It is 7pm on a Tuesday evening and at the otherwise quiet Family Park in Abu Dhabi Corniche – which runs along the emirate’s glistening waterfront – sneakers scuff against the concrete, balls bounce across the court, missed shots clang off rusty iron rims and players yell out defensive assignments.
Stray cats slouch around the park’s perimeter, unperturbed by the collective cheers and groans of the spectators watching the game – who are sprawled out on benches, eagerly awaiting their turn to join in the fun.
For Filipinos, ‘basketball is life’
Emiratis generally prefer indulging in soccer, cricket or motor racing, but the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Filipino population – which numbered around 575,000 in 2015 – loves basketball so much that it is not uncommon to see large groups of them shooting hoops at the city’s public courts, even during the hottest time of the year.
“Filipinos grow up playing basketball. Back home, even in cities other than Manila, you’ll be able to find as many as 20 basketball courts in a single town,” says Prince Revilla, a 32-year-old Filipino personal trainer, as he catches his breath after having played for three hours straight at the Family Park basketball court.
Rather than placing a premium on winning these matches, though, basketball has been a way for Prince – like many other Filipino expatriates – to construct a sense of community in a foreign city.
“Basketball is life,” he declares. Indeed, when Prince moved to the UAE three years ago, a court was the first thing he looked for.
“Basketball was the sport that we always watched growing up,” adds Prince. Today the young father has visited the court during a break from caring for his newborn son.
In Saudi Arabia, hear the women roar
Pandemic has not slowed down top-of-the-line projects in Dubai
3 famous hotel brands with overseas branches
It’s an all-weather sport
Around the court, families sit on the grass and barbecue in the cool evening air, while kids skateboard nearby.
Though the park get less busy during the summer months as the mercury rises, there are a few individuals – like the city’s basketball aficionados – who remain staples here, regardless of the time of year.
“We play even during Ramadan, and I’ve tried playing at really high temperatures. I can play two rounds straight [in the heat],” Prince tells me.
His current favorite player is LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, though nobody will ever match up to Prince’s all-time hero. “Hands down, Michael Jordan,” he says with a big grin.
Aside from these informal games that can take place any night of the week, there are plenty of scheduled matches lined up by small recreational leagues throughout the city.
Games for a good cause
There are also tournaments specially organized to raise funds for various charities, or fellow Filipino transplants who may be struggling to make ends meet.
“We’ve created a league for charitable causes and to help some of the Filipinos here who have family members who are very sick,” Prince explains. “People pay entrance fees to watch these games, and a portion of this money goes to charity.”
A court in the city center
A 15-minute drive away from Family Park, Monico P. Manlutac Jr, who moved to the UAE from Pampanga province a year ago for work, is at the outdoor court behind Al Ahalia Hospital on Hamdan Street in the city center.
Located in one of the capital’s busier areas, the court is representative of the many different worlds to be found within the city, if you take a detour from the main touristy areas.
As Monico and his teammates assemble at the back of the court, watching the action and waiting for their turn to enter the game, he echoes Prince’s sentiments about the rewards that shooting hoops brings.
“I like to play basketball because it’s my hobby. It’s good for my health and it’s a chance for me to make friends with people like them,” says the 38-year-old range layout technician, as he gestures toward his teammates.