Just days from potentially making the most important decision of his NBA career, Mason Plumlee isn’t holed up with his agent, weighing financial pros and cons or preferred destinations.
He’s in fact doing the opposite, spending his days in a gym in the middle of nowhere, all the way across the world, with kids who likely have never heard his name – not because Plumlee is a fringe NBA player, but because basketball still has a considerable distance to go in terms of participation and following in the UAE.
Yet here’s Plumlee, hosting a basketball camp in collaboration with Duplays and East Sports Management at GEMS Wellington Al Khail, despite the NBA’s free agency period beginning on Saturday.
For the first time in his career, the 27-year-old will be a free agent, albeit a restricted one whose rights are still held by the incumbent Denver Nuggets.
Business, however, appears to be far from Plumlee’s mind as the 6’11” big man towers over a group of kids aged eight to 16, leading them through various drills and mini-games at his camp, which concludes with its second and final day today.
This isn’t the first time Plumlee has visited Dubai. Back in 2011, as a fresh-faced 21-year-old, he made the trip with Duke University to take on the UAE national team.
Six years later, he’s noticed basketball’s slow, but steady development in the region.
“I’ll tell you what, at the grassroots level it’s a lot better than I expected,” Plumlee tells Sport360°. “I know we played the national team when I came with Duke University, but the kids here are very good and they love the game, so it’s fun to have a camp with them.
“I think there’s no limit. The biggest thing is you have to get the kids playing and you have to give them instructions and fundamentals. As the game grows – the NBA has grown the game in a lot of other countries – I think this area is next on that list.
“If you can teach the game at a young age, then they can improve upon what they’ve learned.”
That’s the exact aim of Plumlee’s camp. The kids learn how to dribble, pass, take layups and other basic skills that serve as the foundation for any advanced training.
As educational as it is, the children have more than their fair share of fun, at times going at Plumlee before learning a lesson that many guards in the NBA can relate to – challenging a 7-footer is easier said than done.
Eight-year-old Maya Bitar had the right idea, figuring out how “to get closer to the net to shoot”, while her friend, Zuhair Abu Aysha, also aged eight, described his favourite part as “learning how to do the shots and passing”.
Abu Aysha typically participates in taekwondo and swimming, but after spending four hours on the court with an NBA player, he says he’ll now play more basketball.
That’s Plumlee’s ambition at the end of the day – a greater love and appreciation for the game. That’s also something the NBA want, with the league potentially bring an exhibition game to Dubai in two to three years, according to Ben Morel, senior vice president and managing director of Europe, Middle East and Africa (MENA).
“I think it would be great for the area and great for the game,” Plumlee says of the prospect. “If you can see the premium product, which is the NBA – it’s the best league in the world – if it has the chance to come here I think fans would turn out and I think we’d get a lot of good feedback from the people here if they’re able to see the game.”
That’s something to think about for another day, as is a new contract for Plumlee.
For now, a giant among children is happy to share his own passion, with the hope it’s contagious.
Six years after visiting Dubai with the Duke Blue Devils, NBA player Mason Plumlee is set to return to the emirate to host a basketball camp for children.
Plumlee has teamed up with Duplays and East Sports Management to lead a two-day camp for youth players aged eight to 16 at GEMS Wellington Al Khail from June 27-28.
Participants will be trained by Plumlee, as well as by recent college basketball stars, including members from the 2016 NCAA champion Villanova Wildcats, along with staff from Kobe Bryant Academy.
“I’m very excited to return to Dubai – I was there a few years ago [in 2011] during a college team trip with Duke and have wanted to come back ever since,” Plumlee told Sport360°.
“The goal of the visit is to share my passion for basketball with kids and spend time exploring one of the world’s great cities. I love travelling and experiencing other places and cultures.
“Playing basketball has made a lot of this possible and I want kids in Dubai to know that it’s a sport that can open doors whether they play in the NBA or not.”
Plumlee was part of Duke’s national championship team in 2010 before being selected No22 overall in the 2013 NBA draft by Brooklyn.
