Jehad Al Masri has made a name for himself in the Filipino basketball community as a generous benefactor for the Pinoy Expat Basketball Association’s League.
Known for his philanthropic work in the Philippines, the 48-year-old Syrian doctor has given the Filipino basketball scene a much-needed push.
He helped create the tournament ‘Battle of the champions’ and facilitated the league in amassing the biggest total cash prize of Dh80, 000 in the history of expat basketball.
Dr. Jehad Al Masri is the owner of basketball within the team that is named after his clinic, Jehad International Medical Clinic (JIMC).
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.”
Rarely am I ever out of my element near a basketball court, but at the Arab Women Basketball Tournament, I admittedly felt out of place.
I’m neither Arab nor a woman, so despite my love of the sport, I was a fish out of water as a minority among the sea of abaya-clad spectators at Sharjah Ladies Club to watch the 16 teams from eight Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries.
But it didn’t take long to feel like I was watching basketball that could have been happening anywhere in the world.
Part of that was the aesthetics and atmosphere, with Fetty Wap blaring in the background and the
hijabi players not looking all that out of place considering the amount of compression-wear and padding the average basketball player is covered in from head to toe these days.
But more than anything, what made the scene recognisable was the palpable competitive spirit and skills the women displayed.
The more I watched them play and the more I spoke with them, it became clear that what we had in common transcended race, religion, gender, or language: passion for basketball.
My preconceived notions coming into the experience had less to do with the fact these were women and more to do with where they’re from. Football trumps all in the MENA region, with other sports playing second fiddle for the most part. Basketball is no different, but the subset of women who play the game is even smaller.
That subset is growing though. Just ask UAE’s Amal Bin Haider, who was born and raised in Dubai and plays for Sharjah Ladies Club.
“It’s so different now,” Bin Haider said. “Before there were not many players and I got recruited here at Sharjah Ladies Club to play and the environment was different.
“I thought there were no women playing basketball but over here in Sharjah it was totally different.
“I live in Dubai and I am from Dubai, so I had no idea they had this in Sharjah when I was a kid. But then I continued and have been playing for more than 10 years.”
Bin Haider’s squad fell in the semi-finals to eventual champions Algerian G.S. Petroilers Team 1, but results were secondary to the experience gained at what the 27-year-old felt was a valuable tournament.
“Especially here in the UAE and in Sharjah, it gives an opportunity to all women to show women can play sports, even basketball,” she said.
“We’re not the same size, we don’t have the experience that the other teams and countries have, but we can play still.”
That mindset extends beyond the UAE, with Hanna Galal of Egypt’s Sporting Club cherishing an
opportunity that she feels is just now becoming a regular occurrence.
“They used to not care and just have basketball for guys because they win and they travel, but lately everyone is starting to watch basketball, to understand the rules and regulations,” said the 18-year-old.
“Especially because of the NBA, everyone in the world is watching it, people are becoming basketball fans. It’s something really nice, if you have friends and they understand your sport and they come cheer for you, you feel proud of yourself when someone watches you play.
“A couple of years ago when I was young, this team that I’m playing with, they used to only travel once in a while. But now every year we go to a tournament or championship with the clubs, not only the national team. It (travel) always helped the men, but now it helps the women. It makes them more confident and they know different styles of different countries and they know how to win even in their home country.”
These women love to play basketball, that much is obvious. But that love isn’t confined to the four lines on the court. They live and breathe the sport in their everyday life and are as much fans of the game as they are competitors.
“He’s a monster, he’s a beast,” Bin Haider said of her idol LeBron James, whose socks and shoes were on her feet during the tournament.
James more than once came up as a favourite player, not necessarily for being the best in the world at the moment, but for the way he plays. As Galal described it, “It’s a ‘we’ in the game, not an ‘I’” and
LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers needed that team-work to improbably beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals this past June.
“I went by myself in the road and started celebrating, going ‘the Cavaliers won!’” Bin Haider said of her jubilation.
Galal relayed her own unforgettable moment: “I had camps for my national team because we had the African Cup, so they used to take our laptops and mobile phones,” she said. “When they told us we’re going to watch the final game (Game 7), I was like ‘yes!’ We watched it all night and when we went to practice we were all on cloud nine.”
Not just women’s basketball, but women’s sport in general in the Gulf region still has a long way to go, but it certainly isn’t lacking the main ingredient needed for success: passion.
The more these women get on the court and do what they love, the less they’ll surprise.