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Shahd Abboud: Breaking down barriers

Shahd Abboud faced a challenging road to professional basketball. Since her rise to the top division of Israeli basketball, she became the first Arab-Israeli to play in the women’s Premier League and the first Arab-Israeli captain in both the men’s and women’s leagues.

Culturally, financially and logistically, Abboud navigated obstacles from the jump to pursue her dream.

“I grew up as a minority. Being an Arab in Israel is challenging in a lot of ways. I’ve always felt like I had to do more to get a fair opportunity.

“I grew up in Nazareth, and when I was in seventh grade, I was recruited by a team in a different city. It was a difficult decision because I was going to be the only Arab girl on the team. I’d be away from my parents and didn’t speak Hebrew very fluently.”

Abboud comes from a basketball family. Her parents coached and played while raising a young child, meaning she grew up on the court. Since birth, she has lived and breathed hoops. 

“When I was born, I used to be at practice all the time. I was in the gym at a young age. Seeing my parents in that environment made me want to be there. Them having basketball as their career also helped them to be able to support me and my dreams.

“I’m lucky to be surrounded by amazing people in my career who gave me a platform to succeed. My parents drove an hour and a half to my games growing up to come to watch me!”

Due to a lack of funding in many Arab communities in Israel, sporting opportunities were limited for Abboud. 

She has used her platform to amend this, setting up basketball camps with her father in underfunded areas to allow a pathway for more children to devote their careers to basketball. 

“Due to the gap in funding, Arab teams don’t have anywhere to play in the summer. My dad and I wanted to provide the kids with an opportunity to play. 

“We’re now thinking of how best to integrate the Arab and Jewish communities in our camp. It’s really important for them to get to know each other at an early age, so they can begin to relate and understand each other.

“That’s the best thing about sports. There’s no colour, religion or race. You’re all teammates with the same goal. I was always around incredible people, I never felt different or unwelcome. Sport can be used for a lot of good.”

Abboud finds herself in a unique position, and one she is grateful for. She can represent the Arab community on the international stage, competing for the Israel national team from an early age.

Young children can now look to her, as Abboud looked to her parents as sporting role models. 

“I’ve always been the only Arab girl on the team, but that’s really important so I can show young girls that it’s possible. We always feel like we need to be better to get a fair chance, and a lot of people focus on school.

“I showed them a different way: that you can follow your dreams and still get a degree. I got my master’s while at the top level of basketball. 

“Representation is really important. For kids to see someone who is like them, grew up like them and shares similar views and values. To see her accomplish things makes it easier for them to dream. I’m blessed and honoured to be in a position to set an example.

“I get a lot of kids that want to talk to me and a lot that come to my games. Arab cities now have buses to our games. After the game, I see these kids, and just to see how excited they are and how much they can aspire and dream about getting to the top feels great.”

The Nazareth native’s journey to the top level took her to the other side of the world. It was always her dream to play in the NCAA, which was almost unprecedented for girls growing up in Israel. 

But an unlikely stranger helped to make her childhood dream a reality.  

“I was playing at Israel under-20s, and a stranger approached me and asked if I was interested in playing in America. I said yes, gave him my highlights tape, and he said he’d contact some colleges.

“I thought he was joking! I was just a kid, and I didn’t know him. To this day, I don’t know who he was! But I started getting emails from different schools asking me to come and play! Thank you to that man, wherever you are!”

She earned a spot at Jacksonville Junior College. But as a young girl on the other side of the world, the experience was daunting. 

“It was completely different to what I was expecting. I came expecting a huge school, but of course, it was a junior college, so much smaller. My mum came with me to see it, and even asked if I wanted to go home!

“But I didn’t, and it turned out to be the best experience ever. In JUCO, you have to keep working hard to prove yourself and get to the next level, so I got my work ethic and understanding of what it takes to get better from Jacksonville. I met amazing people who are friends for life.”

And get to the next level she did. Abboud was a NJCAA Academic All-American named to the NJCAA Region 14 All-Academic Team. This caught the eye of Northwestern State, where she spent her final two college seasons. 

Reflecting on her early college experience, Abboud draws parallels to her move to Leicester. 

“It feels the same now! I feel the same excitement and nerves, and I’m 28! I have the same feelings: I’m giddy and excited. It’s a great feeling that reminds me of when I first went to the States.

“I’m at a point in my career where I’m ready to expand my horizons. I think Leicester and Loughborough University will be great places to try something new, see a new country and still play basketball.”

Years removed from college, now a seasoned professional, Abboud is ready to bring veteran leadership to the Riders. 

“Throughout the years, I’ve really developed my leadership. At the start of my career, I would turn up, do my job, and that would be it. My coaches always wanted more. 

“They always told me: ‘The way you hold yourself accountable is how you have to hold your teammates accountable’. I’ve learned how to set an example and help everyone else improve.

“I look to bring my basketball IQ to the team, and being able to play the game the right way, or Coach Ben’s way! Also, being one of the oldest on the team, I hope to be a figure for the younger players to come and speak to. 

“I love making new relationships and getting to know people. I think it’s the best way to be, to bring the best out of others.”

Previewing the upcoming season, Abboud has a message for the Riders faithful:

“Come watch us! I’ve heard a lot of great things about the fans, so I’m really excited to meet you all. I’ve been getting a lot of love since I signed, and we’re building a team that will be fun to watch. It’s going to be a great season, and I can’t wait to start!”