By Ben Okazawa
This past January, at a regular season game in Kirkuk, Iraq, Diar Alkaldy had just finished playing the best game of his budding professional basketball career. The 20-year-old guard scored 25 points and doled out 10 assists; both game-highs. Alkaldy was immediately surrounded by fans, his 6’5” frame standing out in the crowd.
“A bunch of people after the game came up to me to ask for pictures and autographs,” he recalled fondly. “That’s the first time I’ve ever experienced something like that.”
Fans asking for pictures, career-best games in front of sold-out crowds—none of these experiences would have been possible for Alkaldy just a couple of months earlier. Instead, the Ryerson Rams second-year guard had been waiting out the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) hiatus with his team since the pandemic struck in March 2020.
Although it was a tough time for athletes across the province, Alkaldy took the break from university basketball and flipped it on its head. He did something that everybody dreams of when they grow up playing sports—the Iraqi-Canadian got the chance to represent his country in an international competition. Alkaldy said he had been talking to the Iraqi national team coach for a while before making the decision to go play for them, so the COVID-19 pandemic cancelling his university season was all the motivation he needed.
“I didn’t want to stay for a year in Canada not doing anything,” Alkaldy said. “I probably wouldn’t even have come to the national team if we still had a season going on.”
The national team struggled in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Asia Cup qualifying tournament, but Alkaldy impressed the professional teams of the Iraqi Superleague. Although he expected to be back at Ryerson in time for the winter semester when he left for the national team, Alkaldy’s play in the qualifying games netted him a professional contract with one of the teams from the league, Nift Al-Basra, in December 2020—making him ineligible to return to university sports.
In the four contests he’s played with the team so far, Alkaldy has flourished, averaging 12.5 points and 4.5 assists per game. Although he didn’t see much playing time in his first year with the Rams, teammates aren’t surprised at Alkaldy’s success overseas.
“He was always ready to play hard and do what it takes to help his team,” recalled second-year Rams forward Tom Dumont. “I think that’s what’s helping him be great in the Iraqi league.”
Alkaldy echoed that sentiment, saying that his work ethic has been a big part of his basketball success from when he first stepped on a court. He feels as though being Iraqi-Canadian can sometimes result in prejudice from others who don’t expect him to be very good.
But despite others’ assumptions, Alkaldy always pushes himself to be the best player in the gym. With Nift Al-Basra however, he’s found teammates who have strong motivations of their own.
“If they don’t play [well]…they can’t support their family,” he notes as the biggest difference between OUA and the Iraqi Superleague. “So, for them, it’s a different level of focus.”
However, the strong will and competitive spirit hasn’t held Alkaldy’s team back from embracing him as one of their own. He admits that he thought the considerable age gap between him and most of the team would be a barrier, but, to his surprise, they expressed their support for him from the get-go. That chemistry the team built early on has led to promising results on the court. Nift Al-Basra currently sits at 4-5, good for playoff positioning at seventh in the league.
New Ryerson men’s basketball head coach, David DeAveiro, hasn’t seen much of Alkaldy—he was coaching at McGill during Alkaldy’s lone season with the Rams—but was impressed with what he saw from the second-year during early-season workouts. DeAveiro noted his work ethic and size at the point guard position during that time and was excited to work with him more throughout the course of the season.
But as a coach for various Canadian national teams over the years, DeAveiro understood Alkaldy’s desire to represent his home country Iraq in the FIBA qualifiers and said he was all for it.
“When I got the call, I wasn’t surprised, but I was really happy for Diar,” said DeAveiro. “[He] is going to put the work in to be good…I thought he made a great decision.”
Alkaldy has no regrets either, but admits the move overseas presented its own challenges. Going months without seeing his parents and friends, living in a country where he’s just now becoming accustomed to the constant military presence and still being one of the hardest workers in the room hasn’t been a cakewalk. Nonetheless, Alkaldy said that fulfilling his dream of playing professional basketball keeps him motivated.
“If you put your head down and work hard, you can do anything,” he said. “I’ve always had that belief in myself. My whole life…I’ve felt like I could play professional basketball.”
His basketball career hasn’t been without adversity and the pandemic has been no exception, but chasing his hoop dreams in Iraq has helped Alkaldy find a silver lining within a year of chaos.