US coach Steve Kerr, players proud of spreading basketball in the Middle East

US coach Steve Kerr, players proud of spreading basketball in the Middle East
US coach Steve Kerr, players proud of spreading basketball in the Middle East

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - ABU DHABI: The US national team are on a mission in Abu Dhabi, where they are wrapping up their preparations before flying to Manila for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

And while the focus is firmly on making the most of the two friendly games they have scheduled against Greece and Germany at Etihad Arena this week, on Aug. 18 and 20 respectively, head coach Steve Kerr and his men are also keen on soaking up the experience in the UAE, and have said they are taking great pride in helping spread the game of basketball to the Middle East.

A landmark multi-year deal between the National Basketball Association and Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism saw the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks play two preseason games in the UAE capital last October. In front of capacity crowds at Etihad Arena, the NBA made a historic debut in the Middle East and excitement is already building for the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves’ upcoming visit for a pair of preseason games this October.

The ongoing International Basketball Week sees Abu Dhabi host the national teams of the US, Greece, Germany, Lebanon, Egypt and Mexico, along with acclaimed university basketball programs, Kansas State and Arizona State, ahead of the upcoming World Cup, which kicks off on Aug. 25 across three countries — Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Lebanon and Egypt square off on Thursday at Etihad Arena, with the Cedars also scheduled to take on Mexico on Friday and Arizona State on Saturday.

The legendary Kerr, who has won four NBA Championships as the coach of Golden State Warriors and five rings as a player — three with the Chicago Bulls and two with the San Antonio Spurs — says he will be keeping a close eye on Lebanon and Egypt this week in Abu Dhabi, given his history with the two nations.

“I’m definitely planning on coming to see Lebanon play. It’s my birthplace, a lot of family history there, and they’re playing my alma mater, Arizona, so I have to come to that game,” said Kerr on Wednesday following practice at New York University Abu Dhabi.

“I’ve had a couple of friends who actually played in Lebanon, Craig McMillan way back played there, and the game is getting more and more popular in the Middle East.

“Egypt is also playing in this tournament. I spent three years in Egypt growing up and nobody played basketball and now Egyptian clubs are among the best in Africa. Basketball in the Middle East is really exploding and it’s exciting.”

Of the players who have made the trip to Abu Dhabi, Bucks forward Bobby Portis is the only one with previous playing experience in the UAE, having participated in the NBA preseason games last year. The rest of the squad are getting their first taste of the capital and hope to leave their mark before they move on to the World Cup.

“It is important. We feel like we’re global ambassadors for the game. The game has been so great to all of us that we want to spread the interest and extend to different fan bases and to see different parts of the world,” US assistant coach and Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told Arab News.

“A lot of us had never been out here. It’s amazing to be a part of the culture out here and sightsee. We’re busy but we also don’t want to be in the hotel all the time.”

Brooklyn Nets’ Cam Johnson was in high spirits during practice on Wednesday and feels privileged being part of this week of international play in Abu Dhabi.

“The globalization of the game has just been ever-increasing. More and more and more players are getting better and better across the world. The game is being adopted more and more across the world and it’s a beautiful thing to see,” said Johnson.

His teammate and good friend Mikal Bridges, who played with Johnson in Phoenix before they got traded together to Brooklyn, feels “grateful” to be in the position he is in right now.

“Just playing for the USA, showing light to other people that don’t really have basketball around, it’s not that big a sport for them. I’m happy I’m part of that and part of this culture to help and lead and show by example, so that’s really cool,” said Bridges.

Both Johnson and Bridges want to check out Egypt’s Patrick Gardner, who played for Miami Heat in the Summer League last month before signing an Exhibit 10 deal for a training camp with the Brooklyn Nets.

Bridges also plans on catching one of Lebanon’s games.

“I’ve got my boy Omari Spellman for Lebanon so we’ll see how he does,” said Bridges, referring to his former college teammate at Villanova, who was recently recruited by the Cedars and was given honorary Lebanese citizenship.

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