Patrick Yousef Gardner has had an eventful summer but it is about to get more intense as he prepares to suit up for Egypt at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, which is being hosted by the Philippines, Indonesia and Japan from Friday Aug. 25.
The 24-year-old center, who was born in Merrick, New York, to an Egyptian mother and American father, did not hear his name called out in the 2023 NBA Draft but bounced back with an NBA Summer League appearance for the Miami Heat before agreeing on a deal with the Brooklyn Nets. This would see him join the team in training camp and potentially play for their G-League affiliate Long Island side.
But before he turns his attention to the Nets, Gardner gets to check an important item off his bucket list as he joins the Pharaohs in their first World Cup outing since 2014.
It is a dream opportunity for the 2.10-meter Gardner, who gets to connect with his Egyptian roots while helping the team tackle a tricky Group D in Manila that includes Lithuania, Montenegro and Mexico.
“It’s a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to play for this team but I never thought it was possible until this year. So I’m just so excited to be a part of this and I’m ready to compete with this amazing team,” Gardner told Arab News in Abu Dhabi, where Egypt held a one-week training camp and participated in games during International Basketball Week.
Gardner recalls the trips he made to Egypt with his family when he was younger, which included visits to the Pyramids, Red Sea, and vacation at the North Coast by the Mediterranean.
“My mom really loves her country which kind of spread to us and that made us really appreciate where she’s from and we try to embrace it as much as we can,” he said.
“She always took us to Egypt in high school to spend the summers there. I really loved my time there.”
It is a different, and potentially career-defining, kind of summer for the hardworking Gardner, who is keen to seize every opportunity that comes his way.
“As a basketball player like me, everything is uncertain kind of, because if you’re in the NBA and you’re signing a long-term contract, you’re kind of set. But you still gotta earn your respect and your way in any league you play in, so there’s a lot of uncertainty but as long as you stay ready, that’s all you can ask for,” he explained.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and it could be stressful but I’m glad I have really good people that surround me to make me feel comfortable to know that whatever the outcome is that everything will work out.”
Gardner began speaking to the Egyptian Basketball Federation last year but it was not until last week that he finally got his paperwork in order. He subsequently received his Egyptian passport and was able to fly from Cairo to join the national team’s pre-World Cup camp at NYU Abu Dhabi.
“It’s been great, they’re such good people, they welcomed me in, which was something I was a little nervous about, coming from America and stuff, but I have nothing but respect for them and I’m so happy that they welcomed me in and everything,” said Gardner of his teammates.
He acknowledges that the Pharaohs face a daunting task in Manila but added: “I think we all believe that we more than belong and I believe that we can make some upsets.”
Another late addition to the squad is 21-year-old point guard Adam Moussa, who arrived in Abu Dhabi last Wednesday, new Egyptian passport in hand, and was on court two days later repping the North Africans in an exhibition game against Lebanon at Etihad Arena.
Moussa was born in Cairo but moved with his family to the US at age 6, and grew up in Coppell, a Dallas suburb.
He recently committed to Tarleton State University, where he plays Division I basketball while pursuing a master’s degree.
“My dad pretty much threw away his dream of playing basketball. He was playing professionally and stopped it short for us to have a chance to grow up in America because he knew the training is better and just the facilities are better at the time,” said Moussa.
“It’s been a difficult road, even in high school, in middle school, I’m just a kid and my dad’s making me practice two times a day and I want to go out hang out with my friends. But it’s all worth it now and I owe everything to him.
“It means the world to me to be part of this national team and I can’t wait to represent my country.”
Moussa impressed against Lebanon last Thursday and seems to have blended seamlessly with the Egyptian squad. It may not have sunk in just yet that he is currently in Manila ready to compete in a World Cup.
“Honestly I kind of feel like I’m at school still and I’m just playing with friends, I haven’t realized the moment and I hope that’s how it stays until after the tournament’s over so I don’t get too shell-shocked,” he said.
“It means a lot to my family that I’m doing this but there was no change in the house, there’s nothing, they’re acting like it’s another tournament, and it’s good to keep me a little bit grounded, just not to get too high and too low, so I appreciate that a lot.”
Canadian coach Roy Rana took over the reins of Team Egypt at the start of 2022 and he reached out to Moussa to see if he wanted to join the roster. Rana helped guide Canada to the U19 World Cup in Cairo in 2017 and has built a promising Egyptian team that mixes experience with youth.
It is a novel approach for Egypt, giving a chance to young talents including 18-year-old Karim Hatem and 21-year-old Moussa and one that could pay some handsome dividends down the road.
“It’s a very smart team and very fun to play with. There’s no chemistry issues at all,” added Moussa.
Meanwhile, Lebanon has recruited former NBA player Omari Spellman, giving the Ohio native citizenship, so he could help them in their first World Cup appearance since 2010.
The 26-year-old power forward, who is fresh off a title run with Anyang KGC in the Korean Basketball League, won a national championship in college with Villanova in 2018 and was drafted 30th overall by the Atlanta Hawks that year.
Spellman admits he has a lot to learn about Lebanon but is already starting to appreciate what the Cedars are all about.
“Honestly, at first I didn’t understand. But just being around these guys, being around my coaching staff, being around my teammates on a daily basis, I really started to understand and embrace the culture,” he said.
“The fans are great, my teammates are great, I’m just so proud and happy to be a part of this.
“They’re very passionate, they have a lot of emotion and they have high expectations and it’s my job to meet those expectations but at the same time never doubt myself. I’m just happy to be a part of that culture finally and I just want to make those guys proud.”
Spellman says the team’s unity is what stands out the most and he is excited to get their campaign underway at the World Cup, where they join Latvia, France and Canada in a loaded Group H in Jakarta.
“It’s pressure but it’s nothing new. I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it at all levels. I was at Villanova on our way to a national championship run and things that were said, the scrutiny during that, all throughout my career so this is nothing new. I’ve just got to keep stepping up to the plate,” said Spellman.
“We’re going to play as hard as possible. That is something that coach Jad (El-Hajj) has instilled in us and something that we want to continue to do. I know you’ve seen Ali Mezher stealing the ball, running all over the court, Ali Mansour, those guys are incredible, Wael Arakji, I’m just so proud of my guys.
“Everybody’s together, when I wasn’t playing well, those guys didn’t give up on me and they stayed with me. When someone misses a shot we stay with him, when things get rough we stay together. So as long (as) we stay together we’ll be fine through any storm.”
Jordan have also made it to the World Cup and are in Group C alongside the US, Greece and New Zealand in Manila.