DUBAI: When Mohanned Shobain fell in love with basketball at the age of 15, little did he realize that it would become his full-time career. Nor could he have imagined that he would one day be coaching the next generation of Saudi stars and encouraging young women to take up what was until recently a male-dominated sport in the Kingdom.
Now, as Saudi Arabia hosts its first-ever women’s basketball tournament, Shobain is at the forefront of efforts to promote and develop the sport among women in the country and give local talent the chance to shine in the international arena.
A Saudi Premier League champion, he opened his first Swish Basketball Academy in Jeddah in 2017. It was followed by four more in the city and one in Riyadh.
His leading role in developing the sport of basketball in the Kingdom, particularly among women, is a serendipitous continuation of work he began as a student, when he wrote a thesis focusing on gender inequalities in sports. He said that when he returned home to the Kingdom after completing his studies, it served as a major motivation for him to improve the sports environment for both genders.
To that end, Shobain took a team of girls to Romania to compete in a three-on-three World Cup qualification tournament in 2019, and a boys’ team to take part in a competition in Dubai in 2018. Last year, the club helped to host the Saudi Kingdom Cup in Jeddah. This summer, he will take a girls’ team to Europe to take part in a basketball camp and develop their skills.
In the meantime, the Swish Basketball Academy is one of the organizers of the All-Women Saudi Basketball Tournament, the first event of its kind for women in the country, which began on Jan. 22 and continues until March 3, with games taking place in Jeddah and Riyadh.
“Just having this (women’s basketball) tournament and having this opportunity for them here is amazing,” Shobain said.
He added that community building is the main motivation for his work, in an effort to bring together local people and families and encourage them to get active and embrace a new lifestyle in a rapidly changing country.
Shobain, who is also a full-time physical education teacher at the American International School of Jeddah, has big plans to improve on this record by helping to train a new generation of male and female players.
At the heart of his philosophy is a desire to encourage the country’s youth to participate in sport. He said he sees great demand and hunger among local young people to take advantage of such opportunities.
He believes there is the talent and potential in the Kingdom not only for sports to increase in popularity as hobbies, but for Saudi men and women to make their mark in international competitions and at the Olympics.
Shobain’s efforts to develop local basketball talent are already bearing fruit; four players who train with him have made it to the Saudi national team, and two women are playing for university teams while studying in the US.
“The results are out there,” he said. “All the (academy’s basketball) coaches are currently playing professionally and they teach as a part-time job, just to represent themselves and represent the academy in a great way, where they can be good role models.
“I feel like we’ve built a great culture of not just basketball but a lifestyle of how basketball players and athletes would live.”
Participants in the inaugural All-Women Saudi Basketball Tournament are relishing the competition and the chance it has given them to gain experience and develop their skills.
Layane Chemaitily, who started playing when she was 10 years old in Lebanon, said that the chance to compete on such a stage, in a big arena, is a dream come true. She admitted that she is feeling the pressure of competition, partly because at the age of 17 she is the youngest player on her team and in the tournament.
“I was scared and got butterflies in my stomach but I also wanted to compete and fight, and without my team around me cheering me on we wouldn’t have been able to cope with the pressure of the competition,” she said.
“There is a lot of adrenaline and pressure but we were also very happy to represent Saudi Arabia as girls (from) different cities across the Kingdom. It was really fun, and it helps you gain a lot of experience.”
Chemaitily added that she hopes the tournament not only will be a step for her personally toward earning a place on a professional team one day, but will also motivate other girls and young women in Saudi Arabia to pursue their dreams in areas of society that were once the sole preserve of men.
“I can see that gender barriers are falling in the Kingdom, especially because previously male-dominated sports are starting to organize leagues and tournaments for women,” she said. “There is a lot coming for us in the future.”
Shobain is certainly doing his part to increase and develop the opportunities for women. In addition to its basketball activities, Swish also offers a boot camp that includes fitness classes; scholarship opportunities; and community-service activities such as helping to build and maintain basketball courts, and providing sports kits, shoes and basketballs to people who cannot afford them.
“These community activities, as well as the sport itself, are things that can develop (a child’s) character to become a better person and to learn how to give and not just take,” he said, referring to the life skills learned alongside sporting abilities.
Shobain, who is 31 years old, recalled his first encounter with basketball as a child, when he came across a street court close to his house during walks with his mother along the corniche. Soon after, he bought a ball and started to join in pick-up games with other players.
“Day by day, I fell in love with it,” he said. “I started coming every day and then I started to show up twice a day, and more than twice a day. I would stay late at nights just to practice and shoot around, and that’s when I realized my passion for it.”
Shobain hopes to instill in others the joy and excitement that accompanied his own discovery of the sport and his subsequent journey within it. An active teenager, he said he tried many sports, including soccer, swimming, track and field, and martial arts before basketball became his full-time passion. His soccer skills had even earned him a youth spot with Saudi Pro League side Al-Ahli but it was basketball that called loudest to him.
While a student in Malaysia, where he was studying business, he played for the University of Kuala Lumpur’s basketball team. As he honed his skills with them, he was spotted by a dean from Alfaisal University in Riyadh, who offered Shobain a full basketball scholarship to study there, play for the university’s team, and help to develop its sports program.
“It took me a week to think about it and then I made my decision and felt more comfortable about coming back home and continuing my bachelor’s education here,” he said.
After graduating, he explored a number of options to take his game to the next level and, with the help of a Saudi scholarship, he traveled to the US where he studied for a master’s degree in sports management at Cleveland State University in Ohio. It proved pivotal in the development of his game.
“I worked with the NBA (the National Basketball Association) and (NBA team) the Cleveland Cavaliers,” he said. “During my time there I also helped work with the men’s and women’s teams, playing and coaching.”
As the sport began to grow in popularity in the Kingdom, Shobain said he felt compelled to come back home to build a career and give something back to his community, despite receiving an attractive job offer in the US.
“I felt like the reason that I went to study outside was to bring it back to my community in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“That was a big drive for me to come back as soon as I was done, maybe not with 20 years of experience but at least with a little bit of knowledge that I can at least spread out now and start something that could benefit the next generation or the current generation.”
Shobain has high hopes for the sport in the Kingdom and believes its future looks bright, although he admitted change does not happen overnight.
“Everything takes time,” he said. “I’m very patient and I know our time will come and we will hopefully get there.
“There’s big potential for young Saudis, who could even make it to the NBA — they just need the right facilities, equipment, atmosphere, environment and training.”