As it does in most countries, in Saudi Arabia soccer rules supreme. It is the most popular sport in the country, buoyed by the strong showing of the Saudi Arabian national team in World Cup 1994, the Asian Cup championships and the recent qualification for World Cup 1998. But as it has successfully done in industry and economics, Saudi Arabia has also diversified its sports, offering fans, athletes and the public at large more choices for participation and entertainment.
One of the sports that has grown immensely in popularity is basketball. First introduced in the Kingdom during the 1950s by American expatriates, the sport initially held little appeal for Saudis. The Saudi Arabian Basketball Association, formed in 1963, organized a total of seven matches that year. During the 1960s and early 1970s there were fewer than ten clubs in Saudi Arabia with a total of 600 players.
In 1975, the General Presidency of Youth Welfare (GPYW) introduced a program to broaden the appeal of sports in Saudi Arabia, including basketball. Its first step was to form the Saudi Arabian Basketball Federation and provide the necessary resources to help the game grow. Next, the Presidency built hundreds of indoor and outdoor courts throughout the country. These facilities supplement basketball programs at schools and universities.
The availability of courts and equipment to young Saudis, some of whom may never have had an opportunity to play before, has enticed thousands to try the new sport over the past two decades. While the principal objective of the Saudi basketball campaign has been to ensure a healthier and more active population by encouraging young people to participate in sports, a secondary goal has been to develop a competitive national basketball program.
This has been achieved by grooming promising young athletes for competitive sports. A large number of city, town and regional clubs has been established with the financial and technical assistance of the GPYW. While participation is largely at the recreational level, outstanding athletes are steered into programs that feature more serious coaching, training and competition.
Realizing that a major factor in developing a viable national basketball program is the existence of a serious professional league that provides an opportunity to hone skills at a high level of competition, the GPYW formed a basketball league in 1977. Today more than 30 club teams compete in three divisions. These clubs have more than four thousand active players, either on their premier teams or in the developmental programs.
To remedy the problems created by the shortage of licensed coaches, the Saudi Arabian Basketball Federation, in cooperation with the Asian Basketball Confederation, has introduced professional courses and licensing procedures to turn out coaches in numbers necessary to run teams at the school, club and professional league levels. So far, 58 coaches have completed these programs, reducing the number of professional coaches hired from abroad.
Although player participation and fan support has risen consistently over the years, the performance of the national basketball team in recent regional and international events is expected to provide a major boost for the sport in the Kingdom. The Saudi team took top prize in the Gulf Championships of 1996 and the Arab Basketball Championships of 1997, and the country's youth teams have performed admirably in Arab and Asian competition.
However, the major hurdle for basketball in Saudi Arabia has been the Asian championships, where the national team faces Asian and international powerhouses China and South Korea, as well as several other highly-rated national teams. Saudi Arabia had never advanced beyond the second round of competition in past meetings. With the 19th Asian Champion-ship held at the modern GPYW Indoor Stadium in Riyadh in September, 1997, the national team finally cleared that formidable barrier.
In a series of exciting matches the Saudi national team put on a show for thousands of cheering fans, winning game after game and making it into the semifinals for the first time. As had their counterparts on the national soccer team, the Saudi basketball players demonstrated skill, determination and confidence, and served notice that the Saudis have arrived on the Asian and international basketball scene.