x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Wheelchair basketball – A relentless collision court

The ongoing wheelchair basketball tournament has been competitive, with the UAE leaving everything out on the floor, writes Ali Khaled.

The Jordanians were combative on Sunday, giving the UAE players a tough game and some heated moments, too. Lee Hoagland / The National
The Jordanians were combative on Sunday, giving the UAE players a tough game and some heated moments, too. Lee Hoagland / The National

Amid the sound of metal on metal, squeaking rubber and the occasional shoving match, one wheelchair-bound player graced the court with his brilliance.

For the UAE team, progress in the 6th Fazza International Wheelchair Basketball – IWBF West Asian Championship 2014, has depended heavily on the skills of Mohammed Al Zarooni.

On Saturday, the UAE had kicked off their campaign with a 69-56 win over Oman at Al Ahli Club in Dubai. A day later, they took on Jordan, knowing a win would see them through to the semi-finals.

But nothing comes easy in wheelchair basketball, despite what the final scoreline would suggest.

From the start, the UAE was a team on fire, racing into an early lead they would not relinquish.

Al Zarooni, a 14-year veteran of the UAE wheelchair basketball team, was at heart of everything positive, everything aggressive, that the Emirati team produced.

The action can be unforgiving, and wheelchair basketball players are famously competitive and feisty.

Jordan came to upset the home team, and in a sense they eventually would. The Emirati players seemed angry, thrown off their game.

Avoiding collisions, often simply impossible, is a skill in itself, and Al Zarooni’s balletic pirouettes and superb breaks defied some of the space available. One particular break saw him weave between four flailing Jordanian players.

The rest of the team seemed to instinctively know where he is, safe in the knowledge that passes would stick to his hands, always the perfect outlet to relive the pressure.

Beside him, the long arms of the excellent captain Tareq Ali seemed designed for interception, time and again setting the free-styling Al Zarooni away to score a lay-up or set up a teammate.

Al Zarooni, ever the perfectionist, was not pleased.

“Unfortunately, I think our form has been inconsistent,” said vice-captain. “But I’m certain that we can do much better.”

That these words came after a lopsided 63-34 win shows how demanding the players can be. Perhaps a little too demanding.

But results never tell a full story.

At times the UAE were coasting, but their coach, Ahmed Jassem, a restless figure on the touchline, knew that 40 minutes of relentless pressure is unrealistic, and tactically retreated from a pressing game to zone-based one.

The combative Jordanians, led by sharpshooter Osama Abu Joeed, needed no invitation. A real battle broke out. Wheelchairs tangled, and arguments broke out, and even referees were scolded.

“You don’t want to blame refereeing, but unfortunately it was lax,” Al Zarooni said. “The referee allowed [fouls] to go too often.”

On both sides, roughness was creeping in. Too often players were knocked off their chairs, to be helped back by the coaching staff. Individual arguments broke out too, although thankfully none that overstepped any sense of fair play.

Jassem blamed the stuttering second period on tension.

“We were under pressure to win to reach the last four,” he said, with a nod toward the small group of Emirati fans present.

This is a close-knit Emirati team; the 10-man squad formed a huddle before a shout of “UAE” rang out.

Arms rested for 15 minutes and team spirit rekindled, the third period saw the UAE revert to tactics that had given them the blistering start. “We returned to pressing and it made all the difference,” Al Zarooni said.

But not without a price. During time-outs and period breaks, the coaching staff massaged the player’s aching, sometimes bruised, limbs.

Al Zarooni, who regularly plays for Al Thiqah Club for the Handicapped in Sharjah, has had a long and distinguished career for the UAE, playing in tournaments all over the world. Throughout, his nerves remained steady as a rock.

“I’ve played a lot of international games,” he said. “As soon as I touch the ball, the tension disappears, but maybe it gets to others. They have to work on overcoming it.”

All eyes had turned to the match against Iraq yesterday, a dead rubber for the UAE.

“If we over exert ourselves against Iraq we will be spent for the semi-final,” Al Zarooni said. “Unfortunately, there are no rest days.”

Yesterday, fatigue would catch up with Al Zarooni and company, who lost 69-32 to powerful Iraq. The target remains the same; October’s Asian Paralympic Games in South Korea.

“Our primary aim is qualification,” Zarooni said.

“If we win [this tournament], then we thank god, but because there are no breaks, the exertion will be huge.”

Today, the UAE take on Kuwait in the semi-finals. Should they get yet another win, they can start planning for Incheon.

They will need Al Zarooni’s strong shoulders to carry the load once again.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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