Basketball Is ‘War, Minus the Shooting’ in Sectarian Lebanon


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BEIRUT, Lebanon — Frankly speaking, their team was never going to win. But that did not stop the die-hard fans in the stands from hurling abuse at their rivals. Some taunts were of the “your mother” variety, others from a genre that the Lebanese, perhaps uniquely among world basketball fans, have come to perfect: the political insult as game-time rallying cry.

What they shouted cannot be printed, but it was unflattering enough to Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, the standard-bearer of the political party unofficially backing the rival team, that a brawl broke out.

Riot police swarmed the court. The TV announcers tut-tutted. Two basketball officials who tried to silence the chanting landed in the hospital.

“And it was a hopeless case,” moaned Akram Halabi, the president of Lebanon’s national basketball federation. “They were losing by 33 points!” (Mr. Aoun himself was not at the game, so was never in any danger.)

These days, with the hosting rights to soccer’s World Cup a matter of geopolitical intrigue and President Trump regularly laying into the N.F.L., few expect sports to be just about sports anymore.

But sports have a particularly political cast in Lebanon, whose 18 officially recognized religious sects and affiliated political parties live, work and socialize with each other, but never stop angling for advantage. It’s a country where partisanship lurks behind, roughly speaking, everything. (See also: schools, hospitals, banks, chess clubs, Ping-Pong and Girl Scouts.)

Then there is Lebanese basketball, a popular sport with a passionate fan base, whose professional season resembles nothing so much as an election with a lot of very tall, very muscular campaign surrogates.

Each basketball club gets the bulk of its financing from a politically connected sponsor who, in return, reaps fan — and voter — loyalty for his political party.

Party colors adorn the players’ jerseys. Stadiums are hung not only with championship banners, but also with large posters of political patrons, like the enormous photo of the assassinated former prime minister, Rafic Hariri, that presides over one team’s home games.

Sunni Muslims root for a Sunni Muslim-financed team, Maronite Christians for a Maronite Christian team and Armenians for an Armenian team.

Lebanese basketball is “war, minus the shooting,” said Danyel Reiche, a professor at the American University of Beirut who researches politics and sports in Lebanon.

“I think we should not have a romantic view of sports, that it’s always good and always brings people together,” Mr. Reiche said. “It can also divide them.”

Indeed. Fans of Al-Riyadi, the Sunni team, have been known to wear all red to games against Homenetmen, the Armenian team, as a jeering reference to the flag of Turkey — where at least one million Armenians were slaughtered in a genocide a century ago.

Politics, both local and regional, has mixed ingloriously with basketball in Lebanon for years.

In 2006, the Lebanese national basketball team made it to the World Cup only after a stomach-churning 13-hour bus ride when that year’s war with Israel forced them to flee their country.

Perhaps the lowest moment arrived in 2013, when the national playoffs collapsed in acrimony after the country’s interior minister, apparently trying to boost his team, ordered a quarterfinal game postponed. Lebanon was then temporarily suspended from international basketball competition.

Everyone blamed the politicians, including some of the politicians.

“I am deeply sorry to announce the end of Lebanese basketball, which has been slayed by politics and sectarianism,” the minister for youth and sports, Faisal Karami, said at the time. “There is a dirty political atmosphere in the country, and it has ruined everything.”

It was all so unnerving to Hassan Whiteside, a future Miami Heat star then competing in the Lebanese league, that he immediately left to play in China. He has had nothing but bad things to say about Lebanon ever since.

Considering its size (about the same as Connecticut), population (about six million) and record in other sports (undistinguished), Lebanon is pretty good at basketball. Its youth teams are on the rise. Its national team beat China last year, though it failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup.

Fans are happy to tell you all about the last Lebanese player who made it big: Rony Seikaly, a Beirut-born college star at Syracuse who played for the N.B.A. for more than a decade.

Lebanese officials dream of catapulting another Lebanese into the N.B.A., and Mr. Halabi, the national federation’s president, is trying to depoliticize and professionalize the game by drumming up broadcast deals and apolitical business sponsors for the teams.

He says the federation has made progress on developing youth teams, fostering homegrown coaches and banning religious and political slogans at games — though this has proved tricky to enforce.

About the only nonpartisan aspect of the league might be the players themselves, many of them Europeans or Americans who find themselves on the international circuit after college careers failed to bloom into N.B.A. contracts. Under federation rules designed to help Lebanese players grow, teams can field only two foreigners on the court at any one time.

Foreign and Lebanese players of different religions play for all the teams, winning fervent followings regardless of background. Mr. Reiche recalled going to Riyadi home games where the crowd would chant praise for the Virgin Mary whenever a Christian player scored.

And the national team — whose players were once picked for their religions, but who now make the cut based on merit — packs stadiums with a pan-sectarian following cutting across political lines.

Still, outside of national games, moments of comity tend to be brief. Asked to describe Lebanese fans, Slobodan Subotic, a Slovenian who coaches Riyadi as well as the national team, had three words: “Crazy! Crazy! Crazy!”

“But I like this atmosphere,” said Mr. Subotic, who can no longer go on morning jogs in Beirut without running into star-struck fans. “Sometimes things happen, but they’re not serious.”

Not always, anyway. There is a reason riot police regularly patrol games.

Daniel Faris, an American of Lebanese descent from New Mexico who plays for Champville and got dual citizenship to play on the national team, has witnessed enough fights — including one where his teammates started brawling with rival spectators — that he has learned to be cautious about trash-talking certain teams’ fans.

“I just support whoever’s paying me,” he said. “I stay out of it.”

Basketball has been played in Lebanon since at least the early 20th century, spreading from the American University of Beirut into local schools and clubs.

But it was a casual affair until the mid-1990s, when a Lebanese media tycoon, Antoine Choueiri, began heaping tens of millions of dollars into the Lebanese league, raising the sport’s profile and that of his Christian political party.

Besides fights in the stands and heartbreak on the court, life as a Lebanese basketball fan can be trying for another reason: the waxing and waning of the sponsors’ generosity.

Around election time, according to federation officials, budgets can suddenly double, only for teams to fall into disarray later on when backers decide they are no longer getting a useful boost from basketball and pull out, as Mr. Choueiri eventually did.

“When it’s not an election year,” said Tony Khalil, a former player who now serves as the national federation’s secretary-general, “you won’t see them.”

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