1 Whisper it very quietly, but Lebanon has a very serious chance of making waves in the forthcoming FIBA World Championships in Turkey.
Lebanon may be no stranger to the sport’s biggest event but its impact is limited to a famous 74-73 victory over France four years ago.
The Lebanese team is due to meet France again over the opening weekend but a victory this time will not come as such as a shock.
Fresh from its invigorating debut international tournament win in the Stankovic Cup, Lebanon is a team on a high, with new players and a new coach taking the team to levels never reached before.
The team’s position is a culmination of over 15 years of progress from no hopers to qualifiers, but now is the time to move up a stage.
Lebanon has never gone beyond the group stage in the World Championships, with two wins in five games in 2006 its best showing to date. In 2010 only Spain can be fully confident of beating the Cedars in the group phase.
On Saturday, Lebanon will line up against Canada, whom it comfortably defeated three days ago. A win in the first game will put the Cedars in good shape to progress through games against France, New Zealand and Lithuania. Only three wins overall are needed to proceed to the second round, from where anything can happen.
So why has Lebanon got a greater chance now than ever before?
Two obvious reasons present themselves. First, coach Tab Baldwin, who carved a reputation as a giant killer at his time in charge of New Zealand, has given the Cedars a greater team ethic, and more importantly has tightened up the defense that used to be so susceptible to opposition attacks. Twice in the recent Stankovic Cup Lebanon held the opposition to less than 60 points, a commendable achievement for a country of any size, let alone Lebanon and its relatively infantile domestic league. More emphasis is being put on dominating the rebounds and ensuring the team doesn’t commit needless turnovers, and submit to avoidable defeats.
Second, Lebanon no longer relies solely on Fadi al-Khatib to provide its inspiration. Khatib will go down as perhaps the legend and standard bearer for basketball in Lebanon but his demotion to team player rather than out-and-out talisman is the healthiest thing to happen to Lebanese basketball since his own debut 15 years ago.
“The Tiger” has top scored in nearly every tournament Lebanon has ever competed in and it was his extraordinary performance and 29 points against France in 2006 that provided Lebanon with its greatest moment on the world stage. He may be declining in speed and guile but his eye for a basket and powerful play in the key will be enough to cause trouble to even the best teams. He still hogs most of Lebanon’s headlines but he is by no means the team’s only standout player.
Jackson Vroman and Matt Freije at 6’ 11” and 6’ 10” respectively now provide height and international know-how, two major flaws of previous Lebanese teams that struggled against the more vertically indulged sides like China and Spain.
Vroman and Rony Fahed, a veteran of Lebanon’s two previous appearances in the World championships, have taken over the mantle of the team’s primary point getters while Tab Baldwin’s strong character will ensure that Khatib doesn’t indulge himself in the selfish play he has previously been accused of.
The team now has expertise in each area with Vroman and Freije providing sound defensive cover, while Ali Mahmoud’s dynamism cuts through the stoniest of defenses. Rony Fahed is likely to prove himself as one of the finest three-point shooters of the tournament, while the constantly improving Jean Abdul Nour works selflessly to knit together the team’s play at both ends of the court.
Success for Lebanon is still only relative as a second round birth is unlikely to send tremors through the basketball world and the Cedars’ constant progress must surely reach a terminal velocity soon. But at 24th in the FIBA world rankings, Lebanon has a genuinely competitive team in a sport on the world stage.