How many smiles can you fit in a week?
Smiles of celebration, playing with old friends, meeting new friends and, of course, the smiles that are impossible to contain after scoring a three-pointer.
The anniversary edition of European Basketball Week, which ran from 25 November to 3 December, had all of these in ample supply.
“Endless smiles. And not only here,” said Roland Hysi, Director of Special Olympics Albania, hosts of the Regional West Balkans Unified 3x3 Basketball Tournament. “This is only a small activity, but I would like each and every one to have an idea of what Special Olympics does and why they should be part of the cause.”
The West Balkans tournament was held in Tirana from 1 to 3 December with eight teams and four countries participating. Unified teams from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and North Macedonia took part in the competition.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) were among the key partners of the project, acting through the regional UN Peacebuilding Fund (PBF)-supported Youth 4 Inclusion, Equality and Trust.
“We have a lot of events, but this is the first time we’ve had so many regional young people coming together so it was really moving,” said Thomas Jackson, UN regional project coordinator. “It’s a big event and it’s attracting attention and it’s making this issue rise up in the agenda.”
People with intellectual disabilities are particularly vulnerable to hate speech and violence, Jackson explained, while sports tournaments such as the one in Tirana help to spread the message of diversity to a large audience.
“Working with Special Olympics is really important because we want to show how important it is to have this group as a part of society and to have their voices heard,” Jackson said. “Young people don’t always get their voices heard and the marginalised groups are the least heard of all, so that’s why Special Olympics is so important for us."
“The message is that everybody is important, and diversity is positive so we should celebrate diversity, we should celebrate everybody, we should celebrate youth.”
Blend Demneri, sales manager at Toyota Albania, another key partner for the West Balkans tournament, shared the sentiment, “Today was not only about sport but it was about inclusion and [being] together."
“Toyota is very proud to support this event as a local and international partner.”
The Municipality of Tirana, Coca-Cola Bottling Albania and Tepelene Water also supported the regional tournament.
Inclusion was the overarching theme of the three-day event with the opening activity taking place in a residential city square where athletes invited locals to join them in playing team sports such as basketball and hockey, or one-on-one matches in badminton and snakes and ladders.
The real sports action unfolded later in the afternoon on the basketball courts, but not before a few memorable artistic performances.
The Albania Silhouette Dance group kicked off the Opening Ceremony with two inclusive dance numbers. Accompanied by six child dancers without disabilities, youngsters Marvin Çela and Belkisa Pillati took turns wowing the audience with their takes on pop favourites from Billie Eilish and Lady Gaga.
Musical talent was also on display with Soirdio Balla playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on the guitar and Dea Çaushi entertaining the crowd with a Christmas medley on a violin, just minutes before swapping her stage gear for a basketball jersey and joining the Team Elbasan huddle.
Three foreign teams and five teams from Albania played in a round robin stage on 2 December with the playoff round taking place on 3 December, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
The tournament finished in dramatic fashion with the final game between Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia going into overtime. As Bosnia and Herzegovina made the two shots they needed for victory, the five players and their coaches ran into each others’ arms on the court and chanted in celebration.
“I am feeling great,” said player Vesna Mišić. “I am really happy because we won and because I’m here, because I’m part of this tournament.”
Kosovo’s Andi Qorrolli also walked away with a medal and a trophy, but his most valuable mementos from the tournament were of the kind that are harder to grasp.
A school student who is passionate about languages, Qorrolli looked forward to meeting players from basketball teams across the region, and was not left disappointed.
“The best memory is how I met Albanian, Bosnian, Macedonian players. This is the best memory of my life because I never thought that I would meet with other people from other cities,” he said. “We live in different places, but we love basketball.”
Love was in the air once again minutes later as The Door, a brass band from Shkodra that is made up only of musicians with disabilities, played crowd favourites by The Beatles and Elvis Presley to close off the Regional West Balkans Basketball 3x3 Tournament.
The athletes and spectators swayed and clapped, while a folk song that the band played next had even the Director of Special Olympics Albania singing along on stage with the singer.
“It would be our dream come true if we come to a certain point that we host even bigger events in Albania,” Hysi said. “This is the best activity we have had so far and we think it’s very important that through sports we bring change also in education and health. We’re ready.”