By Ahmad Jabr
KUWAIT: Finding a school that teaches the fundamentals of basketball in Kuwait has never been easy, much less having one that offers high level training. That was until today. Thanks to the efforts of two men driven by their passion for the game, the dream of opening an NBA certified school in Kuwait has become reality.
“We started around four years ago with the aim to bring high quality basketball training to Kuwait,” said Khaled Al-Kandari, co-founder of Youth Pro Sports (YPS) which launched the project to open an NBA Basketball School in Kuwait. While the concept of a basketball school isn’t new in Kuwait, Kandari and his partner Abdullatif Al-Saeed realized that the country lacked a program that not only teaches kids the fundamentals of the sport, but also offers high level training that can prepare future athletes to compete at the highest level.
“We emailed the NBA asking them if they were willing to open a school in the region,” Kandari told Kuwait Times at the new, state-of-the-art facility in Surra. “At that time, they were in the process of opening their first school (in the region) in Dubai, so we went and met the team there. We saw how they were running the program there, which was basically only camps at the beginning, and then over time they opened a school.”
Kandari and Saeed followed the same model, starting with three training camps; in January, March and then in the summer, before finally obtaining an agreement to run an official NBA Basketball School in Kuwait. Kandari says NBA officials were impressed with the demand they found in Kuwait. “We found that there is a lot of demand, that is unheard of in Kuwait, for basketball,” he said.
Basketball’s global popularity has grown tremendously in recent years. With the NBA MVP award going to international players in the past three seasons, the game has probably never been more global as it is today. Kuwait and the Gulf region are no exception when it comes to basketball’s growing popularity. This has caught the attention of NBA officials who saw its potential as a big market for the sport. A culmination of this partnership came recently when the NBA hosted its first pre-season games in Abu Dhabi, which saw the Atlanta Hawks take on 2021 NBA Champions the Milwaukee Bucks featuring two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The NBA also looks at the region as a potential location to scout talent. For that goal, the league has brought its coveted NBA Basketball School program into the region, with its newest school opening in Kuwait – only the second in the region after Dubai. NBA Basketball Schools are a network of basketball development programs around the world open to both male and female players ages 6-18, where trainers focus on skill development and promoting positive values such as integrity, teamwork, respect and determination. In addition to Kuwait and the UAE, NBA Basketball Schools have been launched in Brazil, China, Greece, India, Italy, Mexico, Turkey and Uruguay.
The ‘NBA Basketball School’ is an international basketball development program through which the NBA actively scouts talents from around the world to join its ‘NBA Academy’ initiative. NBA Academy is a year-round elite basketball development initiative that provides top high school-age prospects from outside the US with a holistic approach to player development and a predictable pathway to maximize their potential. “Our first target right now is to develop a very strong candidate to be recruited into the NBA Academy” said Kandari. Officials from the NBA Academy will be scouting kids at the NBA Basketball School Kuwait, and those found talented enough will be offered to live, study, and train to become a basketball player. One of the main focuses at the NBA Academy is to help kids make it to a Division I school and play in the NCAA where they will have a better chance to potentially enter the NBA Draft.
The decision to approve opening an NBA school in Kuwait came after an assessment process through which officials from the world’s top basketball league found that they shared a similar vision with the YPS co-founders. “The founders and directors really want to spread the knowledge of basketball as well as the health, fitness and the mental wellness aspect, while also teaching the fundamentals of basketball and elevating kids’ skill and playing ability to the point where there can be children in the next three to four years who can receive a scholarship in the US to play college basketball, or maybe eventually in 10 years Kuwait has their first NBA player,” said Michael Bradley, a former NBA player and current Technical Director of NBA Basketball School Kuwait. “Those are the big vision dreams. In the short term, our goal is developing the skills of the youth and introducing the game to as many kids as we can in a very fun way on and off the court.”
But convincing the NBA to open a school wasn’t easy. “The NBA were hesitant at first,” Kandari admitted. “The NBA is a big brand, so they needed to do their own assessment.” After a series of communications, the NBA finally sent a team to Kuwait where they toured the facilities and became familiar with the sports’ growth. “They felt comfortable,” Kandari said. “At first, they agreed to start with one-week camps, and as the year developed they agreed to start an NBA school. Our first camp was supposed to be in 2019, but when the pandemic happened, it got delayed.” After they held their first camp earlier this year, they eventually reached an agreement with the NBA to run a school for four years that is open for renewal. “I believe they are very happy with what they have seen in Kuwait,” Kandari said. “There is a lot of demand. The kids are very happy. They are enjoying it as much as they are learning to play the game.”
