At only five years old, Hala El Shaarawy’s amateur basketball player father took her to a basketball court and told her to score a basket. The court’s rims were lowered that day, so a young Hala walked over to the rim dunked the ball, and held on. Surprised and excited, her family contacted Al-Ahly Sporting Club through coach Lobna Saleh to get her on board. Just a few months later, Hala was on the under-eight ‘micro basket’ team and she has been playing ever since. She had also been swimming since she was five, and was in gymnastics for two years.
Hala recalls how her father would organize one-on-one games against her older male cousins when she was twelve years old and they were seventeen. He would coach her from the sidelines and record her playing to point out what could be done better and to motivate her to fix any mistakes to become a better player. Her father would also teach her the fundamentals of basketball. At school, Hala was known as the tall girl, the basketball player, and her friends would always come to all her games. Hala later joined the under-16, then the under-18 national youth team, and helped secure the African championship.
At only seventeen, Hala played at the Under-19 Women’s Basketball World Cup where she came out on top as the best blocker worldwide. This set her on a track to apply to universities in the United States of America (USA) and attempt to get an athletic scholarship for basketball, which had not been done before among her teammates. Her father gathered her highlights from the World Cup and sent out hundreds of applications to universities across the USA. They received seven replies. Hala was very interested in joining Saint Peters University due to its National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I status and location, and her decision was made upon learning that her coach’s husband was Egyptian.
She spent the following four years studying accounting and business law and playing basketball as a full-time student-athlete with a full scholarship. She believes this has opened the door to other women athletes in Egypt who are now applying to American institutions to pursue their love for the game. By the time she graduated from Saint Peters University, she had become the program’s all-time leader in career blocks. She then decided to go Pro and signed a contract with the Hoops Club in Lebanon for one season. She loved it there as she learned a lot from this experience and it also helped progress her basketball career.
Hala’s journey as an Arab woman in basketball has not been an easy one. She has faced discrimination first for being an Arab and second for being a woman. Recruiters would often be surprised to see an Egyptian basketball player jokingly asking them if they “live in a desert with camels”. She also notes the extreme pay gap and difference in funding between men’s basketball and women’s basketball (as well as basketball compared to football), with people believing that women’s athletics are to be taken less seriously when the reality is that women can hold their own on the court. Since basketball training typically took place later in the day, Hala got a day job to fill out the gap in her schedule. However, due to her effort on the court, she can now focus on being a basketball player full-time. She does believe that is getting slightly better, with a little more funding and media coverage; however, she encourages the media and sponsors to be more supportive of women in sports.
She has also faced negativity from fans of the sport. When Hala got an offer to play at the Alexandria Sporting Club instead of Al-Ahly Sporting Club, she decided to take it as she was seeking to further challenge herself and get out of her comfort zone. Given the animosity between the teams, the fans were not happy with this decision. She received a lot of backlash and negative comments on articles; they would even contact her family and ask them if she was only in it for the money. Hala pushed through; she deleted social media, summoned her inner strength, and strived to be the best on the court for the remaining duration of her time at Al-Ahly Club Sporting Club, successfully receiving the Player of the Match award at their final game upon winning the championship. She also believes that being a role model for young girls, especially young athletes, makes it all worth it at the end of the day.
Moving to Alexandria Sporting Club also came at another cost: it was in Alexandria, two hours away from her home and loved ones in Cairo. This means that she spends her one day off going back and forth on the bus trying to fit in seeing her family, her friends, and her husband. It was also difficult to adjust to living alone in an unfamiliar place, but she received support from her new teammates and was able to build a community in Alexandria. She also uses her time alone at home to broaden her knowledge, enrolling in online nutrition and sports courses to enhance her playing.
Hala advises young women not to settle, “work hard every day and try to get better every day. Set goals for yourself, reach them, and set the next ones. Always ask ‘what’s next?” Do something that will make you get up in the morning and want to work hard.” She acknowledges that this is better said than done, and encourages young women and girls to have a solid support system that will not let them give up, be it family, friends, or the people they meet on the way.
Hala cites Coach Carter, Love and Basketball, and of course, Space Jam as early influences for her love of basketball, but emphasizes that she would not have done all of this without her father’s constant love, support, and encouragement. “He is my best friend, and he has not missed a single game I have played. If he cannot be there in person, then he is watching a live stream and cheering me on.” His unwavering support and belief in her capabilities pushed her to never doubt herself or give up, and to always strive to be the best at what she does because, to him, she is the best. Little by little, she is proving him right.
This story was written by Ghada El Kawas