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Lucy Knight

From Brooklyn to Beirut

The American basketball players that keep on coming

CJ Giles, one of the many "import" basketball players in Lebanon.

The drums are pounding and the fans are screaming. The Byblos and al-Riyadi basketball teams are into the second half of their game during the Houssam El Hariri Tournament at the al-Riyadi basketball club. Even though this is a friendly event, the screams suggest otherwise. To these eager spectators, the most noticeable figures running up and down the court are the giant, non-Lebanese men known locally as “imports.” Despite ongoing domestic and regional political tensions, these foreign players can’t get enough of playing for Lebanon.  

 

It’s been several years since the flurry of American basketball players – some ex-NBA, some wannabe NBA – made their way across the ocean to play for newly-rich teams in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon. Since that time, the Arab Spring has taken shape and  the war in Syria has escalated. But they keep coming.

 

“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” says Beirut newcomer Malik Jenkins. A native of Brooklyn in New York City, the 24-year-old shooting guard is signed with the Armenian team Antarik.

 

For athletes like Jenkins, playing in a league outside the US gives him the chance to gain the experience and skill he believes he needs for a shot at the NBA. Surprisingly, despite the Lebanese basketball league’s recent tribulations, which run from premature ends to championships to bans from international basketball federation FIBA, the league is supposed to have a good reputation outside the region. So for young players looking to gain experience and solid pay-checks (as much as $8,000 a month), it’s no shock to find men willing to come over.

 

Some such athletes find themselves wanting to stay long-term. One of Lebanon’s most longstanding imports is Joe Vogel. Now with Homenetem, Vogel first came in 1999 to join Sagesse. He ended up loving the country so much he was granted Lebanese citizenship.

 

But not all players are here for the long haul. CJ, also known as Chester Giles, a new addition to Amchit, is a perfect example of the travelling basketball player. Having previously played in the Philippines, Iraq, and Bahrain, where he now resides, this act of playing abroad is all par for the course.

 

“Various circumstances have led me here,” says CJ, “but I have a chance to play in the NBA next year.” If that doesn’t work out, he says he’s more than happy to return and is even in the process of opening up a basketball school in Bahrain.

 

For the fans, these players do add certain glamour to the sport and have helped maintain the standards of the league. However, some can’t understand why all this money should be spent on foreign players: “They’re fair,” says a lifelong Riyadi fan. “The US players give experience to other players, but they’re kind of overrated.”

 

It’s not all rainbows and schools for the kids though. The sport is currently in a state of flux that could easily see it damaged beyond repair. About to enter the second week of the Houssam El Hariri tournament held at Riyadi’s club, these are the first games the teams have played against one another since the disastrous end to the last league earlier this year, after a politically-tainted spat broke out in the quarterfinal series between the President Suleiman-backed Amchit and Champville, a team supported by FPM leader Michel Aoun. Following the incident, Lebanon’s men’s national team was barred from the Asia Championship and in turn disqualified for next year’s FIBA Basketball World Cup.

 

Broadly, poor management is a common complaint that affects the players. One US import, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that he has yet to receive any pay from his team. He also said they were “completely disorganised” and incapable of even deciding which positions players should hold.

 

“These are things that in the US just wouldn’t be happening. I want to be happy when I’m playing, not worrying about this other stuff. The happier the players, the better they perform, and the higher their chances of winning. ‘Cuz that’s the bottom line – winning.”

 

The Houssam El Hariri Tournament finale will be at 8:30 p.m. on November 27. Entry is free.

CJ Giles, one of the many "import" basketball players in Lebanon. (Image courtesy of Najib Haiby)

"It’s been several years since the flurry of American basketball players, some ex-NBA, some wannabe NBA, made their way across the ocean to play for newly-rich teams in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon."