Action from the match between Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves at Etihad Arena on Thursday. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Abu Dhabi is becoming a hub for basketball in this region and the buzz surrounding this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Games 2023 is a testimony that the game is growing at considerable pace.

The NBA Abu Dhabi Games 2023 presented by ADQ, between Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves, follow last year’s preseason games between the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks, which marked the league’s first games in the Arabian Gulf.

“Abu Dhabi in a short amount of time has become really a hub for basketball in this region,” Mark Tatum, NBA Deputy Commissioner, told a select media gathering ahead of the opening match on Thursday. “Part of the goal behind bringing the Games here is to really grow fan interest within the local market and we’re seeing that we’re getting partners — such as ADQ — involved now. We’re getting grassroots involved, we’re getting media partners involved, and so it is all growing organically.”

Junior NBA programme

The NBA first started broadcasting in the UAE almost 14 years ago, but Tatum says since last year’s inaugural Games he has noted a rapid rise not only in interest, but also in initiatives aimed at furthering that growth. The Junior NBA programme has reached 10,000 boys and girls within the local community in just two years.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver also relayed his delight at how the Emirate has grabbed more attention from the visiting players, who have shown growing interest in exploring the local culture apart from establishing itself as a new home for basketball in the region.

Silver revealed that roughly a quarter of the players in the NBA were born outside the United States. “They welcome travel, and they share it with their teammates and I increasingly see a particular interest in this region of the world, as an opportunity to grow the game,” he said. “What we have learned whenever we do these preseason games, and especially in a new market, is that whenever we go back, we learn with our partners what it is we can do better. So, I’ve noticed growth this year, yes. It just seems like a bigger deal here than it was last year.”

Opportunity to learn more about Abu Dhabi

While the two visiting franchises have embraced the opportunity to learn more about Abu Dhabi, venturing into the desert, riding camels, experiencing local food, and exploring traditional Bedouin culture, Silver and Tatum took the time to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Louvre — Abu Dhabi, and the Abrahamic Family House with Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) Abu Dhabi.

A full house was treated to some quality basketball between Mavericks and Timberwolves, won by Minnesota 111-99. Image Credit: Supplied

“Our players talk and hear from fellow teammates and other teams that have had positive experiences here,” said Silver. “For example, that’s why Steph Curry and his wife were just here visiting. I mentioned the Louvre, the Guggenheim is coming, SeaWorld is spectacular, the Warner Brothers’ studio ... There are amazing things to do here. To me, sports and culture, are a means of demonstrating the commonality that we all have with each other. We see it as part of our roles with global basketball to try to build harmony among people. And I think that’s what you see through this travel and these increased activities.”

Pre-season games better to regular games

While this week features two pre-season games, Silver advised caution when it comes to pushing for a regular in-season game in the region.

“It’s a trade-off because if we were to bring a regular season game, given how condensed our schedule is, different time zones and such, the players would land, sleep, practice, play, then leave. That would be the only way to do it. The benefit of doing these preseason games is the teams can come, they can go to the Grand Mosque, they can have a beautiful dinner in the desert, see the Abrahamic Family House and the Louvre and all these great opportunities here to learn about the culture. So, right now, as we continue to develop the fan base here, we’re better off having preseason games.”

The second and final match-up of this year’s NBA Abu Dhabi Games 2023 takes place on Saturday at 8pm as the Mavericks aim to bounce back from Thursday’s 111-99 defeat to the Timberwolves.