Although he was a late bloomer who got his basketball education in Germany and the United States, ever-improving big man Yassin Idbihi's hoop dreams started in his native Morocco.
Growing up in the coastal town of Tangier, Idbihi could never imagine that he would end up playing professional basketball, let alone be part of the elite European competition such as Turkish Airlines Euroleague, where his new team, FC Bayern Munich, makes its debut this season.
Although Morocco not known as a basketball country, Idbihi is far from the first player born there to play in Europe's top competition. Moroccan and other North African basketball teams participated in the forerunners of the Euroleague for most part of 1960s and 1970s. A team from Morocco, USM Casablanca was the first North African team in the competition back in 1959-60, and Moroccan teams continued battling for European crown for the next 15 years, while Syrian and Egyptian teams were part of Euroleague as late as 1983, the year Idbihi was born.
"Oh, I really did not know that 50 years ago, when the Euroleague started, there were Moroccan teams in the tournaments. It's really interesting. I would like to know the teams that played the competitions those years, and maybe in the future they should add some more Moroccan teams again."
Idbihi did not discover basketball until he was 14 years old, after growing almost 20 centimeters in just a few months. Standing 1.95 meters at that age, he was too tall to play football, his country's first sport, but quickly found a substitute he loved: basketball.
At first, however, Idbihi could only be a basketball fan. He couldn't really play for lack of courts in his hometown, and because his local basketball club did not have a youth team.
"When I was young it was very hard to find basketball courts because always the rims were stolen (laughs). There were no rims or backboards, so it was very hard to find a place to play basketball. So when I was 14 years old we would walk through the city for hours and hours for a place to play basketball. But it's gotten better now."
Idbihi soon got his chance to play, though. The son of a German mother who was a teacher in Morocco, for his 15th birthday Idbihi got a life-changing gift: a week of basketball camp in Germany while staying with his grandfather. Although far from home, the adjustment was not too hard on Idbihi because he had visited family in Germany once a year throughout his childhood and he knew the language.
Idbihi, who now speaks six languages, is the first to admit he wasn't a very good basketball player for his age at first. But he was tall, and sometimes in basketball that is enough to get started. Soon after the camp, he was offered a scholarship to a German school, and since Idbihi liked basketball so much, he ended up moving there.
It was the beginning of a successful and not very ordinary basketball career that started with a debut in Germany’s second division team Rhondorf, and continued at the University of Buffalo, where Idbihi played from 2003 to 2007. After getting a degree in international relations and putting up double-doubles night after night in NCAA competition, Idbihi came back to Germany in 2007 to pursue a pro basketball career.
Six years later, after the long and winding career path, he was suiting up for Alba Berlin in his Euroleague debut last season at age 29 . Though later than most players, his was an astonishing accomplishment, considering how far he had to go just to try basketball in the first place.
"The Euroleague is absolutely everybody's career destination, not only African players but all over the place. It's the second best league in the world. There are also some players who could play in the NBA but choose to play in the Euroleague. It's a top league. It was my dream for the past six years. Since I signed with Alba Berlin it was my dream because we were always close but in the end we finally managed to make it."
Idbihi did not disappoint in first Euroleague season, averaging 7.4 points and 3.9 rebounds in under 20 minutes per game with solid shooting percentages for Alba Berlin. His journey continues now with Bayern Munich, but it has already given more to Idbihi than a career. Basketball has taken him from Tangier around the world and, as he says, enriched his life.
"Basketball has helped definitely because I got to know a lot of people from different countries, I learned new cultures. But I also grew up in a very multicultural family, but basketball also helped a lot because I think it is a multicultural sport."