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.
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