NBA in Abu Dhabi: A legacy that goes beyond two preseason games

Dubai teenager Anja Obradovic is dripping in sweat and out of words – she just finished a basketball clinic with players from the Milwaukee Bucks and was given a signed shirt from Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“I have Giannis’ shirt, I don’t even know how, he signed it. I have no words. I turned around and then the coach came and said, ‘Giannis gave you this’. I can’t believe it,” Anja told Arab News at the gym of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, where hundreds of kids from across the UAE have taken part in clinics with NBA players and coaches over the past week.

It’s taken the NBA a long time to finally venture into the Arab world and Gulf region but its arrival to the UAE capital this week, where two preseason games between the Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks are taking place at Etihad Arena, was well worth the wait.

A multi-year deal between the NBA and Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) was announced last November and with it came a promise the collaboration would be much more than just hosting two games; it would build a lasting legacy far beyond that.



A Jr. NBA UAE program was launched, which saw over 450 kids between the ages of 11 to 14 take part in a basketball league that featured 20 boys’ teams and 10 girls’. A Draft Day was organized in the presence of Portland Trail Blazers legend Clyde Drexler as the children found out which teams – named after actual NBA franchises – they landed in.

Season two will feature an expanded version of the league, with 60 teams from Abu Dhabi schools set to take part.

“Every year they select one girl and one boy to go with the Elite team to the Jr. NBA Europe camp,” explained Bassam Nawfal, managing director of Sport360X, the local agency operating Jr. NBA UAE.

“This year there was a boy selected from Lycee Abu Dhabi and he traveled with the Jr. NBA Elite team to Rome, where they had a four-day camp. They do that every single season, hoping that one day we can get the first NBA player from the UAE that will join an NBA team.”



The league is just one part of the story. This week, some 2,000 kids were involved in various clinics and activities organized as part of this NBA-DCT agreement. USA Basketball coaches held sessions with P.E teachers from Abu Dhabi schools.

Legends like Shaquille O’Neal, Isiah Thomas, Vince Carter and Chris Bosch were invited to engage with fans and participated in Q&As at NBA District, a fan zone set up at Manarat Al Saadiyat that provides an immersive experience for lovers of the game.

The UAE’s first-ever NBA store opened at Yas Mall and an e-commerce site dedicated to this region is going live soon.

As part of the initiative as well, the NBA launched its first Arabic social media channels to connect with fans across the Arab world.

“The games are the tip of the iceberg and I think that everyone would always want to have games come into their market; but for us the games are a catalyst to do all these other things and finding that right combination of a place with a good arena but then a place that also thinks about it more holistically in terms of the impact that it can have beyond the games. This is what we have found here,” Ralph Rivera, Managing Director of NBA Europe and Middle East told reporters in Abu Dhabi.



The Bucks had just landed in the UAE capital, coming off a 14-hour flight, and went straight to the NYU campus on Saadiyat Island to take part in a clinic with 150 youngsters from NBA Basketball School in Dubai, the Filipino basketball community and Jr. NBA.

As the Bucks introduced themselves to the group, kids were lifting each other on their backs just to get a better view of the NBA stars standing before them. It wasn’t long before those kids actually played basketball with the Bucks squad and coaches, going for lay-ups with the likes of Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton guarding them and giving them tips.

“It’s great, they’re a bunch of players that we see on TV all the time, people that we look up to, people that have games we try to emulate. It’s fantastic to see them in person,” said 16-year-old Italian Frederick Graewert from NBA Basketball School in Dubai.  

“I would say the biggest thing we learned was once we’re on the court with them, kind of their bodies, really how small we look compared to them. So a tip I would take away from this, is to put a lot work in the weight room because these guys are a lot bigger than us and if we want to stand a chance to compete then that’s what you have to do.”



NBA commissioner Adam Silver admits it has taken the organization a long time to come to the region in this manner and says part of the wait was because they were looking for an indoor arena that fit all the criteria needed to host a successful event.

“Traveling NBA teams is not something that we take lightly. There are enormous traveling parties that come with them; there’s a lot at stake in terms of their physical wellbeing need for state-of-the-art facilities. So it’s largely been a function of arena infrastructure and we’re fortunate now that we have truly a state-of-the-art arena here,” Silver said in a roundtable interview held at Etihad Arena earlier this week.

“We’re very optimistic that these games will have an impact and there will be more that follow, not just here in Abu Dhabi but throughout the region.”

These NBA Abu Dhabi games haven’t just impacted the UAE community; Hawks and Bucks players and coaches have spoken about how beneficial this overseas trip can be for their respective teams, and how rewarding it felt to be part of the spread of the game to new territories.

“We’re going to be a part of history; so just go out compete and have fun and remember this moment forever,” said newly-acquired Hawks guard Dejounte Murray about participating in the first-ever NBA game in the region.



Coach Nate McMillan said the Hawks organization was keen on sending the team early – they arrived to Abu Dhabi last Saturday, five days before their first game – so they could take in the full experience.

“Our ownership wanted us to come over and experience the culture and the people and the land,” he told Arab News.

“For us to have the opportunity to be a part of this NBA global game; I’ve been a part of three of these – we went to Japan and I’ve gone to Mumbai and now coming here and introducing our game to this city, this country, this community, really excited to be a part of that again.”

Hawks star Trae Young has enjoyed his week so far, which included a ride on a camel he named Jerry.

“Just being with our team and being able to have this time to really build chemistry; going to the Louvre and having dinner there, we did a camel ride in the desert, that was a different experience. We’re building chemistry out here with new guys,” said Young.

“Trying to go where we want, you have to be connected off the floor. So I think if you continue to build that and that’s strong, it’s going to show on the court. That’s my favorite part about this whole trip so far.”



Two-time MVP and 2021 NBA champion Antetokounmpo brought his family with him to the Emirates and has been soaking up every moment. He brought incredible energy to the gym during the clinic held last Tuesday, keen on giving the kids an unforgettable experience.

“I’m excited about the game but at the end of the day this makes it even more fun, this is what basketball is about; just giving back to the kids,” said the Greek Freak.

“And I know they’re going to remember it because when I was 14, 15, a lot of NBA or Euro League legends came to my practice and helped me become great and who I am today. I know this one hour, two hours, we’re spending here with the kids, they’re going to always remember it and this is what basketball is about.”

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