x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Basketball: Between a rock and a hard place to get to in Alcatraz

Players rise to the one-on-one basketball challenge in Dubai and Serb Bajric comes out on top to win a trip to Alcatraz for the finale of the King of The Rock tournament. Ali Khaled watches the action

Zack Barjic, left, takes on Mamadou Ndiaye in Dubai Mall on Thursday.
Zack Barjic, left, takes on Mamadou Ndiaye in Dubai Mall on Thursday.

Breaking into jail? You could do with some Red Bull to give you wings. It's a tall order.

The quips had been done to death, and it was time for action.

For those taking part in the UAE's Red Bull King of The Rock competition, it was serious business.

In Dubai, on Thursday night, 32 player from across the emirates were pitted in a series of one-on-one basketball match-ups to determine who should represent the country at the competition's global finale which, since 2010, has been staged at the island home of the former US federal prison commonly known as Alcatraz. Or by its nickname: The Rock. (Which is also basketball slang for the ball.)

Two players, half-court, five minutes. Winner advances, loser exits.

By the end of the night, Zack Bajric, a Serbian professional basketball player who grew up in Canada, was the only man to win five matches.

In September he goes to San Francisco, the city whose eponymous bay is home to the wind-swept Alcatraz Island.

It was anything but straightforward. For one thing, he had to overcome the challenges of a field containing several giants.

Among them, the 6ft 8ins (2.03m) Syrian international Amer Al Sati; last year's winner, the 22-year-old Emirati Qais Al Shabibi; and Senegal's Mamadou Ndiaye.

One-on-one is a world away from basketball as played by five-man teams.

"It's a totally different game," Bajric said before his first match. "Everybody has a legitimate shot and especially here there are some really good athletes.

"For them it's a perfect place for this kind of competition because they are strong, they can back you down and they can score at will. It doesn't matter if you've played pro; it's one on one."

However, even at this early stage, he seemed unfazed.

"I've always been a confident guy, not because I'm cocky but because I work very hard," the 30-year-old resident of Abu Dhabi said as he prepared to step on the court. "I've been working very hard for this event and you know what? Hard work pays off."

His confidence, it turned out, was not misplaced. He promptly won 11-0.

In the player's enclosure, the participants joked and chatted, but it was clear a class divide existed.

"The standards are different," Al Shabibi said. "There are some young players who have just started, and others who have a lot of experience."

His first game was a mismatch. Last year's winner of the UAE's King of the Rock competition and had the experience of playing at Alcatraz. Apart from the jump in standards, one thing caught Al Shabibi off guard, at Alcatraz.

"It was cold, and I wasn't prepared that much for it," he said. "If I win this year, I'll do everything differently and I'll be representing the UAE much better than last year."

One of the most popular players taking part was the affable, and generous, Al Sati. "Actually, they're all good players," he said of those who qualified for the final stage. "There's no big difference. It's just the height difference and mentality that make a difference.

"Some players play smart, and use their height as an advantage."

Few used their height as well as he did, and how the crowd loved it.

More than anyone else, they seemed to react to his stunning slam dunks, which you half expected to be accompanied by video-game-like flashing explosions.

Despite the action taking place on Dubai Mall's ice rink, the heat, as well as the competition, was rising.

It became clear who the leading contenders were in what turned into a four-and-a-half-hour marathon of basketball.

"Overall it was a very, very tough day … it was very tough on the body," Barjic said. "By the time of the final I was mentally and physically exhausted."

It came down to the final four of Bajric, Al Shabibi, Ndiaye and the Kenyan Rey Odiambo.

Bajric and Ndiaye progressed, and after a tight battle, the Serb won 12-7 .

"I am proud to be crowned Red Bull King of The Rock," the new champion said as he celebrated. "I gave all I had, and my training and commitment paid off, as basketball is not just a game to me. It is my job, my passion and my life".

Bajric can now look forward to playing among the best one-on-one streetballers in the world. The players he will face will be, as Al Shabibi said, "on a different level".

Bajric, however, intends to stick to his routine of running up to 15 kilometres several times a week, as well as his daily two hours of shooting. "My main arsenal, since I'm only 6-foot-2."

There is also the matter of the English teacher returning to Italy this summer to work out with his former team.

As for the cold conditions at Alcatraz, even in September, he foresees no issues.

"For me, personally, it wouldn't be that difficult, having grown up in Canada," he said, laughing. "If anything, the opposite is true for me; it was too hot for me here in the UAE."

He heads off to The Rock in the best of spirits, and with a message to basketball fans in the Emirates.

"I'd like to say thanks to all the fans for their unconditional support," he said. "I love this place, I love this country it's been so good to for my family."

On September 28, those fans will be hoping he repeats Thursday's success on The Yard at The Rock.

Bajric said: "I will do my absolute best to represent the UAE successfully."