August 31, 2016

Over 50 groups release open letter to FIBA protesting basketball headgear ban


According to FIBA, the world's governing body of basketball, harmless religious/cultural headgear is harmful to other players on the basketball court. And despite no evidence to this archaic ruling (already abolished by several other sporting bodies, including FIFA), FIBA continues to uphold a ban on athletes who wear headgear like the Sikh turban, the Muslim hijab, or the Jewish kippah. A couple of years ago, this ruling caused worldwide controversy when two crucial Sikh players of India's national basketball team - Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh - were barred from playing in a game at the FIBA Asia Cup because of their headgear. FIBA promised to review the headgear rule but eventually ended up delaying their decision.

FIBA suspended the ban for a two year period in 2014, and with that suspension period coming to an end, the time to make a permanent decision is here.

Nothing brings together people of differing faiths than a common adversary, and in protest to FIBA's continuing headgear ban, over 50 interfaith and advocacy organisations - including The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Sikh Coalition, and MPower Change - released an open letter to addressed to FIBA President Horatio Muratore. The letter spotlighted two American athletes who have been directly impacted by FIBA’s discriminatory policy: Bilqis Abdul-Qadir, who made history in 2010 to become the first Muslim-American NCAA basketball player to compete wearing the Islamic headscarf, and Darsh Preet Singh, who in 2004 to become the first Sikh-American NCAA basketball player to compete wearing the Sikh turban.

Excerpts from the open letter to FIBA:

We, the undersigned, are calling on the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to revise its policies that prohibit otherwise qualified athletes from pursuing a professional career as basketball players due to religious restrictions beliefs that require requiring them to wear a head-covering.

We understand FIBA is expected to announce a permanent decision in the near future on whether the ban on religious accommodations will be enforced. We believe this rule, as it stands, violates basic religious rights of athletes like [Darsh Preet] Singh and [Bilqis] Abdul-Qaadir, and countless others, and defies international human rights norms.
FIFA's International Football Association Board has acknowledged the religious rights of athletes by changing its rules to allow hijabs and Sikh turbans

No athlete should be forced to choose between faith and sport. Muslim women and Sikh men seeking to participate in sporting activities like anyone else should not face superficial and arbitrary barriers to that participation.

Check out the full letter with the complete list of supporters here.

It's time for a change, FIBA. The world has a larger variety of people than those sitting in plush office blocks out in Switzerland, and this variety loves basketball, too. It's time to become more inclusive and erase Article 4.4.2 of the Official Basketball Rules forever.

August 26, 2016

Hoopdarshan Episode 35: India's Coach CV Sunny previews the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge


Team India at the 2016 SABA Qualifiers in Bengaluru. Coach
Sunny is Middle Row third from left
With one of the biggest Asian basketball tournaments - the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge - just around the corner, we at Hoopdarshan recruited a top source to help us preview the championship from India's perspective, our national team's head coach and former player CV Sunny. Coach Sunny joins hosts Kaushik Lakshman and Karan Madhok to talk about our star players and starting lineups, the team's preparatory performances at the William Jones Cup, and if India can make some noise at the knockout stage.

Hailing from Kerala and now based in Tamil Nadu, Sunny was a celebrated point guard for our national team for about a decade in the 80s and 90s and was even briefly the captain of India. He moved into coaching after retirement and started the CV Sunny Basketball Academy in Chennai a few years ago. Currently, he's the Coach of the Indian national team that won South Asia qualifiers in Bengaluru a few months ago and he led the team to the William Jones Cup, where we played well but finished 1-7. Now, the team is going to the FIBA Asia Challenge that begins in Tehran (Iran) on September 9. India is placed in the Preliminary Round with Philippines and Chinese Taipei.



Hoopdarshan aims to be the true voice of Indian basketball, and since we're such hopeless fans of the game, it will become the voice of everything basketball related we love, from the NBA to international hoops, too. On every episode of Hoopdarshan, we will be inviting a special guest to interview or chat to about a variety of topics. With expert insight from some of the brightest and most-involved people in the world of Indian basketball, we hope to bring this conversation to a many more interested fans, players, and followers of the game.

Make sure to follow Hoopdarshan on Soundcloud or search for 'Hoopdarshan' on the iTunes Store! Auto-sync Hoopdarshan to your preferred podcast app NOW!

Hoopdarshan can be found on...

