Seven and a half thousand miles from Los Angeles, where LeBron James and his Lakers team-mates kick their considerable heels, a land of hoop dreams and perfect hygiene still sustains.
The NBA superstar expressed frustration this week over his sport’s continued shutdown, as coronavirus cases in the US soared into six figures.
“To get back on the floor, I would love it,” James lamented on the ‘Road Trippin’ Podcast’. “The rest factor, I think it’s a little bit [exaggerated] – especially when you’re in the full swing of things.”
💐Nowruz Mubarak, dear friends! 🎉May this spring be your start of the long way full of prosperity and joy! pic.twitter.com/Sq8u24XOSq
— UK in Tajikistan (@UKinTajikistan) March 21, 2020
In the same week that basketball rings were being unscrewed from neighbourhood courts across New York to help spread the social-distancing message, the only professional basketball in the world was being played in the Primary League in Tajikistan.
The mountainous central Asian nation is one of less than 20 countries yet to declare a single coronavirus case, a phenomenon its president Emomali Rahmon puts down to his subjects’ extraordinary obsession with cleanliness.
Rahmon, who, incidentally, also serves as Tajikistan’s Founder of Peace and National Unity and Leader of the Nation, declared: “Keeping homes clean and observing sanitary standards is one of the finest qualities of our people.”
Huge crowds defied the global threat as they gathered to celebrate Tajikistan’s traditional spring holiday of Nowruz this week, and the country’s passion for basketball continued on Saturday, with three matches in the sport’s domestic top flight.
Leaders Dushanbe beat the inappropriately-named Legends 124-74, Zuhro got the better of Berkut, while Diesel Power edged past Faeton 82-74 in overtime.
How long basketball’s last international bastion can continue is open to question. Health officials have expressed concern over the inexplicably low coronavirus numbers being reported in a number of central Asian states.
Решением Федерации футбола Таджикистана матч за Суперкубок страны, в котором сойдутся действующий чемпион и обладатель Национального Кубка «Истиклол» и серебряный призер чемпионата Таджикистана прошлого сезона «Худжанд», пройдет без зрителей.https://t.co/dsbPTRXQ9ipic.twitter.com/KOWeZUS609
— Tajikistan Football (@fft_official) March 27, 2020
Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan declared their first cases earlier this month, while Turkmenistan is also yet to report a single case, despite sharing a 713-mile land border with Iran, one of the world’s worst-hit nations with over 2,500 deaths.
There are signs that even Rahmon, who was re-elected earlier this month after winning over 75 per cent of the vote in disputed elections, may be less bullish about the prospects than he would like to appear.
The new Tajik football season is set to kick off as scheduled next weekend, but all matches in the elite Higher League will now be played behind closed doors.
NBA ace James might be well advised to keep self-isolating. It may have enjoyed its moment as the saviour of some increasingly desperate sports betting sites, but even Tajik basketball cannot continue to beat the buzzer.