To get there, they battled down to the buzzer against China, winning 72-69 against the Asian powerhouse for the first time ever in the tournament. Lebanon then held on to eke an 86-85 win against regional rival Jordan to make it into the championship game against Australia.
In the end, the Mediterranean nation went home with second place after falling to the Aussies 75-73 — inching to within one possession of the win after clawing back from a 15-point deficit with just six minutes left in the game.
“We just want to make our people happy,” Arakji said. “Seeing all these Lebanese fans supporting us, watching all these videos on social media, watching the kids jumping from their seats, their parents enjoying the games with their family is such an honor to all of us.
“It’s been an amazing feeling, an amazing ride. Unfortunately, we finished second, but seeing the support and the happiness we brought to Lebanon made us feel like we won the tournament.”
The FIBA Asia Cup, which takes place every four years, sees teams across Asia and Oceania go head to head for the title of Asian champion.
The ultimate underdog
Australia is ranked third in the world by FIBA, trailing only the United States and Spain, so Lebanon was the ultimate underdog in the final. Ten out of the 12 team members had never even played in the Asia Cup before, according to Arakji.
Arakji tells CNN the tournament run signifies so much more than sport for his team and his country.
“Being able to reach second in Asia right now shows that Lebanon will never die,” he said. “There will always be people that will fight for Lebanon — fight for the Lebanese flag no matter what happens.”
“I needed to write that because we don’t need them to ride the wave,” Arakji told CNN.
“People in Lebanon are fighting for a living. People in Lebanon are dying on a daily basis … So as a basketball player, as a public figure, I had to send a message to the Prime Minister and to all politicians: There are a lot of things you guys should take care about other than just congratulating us.”
Despite the turmoil engulfing his country, Arakji says his main focus is to keep pushing forward as a team.
“We showed the world that a small team from a small country from a very ordinary league can fight and can dominate big teams at some point … We set the bar high, so we need to meet the expectation and keep getting better on a daily basis. I believe the sky is the limit.”