The NBA says it was determined to bring the “best of the best” to mark the beginning of its multi-year partnership with Abu Dhabi, after announcing on Tuesday reigning champions Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks will later this year contest the first NBA Abu Dhabi Games.
The rival teams, who faced one another in last year's Eastern Conference finals, will meet across two pre-season games, on October 6 and 8 at Etihad Arena on Yas Island.
Part of a long-term agreement signed in November with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, it marks the league’s first matches in the Gulf.
The Bucks are defending NBA champions having last year captured their second championship and first in 50 years. They defeated the Hawks en route to the title.
Speaking to The National following Tuesday’s announcement, the NBA’s Europe and Middle East managing director, Ralph Rivera, said: “We want to make a great first impression and bringing the best of the best is the way to do that.
“You don’t get better than the reigning NBA champions and the Atlanta Hawks, who fought them in the Eastern Conference final, and iconic players like Giannis Antetokounmpo - two-time MVP, finals MVP - and Trae Young, who led the league in total points and assists – the first time that’s been done in over 40 years.
“So iconic players, great teams, great experience overall. That’s the sort of impact we’re going to have when they’re here October 6 and 8."
The partnership with Abu Dhabi is to include interactive fan events featuring current and former NBA players, a series of NBA Fit clinics, and an NBA 2K League exhibition event at Middle East Film & Comic Con.
Meanwhile, the first Junior NBA Abu Dhabi League launched earlier this year, featuring 450 children aged between 11-14 from local schools across Abu Dhabi.
"It goes beyond the games," Rivera said. "All throughout that week in October we’re going to be out in the community having a positive impact there as well.
“It was important for us to start strong, but also to lay foundations and build up. So, for me, the games are that shiny thing that everybody is super excited about and, using a different sport analogy, we’re going to hit it out of the ballpark.
"Also what we’re doing with our Junior NBA leagues for boys and girls, where we have the Junior NBA Finals coming up at the end of the month, that lays the foundation. It also has tremendous impact and will leave legacy.
“For me, quite frankly over time that will be the most important [strand of the partnership]. Because I do believe that the impacts we have on youth and bringing youth together in the community through basketball, that is a lifelong mission. The games drive the excitement as a catalyst to then have that impact in the community.”
Rivera described the interest in NBA within the region as “tremendous”, saying there are 3 million NBA fans in the UAE alone.
“Globally, less than one per cent of fans actually make it into an arena,” he added. “So bringing the games here and having some of those fans experiencing that is priceless.”
Rivera said one of the principal objectives of the agreement with Abu Dhabi is to eventually have an Emirati playing in the NBA.
Asked how attainable that is, he said: “The game now is as much or more about skill as it is about height. So, with the activities that we’re doing to spark the interest, to then bringing in the capabilities around basketball development at grassroots levels and elite level, then we develop that. It takes a while, but we develop it.
“What I love about the UAE is it is fuelled by ambition and by vision. Nothing is impossible; you just have to work hard to do it. That’s no different in terms of aspiring to be an NBA player.”
On whether Abu Dhabi could in future host regular-season games, Rivera added: “It’s very difficult during the year because of the logistics. Unlike, let’s say, American football that plays once a week, our teams play three times a week. So, managing the logistics of coming over, playing, coming back, adjusting to time zones, is difficult during the regular season.
“But again, not impossible. There are potential ways to do that, and we’ll see if we can make it happen.”
DCT-Abu Dhabi director general, Saleh Mohamed Al Geziry, added: “We are thrilled to be hosting the UAE’s first NBA games in Abu Dhabi and look forward to welcoming the Atlanta Hawks, the Milwaukee Bucks and basketball fans from across the world to discover this incredible city and experience our authentic Emirati culture for themselves.
“Bringing the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks to Abu Dhabi in October is an important milestone in the NBA and basketball’s global growth.”