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Monday, July 30, 2012
Tunisian hoop team eyes upset in London
By ED ODEVEN
LONDON — Here's something I do know: Adel Tlatli is a name unknown to most people following the Olympics.
In Tunisia, though, he is a hero, not to be confused with English pop sensation Adele.
Tlatli, a bespectacled 54-year-old, guided Tunisia to its first Olympic basketball qualification berth, an improbable feat when you consider that the other 11 nations in the London tournament all have at least one NBA player on their roster. (The latest U.S. Dream Team is comprised entirely of NBA players, save for No. 1 draft pick Anthony Davis of Kentucky.)
Tunisia doesn't have an NBA player — not yet.
Expectations are low for the squad in the prestigious tournament.
What a tale of the underdog.
The North African nation began its maiden competition at the 2012 Summer Games against Nigeria (ranked 21st in the world) on Sunday. The impressive Group A field also includes probable medal-contending teams in Argentina (ranked third), France (ranked 12th) and Lithuania (ranked fifth), the defending champion United States (ranked No. 1), as well as Nigeria, a nation with a wealth of basketball talent over the years.
Looking ahead, Tunisia faces the United States on Tuesday and Argentina on Thursday.
Center Salah Mejri, an imposing presence at 216 cm and 110 kg, thinks Tunisia, listed at No.32 on FIBA's world rankings, two spots above Japan, can create a stir during the tournament.
Tunisia expects "to compete. And realistically, we expect to win one or two games," said the big man who plays for Port of Antwerp Giants in Belgium.
Mejri is just one of untold thousands, or perhaps millions, who have discovered their ability to succeed in a particular game at a relatively late age; for him, that came at 18, seven years ago.
"I played football and scored a lot of goals with my head," he recalled in a January interview. "It was my passion, like most kids, but one day my sports teacher suggested I try basketball. He took me to Sousse (in Tunisia) and I started playing with the Etoile Sportive de Sahel club."
Mejri has lofty goals: to play for a Belgian League championship team and then suit up for an NBA team.
He's proven that he has the ability to excel in top competitions, earning the MVP award at the 2011 FIBA Africa Championship in Madagascar, where Tunisia topped heavily favored Angola, a powerhouse on the continent for many years, 67-56 on Aug. 28. Mejri grabbed 15 rebounds in the title contest.
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In early 2011, a growing number of street protests, due to high unemployment and government corruption, in Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring, with President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fleeing the country after two-plus decades in office. Uncertainty remains about the nation's prospects for long-term stability and if the quality of life will be better with new leaders running the government.
On the basketball court, however, stability is a trademark for Tunisia. Tlatli, in charge of the national team for most of the past decade, will rely on AfroBasket 2011 MVP and point guard Marouan Kechrid, 31, to provide leadership. His 21-point outburst was a key factor in the aforementioned win over Angola.
Meanwhile, another guy to keep an eye on is 204-cm post player Makram Ben Romdhane, who calls himself "The Gladiator." Ben Romdhane, just 23, was tabbed as the 2011 FIBA Africa Clubs Championship Cup's Player of the Tournament.
Most of Tunisia's 12 national team players compete for North African clubs. Small forward Radhouane Slimane plays in Saudi Arabia; Kechrid and small forward Mohamed Hadidane compete for Moroccan teams. Versatile forward Amine Rzig, who scored a respectable 16.4 points with 5.4 rebounds per game at the 2009 FIBA Africa Championship in Libya, where Tunisia brought home the bronze medal, plies his craft for an Egyptian team.
It's hard to root against a squad that has defied expectations during uncertain times — when political upheaval and regional wars are in the headlines day after day.
Perhaps the Tunisia men's basketball squad will deliver one of the surprising success stories of the London Games. By doing so, it would bring a smile to the masses.
After all, everyone — well, almost everyone (not counting Manchester United supporters, for example) — loves rooting for an underdog.