“In addition to learning basketball, discipline, respect, punctuality, and improving leadership skills, we want the kids to be relieved of the stress of the school life and to have fun. That’s why I think the NBA were very happy with the way we run our program and decided to go ahead with the school,” he pointed out.
“That’s where we aligned,” said Bradley, who explained that his decision to accept an offer to run operations at the school following a brief stint coaching at the summer training camp was a ‘no-brainer’. “When I arrived (in the summer), they had 200 kids signed up for the camp, which was incredible,” he said. “The kids were trying their best and were excited. Although you could tell they didn’t practice much basketball before, they had improved in just three weeks’ time.”
Opportunity for growth
An eight-year NBA veteran, Bradley transitioned into coaching after the end of his playing career. “Making the NBA was a dream come true,” he said, adding that he found another passion after his playing days were over: Coaching high school basketball. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do after retirement. I’m very thankful to be here in Kuwait. I think we can make an impact on the community and the kids and introduce a sport that’s not so new here.”
Although basketball was introduced early to Kuwait (the Kuwait Basketball Association was established in 1957, four years before the country’s independence), the sport has struggled to garner much popularity compared to other sports such as football and – most recently – padel. But Coach Bradley believes there is opportunity for growth. He said he was impressed by the good performance he’s seen from Kuwaiti athletes, including at the Arab Club Basketball Championship recently held in Kuwait and won by Kuwait SC. “There are good players in the country, but I think it has to start at a youth level,” he explained. “In terms of places that offer high level teaching of fundamentals of basketball especially to kids as young as six years old, I think that might be lacking in Kuwait.”
And that’s where they come in. “At the NBA Basketball School, we want to take kids who know how to play the game and elevate their game with our experienced coaches who have played at the highest level in the NBA and NCAA,” he said. “I think once we introduce the game to more youth and get them excited, the opportunity for growth in the country is even bigger.”
“I believe all kids should focus on doing an after-school activity, especially sports,” Kandari said. He added that team sports have the advantage of teaching teamwork skills, which sets the kids up for the real world. “What’s nice about coming to these schools is not only are they good for your health, but they are also good to learn to work with a group of people.”
“The goal of the NBA Basketball School is to be almost like a year-round training facility for players and kids who want to progress long-term, but we also have a one-month option where people can come in and try it out,” Bradley said. “We welcome anybody to give it a shot.”
“You have to enjoy the game first, and the dedication will come,” said Brandon Johnson, Head Coach at NBA Basketball School Kuwait. “The main thing is to enjoy the game of basketball.”
The NBA Basketball School Kuwait’s fall/winter 2022 season kicked off last month, and a few spots remain open. The schedule includes co-ed classes for children aged 6-8 and 9-11, and separate classes for boys and girls aged 12 and above. One of the school’s goals is to help girls achieve their dream of playing basketball at a high level, either in college or potentially the WNBA. “We’re an equal opportunity facility,” coach Bradley stressed. “During the summer camp, we had four or five girls who were really talented, and they’ve signed up to join the school.”
“It’s important for children to have access to sports; both girls and boys,” said Christy Watkins, Counselor for Public Affairs at the US Embassy in Kuwait who was visiting the facility during an Open House Day held before the start of training. “I think it's important for girls to have equal access to sports and have the same opportunities that boys have. It's also important for families to encourage both girls and boys to participate. All children need exercise and opportunities to be fit.”
Asked if we could see NBA pre-season games in Kuwait, both Kandari and Bradley hoped it would happen in the future. “That’s one of our goals,” Kandari said. “Hopefully we can host an NBA pre-season game or at least have a couple of NBA players come visit our school and share their experiences with the kids.”
But for now, the coaches at NBA Basketball School Kuwait shift their attention to training the next generation of Kuwait’s basketball players. “When you do something that impacts kids’ lives at a young age, there’s no better feeling,” coach Bradley said as he looked at a young boy wearing a Boston Celtics jersey shooting the ball next to his dad in a Golden State Warriors jersey. “I think they can already feel that, and we haven’t even started yet.”