English teacher at Raha International School, where he coaches the U14 boys’ basketball team.

Clarke has also been a youth basketball coach for 20 years, dating to his time teaching in the US. He’s led the Taaleem Titans, a travel squad composed of players from all Taaleem schools in the UAE, to victory in Sweden and Poland, where the team finished in second and third place respectively.

Clarke volunteered to coach Raha’s Jr NBA team without hesitation and despite many obstacles.

Walter Clarke, an English teacher at Raha International School, motivating the Suns in the team huddle. Photo: sport360 / DCT Abu Dhabi

“Because of Covid-19, interschool competitions were restricted. Therefore, I established an intramural basketball league that featured more than 70 students. This allowed me to see all of the basketball players on our campus.

“I then invited players to try out, if they seemed like a possible fit for the Jr NBA level of competition,” Clarke says.

He even held tryouts and early practices at the outdoor basketball courts in his own neighbourhood to avoid any delays in establishing the team that is now known as the Phoenix Suns.

Both Edepli and Clarke completed the regular season and advanced to the playoffs with undefeated teams.

The Suns and the Trail Blazers battled it out for the top spot in what was the most exciting match-up of the season. The crowd roared as the Suns led most of the way, but ultimately, the Trailblazers pulled ahead in the fourth quarter, clenching the win and beautiful, gold championship rings.

The Portland Trail Blazers have emerged as this year’s kings of court, while the San Antonio Spurs hold the crown for the girls’ competition.

Parental support goes a long way

Parents have come out in support of their budding basketball players from the outset. Photo: sport360 / DCT Abu Dhabi

While coaches are the cornerstone of any good team, Clarke contends that accountability and parental support are equally responsible for a player and team’s success.

“Parental support has been key. We have practised and scrimmaged at more than four or five different courts throughout the city. Our parents even allowed their children to practise during Ramadan and Eid,” he says.

Parents have certainly clocked more hours behind the wheel, driving kids to and from games.

“Having a son and a daughter competing for two separate Jr NBA teams has doubled my driving duties,” says ACS parent Brian Dean.

Dean, a recreational basketball player, also spends time helping his young athletes improve their game.

“I get both of my kids to play with me as much as a possible, whether it's just shooting around or a game of one-on-one. Another father and I play three-on-three with boys from the Jr NBA team on a regular basis in our compound.”

Dean is happy to support his children’s hoop dreams as he feels participating in the Jr NBA will give them a real taste of what it’s like to play in a competitive basketball league. He is pleased with the Jr NBA Abu Dhabi programme as well.

“I've been super-impressed. The opening day, when Clyde Drexler came out and spoke to the kids, was pretty special. The league seems to be well organised and everyone running it is very friendly,” Dean says.

One of those friendly faces is Ahmed Elsadiq Elkhalifa Ahmed, a former basketball player for Abu Dhabi University. Ahmed helps to organise and run games on tournament days and, like Edepli and Clarke, he’s happy to do it.

“For me, it has been nothing but a fun experience so far, and I will recommend it to anyone with a passion for basketball,” Ahmed says.

“If the opportunity comes again next year, I will volunteer without hesitation as I loved seeing young boys and girls have a passion for the game of basketball, and bring effort and hard work to the court.”

The Jr NBA Abu Dhabi League is part of a multi-year partnership between the NBA and DCT Abu Dhabi that will lead to the UAE capital hosting the first pre-season NBA games in the Arabian Gulf in October 2022. Learn more at nbaevents.nba.com

Updated: June 02, 2022, 4:55 AM