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Thread: Basketball in Iraq

  1. #1
    Junior Member
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    Aug 2015
    Country: United States

    Default Basketball in Iraq

    Rashuan Claiborne details four weeks in Iraqi basketball

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    Senior Member serbianhoops's Avatar
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    Sep 2010
    Country: Monaco


    6'2" SG Marshall Henderson, who once averaged 20 Points per Game in NCAA is now playing in Iraq.

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    Apr 2014
    Country: Egypt

    Default Iraq Basketball Is a Far Cry From March Madness, but It’s Not All Bad

    BAGHDAD—Late in a playoff game, Mychal Kearse, a flashy and slashing guard, was feeling it. He had just split three defenders and scored an emphatic dunk, bringing a sparse but energetic crowd to its feet and forcing the other team to call a timeout. As he shimmied to the bench, he and a teammate performed a flying hip-check.

    Mr. Kearse’s style brings a welcome dose of swagger to the Superleague, Iraq’s state-run basketball program.

    The 31-year-old player from Charlotte, N.C., is the dean of a corps of American basketball players earning their pay on the fringes of professional sport while serving as cultural ambassadors in a place where Americans are associated mostly with military intervention and bloody upheaval. They’re adored by fans, idolized by teammates and coveted by coaches. In public, they are walking selfie magnets for curious Iraqis.

    For these 29 journeymen, who ended up in Iraq because no one else was calling, the experience of playing in one of the world’s most dangerous countries has been a lesson in professional and personal adjustment.

    “I thought it was going to be all bad with everything you see on TV about Iraq,” Mr. Kearse said during a break from a recent practice session. “That’s the picture they paint of Iraq and Iraqis.”

    What about the game? “Basketball is the same,” he said. “Basketball is basketball.”

    Really, though, it’s different here. Superleague teams are financed by various government ministries under extreme budget constraints owing to Iraq’s worst security crisis since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. The self-styled Islamic State, the extremist insurgency that has occupied nearly one-third of the country, has dominated headlines and the national consciousness since last summer.

    Last year’s Superleague champion, Dohuk, from the northern Kurdistan region, dropped out of competition this season because of the cash crunch and the difficulty of traveling for games across territory held by Islamic State.

    But the league fights on, as much of Iraq has done. Mr. Kearse and two other Americans play for the Police Club, a team that represents Iraq’s interior ministry and won the championship Thursday, beating a team once run by a now-deceased son of Saddam Hussein and now run by the ministry of education.

    “It’s amazing how basketball is still relevant, especially with everything going on,” said DeAndre Rice, a 29-year-old Police Club point guard from Flint, Mich., who arrived in January.

    American players began joining Iraqi team rosters in 2010, drawn by relatively high pay and few other options.

    The top American players earn as much as $20,000 a month here, making them among the highest paid public employees in Iraq. Most are being paid between $4,000 and $10,000 monthly. Apart from the Americans, there are five other players from outside Iraq in the league. The top Iraqi players are earning about $12,000 a month; most make much less.

    “The money is good. Beats working back home, right?” Mr. Rice said. “It’s a chance to see the world. Why not travel while we have the ability to still play.”

    While the salaries may be lucrative, Iraq’s Superleague barely offers the trappings of professional sports glamour, let alone the resources of an American university or big high school.

    Here, the players stay in a modest hotel. They are shuttled in a rickety van to and from the People’s Arena, a dilapidated sports complex that was named Saddam Arena before Saddam Hussein was deposed during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

    They enter through the cafeteria door in the bowels of the stadium. They change clothes on the sidelines because the locker rooms are being renovated, but the budget crunch has slowed that project. They share the facility with the seven other teams playing this year.

    Team benches are repurposed airport lounge seats, but not the comfortable kind. The VIP seats are a row of living-room couches and easy chairs set in the bleacher section, where no-smoking signs appear to be just a suggestion.

    By halftime of a recent game between the Police Club and the Petrol Club, a layer of cigarette smoke hung over the court. But the crowds, kept sparse by authorities for security reasons, are enthusiastic, beating drums and tambourines while chanting for their squad.

    Abdel Jabbar Ibrahim, a 60-year-old fan of Police Club, said the Americans have elevated and enlivened the game.

    “Look at how exciting they are,” he said while watching as Police Club bested Petrol Club in a playoff contest. “Our local players get such good experience mixing with the Americans.”

    “The worst American player is better than the best Iraqi player,” said Rafid Abdel Hussein, an assistant coach on Police Club. “The Americans come from a culture of basketball that is taught at a very young age.”

    Mr. Hussein said his job isn’t only coaching, but looking after the foreigners—keeping them busy, and helping them adjust to the reality of a country at war: They can’t just step outside when they please.

    Sometimes he has to lie.

    “If there’s an explosion nearby, we tell them it’s fireworks from a celebration,” he said with a smile.

    Almost all the players complained about the lack of freedom to move around and the nonexistent night life. Mr. Rice said he doesn’t mind not going out, but wishes the Internet were faster.

    But the biggest problem Mr. Hussein says he has faced is trying to manage the players’ desire for familiar food.

    “Food issues,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s always a food issue.”

    Mr. Kearse, 31, said he likes the food but is afraid he’s spending his best years as an eligible bachelor in a place with few options.

    Mr. Kearse says that when he arrived in 2012, “I was scared to get off the plane.” On his second day in Baghdad, he was being driven, along with another new American arrival, to practice when the teammate took a photo of a masked Iraqi policeman manning a machine gun. The officer didn’t approve and angrily stopped Mr. Kearse and his teammate at gunpoint, before their Iraqi driver defused the situation.

    Mr. Kearse said he was rattled. “I said ‘what the hell am I doing here,’ ” he said, laughing. Now he encourages American players to come to Iraq.

    “I come here and make it back home safe every year,” Mr. Kearse said he tells players looking for a team. “That’s the pitch.”

    For Mr. Rice, who has played in Syria, Tunisia, Dubai and most recently Libya, Iraq has been an improvement. He said, “It’s definitely way more stable,” than Libya, where a rogue government has declared itself sovereign over the capital of Tripoli, where Mr. Rice played.

    Curt Withers, a 6-foot-8-inch forward, said he prepared for the move by watching the movie “American Sniper,” which is based on the book written by a U.S. Navy SEAL about the Iraq war. “Man, it’s not even like that,” Mr. Withers said after a month in the country. “Movies and TV are bad for the mind.”

    Mr. Withers, a 30-year-old Charlotte native, has played in South America and Asia but this has been his first stint in the Middle East.

    “Iraqis are amused by my complexion, height and size,” he said. “People have been kind. This is my first Muslim country, this is my first exposure and it’s definitely setting the right tone.”

    “It’s made me a wiser person,” he added. “I see things in a different way than if I stayed in America.”

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