UAE ready to take a few notes from future basketball stars

Leading high school basketball teams from the United States are in attendance at the MPAC Elite International Tournament in Dubai to help accelerate growth of the game in the UAE, writes Paul Radley.

Having scored 62 points in two games and with a future in the NBA apparently a realistic ambition, Marquez Letcher-Ellis clearly knows his way around a basketball court.

Yet the forward from Montverde Academy in Florida still struggled to find his co-ordinates early in his high school team’s game against one of Chicago’s finest prep programmes.

When the referee ruled that Letcher-Ellis stepped out of bounds in the opening minutes of the game against Simeon Academy of Chicago – the alma mater of Derrick Rose, the NBA’s most-valuable player in 2011 – he was nonplussed. The look on his face said: “Well, where are the lines, then?”

Four prominent US high school basketball teams have come to Dubai to play this week in an attempt by national officials to grow interest and participation in the game within the region, and erasing some of the global sport’s hazier borders is what the event is all about.

Yet if the aspiring NBA stars were in any doubt that their sport is not the only show in town, or that basketball still needs to establish a foothold, then one look at the court markings at the host venue at Al Shabab Club in Al Mamzar proved it.

The multipurpose court is used for several sports and the most opaque markings in Al Shabab’s trademark green paint are just past the baseline, covering the penalty area of a handball court.

The basketball lines are thin and less vivid than the markings for volleyball and other sports. Underfoot, it underscored how basketball here must compete with a great many other distractions.

That is the main reason the organisers of the MPAC Elite International Tournament imported four “juggernauts of the US” to compete.

Ahmad Zahdan, the chief operating officer of MPAC, said the sport needs a boost in the region.

“Basketball is a rapidly growing sport,” Zahdan said. “It is massively popular, the fastest-growing sport in the Middle East and, what is great about it is, it is an indoor sport. Unlike football, which you can’t really play too much during the summer.”

MPAC run 49 basketball academies across Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Sharjah, with the next planned to open in Ras Al Khaimah in September. A side composed of their leading academy players are the fifth team in the competition and is being pitted against some of the best young talent from the US.

“What we wanted to do with this tournament is showcase to the rest of the world that there is basketball talent outside of the US,” Zahdan said.

“What kids in this region are used to is going to camps in the States and Europe.

“So we thought, why not host our own tournament and bring the juggernauts of the US here and have them play against the best players from the region?

“They are here, our kids are playing against them, competing against them, and it has been great.”

It has clearly been an eye-opener for the tourists, too. MPAC’s representative team have struggled on the court, while the conditions have been fairly alien for the American players. Not just the sight of Dubai’s towering skyscrapers, either.

Playing before largely empty seats has been a novel experience.

“When your schools are behind you, you usually get very good crowds,” said Kevin Boyle, the coach of the Montverde team. “We played in front of 10,000 people in a high-school tournament in Missouri last year.

“It is not unusual to get 1,000 to 3,000 people for a game, so this is definitely unusual for the guys.”

Boyle likens the task of spreading the word about basketball in the Middle East to that facing the US in relation to football. The evidence of the 2-1 win over Ghana in the Americans’ World Cup opener just goes to show it can be done.

“I think the idea has been to get the attention of the youth here focused on basketball – much like in America when we tried to do that with soccer,” Boyle said.

“They want to grow the interest in the sport here and that takes time. If you saw in the World Cup, the US has made some progress in soccer.

“Just about everywhere, other than America, soccer is massive. Dubai has a big international base with people from a lot of difference countries, so there is no reason they can’t have a lot of good basketball players here.”

Developing talent aside, selling the game could be a challenge. Buying a ticket for a sports match – even in the most popular pastime, football – is an idea that has yet to take solid root in the UAE.

“Our gym is always sold out and a lot of times we have to move to a college arena to play,” said Robert Smith, the Simeon coach, who put Rose on the path to the Chicago Bulls and NBA stardom. “This is just a great opportunity and, really, we play basketball to play basketball, not for the fans.

“This is a little bit different, because even in the summer leagues, we usually have a pretty big crowd.

“Some of the parents have made the trip and this is just a good chance to represent the school and represent the city.”

The tournament’s costs have been taken on by MPAC, with assistance from the Dubai Sports Council.

Staging an elite competition was the vision of Luqman Rashad, a former player of repute in Chicago who is the founder and executive director of MPAC.

“We are thrilled we have been able to pull off this historic event by hosting the top players from America and are equally thrilled about gathering the top talent from the Mena region to join us in Dubai,” Rashad said.

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