For too long, the basketball community in the UAE has been segregated, with local clubs on one side and expatriates on the other.
Through its involvement in the ongoing Vice President’s Cup, Ball Above All is finally bridging the gap between the two in a move that could open doors in growing the game in the region like never before.
If you’re a regular on the basketball scene here, you’ve already heard of Ball Above All, a concept Belal Abiad brought from Australia to Dubai in 2013. Best described as a community, it offers pick-up sessions, leagues, tournaments and a soon-to-be academy, catering to players of all ages, genders and skill levels.
In fact, the level of competition has gotten so high – specifically in the Men Elite League – that Ball Above All is now playing against professional teams.
“Honestly, the Ball Above All Elite League, the level is fairly high, compared to the UAE in general. When we play these teams, for us it’s a good run,” Abiad said.
“Yeah we’re recreational players, but we’ve had professional experience in the past. We’re older, but we have this experience which we’ve carried forward and is helping us a lot against these teams.”
Their breakthrough came in February’s Dubai International Basketball Championship, where they earned a spot among renowned clubs boasting former NBA players.
The showing in the competition, coupled with the exposure they had already built up, put Ball Above All in consideration for the Vice President’s Cup, which enters the quarter-finals stage today.
When the UAE Basketball Association was struggling to get teams for the tournament, the interest became mutual and suddenly, Ball Above All was rubbing shoulders with local clubs who normally only play amongst themselves or against international sides.
Despite struggling for sponsorship and having had to pay for everything, from entry fees to medicals to uniforms and more, Ball Above All have more than held their own against the five local squads: Al Wasl, Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, Sharjah, Al Nasr and Bani Yas.
They’re now in the finals where they’ll place Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club on Wednesday after compiling a 3-2 record in the group stages (one loss was due to a forfeit) and defeating Al Nasr and Al Wasl in the playoffs.
Two of Ball Above All’s players, Mamdou N’Daiye and Amer Al Sati, have impressed so much in the Cup that they’ve garnered attention from the local sides and are in talks to sign on as professionals for the 2018 season.
“That’s a good sign for expat basketball where people can have a team such as Ball Above All and if they’re good enough they might have a chance if they’re born here to play in the UAE league as a professional,” said Abiad.
Whether or not they win the title, Ball Above All have left an impression and shown what a greater synergy between local and expat basketball in the region can yield.
“We’ve proved our level without getting paid,” Abiad said. “So imagine if you’re actually paying professionals and training them to do this. That’ll be huge. You’ll produce big results.
“This would also help the UAE teams here to face better competition and lift their level, so when they travel internationally they can present the UAE in a better light.”
Manager: Rafiq Shabib; Coach: Samer
Assistant coach: Mohamed Ali Guindo
Assistant coach: Aleco Hayek
Players: Aaron Leung, David Negron, Michel Hakim, Aaron Sanchez, Max Klien, Belal Abiad, Mamdou N’Daiye, Amer Al Sati, Pavel Aheunin, Agrey Nyadera, Marcelo Correa, Aristide Mendy, Daniel Leithner, Khaled Ismail, Karim Hachani
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.