UAE basketballers with hoop dreams of Alcatraz
During its 29 years of operation, the infamous Alcatraz Prison was the subject of 14 escape attempts.
But, hundreds are now fighting to break into the prison, known as ‘The Rock’, which sits on an island in San Francisco Bay in the US.
The Red Bull ‘King of the Rock’ is a global street basketball competition in which players go head-to-head in one-on-one contests. From a field of 192 eager b-ballers from all over the UAE, four players have dunked and dribbled their way into the country finals, which take place on Thursday at Dubai Mall Ice Rink.
The winner nets himself a ticket to The Rock and a shootout with the world’s best.
Even though it’s 40 degrees outside, the ice rink might not be the best location for Emirati Qais Al Shabibi from Sharjah, who won the inaugural UAE King of the Rock last year and is back to defend his title. Last year the 22-year-old admits the Alcatraz chill hit him hard.
“The weather in Alcatraz was so cold and windy and I didn’t have too many clothes on so I could not keep myself warm. This time it will be different… This time I’m aiming to win,” he says.
Qais, who also plays for Al Ahli and the UAE national team, was crowned the UAE’s best baller last year after a nail-biting final match against the Abu Dhabi heat winner Lawrence Vincent. In the dying seconds of the game Lawrence was in the lead by a narrow margin but Qais somehow managed to slam dunk his way to success.
“If he just held the ball it would have been game over but he drove to the basket and missed. I got the ball and scored, it was all over, in like five or six seconds,” recalls Qais. “Anything can happen. It was the first King of the Rock in the UAE and I won. it was a huge deal for me and the chance to go up against the best in the world was amazing.”
On Thursday, Qais faces stiff competition out of Abu Dhabi once more in the form of professional basketball player-turned-English teacher Zack Bajric.
Zack has been putting in formidable training ahead of the fixture and is set on preventing Qais booking a return ticket to Alcatraz.
With no margin for error in the one-on-one game, fitness is as important as skill says Zack: “In preparation I do a lot of running - running outside in the middle of the day in the sun, lots of shooting and suicides (a training drill).”
Passionate about basketball, Canadian expat Zack plays in a number of UAE leagues and is helping basketball stars of the future by coaching at the Jump Sports Academy.
He says the level of talent coming through is high and many kids are likely to score coveted scholarships to play in the US college leagues.
“We sent one kid last year to a school in Kansas [on a scholarship], his name is Mito Owino,” he says. “There is a lot of potential for the future for UAE basketball because there’s a lot of talent but there needs to be more exposure, more tournaments like this.”
Zack would tower over most but he says in the basketball world he has to make sure his defence is water-tight.
“It is very tough for me as I am only six foot three so I’ve got to use my feet a lot more,” he says. “The guys that I am facing are six foot seven, they try to back you down and go at you. For us slightly shorter guys you have to use your shooting skills, work the defence and try to get them out of the key (underneath the basket) and keep them away from the basket.”
ROCK AND ROLL CALL
Alcatraz - the chilling facts
>> The prison opened in 1934. It was previously a military detention centre
>> During the prison’s early years, inmates were not allowed to talk to each other for most of the day
>> Notorious gangster Al Capone served time at Alcatraz. The New York-born smuggler and alcohol bootlegger played banjo in the prison band
>> The most famous prisoner was Alaskan murderer Robert ‘Birdman’ Stroud, who spent 17 years on Alcatraz
>> There were no confirmed prisoner escapes
>> Rising costs saw The Rock closed in 1963
See if Zack’s defensive tactics win out or if Qais can take it to the basket to buy himself another visit to The Rock, Thursday from 8pm to 11pm at Dubai Mall Ice Rink.
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