The MBO Tall Blacks are one win away from qualifying for the FIBA Basketball World Cup and what better way to do that than against Syria, a country that shows how truly global the sport of basketball is, and a team that fights to keep the game alive in their country.
Team Syria arrived in Wellington yesterday afternoon, ahead of the FIBA World Cup Qualifier against the Tall Blacks at 3pm today. It’s yet another away game for Syria, in a list of fixtures that does not feature one at home. The Syrian national team plays all ‘home games’ in neighboring Lebanon, due to the Syrian Civil War that erupted in 2011. The Syrian team’ Captain and point guard, Sharif Al Osh, says he looks forward to the day they can host the Tall Blacks in Syria.
“I hope we will. It will give us a chance to have our fans’ support and to play on our court. That will be a little bit different. That will give us a big push for the team.”
From news coverage and images beamed back to New Zealand screens since 2011, it’s hard to imagine basketball opportunities in Syria. Yet Al Osh says the players and the Syrian Basketball Federation have managed to somehow continue playing, despite the turmoil.
“Basketball in Syria was developing from year to year before the war. Then, when the war started, we lost a lot of players – hundreds of players left the country. The league became very weak with only two or three clubs left. We had five years when the league was very weak. Maybe we would have three to four games a year at most.”
Al Osh says only two cities managed to keep basketball alive, Damascus and Aleppo. According to Al Osh, the situation has improved and some basketball teams are even managing to pay players as glimmers of professional basketball emerge in the country.
“In the last two years, the situation has become better and most other cities have started to play basketball. We have now six clubs starting to pay for players, so we have chance for more players to be in the national team in the future.”
Every player in the Syrian team currently lives and plays in Syria. Not one is based abroad, or playing for an overseas club. Nearly all have day jobs. Al Osh is an Accountant by training and now works as a “Budget Holder” for an NGO – the International Medical Corps.
“Most of us are professional players in Syria, but it's still not professional 100 percent, so some have jobs. I have my work. I finish my work at five o’clock, then I go to practice. Some players are coaching in private schools, and some of them just play basketball.”
Three of the team that will play the Tall Blacks on Sunday have already played in New Zealand. Tarek Aljabi, Sebouh Kharadjian and Hani Adribe all competed in Auckland at the 2009 Under 19 World Cup. There, they played the Junior Tall Blacks when a young Rob Loe scored 25 points and New Zealand won 93 to 75. Al Osh says those three players speak fondly of that visit.
“They loved the city, the country and it was a good experience for them. It's World Cup too, so it's a very good experience.”
During these FIBA World Cup Qualifiers, which began in November last year, the Syrian team has faced up to a mammoth challenge. With only three games left, Syria are unlikely to qualify for next year’s World Cup, but they have given it a hell of a shot. They not only defeated India twice in the Round One of the Qualifiers, but also demonstrated their self-belief at the last year’s FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon. Syria lost their opening game to Jordan 68-66, and then fell only 81-79 to China in the qualification for the quarter-finals clash. Al Osh says the team has used these Qualifiers as an opportunity to gain experience and learn from playing stronger teams.
“For us, our target was to qualify from the first group to the second group, and we did this after we won against India. So we are now in Round Two.
“Now we are trying to let the younger players get experience from these high level games. But still, I don't think that our strategies and plans are clear. I think we have to work more on this to be better in the future.”
And the future is something Al Osh believes will be better. He says Syria is stabilizing to an extent and that the opportunities for basketball will hopefully improve.
“I can tell you, in general, most of the cities are safe. But, in some rural cities, there are still problems. But now, it's okay, most of Syria. There is some [regions], like two or three have some risky issues. But it becomes better every year. And now, the main [regions] are safe, like Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama. We have everything there. If you go to a football game, you can't believe that's in Syria. You can see the place is full, there's no place to sit, and everything is normal now.”
That said, when asked about life under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Al Osh prefers to move on.
“People look at this in different ways. Some of them say he is okay. Some of them say he is not okay, and it's different from person to person. In the situation in Syria, there is no right and wrong. It's very complicated. It's more complicated than you can imagine. For me, I don’t want to say anything about this.”
Fair enough, it’s understandable that Al Osh want’s to stick to discussing basketball – that is why he is here in Wellington, where a tough test awaits. For this afternoon’s match, the Tall Blacks are favourites. They won 107-66 against Syria last September in Beirut. Al Osh is well aware of their underdog status, but says it’s not something that comes into this team’s mindset.
