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The Tiger's final roar
MANILA (Enzo Flojo's Asia on my Mind) - In 2001, a young 1.98m small forward helped Lebanon beat Korea in the Semi-Finals of the FIBA Asia Championship. That win helped the country advance to the tournament Finals and, consequently, qualify for the 2002 FIBA Basketball World Cup. That was the first time the Cedars finished among the top three in Asia's biggest basketball competition.
It wouldn't be the last.
And that young player's name? Fadi El Khatib.
Over the next decade, he would carve his name into FIBA Asia lore, leading Lebanon to numerous victories and unprecedented heights of success. The Lebanese repeated their silver finish at the Asian level in 2005 and 2007, and they returned to the Basketball World Cup in 2006 and 2010, coming in 18th and 21st respectively.
All throughout that string of strong finishes, El Khatib was at the forefront. He slowly became known as one of Asia's most dangerous scorers and was widely considered one of the best players outside of the NBA. He last participated in the FIBA Asia Championship in 2009, averaging 13.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.1 steals as the Lebanese finished fourth.
Across all of his campaigns in the biggest basketball competitions at the Asian and World levels, he has averaged 16.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per outing. Mention Lebanese basketball and it's inevitable that his name comes up. He is that iconic.
He has even earned a fitting moniker - the Tiger.
Since 2009, however, the Tiger has not been on the prowl. El Khatib skipped the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship in Wuhan, China where Lebanon came in sixth - their worst placing since 1999. Due to some domestic issues, the Cedars also failed to make it to the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship in Manila, Philippines where fellow West Asian country Iran cemented its place as the continent's new undisputed powerhouse.
Earlier this year, buoyed once again by the struggles of Lebanese basketball and perhaps his ageing body, El Khatib announced his retirement from international basketball. Clamor from the fans and a strong recruitment pitch from new national team coach Veselin Matic, however, swayed the Tiger into reconsidering his decision and eventually returning to the national team.
Right off the bat, that decision has paid dividends for Lebanon as the Cedars recently swept the competition at the 2015 West Asia Basketball Association (WABA) Championship in Amman, Jordan. El Khatib led his countrymen in winning all four of their games and formally qualifying for the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship that will take place in Changsha, China from 23 September-3 October.
El Khatib was sharp in Lebanon's dominant run in Amman, averaging 29.8 points per game. Clearly, it seems the Tiger is ready to spearhead another resurgence in Lebanese hoops this year.
Joining Lebanon in qualifying for the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship are Jordan and Palestine, who finished second and third respectively in the 2015 WABA meet, while Iran already pre-qualified by virtue of being the defending champions.
Unlike past iterations of the continental tournament, though, Lebanon will probably have a tougher experience this time around. Iran, the Philippines and Korea are all brimming with confidence after playing in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, while hosts China is raring to reclaim its place at the top tier after finishing a disappointing fifth in 2013.
Aside from the Tiger, Lebanon will pin their hopes on either of two naturalized players - Jasmon Youngblood and Elijah Holman - but neither may prove to be as dominant as former NBA players like Hamed Haddadi, Andray Blatche, and Yi Jianlian, all of whom have committed to play for their respective countries this year.
Still, after being missing-in-action in FIBA Asia for the past few years and with the desire to return to its place among the teams in the continent, Lebanon are expected to pull out all the stops.
Expect that every Lebanese player will be leaving everything on the floor, and that includes the Tiger, whose final roar should be a loud and strong bookend to what has been a glorious international basketball career.
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