During his time with the Nets, he made the NBA All-Rookie First Team and won a gold medal in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup as a member of the United States national team.
Plumlee was traded to Portland in the summer of 2015 and spent all of the following season and 54 games this past campaign with the Trail Blazers before being shipped to Denver as part of the Jusuf Nurkic trade.
With his contract now up, the 27-year-old is a free agent. Though free agency is fast approaching on July 1, Plumlee is using his trip to Dubai to focus on growing the game and giving kids a valuable coaching experience.
“Once kids have exposure to playing the game and realise how fun it can be, they’ll be hooked. Structured programmes are great, but unstructured opportunities are equally important,” Plumlee said.
“In the US you’ll find pick-up basketball being played in driveways, public parks, street corners – pretty much everywhere.
“Basketball doesn’t require a great deal of expense or a lot of space. You just need a ball and a hoop. Of course, it’s also important to have coaches, mentors and role models who can teach the basic skills and share their love for the game. That’s part of the reason I’m excited to come to Dubai.”
Kids who take part in Plumlee’s camp will have the chance to get an autograph and picture with him, as well the opportunity to walk away with prizes.
The camp runs from 14:00 to 18:00 on both days, with the cost Dh750 per person. To sign up, visit duplaysdubai.playpass.com.
Already larger than life, the height of Mighty Sports’ tallest player was amplified by the relatively short Filipino team-mates surrounding him. If the 7-foot-3 giant looked like an NBA player, that’s because he once was.
Second overall NBA draft picks aren’t supposed to be found toiling away in a Dubai gym on a February night, playing in front of hundreds rather than thousands. But here was Hasheem Thabeet, clinging to the game and a chance to return to the highest level by showing what he could do at the Dubai International Basketball Championship.
The 30-year-old didn’t need to be there. Who knows if it even helped his cause of making a comeback to the NBA. Mighty Sports didn’t win the week-long tournament, which concluded with Moroccan club Sale lifting the trophy this past Saturday, and Thabeet, as one of multiple American imports for the Filipino side, played sparingly.
But because he had nothing to lose, there he was, getting game reps and reminding anyone who mattered that his passion for basketball remains, even if it isn’t reciprocated.
“They called me. They told me to come over to play in Dubai,” Thabeet told Sport360°.
“I was home training, in free agency. I was like ‘okay, I’ll come and participate instead of being home, doing nothing’.”
So how did Thabeet get here?
As a 15-year-old in his native Tanzania, he picked up a basketball for the first time. Experience hardly matters when you’re tall enough to tower above your peers, so Thabeet quickly found himself on the national stage at the University of Connecticut, leveraging his size to become a dominant paint presence.
He played well enough that when he entered the 2009 draft, only Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin was selected ahead of him, while the Memphis Grizzlies took Thabeet before superstars James Harden (three), Stephen Curry (seven) and DeMar DeRozan (nine).
Thabeet played all of 224 games with four teams across the next five seasons before being out of the league. Many consider him a ‘bust’ and Thabeet understandably seems sick of hearing the word, but he’s not wrong in saying he never asked for the expectations.
“Who labels me a bust? What do they do for a living?” Thabeet asked until he coaxed the answer he was looking for. “It takes a basketball player to understand what I’m going through. I didn’t say ‘hey, I want you to draft me number two’.
“I didn’t want that. It happened, that was my opportunity, God blessed me to get drafted. There are a whole lot of people who’ve been playing basketball their whole life. Some of them make the NBA. I started playing basketball at 15, 16 and I made it to the NBA.
“So whoever has something to say, tell them to make it to the NBA and then talk.”
Thabeet speaks about his journey as if it’s not reached its conclusion. He may have just entered his 30s this month, but he points to 40-year-old Vince Carter still playing as proof his age won’t deter him.
Whether he gets back to the NBA or not, Thabeet is done worrying about things outside of his power.
“I’m invested in myself to get better every day. It’s progress. It’s not just about the NBA, it’s a lifestyle now. I chose to do this. I have to get better for myself. Wherever I can go, I’ll work hard,” he said.
“The rest I can’t control. I’ll let that take care of itself.”