“There are talented players on your team. With the right training, they can reach far. I’m prepared to do this.”
These are the words that Sri Lankan basketball coach, Supun Wimal, told Ahmed Ismail, the then manager of the Maldives National Basketball Team, during a tour to Sri Lanka in the year 1996.
Three years later, Ahmed was appointed as the vice president of the Maldives Basketball Association (MBA). Shortly thereafter, the then sports minister Dr Mohamed Zahir Hussain presented him the opportunity to bring in a foreign coach. Ahmed leapt at the chance and contracted Supun Vimal to train the Maldives’ national team. Supun’s first promise then was that, under his guidance, the Maldives would come to best its strongest rival, the Sri Lankan national team.
The Maldives National Basketball Team went head to head with Sri Lanka for the first time under Supun Wimal’s wing on May 23 this year. True to his word, the Maldives’ team beat Sri Lanka 69-63 in the SABA Championship match this Wednesday night, making history and fulfilling a dream that had taken nearly two decades in the making.
Even before the start of the championship, Supun Wimal had told Mihaaru that he has been dreaming of his team beating Sri Lanka for 18 years. After the historical match, he admitted that people had ridiculed him following the previous news article, deeming his claim far-fetched and unachievable.
“[They said] how can [the Maldives] beat Sri Lanka? I told them I know how to do it,” he said, speaking after the match.
Supun declared that, following the feat, he can now retire from the Maldives’ national team without any regrets.
“You won’t see me on the national team anymore,” announced the coach who had guided the Maldives National Basketball Team through the Islamic Solidarity Games and SABA Championships. However, he assured that he will continue to assist the local clubs.
The extent of Supun Wimal’s services to Maldivian basketball over the past 18 years had not stopped at only the national team. He has served as a technical director at MBA, worked as a referee, trained new referees and coaches, worked in the Youth Development Program and coached players to unlock their potential. The latter is what doubles his joy at the victory bagged by the Maldives this Wednesday night – his dream has been realised by a team of players that he had created and raised himself.
The current national team features veteran players such as Captain Mohamed Zilal, Ali Fazlee, Ahmed Afshan Rashad and Zakariyya Abdul Latheef, who have been mentored by Supun Wimal since their childhood. The promising rookies on the team, Ibrahim Rashwan, Abdulla Amzar, Hussain Haleem and Ismail Wildhan, are the last batch Supun coached.
Notably, Rashwan and Wildhan had played important roles in the Maldives’ junior national team in 2012 when, under Supun’s guidance, they bagged the trophy at an international school championship held in Sri Lanka.
Supun expressed joy and satisfaction with his players’ performance in the SABA match against Sri Lanka, declaring that they have repaid his work and efforts.
“I told them last night [Wednesday] that I’ve served them [to my best]. And if they want to do something for me now, then beat Sri Lanka. In this match, the players have shown that strength.”
In return, team captain Zilal described Supun Wimal as the members’ “father”, proclaiming that Supun is the turning point that brought significant changes to Maldives’ basketball.
“Ever since Coach got here, his aim was for [the Maldives] to overtake Sri Lanka. Since we were children, it was Coach who brought us to this point, me and Fazlee and Afshan and Firash and Zabee. This [victory] is the result of all of us going out as a team for our coach.”
Zilal explained that Supun Wimal uses an integrated system in his work which includes putting forward important players into the roles of coaching. As a result of his wide reaching strategies, Zilal stated that the players have learnt and experienced more, leading to greater progress.
“Supun is the father of basketball in the Maldives. He is the coach that changed Maldives’ basketball around. This is something everyone on the national team recognises.”
Noting that their coach’s aim was to raise the Maldives up to a great level in regional basketball, Zilal vowed that despite Supun’s impending retirement from the national team, the players will persist in achieving his other expectations.
“We’ll do everything we can to develop basketball, for Coach.”
Supun highlighted the positive differences in the team’s performancee that were prominent in this championship despite the Maldives’ failure to reach the Top Three. He lauded the players, both veterans and rookies, for their performances and declared that they have laid a solid foundation by beating a strong rival on their home turf.
“There are several young players on the team. They have a bright future,” he said.
Sharing the same joy at the Maldives’ victory is Ahmed Ismail. Though no longer actively involved in basketball, he had long served as the vice president of MBA and led the Youth Development Program, which ultimately became the academy that put out the current members of the national team.
“I’ve overjoyed tonight. The first time we met, Supun told me that [the Maldives] can beat Sri Lanka, that he will do it. Today it has finally become reality. Indeed, Supun is a gift that Zahir Hussain presented to basketball,” said Ahmed, referring to the former sports minister.
Remarkably, even in the field of football, the Maldives had properly taken off after beating their then strongest rival, which was the Sri Lankan national team. That victory had been a huge boost to the Maldives, egging the players on to reach new heights. Hence, a similar victory in basketball against their strongest opponents may be seen as a good omen for the Maldives. Indeed, Supun Wimal has pushed the Maldives to finally take that key step forward before he bid adieu.