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Lebanon's basketball addiction

How one group brings kids together from the divided neighborhoods of Beirut to shoot hoops.

BEIRUT — Roger Abouabdo is Lebanese but his aspirations match those of many American teenagers: He dreams one day to play professional basketball. The skinny 14-year-old says his favorite players are Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

“I’d like to do like them, to be an NBA star,” he said, taking a break between basketball games to pose for a picture with buddies from his team, called “Killers.”

Abouabdo is one of several hundred basketball-loving youngsters shooting hoops on a sunny Saturday afternoon at a tournament in downtown Beirut. It’s organized by Gam3, a non-profit organization that seeks to teach kids conflict resolution skills and build character through basketball.

In Beirut’s diverse and deeply divided neighborhoods, that’s not an easy goal.

Professional basketball in Lebanon has had few virtuous or admirable qualities in recent years. Riot police outnumber fans at basketball games because the sport is so charged with sectarian and political animosity.

Lebanon’s 10 professional club teams are owned by, or associated with, political parties, most of which are rooted in one of Lebanon’s major religious groups. Lebanon has one of the most diverse populations in the Middle East, with Christians making up about 25 percent of the country and Shiite and Sunni Muslims about 70 percent, along with a sprinkling of minorities.

“There are political parties even in basketball,” said Elio Katchadouran, 16, one of Abouabdo’s teammates. “There are problems and fighting.”

Like soccer hooliganism in Europe, Lebanese fans, rather than players, are typically responsible for the violence.

“The politics of the sport comes out of the fans. They are the ones who scream and shout and get the slogans going and start waving the flags. So that’s where the problems arise,” said William “Mac” McClenahan, 28, the organizer of Gam3 in Lebanon.

Political conflict and instability in Lebanon have poisoned basketball games here over the last three years. Matches degenerate into chair-throwing riots that spill onto the court, frequently ending the game or forcing police to boot spectators off bleachers and out of the gymnasium.

McClenahan says his organization’s goal is to take the political and religious element out of basketball.

“Most clubs and schools and other opportunities to play basketball are all identified with one sectarian party or another party,” he said. “So kids who grow up playing basketball, and who get good playing basketball, generally do that through political and sectarian institutions.”

“The idea of Gam3 is that we’re not identified with any side, we’re the opposite," he said. "We are identified with all the people of Lebanon.”

McClenahan wrote his master’s thesis on the history of basketball in Lebanon. He says American missionaries brought the game to the tiny Mediterranean country in the early 20th century. University and regional teams sprang up around the country and morphed into what is now the Lebanese Basketball Federation, consisting of 10 professional teams. One team, Sagesse, won the International Basketball Federation’s Asian Club Championship in 1999 and 2000, a major achievement for a country of 4 million.

“They were the best team in Asia, against China, against India,” McClenahan said. “Those successes were big for even non-basketball fans in Lebanon.”