Nothing Stops Syrian Basketball

Coaching a youth sports team is a tough task as it is, but it gets much, much harder when the families of the players are dying in a civil war.

Photo courtesy of Tane Spasev

Coaching a youth sports team is a tough task as it is, but it gets much, much harder when the families of the players are dying in a civil war. Tane Spasev, coordinator of the Syrian Basketball Federation’s Youth Basketball Program, learned as much last year. The Macedonian came to Syria just as the protests erupted in March 2011. Tane carried on coaching through the fighting and brought a team of teenage boys to a tournament in Amman, Jordan, in September. I contacted him (he’s back in Macedonia) to ask about what his guys went through.

VICE: Did you worry about the political situation before violence spread throughout the country? 
Tane Spasev: When I arrived in June of 2011, the situation in Damascus was no less safe and normal than any other big city in the world. The restaurants were full, shops were working, people were enjoying their everyday lives. The “situation” in Homs, Hama, Daraa, and places like that was distant from us and only on TV. All that changed in December and January when two suicide bombs went off in Damascus. Things were never the same after that.

What was it like coaching the boys’ team in the tournament in Jordan? Not easy, I imagine. 
Seven of the 12 kids on the team were from Aleppo, and I cannot describe the emotional roller coaster we experienced in our preparation period as the situation there deteriorated. One of the kids from Aleppo lost his father due to a heart attack, and his family didn’t want the kid to go back because the roads weren’t safe. The coaching staff and I had to tell the poor kid the news about his father, and that was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in my life. The rest of the kids were shocked as well, so we did not have normal practices for the next four days. After that, another kid heard his girlfriend had died. We tried to shield the kids from the outside situation as much as we could but that was impossible. I was amazed by how much they love basketball and how determined they were to go to that championship and just play the game they love. The situation made them grow up in five months. I am so proud I had a chance to coach them and bring joy to their lives.

Do you think we’ll see a Syrian player in the NBA soon?
In normal circumstances, I think Syria would’ve produced an NBA player in the next four years. We have a young man who was born in 1990 and is over seven feet tall, and he did great at the last FIBA Asia Championship in China; we have another seven-footer who was born in 1993 and runs like Kevin Garnett. As I said, the talent is there. I am sure someday there will be an NBA player from Syria, and I hope that day comes soon and brings joy to the basketball community in Syria and the wonderful Syrian people. 

For an overview of the issues that have fueled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin," our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria," a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.