Even the most generous visions of what a wheelchair basketball player should look like fail to flatter Mohammed Al Zarooni.
The 36-year-old Emirati cuts an experienced figure, which is a nice way of saying he looks old for what he’s doing on the court. Hair missing on the top of his head and a body closer to healthy than lean, Al Zarooni wouldn’t be the first person picked out in a gym if the exercise was to identify the UAE’s top player and face of the team.
Yet here he is, playing in another Fazza Wheelchair Basketball International Championship this week at Al Ahli Club, leading his home nation as best he can against superpowers in the sport.
“Don’t worry about the balding,” Al Zarooni says with the laugh of a man comfortable in his skin and role with the UAE team, who he’s played with for 17 years.
Being around that long grants Al Zarooni a better vantage point on the landscape of wheelchair basketball in the Emirates than most. There are older players on the team, but Al Zarooni has been at the forefront and realises just how far they’ve come and how much further they still have to go.
“Team-wise, we have new plans and a new strategy,” he says. “We hired a new coach from England, he’s been with us for six months. We have different tactics and we’re improving in training. In games unfortunately, we are not. Not all of the players have the same mentality, so in the games, they’re not used to new players, moves and skills.”
Games like Tuesday’s 82-35 loss to Great Britain have become all too familiar. It would be understandable if Al Zarooni was too frustrated or jaded to keep working to improve the prospects of a country whose progress has been slow.
When speaking with Al Zarooni though, it’s immediately clear he has found the happy medium bet-ween striving for more and being appreciative of what he’s already accomplished. Most of all, his love for basketball remains undeterred, something he wants his team-mates, both young and old, to share.
“Play with heart. Enjoy the game. Enjoy the moment. Don’t worry about the result,” Al Zarooni says.
Al Zarooni’s own journey in basketball began at the age of 19, when he joined Al Thiqah Club for Handicapped in Sharjah while attending Sharjah Men’s College.
Born without the full use of his legs, his dream was to be a Paralympian and Al Zarooni decided the easiest route to the national team would be through basketball. So he began training in college, attending 05:30 sessions while consuming dates and milk, resulting in a loss of 15kg. At the same time, he remained focused on his studies.
After completing college, he upped his training and finally broke through to the UAE team. Representing his nation may not have been as challenging as it is for others across the world, but he hopes able-bodied people understand how much handicapped athletes have to overcome.
“Wheelchair basketball is more difficult. For normal people, it’s normal. They can take care of themselves. Us, we have to take care of our disabilities, plus other things,” he says. “Don’t think this is easy.”
Al Zarooni’s challenges aren’t contained to his own struggles, however. He has two sons, Ahmed, eight, and Abdullah, six. Abdullah is also handicapped and Al Zarooni has travelled to the United States over the past seven years for his son’s treatment.
When he’s overseas, he still makes sure to find a gym and shoot around, like the time he wandered into an LA Fitness and played in a pick-up game with able-bodied players. Al Zarooni took two shots in the game. Both were 3-pointers and both found the bottom of the net. “They were freaking out and I felt so much joy,” he says.
That same joy keeps Al Zarooni going, even as he tacks on the years. Whether or not the UAE rise to the level he’d like, he still plans on crashing chairs and squeaking wheels on the hardwood.
“I hope people get more cheered up to go to the clubs, rather than sitting in their homes and doing nothing. Even if you’re handicapped, you can still represent your country,” Al Zarooni says. “We still need people who are hungry to play. I’ll be there, no one’s taking my place. I’ll see you in 10 years. No worries, man. I’m not going anywhere.”
Pictures by Chris Whiteoak/whiteoakpictures.