x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Hakeem 'The Dream' taps UAE's interest in basketball

Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon, an NBA Hall of Famer with the Houston Rockets, was the star attraction at JamFest on Yas Island.

The NBA Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon entertains fans at the Yas Island Show Weekends. Martin Pfeiffer for The National
The NBA Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon entertains fans at the Yas Island Show Weekends. Martin Pfeiffer for The National

ABU DHABI // UAE basketball fans had a chance to learn from a legend of the game this weekend.

The NBA Hall of Famer Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon was the star attraction as the National Basketball Association (NBA) set up shop on Yas Island for a three-day festival called JamFest.

Activities during the event, which was part of Yas Island Show Weekends, ranged from master classes with professionals to community tournaments.

"You can see the people here are really excited about basketball and the NBA," Mr Olajuwon said during an appearance yesterday. "You see they are excited about getting a taste of it live."

Mr Olajuwon believes JamFest is about more than promoting the sport - it is about promoting a healthy lifestyle, too.

Speaking about the importance of encouraging people to take part in sport in a country where diabetes and obesity are problems, he said: "I'm sure many more people will want to continue with the sport after this. It's just created an environment where it's easier for them to participate."

Mr Olajuwon, 47, was a two-time NBA champion with the Houston Rockets, and in both those years was named the most valuable player of the playoffs.

A devout Muslim, he continued to play at a high level while fasting for Ramadan.

He now spends much of his time with his wife and children in Jordan, the country where he studied Arabic so he could read the Quran in its original form.

As a player, Mr Olajuwon was also known for his community work. While in Abu Dhabi his schedule included school visits and coaching clinics.

The JamFest also included three-on-three basketball competitions, acrobatics by the Milwaukee Bucks dunk team, high jinks by the Indiana Pacers mascot Boomer (a sort of blue cat), and the New York Knicks dance squad.

Aly El Hamamsy, the managing director of NBA Middle East, said the popular reception of JamFest has heightened the league's desire to expand in the region.

The league currently has one non-US team, in Toronto, Canada.

"Events like this are so important to engage people of all ages and levels in sport," Mr Olajuwon said.

Mariam Demessie, 16, was one of the fans supporting two of the 180 local teams competing in three- on-three matches, a competition which also drew teams from the country's universities, including the University of Sharjah and New York University Abu Dhabi.

Mariam and her brother Yosafe, 18, part of The Underdogs team, play regularly in Bainuna where they live. Avid fans of the game, the siblings say its local popularity has risen in recent years.

They play on a public court near their home, but say that more facilities would be welcomed in the capital.

"It would be really good to see a league set up here like there is in football," said Yosafe, an Ethiopian who has lived here all his life. "When we put events on, we get around 50 people turning up. It's really growing."

Maria Pardinez from the Philippines attended the event with her husband, sister-in-law and the family's children.

"The whole family is crazy about NBA," she said. "We love it. I wanted to call my baby Michael, after Michael Jordan, but then I had a girl," she laughed.