The occasion was the Ball Above All Elite League final between Dolphins and Vipers, but the championship stakes were secondary to what was celebrated in the bigger picture – the best players and highest quality of accessible basketball in the region.
The basketball scene in Dubai is a multifaceted one that caters to different ethnicities and backgrounds. Want to play with fellow Filipinos or Indians? There are plenty of outdoor courts throughout the city, as well as local tournaments that have what you’re looking for.
But there’s only one league that consolidates all the talent around and showcases the best the sport has to offer in Dubai: Ball Above All’s Elite division.
Australia-born Lebanese Belal Abiad started Ball Above All in 2002 Down Under before bringing it to the UAE in 2013. The Elite League started a year later and since then it’s provided a single home for long-standing squads that had previously been spread out among various leagues and tournaments.
“There was only one league happening at the time called the AMW. Everyone in that tournament is basically all the same teams you see now,” said Rafiq Shabib, who started Vipers in 2009.
“It’s in one place, but in a good way though. It connects.”
Kamil Kapkaev, whose family own Dubai Dolphinarium and began the team in 2010, said: “Ball Above All offers better organisation, refs are better and everything is better. It’s now the top league for expats.”
From amateurs to former professionals who’ve represented their national teams, the standard of play, competition and reputation of the league is second to none.
The final provided all the evidence needed to back that up.
A packed crowd filled the stands at Raffles World Academy’s gymnasium on Monday night to witness the Dolphins defend their crown in a thrilling championship finale.
A one-sided result appeared imminent after Dolphins dominated at the start on the strength of their suffocating zone defence, but Vipers sprung in the second half to erase a 10-point deficit and improbably take a two-point lead.
Dolphins ultimately reclaimed the lead and held on to repeat with a 62-60 win when a Vipers 3-pointer in the final seconds hit iron.
“It wasn’t easy,” said the 33-year-old Kapkaev. “We knew it wouldn’t be against Vipers becuase we didn’t play against them in the season, so we didn’t know what to expect.”
Vipers fell short, but they’ll look to defend their own title in the Sole DXB Ball Above Classic this weekend.
The team consists of player who’ve known each other from their university days and from local parks. They also have three players who’ve played professionally in Syria – Rami Khatib, Omar Karkoukli and Mouheiddine Kassabelli.
Professionals, however, aren’t exclusive to Ball Above All. As little as may be known about the UAE Basketball Association, it still features former NBA players at local clubs like Al Wasl and Al Ahli.
But aside from a handful of names, the talent level of the clubs isn’t all that superior to the best teams in Ball Above All, according to Shabib.
“We (Vipers) usually run practices against clubs here twice or once a week. We lose some and we win some,” said the 26-year-old, originally from Jordan. “Any of the last four teams in the semi-finals and finals can easily compete with the professional clubs here and they’ve been doing that.”
Kapkaev added: “I don’t know how the professional clubs would do if they played in Ball Above All, but I think they would be in the top four or five. It would still be competitive.”
The difference, of course, is that the teams in Ball Above All don’t get paid to play. The players have day jobs and fairly common lives, but that only further serves to make the league accessible to everyone.
It’s a real community of people who know each other and even when they aren’t competing in games or pick-up, they have forged friendships and relationships off the court. “At the end of the day, you don’t get paid for this,” said Shabib. “Everyone, every single player, they do it for the love of the game.”