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Struggles of an Athlete

  • Hayk Gyokchyan

Make Sports Not Politics

Last year was one of the most memorable seasons of my career as a professional basketball player. Playing for Homenetmen Beirut, we won the Henry Chalhoub Tournament, the Arab Club Championship, the Lebanese Cup, and sweetest of all, the Lebanese Championship. Our most formidable opponent was Al-Riyadi Beirut, against whom we went to war and ended up having a 7-6 record against. We met in the Cup Finals and the Championship Finals. The hype and pressure build up was more than intense. An Armenian based team vs a Lebanese team. A Christian team vs a Muslim team. Each fan base supporting a different political party in the country. Homenetmen, searching for their first trophy vs Riyadi, who has won the league countless times. Silly chants and derogatory terms from both fans added a sour taste to all the games and took away from the purity of watching a true sporting clash between titans. The teams ended up playing for something more than just winning or losing.

The Finals series ended up going 7 games. It was truly 7 games of hell with each team winning on its own court:

· Did each team win on its court ONLY because of the fans? NO

· Did the fans have a huge impact in creating an atmosphere that provided the home team with the slight edge needed to boost the confidence of their players? YES

· Were the contents of the chants the main reason for providing the home team with the slight edge? ABSOLUTELY NOT

Most fans do not understand what goes on in a player’s head during games. During warmups, many players resort to music on their headphones to get them in the zone. All players are trained and used to blocking out noises during games in order to focus on what’s necessary to perform at the highest level. Therefore, what fans are shouting and screaming does not make a difference at all. Whether they are cheering for their own team or cursing the families of the opponents, players just hear white noise in the background. For goodness sake, they could be screaming ‘unicorns and butterflies’ and it would still have the same effect. It is not what the fans say that affects the players, it is the fact that they make noise at the correct times in order to either pump up their team if they are in a slump or devastate the morale of the opponents when the home team is making a run. There’s no better feeling than the rush of adrenaline when the crowd goes wild at your home court right after you or your teammate drives for a dunk. At the same time, there is no worse feeling for the opponent than picking up the ball from the net after a play like that, the crowd going nuts, and having to devote energy to refocus on the next play. The screams from the fans during a run sometimes even forces the opponent’s coach to burn a timeout just to calm down the game.

A sporting event is supposed to bring people from different backgrounds together, and create common ground between opposing forces. Sports are meant to be a universal language used to break down barriers and tensions between competitors. Sports are meant to be a means to escape reality and enter this mystical world in which two sides compete for the same target. Sports are meant to be played for fans. Without fans, there would be no point to compete. Yes, I am going to quote Gladiator now: “Win the crowd and you will win your freedom”. It is the fans who have been holding the faith of all athletes since the beginning of sports. Sports is merely entertainment, so just sit back and enjoy the show to the fullest.

This year, I will have the honor to be playing for Al-Riyadi Club. Will I be treated with hostility when I return to play against Homenetmen? Of course. Fan bases in Lebanon are extremely passionate about their teams and treat players who leave their squad as traitors. I expect them to do everything in their power to try to take me out of my game. Did I enjoy all the racist curses from Riyadi fans during last year? No. Both sides are to be blamed, but I am merely a professional athlete and I am expected to pay respect and give my blood, sweat and tears to the jersey that I wear. That is exactly what I will do. To Riyadi fans, now you have an Armenian on your squad (who would ever have imagined that). BUT at the end of the day, I am nothing more than just a player. My ethnicity or race or religion has no impact whatsoever on my technical skills or my performance. Here’s to hoping that in this new season we will not witness the atrocities of last season.

My wish is for the two teams to play against each other at a venue with both fans present at the games; the team that scores more points wins, the players and staff approach each other and shake their hands. The losing team claps for the winning team and the winner gets to enjoy the win that one time. Both teams go home and do their best to get better in order to win the next game. I urge all fans to enjoy the purity of the game. There is a reason why there are only so few of us athletes in a country with a population of millions. Enjoy what we do, respect it, win with honor, and lose with pride.

I appreciate everything Homenetmen has done for me and will cherish the memories we made together forever.

I cannot wait to be a part of Riyadi Nation and create new memories, win many championships, and I promise you will get the best version of myself I can produce.

Thank You Homenetmen, Let’s Go Riyadi.

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