x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Zack Bajric goes the longest yard on Alcatraz

Representing the UAE, Zack Bajric defies the odds to make it to the semi-finals in the King of the Rock on Alcatraz.

Zack Bajric during King of the Rock. Garth Milan / Red Bull
Zack Bajric during King of the Rock. Garth Milan / Red Bull

Clear skies, cool breezes. The sound of sea lions barking as fishermen prepared to set out for the day’s catch. And the glorious Golden Gate Bridge.

Zack Bajric will never forget the serene mornings of San Francisco Bay. Nor the mission impossible he nearly pulled off.

The Abu Dhabi-based Serb made the long flight from Dubai to San Francisco to take part in the Red Bull King of The Rock finals – a one-on-one basketball competition that takes place on “the yard” of Alcatraz, the notorious former US prison that goes by the nickname of “the Rock”. (Which also is the slang term for a basketball.)

Having qualified in June by defeating the best that the Emirates had to offer, Bajric had promised that he would do his “absolute best to represent the UAE successfully”.

He kept his promise, finishing third in a 64-man field that included “streetballers” from across the globe. Few had come as far as Bajric, 30.

He battled his way through four rounds before losing to Sergio de la Fuente of Spain in the semi-finals.

Until then, all was well and going according to plan. An early highlight had been meeting Jerry West, the Los Angeles Lakers legend and NBA executive.

“His advice was absolutely amazing and something I will never forget,” Bajric said of the man whose silhouette is on the NBA’s logo. “He told us that the best skill in life is being competitive.”

West’s words inspired Bajric. A three-hour tour of Alcatraz – “the experience of a lifetime” – brought further perspective.

“I honestly wondered how anyone could survive one day in there,” he said of the solitary cells.

“Some prisoners spent up to three years in complete isolation, in a room where I could not even stretch properly.”

“Guys talk about prison ball,” said Blake Griffin, the Los Angeles Clippers standout.

“This is prison ball at its finest.”

After adjusting to the windy conditions on the forbidding island, Bajric beat the Japan representative Hideki Mitsui 14-6 in the first round. He was on the radar.

At 6ft 2ins, Bajric was one of the shortest players in the competition. His rivals could have been forgiven for taking him lightly.

But it did not take long for Bajric to turn heads and win hearts and minds.

It was a sharpshooting spell during his second match, against the Czech Lukas Kraus, 2012 runner-up, however, that made him the centre of attention. Four three-pointers in a 17-6 win meant Bajric was now being seen as a serious threat to go all the way.

“The fans started following my matches and I found myself surrounded by media at all times,” he said. “They were not only interested in me but about the UAE as well; I tried to tell them about what a wonderful place it is to live and work in.”

In the last-16 round he came up against the 6ft 8ins American Viliamu Faiivae, who Bajric defeated 8-6. Not without a struggle, though.

“He was ... easily over 250 pounds; playing him exhausted me,” Bajric said. “I barely won, thanks to my three-point shooting and some key defensive stops.”

The quarter-finals brought another American opponent, Terry Littlejohn II, from Detroit.

“By then I was all confidence and I destroyed him 17-4,” Bajric said of the encounter.

The script was becoming more and more fictional by the match. By the semi-final the spectators were firmly behind Bajric.

Sadly, there would be no dream finale. Leading 8-7 with seconds on the clock, a foul was called against Bajric, his fifth, which meant automatic elimination. Just like that, he was out.

The crowd booed, and Bajric pleaded. But it was too late.

“I will never forget this loss,” said Bajric, who grew up in Canada. “I knew along with everyone else in the crowd that I deserved to win, but I guess in life we have to learn to rise back up.

“Even though everyone kept congratulating me and telling me nothing but positive comments, I feel disappointed and heart-broken because I knew I was the best player out there.”

His conqueror went on to lose the final to Tarron “The Beast” Williams, who represented East Los Angeles.

Ten days later, back in Abu Dhabi, where he works as a schoolteacher, Bajric has had time to reflect on his experience, and it has made him more determined to return to the Rock next year.

“This feeling will not leave me until I get another chance,” he said. “I promise to work harder than ever and not stop preparing until the title is mine next year.

“I now know and, more importantly, believe that I can beat any player in front of me.”

If he does return, you can be sure everyone on the Rock will know his name, next time round.

akhaled@thenational.ae