When standing in the vast expanse of Skanderbeg Square in the centre of Tirana, you don't have to stroll too far to find plenty of kids playing basketball in the backstreets of the Albanian capital. After all, Albania is a nation located at the very heart of a regional basketball hotbed.
However unlike many of its immediate or near neighbours in the Balkans, Albania has yet to make significant strides in effectively piecing together a huge appetite for the game among it's younger population and harnessing that untapped potential to help build national teams that can deliver true progression and ultimately, genuine hope of promotion to Division A.
|The Albanian Basketball Federation hopes that getting kids to play more basketball in school will help to grow the sport.|
After spending a significant amount of hard work developing a programme to tackle the shortcomings of the past, the Federation are determined to make the most of it's young talent. They have teamed up with a range of partners including Raiffeisen Bank and FIBA Europe to develop an exciting new educational project that could prove a real turning point.
Last month the Federation launched their first ever major schools programme which inaugurated a brand new perspective on the development and the distribution of basketball in Albania. For some people living in countries where schools programmes have been running for decades it might seem a little too easy to sneer at this project and sure it is something that every single person associated with Albanian basketball would have liked to have seen sooner.
However, it is worth being mindful of the fact that these nations have probably not had to deal with the myriad of historical, political and resource issues heaped on the basketball administration in Tirana. Having lived something of a hand to mouth existence in comparison to the richer nations for many years, playing catch-up is hardly a concern. All that matters is that inward investment for this major project could finally pay dividends in the medium to long term future.
Secretary General Korab Llazani is excited about the years ahead and believes this project is a perfect partnership with Raiffeisen Bank providing vital sponsorship and the Federation offering technical and logistical support.
"Basketball in Albania is considered the second most widely played sport after football. It's activities are spread out across the whole of Albania and in different age groups as well as being played amongst both boys and girls as well as men and women."
"We are working hard to try and improve a range of factors to achieve our targets in the next few years which are to get basketball into the mainstream, put our energy into involving basketball more and more into the school curriculum and to extend such projects across Albania."
"But this is not the only effort, our objective is to recruit trainers to qualify them as coaches for a better quality of basketball in the future."
"We are trying to improve the infrastructure and are focusing on young age groups in particular. As part of this we are trying to change the formula of the Championships involving all of the youth categories including U14, U16 and U18 as well as trying to develop recruitment."
"As part of this strategy we have this special project being implemented in Albania to really reach out and improve school basketball. First it will be based on improving conditions and facilities and soon after it will concentrate more on the basketball development of players at young ages."
"We are also hoping that basketball mainstreaming will see a natural increase in quality coming through."
The project, which will be piloted for the first year, will see 2,500 children benefitting across Albania and not just in the capital. In cities like Shkodra, Durresi, Vlora, Korça and Elbasani the Federation believes this project can facilitate a real revival in the fortunes of basketball and provide a genuine shot in the arm for the existing infrastructure.
Ersid Ljuca led the way for the Albania National team last summer with an impressive 18 points per game during their Division B campaign and he has been quick to give his backing to the Federation in their efforts to find the stars of the future.
"I like very much the idea to start a programme in the schools, and I think they should have done this a long time ago." Explained Ljuca.
"Through this initiative, more youngsters will be encouraged to play basketball and to maybe have a big future in the sport."
"I think the basketball in Albania is becoming better and better every year, but I still think it needs more involvement from the clubs to bring more sponsors and to develop better coaches who know how to work with the players."
"In particular those who can encourage younger talents to become players for a higher level because Albania has a lot of talents and we need to capitalise on them."
One of the biggest barriers to the development of youth basketball in Albania is that due to funding restrictions, the Federation are not yet in a position to offer any kind of consistent U16, U18 or U20 national team programme for players to aspire to.
It is something close to the heart of Ljuca who isn't unsympathetic to the resource issue but feels there are other options that could still improve standards.
"In the summer I think there should be more organised camps where these players can practice more with coaches who get more involved in the practice, teach them more things, because the future of Albania is in their hands."
The Federation certainly face a real challenge in developing a fully Division B youth programme in the future but the new schools programme is part of this longer term strategy and it is an ambition that they feel can and will one day be fulfilled.
In Part Two we take a look at both of the senior National Teams with the re-entry of the Women into Division B action later this year.