BEIRUT: Although most of Lebanon’s basketball followers have switched their attention to the national team’s effort in winning the gold medal in the Pan Arab Games in Doha (Dec. 7-23), transfer activity is still under way back home.
Local clubs have been busy re-building their teams, based on their showings during the first leg of the Lebanese basketball league.
For some clubs, the break, which is expected to last until a few days after Christmas, has represented a unique chance to make major changes to their lineups. For others, the holiday has merely provided more time to develop team chemistry.
Champville and Riyadi, who currently lie first and second respectively in the standings, have resisted the temptation of changing their squads. But they participated in a four-day tournament in Dubai, where Riyadi won first place, beating Sharqah of the UAE in the finals, while Champville decided to rest their star players and finished fourth of six participating teams.
“It was just a tournament to keep the players in the basketball atmosphere with the local break,” said Champville’s coach Ghassan Sarkis. “I didn’t want to risk any of my main players, especially that they also have another tournament with the national team in a week.
“On the bright side, I was very satisfied with the level that our youngsters showed during the tournament, specifically Hasan Dandash, Aboudy al-Farekh and Elie Ghaleb,” said Sarkis.
Champville finished the first leg of the regular season with no losses, having won all nine of their games, including a remarkable win over rivals Riyadi 94-88 in the clash of the unbeaten teams.
Byblos and Anibal Zahle, who lie third and fourth respectively with the same amount of points (18), have felt no need to make further changes to their rosters.
The same goes for Bejjeh, the newly promoted club, who had a slow start but quickly recovered form, recording several remarkable wins – most noticeably against Sagesse in the last week to earn the fifth place at the end of the first leg.
“We are learning as a team,” said Nadim Souaid, Bejjeh’s team captain who has been averaging 16 points and five rebounds per game. “We had a slow start, mainly because our old imports did not give us the push needed, but then when the two new American players came [Arthur Lee and Jarold Jamison], we improved big time.
“Our goal now is to retain our position in the standings, and anything more will be a plus.”
However, if the rise of the Jbeil-located teams [Byblos and Bejjeh] was quite surprising for many, the fall of Sagesse and Mouttahed in rankings was even more so considering their budget and quality players.
However, Sagesse’s fall in rankings might be understandable since the club has recently suffered from management problems.
“It’s not helping at all,” said Sagesse’s Serbian coach Tony Vujanic regarding the administrative problems that have overshadowed the “Green Castle” since the beginning of the season.
“Those problems affected our team performance a lot, since there was no stability over the past few weeks and this wasn’t encouraging for the players. I hope that things change for the best now.
“We had a week off, then we restarted our daily practices. We have a small injury for Joe Ghattas while Miguel Martinez is out with the national team. We have a lot of work to do after the change in the foreign players,” said Vujanic.
Sagesse, who finished in sixth place, were the most active club in the break, as they signed well-known American scorer Nate Johnson (199 cm/34 years old) and center Brandon Crump (208 cm/29 years old).
Johnson has played for the last three years in Lebanon with Riyadi and led them to win the local league during those years. He is characterized by his long range and off-the-dribble shot. While Crump led Sharqah of UAE last year to the Arab tournament title, he is a decent center with good offensive and defensive abilities.
“Signing both was the biggest move for us this season. They will refresh our team and give us the necessary push toward fulfilling our gaps,” said Vujanic.
“We need to work on our physical conditions to match the other bigger and taller teams, this is my main concern now besides the management thing for sure.”
Meanwhile, Mouttahed, who sit in seventh place, are still struggling to find their rhythm this season, especially with the injuries in their squad.
The team’s management was forced to take action and American coach Paul Coughter paid the price. His replacement will be Guillermo Vecchio from Argentina, who is likened to football’s legend Diego Maradona thanks to his erratic behavior.
Hoops and Antranik, who finished eighth and ninth respectively in the rankings table, are also seeking to run away from the dangerous zone. Hoops are expected to change American point guard Ricky Clemons who hasn’t lived up to the expectations of the head coach Patrick Saba. The Armenian side signed American scorer Derrick Tarver, replacing fellow American Ian Young.
“Tarver will give us a big push as he is an offensive machine and a very experienced player” explained Antranik’s coach Aaron Mitchell. “We have been working during the past few weeks to reach a high level of intensity. Our goal is to enter in the top eight teams as first, and then we’ll try to improve our rankings.
“Only one game changed our year so far. Had we won over Sagesse in the first leg [the game finished 82-84 in overtime], we could have finished in fifth or sixth place, so it’s not a big deal that we’re late in the table. The league is still long,” said Mitchell.
“My team is [the] hardest working team in the league. Our players are mostly young and motivated. We played hard but not often smart. We did not have the luxury of starting early enough to get more experienced players so this is what we get. I am very proud of this group and the progress they have made.
“I promise that my team will be different in second leg, I have many surprises on my mind,” Mitchell said.