NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal says the first ever pre-season games being played in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is an important and ‘historical moment’ for the sport.
O’Neal – who played for six teams including the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat during his 19-year career – now travels the world as a global ambassador for the NBA.
The move to stage games in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi is the latest attempt by the league to expand its brand and global reach.
The Milwaukee Bucks, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, are scheduled to play two pre-season games against the Atlanta Hawks and their star player Trae Young on 6 and 8 October.
The UK, France, Germany, Japan and China have all previously hosted games.
“I mean, it’s an historical moment – the first time ever playing in the Middle East,” 50-year-old O’Neal told BBC Sport.
“I think what the fans get from it, is that basketball is a global sport. It’s not as big as soccer or football (NFL) but the NBA has players who are talked about worldwide – players like LeBron James, so it’ll definitely be a great moment for the fans to see the players up close,” he added.
The NBA is the latest organisation to take showpiece sporting events to the Middle East, with the most high profile – and controversial – being next month’s men’s Fifa World Cup in Qatar.
Earlier this year, Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight boxing world title rematch against Oleksandr Usyk was held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Since 2009 the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has been a fixture of the F1 calendar, which also includes a Bahrain GP.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has held several of its main events across the region and the new LIV Golf tour is Saudi Arabian-funded, playing its events worldwide.
This trend has drawn criticism from some campaigners of ‘sportswashing’ – hosting sport to improve a country’s image, normalise regimes, or divert attention from questionable human rights records.
Homosexuality is illegal in the UAE – punishable by life in prison or death.
O’Neal acknowledges there is work to be done and the four-time NBA champion believes sport can help “bring all people together”.
“[It] doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what you like, what you believe in, sport is all about peace and I’ve seen it bring people together,” he said.
The NBA season is scheduled to start on 19 October with the defending champions the Golden State Warriors taking on the Los Angeles Lakers among the opening fixtures.
O’Neal thinks the title could be heading to the San Francisco area for a second year running.