RIYADH: Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark recently made headlines in the basketball world when an on-court spat saw TV ratings for the LSU-Iowa national championship obliterate records as 9.9 million viewers tuned in.
The controversy, combined with some spectacular talent on display and exciting games, ensured the two players put women’s basketball on the map, generating new fans.
Building a legacy in sport starts with trailblazers that can generate that type of interest, the ones who aspire to inspire, and play for the love of the game.
That is what several talented players in the Saudi Basketball Premier League are hoping to do for the women’s game in the Kingdom.
At 5-foot 4 inches tall, Dareen Sabban is not your typical basketball player.
Hailing from Jeddah, she did not grow up playing basketball in the backyard with her brothers, nor was sport a part of her life at all. Sabban first picked up a basketball when she was 17 years old starting university, where she ended up playing a number of sports.
She said: “I fell in love with basketball more than any of the other sports. By the end of university, I had decided I wanted to pursue basketball more seriously. I practised harder and started participating in competitions.”
After representing the Jeddah Swish Basketball Academy, and coaching youngsters, she was approached by Al-Ahli Club and joined the Saudi Basketball Premier League.
“I heard of people signing up with the clubs, but I never thought I would be one of them. It was very surreal when everything became official. I am super happy and excited to be a part of this club – and my favorite color is green, so it’s a perfect match,” the 29-year-old added.
Sabban joined the Al-Ahli Club in January, and the newly formed women’s basketball league began its season in February.
Although the campaign only lasts three months, the teams’ training continues all year round. By day, Sabban works full time as a senior advertising executive, and by evening she has her hands full shooting hoops, spending six days a week on the court; training, playing friendly games, and league matches.
The development of sport in the Kingdom is part of the Vision 2030 reform plan to offer a fulfilling and healthy life under the strategic objective of a vibrant society.
Saudi Arabia has made it clear that sport is an important pillar to a community’s health and actively supports gender equality across the board. Sabban is among many other female players who have just joined the league and got the ball rolling.
She said: “I want to inspire the new generation to do what they love. I am blessed to be one of the first to play in the official women’s league, the Saudi Games, and to open the door for all females. I am grateful for that.
“I will keep playing harder to represent the Al-Ahli Club in the best way possible and make them proud. So, they can tell my story to the next generation of basketball players.”
Similar to all the clubs in the league, Al-Ahli’s hope is to come out on top every season, but just as importantly, it aims to build strong teams that generate growth for the benefit of the league and its players.
“Al Ahli Club has been great, they are very supportive and provide everything we need,” Sabban added.
And she highlighted the support of her family and the Al-Ahli fans.
“Some people ask me for pictures, some ask to follow me on social media, and they tell me how I inspire them, alhamdulillah this means the world to me.
“The crowds at our games are amazing, I love them. Obviously, I feel a little nervous, but I am starting to get used to that type of competitive atmosphere now and really enjoy it.”
Her path has not been without its challenges, however, and not everyone accepted her decision to play sport professionally.
Sabban said: “At first the challenges were based on the lack of female coaches, and it was new to everyone, so it seemed weird.
“Thankfully my family, they are different, and they didn’t stop me from doing what makes me happy. They come to my games or ask for the link to watch the matches live.
“But there are others who believe that basketball is for men, and they criticize me for my choices, but I don’t care as long as I have my parents, sisters, and brothers with me, that is all I need.”
Sabban aims to win and represent her club well, so that more players will take up the sport, while at the same time building a strong fan base.
In the long term, she hopes to play for the Saudi national team and make her mark internationally for the Kingdom.
“I love everything about basketball, every single moment,” she added.