“New Zealand is on a different level to the Syrian team, but we are not going to play like we are going to lose. We're going to fight for the game and try to win. It's not easy. We don’t have our home games because we don't play in Syria, and we’ve travelled a long way to now play in New Zealand against a very good team.”
The Tall Blacks will see a new player step into that arena. Shea Ili has returned to Auckland to devote time to being a Dad to his newborn daughter. Derone Raukawa replaces him at point guard. The 19 year-old Brisbane Bullet and debutant Tyrell Harrison also comes in, while Tohi Smith-Milner steps aside for this one.
Despite the Tall Blacks being viewed by bookies as an overwhelming favourite, Coach Henare respects this Syrian team as one that will never back down.
“We know they play hard. They fight for everything, they fight on every possession.
“The plan is to see a lot of what we saw in Christchurch and play with the intensity and desire, especially at the defensive end. We want to put them under pressure for 40 minutes and create opportunities at both ends of the floor.”
Whatever this afternoon’s result, people attending this game will witness a truly international sport in action. The Tall Blacks have played teams from all around the world: the Americas, Africa, Europe and of course most recently Asia, which includes the Middle East. Through FIBA’s basketball competitions, foreign places seem more familiar, as do the people; people who share a love the game. For players like Al Osh, who has played basketball his whole life, the sport is a language we all speak. And that love of global basketball just might become all the more stronger today for New Zealanders – if the Tall Blacks win this game, they will qualify for the 2019 World Cup and will lock in their rightful place among the 32 teams that will compete for Naismith Trophy.
Tickets for the Tall Blacks v Syria game in Wellington can be purchased at www.Ticketmaster.co.nz.
MBO Tall Blacks to play Syria. FIBA World Cup Qualifiers, Window Five Round Two:
Tom Abercrombie. SKYCITY Breakers
Tyrell Harrison. Brisbane Bullets
Jarrod Kenny. Taylor Hawks, Cairns Taipans
Rob Loe. Cairns Taipans
Jordan Ngatai. Cigna Saints, SKYCITY Breakers
Kruz Perrott-Hunt. Rosmini College, SKYCITY Breakers
Alex Pledger. SIT Zerofees Southland Sharks, Melbourne United
Derone Raukawa. SIT Zerofees Southland Sharks
Ethan Rusbatch. Taylor Hawks
Reuben Te Rangi. SIT Zerofees Southland Sharks, Brisbane Bullets
Tom Vodanovich. SIT Zerofees Southland Sharks, SKYCITY Breakers
Mika Vukona. Mike Pero Nelson Giants, Brisbane Bullets
Syria team to face Tall Blacks. FIBA World Cup Qualifiers, Window Five Round Two:
Abdulwahab Al Hamwi
Sharif Al Osh
Omar Cheikh Ali
MBO Tall Blacks FIBA World Cup Qualifiers, ROUND TWO
Date | Opponents | Home/Away
• AWAY: 13 Sep 2018 vs Syria, Nouhad Nawfal Stadium, Zouk Mikael, Lebanon Tall Blacks won 107-66
• HOME: 17 Sep 2018 vs Lebanon, Energy Events Centre, Rotorua. Tall Blacks won 63-60
• HOME: 29 Nov 2018 vs Jordan, Horncastle Arena, Christchurch. Tall Blacks won 95-69
• HOME: 2 Dec 2018 vs Syria, TSB Bank Arena, Wellington
• AWAY: 21 or 22 Feb 2019 vs Lebanon in Lebanon
• AWAY: 24 or 25 Feb 2019 vs Jordan in Jordan
MBO Tall Blacks FIBA World Cup Qualifiers, ROUND ONE
Date | Opponents | Home/Away
• 23 Nov 2017 vs Korea at TSB Bank Arena, Wellington. Tall Blacks lost 80-86
• 26 Nov 2017 vs Hong Kong at Southourn Stadium, Hong Kong. Tall Blacks won 133-74
• 23 Feb 2018 vs China at Dongguan Basketball Centre, China. Tall Blacks won 82-73
• 26 Feb 2018 vs Korea at Jamsil Gymnasium, Seoul, South Korea. Tall Blacks won 93-84
• 28 Jun 2018 vs Hong Kong at Energy Events Centre, Rotorua. Tall Blacks won 124-65
• 1 Jul 2018 vs China vs Spark Arena, Auckland. Tall Blacks won 67-57
• Learn more about the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers (Asia Zone)
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• The games will be broadcast live by the Host Broadcaster, Maori Television
• Watch the Tū Kaha webisode series on the Tall Blacks.