Lebanon's basketball addiction

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.”

 The Denmark-based Gam3 (pronounced ‘game,’ the backwards ‘E’ references the NGO’s focus on three-on-three street ball games) contacted McClenahan as he finished up a graduate degree in sociology at the American University of Beirut. It was 2006, and Lebanon was deeply divided. Clashes between political parties, mostly between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, rocked Beirut’s streets.

McClenahan liked Gam3’s goal of empowering youth and preventing “conflict and marginalization on a local and global level,” and discovered Gam3 wanted to open a branch in Lebanon. The organization now has seven locations in different neighborhoods around Beirut, and attracts 500 kids every weekend to practices.

On a recent Saturday, McClenahan drove across Beirut’s invisible political and religious fault lines to four Gam3 practices. He distributed checks to some of the 26 coaches hired to run the camps.

“We need these kids to get out of the political and religious conflict, and we can bring them together in basketball,” said Sako Ingerkoshaian, one of the Gam3 coaches in Borj Hammoud, a working class Armenian neighborhood in Beirut. “We’re trying to make them get over this from a young age, so when they grow up society will be a better (place), away from conflict,” he said.

The neighborhood teams are often dominated by kids from one political party or religious group. But the tournaments bring these different teams together to compete against one another.

Abouabdo, the player on the “Killers” team who wants to be an NBA star, says his team is made up of supporters of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party. He says he doesn’t have any friends from a rival Christian party, the Free Patriotic Movement, or F.P.M.

“We hate them, especially their leader, Michel Aoun,” Abouabdo said. “They don’t dare to come here.”

“Guns and punches,” is how his teammate, Elio Katchadouran, says he’d “compete” with F.P.M. members on the street. But the boys change their tone when asked if they’d fight with their political opponents at the Gam3 tournament today.

“Our coaches said don’t talk about politics today at the court,” Abouabdo said. “We have to respect other people. We came here to play basketball, not to fight.”

Katchadouran and Abouabdo’s other teammates nod in agreement.

Nearby, the “Devils,” a girls team from the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Qasqas, play the Mzeab, a team from the largely Shiite Ouzai neighborhood. Residents of these two neighborhoods generally belong to opposing political parties, and normally, the two groups of girls wouldn’t interact. Today, they intercept passes and rebound together.

“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against, we’re all here to play basketball, not discuss politics or parties” said Fara Diab, 16, of the Mzeab team.

But Lebanese politics intrude on basketball more than McClenahan would like. The previous weekend he’d had to work as a security guard at one practice to stop neighborhood kids from throwing rocks at his players and coaches. There are problems nearly every week at another location between Sunni and Shiite kids of different political persuasions.

McClenahan acknowledges there’s only so much a basketball league can do to change his players’ deep-seated mistrust and hatred of other groups.

“All the kids still have their favorite political parties, unfortunately, even when they’re 12 or 13 years old,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. But hopefully if Gam3 sticks around for a while, and if we start early enough with younger kids, they won’t get too crazy about that stuff. They can play their games, have fun, and not ask questions about where you’re from or who you support.”

Editor's Note: This dispatch was updated to correct a spelling error.

More GlobalPost dispatches about Lebanon:

Lebanon's political season kicks off

Financial crisis sends Lebanese packing ... for home

Life behind bars becomes theatre

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