Tunisia’s AfroBasket win reflects growing popularity of sport
Tunis - While basketball has traditionally been viewed as an American pastime, its popularity is growing in the Middle East and North Africa, where young people are turning to the sport as an alternative to football and other popular activities.
The trend, fans said, has been good for a region that often lacks positive outlets for young people but has hit an impasse due to a lack of recreational facilities and organised youth leagues.
The National Basketball Association (NBA), with the help of local partners, hopes to make basketball more accessible in the region.
“The Middle East has great potential and there is a fast growth here in terms of viewership and social media interaction, which resonates an active and healthy lifestyle within indoor settings in the region,” said Ben Morel, the NBA’s managing director and senior vice-president of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“These are really exciting times and the Middle East is a key area of growth to the NBA,” he added, saying the league plans to have a pre-season game in Dubai before 2020 and host several festivals in the region.
Along with bringing NBA festivals and stores to the Gulf, the NBA has made inroads in North Africa, particularly with the addition of Tunisian Salah Mejri to the league in 2015. Mejri, a Jendouba native who is one of the first Arab players to have signed with the NBA, has become a national sensation in his home country.
“Everywhere I play, there are Tunisians and I sometimes see flags in the stands,” Mejri said in an interview with the National Basketball Players Association. “It’s crazy to see. They hit me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. A lot of people say: ‘Hey, how are you? We are coming tonight to see you.’ Some of them ask for tickets. Some of them ask to see me.”
Mejri has had a big impact at home, too, both in drawing attention to the sport and participating in training camps and initiatives with the NBA.
That transformation was on full display during this year’s AfroBasket tournament, co-hosted by Tunisia and Senegal from July 16-September 16. In Tunisia, the games were sold out and the energy in the host country’s Rades stadium was palpable.
This was particularly true during the championship game when Tunisia defeated Nigeria’s D’Tigers, 77-65. It marked a thrilling end to the 29th continental tournament and showed how far the sport has come in a region where football is dominant.
“The level of play was very good. Great dunks. Great competition,” said Ghassen Morjene, who played basketball for Espoir Sportif de Hammam Sousse. “It was a good thing for the sport and for our country.”
It wasn’t just Tunisia that put on a solid performance at the contest. Morocco, too, boasted an impressive showing, defeating the Central African Republic, Angola, Uganda and Egypt before losing to Tunisia in the semi-finals. There were individual breakout performances as well. In a semi-final between Nigeria and Senegal, Senegal’s Youssou Ndoye stunned the crowd by shattering the backboard with a powerful dunk.
Despite the sport’s progress, many challenges remain for basketball in the Maghreb, principally a lack of facilities and access.
“I started to play basketball, mainly because I was very tall growing up and a coach told me that if I developed my skills I could be a good player,” said Morjene.
“One of the hard things was that there is only one stadium in my town and it is not always possible to access it. Sometimes we would show up and we were unable to train.”
The story is similar for many basketball players in the region, who often develop their skills later in life than their counterparts in the West. Mejri, who plays centre for the Dallas Mavericks, did not start with the sport until his late teens, having played competitive football growing up. Abdel Nader, an Egyptian-American player for the NBA’s Boston Celtics, did not play basketball until a year before high school.
If AfroBasket 2017 was any indication, however, the region could be churning out more stars before long.
“We are beginning to watch basketball more and more here,” said Morjene. “The NBA, Nike Air, all those things tied with sport are becoming trendy.”
“We have an enormous following in the NBA but we’re not doing enough,” noted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to Sport360 in May. “It’s an area of the world where I think we should be doing more.”