DAMASCUS (AFP): Khalil Khoury dribbles a basketball deftly down the dilapidated gym where he and the rest of the Syrian national team train, passing it through his legs before a silky-smooth lay-up.
Since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011, Khoury’s team has seen its ranks dwindle and its options for training venues shrink.
But it still practises and competes, including in the prestigious FIBA Asia Cup championship to held on August 17-27 in neighbouring Lebanon.
Among the league’s biggest challenges has been retaining talent, with players emigrating, doing their military service, or being injured or killed in the conflict.
One tell-tale sign of the struggle is the unusually large age gap within the current lineup.
“I’m the youngest player on the team,” said 19-year-old Khoury, who moved directly onto the squad from the youth league.
“My teammate Michael Madanly is about 20 years older than me,” he told AFP during a break from practice at Al-Fayhaa sports centre in Damascus.
“Some players have gone abroad and many others to do military service, so it’s natural for players to stay on until they’re older,” said the small forward.
“But it affects physical fitness, and it will show when we play with young teams.”
The head of Syria’s Basketball Federation, Daniel Zoalkefl, said the national league has “lost more than 120 players” who have joined the exodus from their war-battered country.
Jotting down the names of the 12 players attending practice, Zoalkefl said the sport also faces other challenges.
With the constant power cuts that plague Syria, he has to find fuel for the generators to ensure Al-Fayhaa — the Syrian capital’s most famous gym — can even keep the lights on.
Mortars and migrating players
The gym itself is run down and its air conditioners have been out of order for months, so training sessions are usually held at night when the mercury eases to more bearable levels.
Government warplanes can be heard overhead on their way to or from raids on opposition-held areas near the capital.
The thud of shells fired by rebels onto nearby neighbourhoods echo through the gym during practice.
“A mortar hit right where I’m standing, and another one hit over there,” said Zoalkefl as he scribbled comments on the training session in a small notebook.
“Dozens of shells have landed near the centre… Things aren’t easy, but we’ve gotten used to it. That’s war.”
The conflict’s eruption six years ago led to the suspension of Syria’s national league, which was replaced by provincial leagues until 2015 when the national competition was restored.
On the court, power forward Anthony Bakar fired the ball back and forth with his teammates before dunking it, helped by his imposing 199 centimetre (six foot five) height.
“The situation was very tough at the beginning of the crisis. The league was suspended for a year and every province was playing by itself,” said the 24-year-old.
Foreign players, who numbered about a dozen, quit and fled Syria.
“It had negative consequences on the league’s strength. It’s not easy to convince a foreign player to stay and play in a country at war,” Bakar said.
‘I miss the crowds’
The conflict has also made life more difficult for the league’s coaches, who have found their options for training limited by the violence.
“It’s not just players who have emigrated, but coaches too. For those who stayed, it’s hard to get out to a field to train because of the security situation,” said Hadi Darwish, who became head coach in December.
Going to training camps abroad is virtually impossible.
“There’s a sort of semi-siege. There are many countries that won’t let us in, and visas are difficult to obtain and take lots of time,” said Darwish.
“Our challenge is to build something, to build a national team that is ready to compete and represent the country in the best way possible,” said Nenad Krdzic, a Serbian coach.
There were no spectators for the evening training session, just a handful of managers and league officials.
Just before practice ended, the power cut. The back-up generator was broken, so coaches were forced to wind up training early.
Shooting guard Majd Arbasha knelt down, exhausted and trying to catch his breath.
He pines for the glory days of the sport.
“I miss my friends. I miss the crowds and the packed halls,” he said. “Basketball puts a smile on your face. But today it puts a lump in our throats.”