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Former UIC player helps bring hoops to new territory

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Updated: September 23, 2013 2:46PM



Each year, the UIC basketball team awards the Ebenezer Noonoo spirit award to the player whose passion for basketball inspires his teammates.

Noonoo, who played for the Flames from 2005-08, followed that same passion for the game 7,244 miles from his Chicago home to the United Arab Emirates, where he works to develop basketball in the Middle East and North Africa region with MPAC Sports, a grassroots basketball-development program.

Noonoo, general manager of MPAC basketball Abu Dhabi, said the market for hoops in the UAE is growing. When he arrived in Dubai in April 2012, the program had 23 basketball academies. In September, there will be 50. It has grown from fewer than 900 kids to more than 1,800 in the 17 months Noonoo has coached.

“We’re like the little man, but we’re actually the largest global basketball academy because we have 50 basketball academies,” Noonoo said. “There’s nothing like that internationally that is as intricate.”

Before MPAC Sports set up programs in the region in 2007, ­Noonoo said there were few opportunities for kids to play basketball.

“They just didn’t have the proper coaching, someone who has that basketball knowledge,” Noonoo said. “It wasn’t there, the resources weren’t there in the emirate.”

Coming from the hoops hotbed of Chicago, Noonoo — who played high school ball at Loyola — wasn’t sure what to expect from the players in the UAE, where basketball is an emerging sport.

“I’ve played against really top guys — a couple of my teammates are in the NBA now,” Noonoo said. “So I wasn’t expecting them to be quite much. And my assumptions were right.”

But after training players in fundamentals such as dribbling, passing and form shooting, Noonoo said he has several elite players on the rise.

“We have top-tier athletes in the MENA region,” Noonoo said. “It’s crazy even to say that — but they are there.”

This year, one player received a Division I scholarship and two others received D-II scholarships at schools in Georgia and Minnesota.

“It’s a great testament to what we’ve done over there, producing a kid who can come over here to the states and play at a D-I school.”

Noonoo said he aims to instill in his players the Chicago basketball toughness that defined his playing days.

“We have brought that Chicago mentality and coaching vibe,” Noonoo said. “We’ve ingrained that in our players. When you see our players play, you’re going to be like, ‘Whoa, these guys — are they from here?’ ”

Next summer, teams from Public League powerhouses Simeon and Young will put MPAC Sports’ adopted Windy City grit to the test when they travel to Dubai to ­compete.

Lone Peak from Utah and Huntington Prep from West Virginia, other top high school programs, will join Simeon and Young for the first tournament to bring together high school-level teams from the MENA region and America.

“We plan to not just host them — we plan to beat ’em up a little bit,” Noonoo said. “It’s going to be unbelievable because they’ve never played in a high-profile tournament like that.”

Although the MPAC players might not quite be at the level of Young standout Jahlil Okafor, Noonoo said they are catching up quickly.

“Talent-wise you can’t compare quite yet to something like Chicago,” Noonoo said. “But as far as grind and toughness, we’re getting there. We’re definitely on the rise.”

Email: kkahler@suntimes.com

Twitter: @kalynkahler



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