BEIRUT: After Lebanon became the unlikely winners at WABA 2012, the question now is whether the Cedars have the potential to beat some of Asia’s best teams, even without adequate preparations. And answering the question is tricky.
On the one hand, anyone who follows the Lebanese basketball league can’t help but notice the potential out on the court. The rise of a handful of young players has been a blessing for head coach Ghassan Sarkis, who must now believe that his team can qualify for the World Championships.
However, the team’s victory does not disguise its gross mismanagement, which is coming close to undermining the superlative talent emerging through the Lebanese system.
What now? The team and the players have challenged themselves and managed to overcome numerous difficulties to win the west Asian title with only one loss and with remarkable victories over Iran, the back-to-back Asian Champions in 2007 and 2009, and Jordan, who are in the running for a place at the London Olympics.
The next event that awaits Lebanon is the FIBA ASIA Cup [previously known as the Stankovic Cup], and the Cedars will enter the tournament, which will take place in Tokyo between Sept. 14 and Sept. 22, as defending champions after winning the 2010 edition in Beirut.
But will absent stars such as Jean Abdel-Nour, Ghaleb Reda and Ali Mahmoud return to the fold after missing out on the WABA tournament, and help the team qualify for the FIBA World Championships next year, or will Sarkis turn to his youngsters with an eye on the future?
The first option would be the most popular, but it looks unrealistic with the expected absence of Lebanese legend Fadi al-Khatib for family reasons,. This leaves the second option as a more attractive choice for the future of Lebanese basketball.
The “Wuhan 2011” experiment – when Sarkis took a slew of unproven players to the Asian Championships – has proven beyond doubt that although Lebanon finished out of the semifinal position for the first time in 10 years, it was a step forward for the future of the national team.
Some players who would normally have played behind veteran basketballers took on a much bigger role. Players such as Rodrigue Akl, Charles Tabet, Elie Stephan and Bassel Bawji are now the core of the team and their experience acquired in the last Asian Championship has made them different players.
Stephan, for example, could have sat out if Sarkis had listened the public’s demand to play the 30-year-old Omar Turk. Meanwhile, Stephan has proven to be an equal or perhaps even better version of Turk, and he was one of the key players of the national team in the WABA tournament.
The same applies for Akl, who nearly averaged a triple double in the two most important matches against Iran and Jordan.
The 24-year-old point guard has been always a third option in the national team after veterans Ali Mahmoud and Rony Fahed, but recently he has jumped up the pecking order to become starting point guard.
It is testament to the quality of Lebanon’s young players and the support of their veterans that they pulled off the WABA win with a broken federation – one that was burst at the seams after “Riyadigate” at the end of the league season – as well as shockingly bad preparations.
“Words cannot explain the weight of pressure that has been put on us lately concerning the subject of the national team. The federation is almost broken, but thanks to the players and the technical staff, one by one, we made it to WABA Champions,” president Georges Barakat said.
“Our situation was terrible and if I have to explain, it will be really painful. We had so many issues to deal with. The naturalization process wasn’t completed one day before leaving to Amman, and our captain Khatib was almost not going [his wife is more than eight months pregnant].
“I really thank him for the high maturity and responsibility he showed toward his country before anyone else,” he added.
“To be honest, I can’t promise anything right now. We have a big financial problem, and if the government does not release the money, we are in a risky situation. We have three travels to east Asian countries [senior and youth national teams] and the expenses are pretty high,” Barakat explained.
However, Barakat remains optimistic about the future of the national team if the financial side can be solved.
“Our boys have proven their weight. They went there [to Amman] with a depleted roster and bad preparations, and yet they were able to beat Iran and Jordan.
“If the money were secured, I promise that we will prepare a great team, and naturalize a high-profile player.”