‘One of a kind’: Radhouane Slimane and Tunisia’s basketball boom

Tunisian basketball star Radhouane Slimane looks to defy the odds and his age as US Monastir play at the FIBA Intercontinental Cup.

Tunisia's Radhouane Slimane and Mohamed Hadidane celebrate after a Basketball World Cup game against Angola
Slimane, left, and his Tunisia teammate Mohamed Hadidane celebrate after beating Angola at the 2019 Basketball World Cup in Beijing [File: Greg Baker/AFP]

When African champions US Monastir step onto the court on Friday at the FIBA Intercontinental Cup (ICC), it could be captain Radhouane Slimane’s final chance to prove himself on basketball’s global stage.

In a career spanning almost 25 years, the 42-year-old, 6’9” (2-metre) power forward from Kairouan, a desert city in northern Tunisia, has also played in Portugal, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Morocco – winning eight Tunisian league titles, five Tunisian Cup titles and two Arab Club Championships.

He has represented his country at the World Cup, Olympics, and AfroBasket – the continental competition for national teams, where he has won with Tunisia three times.

Still, Slimane has always lived with a lingering sense of frustration: that he never made it to the highest level and fulfilled the career he was told his talent deserved.

“A lot of agents and a lot of coaches told me I would easily play in the NBA, but the media [coverage] here in Tunisia [is close to] zero,” he told Al Jazeera.

Slimane had played for Monastir in 2014, and in 2020, he returned for a second stint at the club, which has been a growing force in recent years.

“I believe in the project of Monastir to dominate basketball in Tunisia, Arab countries and Africa, and I came back to help them do this,” he said.

He led them to consecutive Tunisian league titles, was named Final MVP in their 2022 Tunisian Cup winning side, and captained his side to 2022 Basketball Africa League (BAL) glory while being named in the BAL team of the year.

Now he is eyeing the upcoming FIBA ICC, considered to be basketball’s world club cup, which will feature an African team for only the second time. Hosted by Tenerife, Spain this year, the FIBA ICC will also feature the first appearance by a Tunisian side.

Monastir’s inclusion reflects not only the growth of the African game, but also Tunisia’s decade-long rise to continental dominance.

‘He’s had a big impact’

When Monastir beat Angola’s Petro de Luanda 83-72 in the 2022 BAL final in Kigali, Rwanda, some believe it underlined the power shift in African men’s basketball.

Angola were for long African basketball’s top dogs, with their club teams every bit as all-conquering as the national side. But since Tunisia won the 2011 AfroBasket in Madagascar – ending the Southern African nation’s run of six straight titles – the tide has gradually turned.

Tunisia were champions again in 2017 and picked up another title at the most recent edition in 2021 in Rwanda.

According to Slimane, Tunisian basketball was strong even when he was growing up in Kairouan. While football is the country’s biggest sport, basketball is also quite popular. Slimane grew up living and breathing hoops, inspired by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

Slimane said Tunisian basketball long suffered from a shortage of enough tall players, but he believes the Tunisian league is now the best in Africa.

“We have good, talented players and we have excellent coaches – here, coaches are very educated with high degrees. This is why the development of basketball in Tunisia is at a good level compared to the other leagues in Africa that I know well,” he said.

“What makes Monastir [better than] other teams in Tunisia is that they have a good project, they invest a lot in basketball, they bring in the best foreign players,” he said.

Amrou Bouallegue, Slimane’s 28-year-old Monastir teammate who recently signed from local rivals ES Radès, told Al Jazeera that players of his generation were inspired by Slimane.

“He had a big impact and took the game to another level in the country with his size and his shooting ability – posting up, playing face to the basket, he was ahead of his time with his skill set,” Bouallegue said.

“He is one of a kind. For him to be still playing at the highest level is crazy,” he added.

“You’ve got to understand how he reached that level; it’s only by his focus, his mentality, his commitment to the game.”

‘We’re going to compete’

Monastir’s first opponents at the FIBA ICC will be Basketball Champions League winners Lenovo Tenerife on Friday.

Depending on their result, they will then either face the losing side of the clash between G League champions Rio Grande Valley Vipers and BCL Americas kings São Paulo in the third-place playoff or the winners in the final on February 12.

“We’re not going to think about just winning the [first ICC] game. We’re just going to compete, show ourselves and be aggressive and we’ll see what happens,” Bouallegue said.

Will Voigt, the current Raptors 905 associate head coach and former San Antonio Spurs video coordinator, coached Egypt’s Zamalek at last year’s Intercontinental Cup, where they lost both games.

He said Monastir are better prepared for this year’s Intercontinental Cup than Zamalek were last year, as he had just taken the job in Cairo right before the campaign.

But Monastir will also be facing more settled teams with a relatively new team of their own – they will field more foreign players as they are not bound by the Tunisian league’s limitation of foreign players at a time on the court.

“Obviously, there are still steps to be made [in African basketball],” Voigt told Al Jazeera.

“In terms of the course of an entire season, we’re not [on par with the best leagues in the world] yet, but in terms of being able to be competitive on the court in any given game, yeah — absolutely. I think Monastir can be competitive.”

‘I want them to achieve their dreams’

Slimane says he has retired from the national team as they focus on building a new, young team. He was convinced to delay this plan in the past, but does not anticipate that he will be swayed again. He plans to retire from club basketball either this year, after the BAL, or in 2024, and then wants to go into coaching.

“I like to develop basketball in Africa and help the talented players because when I was young, I didn’t find anybody to help me,” he said. “I want to help these players to achieve their dreams.”

He coached talented young players at the Basketball Without Borders (BWB) Africa camp in Cairo last year, alongside the likes of Voigt, Steve Kerr, Chauncey Billups, Grant Williams, Malcolm Brogdon and Mo Bamba.

“Based on his experience, I think he could provide a lot of insight to African players,” Voigt said.

While Slimane’s generation of players never reaped the full benefits of their talent, the infrastructure of African basketball has developed considerably in recent years.

Since the NBA Africa Academy opened in Senegal in 2017, it has become significantly easier for African players to fast-track their careers through NCAA Division I colleges.

But before Slimane hands over to a new generation, he will look to defy the odds and his age, possibly for the very last time.

“It’s the love of basketball – this is my motivation,” he said when asked what is keeping him going in what will likely be the final stretch of his career.

“I live for basketball.”

Source: Al Jazeera