If the saying “everyone loves an underdog” is true, then Tunisia will have plenty of support in the stands when they travel to Istanbul for the 2010 FIBA World Championship.
They are, along with Jordan, probably going to face the longest odds of winning a game, never mind advancing to the second phase of the competition.
The underdog label was just fine for Adel Tlatli, the coach of Tunisia, at last year’s Afrobasket in Libya.
No one expected his team to do much, yet the Tunisians shocked the continent by claiming a bronze medal, an achievement that sealed a place in the 2010 FIBA World Championship.
For a coach who cares deeply about basketball in his homeland, one who broke into the national team at 16 years of age and played until he was 24, stepping onto the podium in Tripoli was one of the biggest thrills of his life.
“It was really a big moment and a phenomenal result,” Tlatli said to FIBA.com.
“But I did not allow myself to dream about this before the end of the game.”
The third-place game was against Cameroon, a side loaded with talented players and one that everyone expected to advance to the FIBA World Championship.
The final score read, however, Tunisia 83 Cameroon 68.
“We surpassed expectations,” Tlatli said.
Reliving a golden moment
Last year’s bronze-medal game against Cameroon was indeed the pivotal event for Tunisia.
Tlatli remembers it like it was yesterday.
He remembers his thoughts on the way to the gym, and what he said to his players before tip-off.
“I told them that it was our chance to go to the World Championship and to be in Tunisian Basketball history,” he said.
“The players were more concentrated then during the other games, and overall, they did not panic.”
As is usually the case during a big Tunisia game, captain Amine Rzig came up big.
The 6ft 6in Rzig poured in 20 points on eight-of-17 shooting from the floor.
When he wasn’t scoring, Rzig was setting up his teammates.
He finished with five assists.
Marouan Kechrid is the playmaker.
Both he and Rzig, according to the coach, are the fan favorites.
Kechrid didn’t have any assists in that game against Cameroon, but he did score 14 points on three-of-five shooting from the floor and a six-of-seven effort at the charity stripe.
He drilled a couple of three-pointers.
Basketball fans also caught a glimpse of another player, Salah Mejeri, the 7ft 1in center that Tlatli calls the rising star of Tunisia.
Mejeri scored eight points and swatted a couple of shots in 14 minutes.
All three players figure to be prominent at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey.
Team USA, Slovenia, Brazil, Croatia and Iran are also in Group B with Tlatli’s team.
Which side is the coach looking forward to taking on more than any other?
“Of course the USA,” he said.
For the record, most members of the bronze-medal winning side, Tlatli says, will be in Turkey.
What to expect?
To drive home the fact that Tunisia are the underdogs in Group B, one needs only to look at the roster.
While all of the other squads have players in the NBA or at the leading clubs in Europe, Tunisia is a different story.
“Four players are completely professional,” the coach said.
“One in Morocco, one in Spain and two in Egypt in different teams. All the others in Tunisia are semi-professional.”
From a physical standpoint, there will be a difference.
At last year’s Afrobasket, the Tunisians did not have the biggest or strongest team on the floor.
“We have neither size nor physical strength compared to the other teams,” Tlatli admitted, “but we are speedier than them and our biggest strength is tactical.
“Our weakness is playing inside and we don't have a strong player. We need to play rapidly and to choose the best defense.”
To play at a FIBA World Championship is to reach the pinnacle of the sport which is why Tlatli expects many of the country’s fans to show up for the games.
“Oh yes,” he said.
And what, realistically, is the aim of Tunisia?
“To win at least one game,” Tlatli said.
Tlatli, who comes from Nabeul and played there, has come a long way as a coach.
He began walking the sidelines a quarter of a century ago with Nabeul's team.
Tlatli became the Tunisian national coach in 2001.
He was at the draw for the FIBA World Championship back in December, when it was held in Istanbul.
This entire experience means so much to him.
It is an opportunity that many players and coaches will never have.
“It is a dream which is still to be realized,” he said.
“It’s bringing international visibility for Tunisian basketball.”