Mohamad Alzarooni spins a basketball on his index finger as a prize raffle is held before the UAE national team tips off against Morocco in the Fazza International Wheelchair Basketball Tournament.
The 35-year-old, who is the star of the hosts in the eighth edition of the competition at Al Ahli Indoor Stadium, finishes his Harlem Globetrotter routine, only for a camera man to approach him and ask if Alzarooni can repeat the act so it’s filmed. Without hesitation, Alzarooni obliges.
There’s palpable joy not only for the UAE’s on-court leader, but the entire team as they take the floor for their third game of the tournament, which also happens to be one of the few occasions they’ll be able to compete during the year.
The UAE go on to suffer a 65-34 defeat to Morocco, but the loss is just a microcosm of a bigger issue.
“I heard they came in seven planes, man. From Europe direct to here,” Alzarooni marvelled at what he thought were his opponent’s travel plans. “Comparing with our players, we are not pro. We play once there is an event or competition and get together.”
As far as disability sports go, wheelchair basketball is as major as it gets and Alzaronni believes even in the UAE, where able-bodied basketball is far down the list, it deserves a place at the table.
“For handicaps, basketball is the main game,” he said. “It’s like football (for everyone else). It’s the game that brings the audience.”
An audience, however, can only show up if there’s a game to be played. Unfortunately for the UAE national team, games are few and far between as they’re limited to playing in local tournaments.
While many of their opponents in the Fazza International Wheelchair Basketball Tournament play regularly, the UAE are resigned to showcasing their skills months apart at a time in competitions like the Nad Al Sheba Sports Tournament during Ramadan and the Gulf Championships, to be held in December this year.
“Without a league, it’s very difficult. Maybe without a league, you can fight in the Gulf (Championships), but if you want to beat international teams, you need to have a league and teams preparing for a league daily,” Alzarooni said.
“You have to have all the elements helping you. Like I’m a player, I should be concentrating on the game, not my team-mate’s holiday from work or a wheelchair missing. I should be focused on the tactics of the game.”
Alzarooni loves the sport, that much is clear. Though he watches the NBA and mentioned Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry and LeBron James as players he keeps an eye on, he revealed he models his style after another wheelchair basketball player on Japan’s national team, whose name he couldn’t recall.
Like coach Ahmed Jassim, Alzarooni has been part of the UAE national team for 16 years. During that span, wins haven’t been lacking, but consistency has.
“We started from zero, from nothing,” said Jassim. “We started with eight or nine players and they weren’t good players.
“Now the team is better, but we’re still facing problems everywhere. If we have some facilities here or we get to go to more tournaments, the team will take experience. Right now, it’s not that much.”
Both Jassim and Alzarooni are aware of the uphill task they face to raise wheelchair basketball’s status in the UAE, but their hopes are grounded in viable solutions which start with the local clubs.
“We are playing today but we’ll stop for the next six months because the clubs, they don’t have wheelchair basketball,” said Jassim. “They’re not caring about wheelchair basketball. Here (at the clubs), it’s just athletics because those players can bring medals.
“It has to start with the clubs. The federation should form a league. Maybe we can bring professionals, with each team having one professional. We can do this.
“I hope this country will care about this team more. Insha’Allah, we’ll do something for it.”
Wheelchair basketball may never get the same due in the UAE as it does across the world, but as the camera man did when Alzarooni spun a basketball on his finger, it could just mean paying a little more attention.
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