UAE national basketball team building with new, speedy generation

The UAE national basketball team is utilising a fast-paced system installed by coach Zoran Zupcevic to even the playing field against bigger opponents, as evidenced at last week's Dubai International Basketball Tournament.

Talal Salem, at 25 years old, is one of the more senior members of the transitioning UAE national basketball team. Satish Kumar / The National
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The first thing that sticks out about the UAE national basketball team – perhaps unfairly – is that they just are not very tall.

Once they get on the court and start to play, though, the second thing that sticks out is that they run so fast it does not seem to matter.

Over the weekend, UAE basketball completed their best run at the Dubai International Basketball Tournament in the competition’s 25-year history, reaching the semi-finals.

They won three and lost three during the seven-team group play round, finishing with a plus-6 point differential and registering wins over two Libyan clubs and a Jordanian side.

Then they fought the Egyptian national team (who won the tournament) to a one-point loss in overtime in the semis, and lost the third-place game by just two points to an American club team.

It wasn’t a bad result for a group of players who generally top out around 6ft 4ins (1.93m) or 6ft 5ins.

How they did it wasn’t entirely unconventional, but it is a little bit uncommon. They run, and run, and then run some more.

They run so much, in fact, that they don’t even so much play transition basketball – the normal term for a fast-paced style – because they don’t really transition. It seems like on half their possessions, a defensive rebound on one end is followed almost instantaneously by a shot on the other.

“We are playing enjoyable basketball,” said UAE coach Zoran Zupcevic, a Bosnia-Herzegovina native. “Everybody told me (during the tournament) – nobody talk with me about the score – they are saying, ‘Coach we are enjoying watching you play.’ And that is what it’s all about. Honestly, I’m sick and tired of boring basketball. Of course you have to put some restrictions, because sometimes you even have to win, but I think we are on the right path.”

It’s a pragmatic – and aesthetically pleasing – approach toward developing the next generation of UAE players. Most of the team – all Emirates-born and raised – now range between 22-26 years old, and in whole the UAE are unrecognisable from the 2011 squad that went to the second round at the Fiba Asia Championship and placed 10th overall, which Zupcevic said was their best finish since the 1980s.

Before the Dubai tournament, he said they had just six practices together as a team. But despite their lack of size and inexperience as a unit, they found some cohesion in Dubai, especially when they ran around the relative giants of Egypt and very nearly shocked them.

Talal Salem (25, 5ft 11ins), a sure-handed guard with a nice mid-range jumper, and Qais Omar (22), a bruising 6ft 5ins forward with good touch around the basket, were a couple of the UAE standouts in Dubai. Mubarak Khalifa (6ft), a quick, active guard who’s just 19, Saleh Sultan (24, 5ft 9ins), another solid guard in the Salem mold and Khaled Khalifa (21, 6ft 4ins), a small forward with a strong outside shot, also shined.

The Dubai tournament provided a nice arena for the team to come together, said Khaled Khalifa.

“This competition is good for us to take advantage of and learn from these big guys. UAE national team is a short team but we are learning and taking this experience from these guys,” he said. “Especially the American team, the Egypt national team – they gonna play at the next World Cup. So it’s good to play close games, good for us to be learning.”

Zupcevic said he’s trying to build this system, this style of play, in a fashion so that the talent – which is hard to come by in the UAE, as youth flock to football, and basketball competes with volleyball and handball for numbers – can flow in and out while the programme as a whole remains strong,

“The most important thing is they want to be here, they want to listen and they give you 200 per cent, and for me the story is finished,” said Zupcevic. “We are at stage where we are trying to create environment, and team, which is not going to depend on one guy, because in past that stage wasn’t very successful. Where all of them will be important, and if we are able to establish that we are gonna be good.”

Maintaining that system is doubly important to the health of the UAE national programme because the domestic league – contested between basketball sides backed by the more well-known football clubs Al Wasl, Al Nasr, Al Ahli (who hosted the Dubai tournament), Al Shabab, Al Sharjah, Al Shaab, Baniyas and Al Jazira – provides a pipeline for only about 100 senior players in the country, by Zupcevic’s estimate.

A player must be brought into the fold early, and then held onto.

“We are not in position to lose one kid per one generation, which means – it goes not only to the federation, it goes to all the clubs – we have to make sure that we don’t lose that one kid ever,” he said. “Unless we create that environment, basketball is Mickey Mouse, it’s secondary. Those players know it, they respect it and they get what we can give them, because if somebody thinks that some big money is involved in this, it’s not.

“Basically they play the sport because they love the sport. They play for national team because they love to represent their own country.”

The team is now looking ahead, in particular, to a GCC tournament being held in Saudi Arabia in September. The Fiba Under-17 World Championships will also be held in Dubai from June 28-July 6, giving Zupcevic a chance to scout future talent to incorporate into the programme.

Then the next Fiba Asia Championships will happen in September 2015 (site yet unannounced), where they could get a chance to really prove that faster, not bigger, is better.