Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sareyyet Ramallah basketball: A grudging admiration for these underdogs

A grudging admiration for these underdogs
by rick olivares

Despite Chooks to Go-Pilipinas’ 89-82 loss to Palestinian club Sareyyet Ramallah in the FIBA Asia Champions Cup, there’s this admiration I feel for this and other Palestinian sports teams.

They are the ultimate underdogs. They are a people without their own country and with meager resources. I can only imagine what it is like for them to want to live a normal life and still be dealt with all sorts of challenges especially in a region that is constantly on war footing.

In some ways, I am reminded of that account of Iraq’s footballers as chronicled by British journalist Simon Freeman in the revealing book, Baghdad FC, that documented the torture and murder of Iraqi athletes during the despotic reign of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son and sports minister when they would lose matches. And following the Allied invasion of Iraq and facing the threat of Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIL, these footballers would play their home matches in other countries! Incredibly and despite everything, Iraq’s national team is ranked among the best in the world.

While to my knowledge, the Palestinians do not undergo similar brutal circumstances, theirs is nevertheless just as fascinating a story.

Honestly, I first became aware of Palestinian sports after they defeated the Philippine Men’s National Team, 1-nil, during the 2014 finals of the Asian Football Confederation Challenge Cup that was played at the Maldives. Ashraf Al Fawaghra scored on a brilliant free kick that beat Roland Muller for the match’s only goal.

And one year later, in the FIBA Asia Cup, a Palestine team, unranked in the FIBA World and Asian rankings – smaller than the Filipinos and younger, indicating a lack of experience, piped the Philippines 75-73 in the tourney opener. Sani Sakakini hit the game winning three-point play and had the game-saving block on then Philippine naturalized center Andray Blatche.

Palestine topped the group but ran out of luck in the second round, losing all their three matches. They finished 10th in a field of 16 (while the Philippines went home with a silver medal).

Last April, the first ever Palestinian Women’s Football Team competed in the qualification phase for the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup. Their squad played only two matches losing by a total of 11-0.

The scores and the results were irrelevant. Following a 6-nil loss to Thailand, team captain Claudie Salameh waxed euphoric, “Playing football for girls in Palestine is an enormous challenge,” she said via way of understatement. First and foremost, all Palestinian athletes are chosen from the Israeli-occupied territories and must receive permission to travel. Furthermore, these women’s athletes must also overcome traditional attitudes that women shouldn’t be playing sports and must be married come their 20s.

In basketball once more and two years after their historic 2015 FIBA Asia Cup run, Sareyyet Ramallah with only one of the Sakakini brothers (Salim) in uniform as well as the talented Jamal Abushamala, they pulled the trick once more this time to Chooks to Go Pilipinas. It was a big comeback win especially after they fell to Thailand’s Mono Vampire, 102-100, in overtime.

Sareyyet Ramallah booked their spot in the continental club championship via a backdoor when they defeated Iraqi club Al Mina in the West Asian Basketball Association Champions Cup. The Palestinians finished fifth in the competition but managed to sneak in with their upset win over Al Mina. Heading into the FIBA Asia Champions Cup, they lost their head coach, James Stevens. In his place is Frenchman Guy Claude Arnaud.

After Sareyyet Ramallah booked a spot, Stevens said of his team’s effort, “These men did not accept the excuses of the many disadvantages they had in resources and preparation, but they found a way to compete courageously together in the games.”

However, the American cautioned the future for Palestinian basketball. “The true importance of qualifying for the first time to participate in the Asian Club games remains to be seen. I hope it will lead to an increased emphasis by the federation to continue growing the game of basketball in Palestine and the process of player development and opportunities for the game to grow among the men and women and boys and girls. I believe the federation is making a great effort to do just that with the very limited resources they have at hand.

This – Palestinian sports in general – is a great story, one for the ages, I must add – that bears a lot of watching.

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