India's cricket team players visited the Miami Heat


Cricket may be India's number one sport (I'm sorry I lied, it's number one, two, three, four, and five) but the ol' 'bat and ball' is still relatively anonymous in the USA outside the fanbases of Commonwealth descent. So it is with an intention to promote the game in this untapped market that two Twenty20 international matches have been scheduled between the national teams of India and West Indies in Florida this weekend. And in a move to promote cricket to Americans, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) have also ended up reverse promoting our favourite sport here - basketball - to an Indian audience.

On Wednesday, August 24, cricket and basketball united as three members of the Indian cricket team visited the facility of the 2012 and 2013 NBA Champions Miami Heat - the American Airlines Arena - in Florida. Star spin bowler/All-Rounder Ravichandran Ashwin, batsman Shikhar Dhawan, and fast-medium bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar were part of the BCCI contingent that visited the home of the Heat, where they were hosted by young guard Tyler Johnson and undrafted rookie Briante Weber.

Rajlaxmi Arora reported the news on the BCCI website:

The trio were hosted by the latest recruit of Miami Heat - Tyler Johnson as he gave them a walk through their locker room, team meeting room, gymnasium and recuperation centre at the American Airlines Arena.
Briante Weber joined Johnson in hosting the Indian trio as they explained the techniques involved in Basketball to the Cricketers and showed off some moves. The group then got involved in a session of Basketball in the practice court.
The cricketers enjoyed their experience at the court with some engaging discussion with the NBA stars. While Shikhar and Bhuvneshwar were chatting up with the hosts, Ashwin seemed to have gone back to his school days of playing basketball.
Speaking about his visit at the Miami Heat home arena, R Ashwin said: “I’ve played a bit of basketball during my school days, so that got me really excited while I tried my hand at it again after so many years. I am thankful to both Weber and Johnson for taking time out and showing us around their home turf.”
Bhuvneshwar Kumar said: “It was great to see these guys and learn about their game. I was impressed with the facilities here and it was a learning experience for me to see the amount of technology being used in sports science.”
“It was great fun,” exclaimed India opener Shikhar Dhawan. “I am very happy we could make it here. Exchanging thoughts about how sports has transformed with the latest technology is always good. While I tried to explain these guys how Cricket is played, they in return taught me the finer details of basketball.”

Team India arrived in Miami on Wednesday and will play back-to-back Twenty20 matches against the West Indies on August 27 and 28 at Central Broward Regional Park in the city of Fort Lauderdale. This will be the first time that competitive international cricket will be played on American soil. The BCCI reached out to several American athletes and celebrities to promote the game with the #TeamIndiaInUSA hashtag on Twitter, including NBA veteran and three-time champ Udonis Haslem of the Heat and upcoming young point guard D'Angelo Russell of the Los Angeles Lakers.

As an Indian and an NBA fan, I love this union. Hopefully, Ashwin, Dhawan, and Bhuvaneshwar can introduce some Indian cricket fans to the NBA, too. The Heat in particular, who have lost LeBron (to Cleveland), Wade (to Chicago), Bosh (to a serious and uncertain health condition) and their local fanbase (who're just late to the arena), could certainly use some new fans to count on for their support.

August 22, 2016

Satnam Singh documentary series "#TheGrind" to be launched by Ball Don't Stop today


Photo via: Ball Don't Stop
For the last ten years, few basketball players on the planet can claim to have matched the life-changing transformation of 7-1 Indian phenon Satnam Singh. Basketball carried Satnam from a tiny farming village in Punjab to become a top junior star for his state, to America as a recruit on scholarship at the IMG Basketball Academy, and eventually, to become the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA. It's been a miraculous journey, a realisation of a daily grind and the work that Satnam put into the game.

But the grind is not yet over. Over the past year, Satnam wrapped his first season with the NBA D-League squad Texas Legends and continues to work hard to reach the next level and play in an NBA game.

To follow Satnam's story, the producers from basketball media outlet and lifestyle brand Ball Don't Stop are launching a new edition of their "#TheGrind" series on their website balldontstop.com on Monday, August 22. Over the weekend Ball Don't Stop and Satnam both shared a preview of the series on their respective Instagram accounts:



Ball Don't Stop is run by their founder and director Ekam Nagra, the Canadian citizen who decided to highlight his Indian roots with this project.

"The Satnam series is a part of our "#TheGrind" series in which we train pro players from around the world who have a unique and cool story," Nagra told me. "Satnam's series was planned by us for a few months but finally came to life when he attended our Battle At The Border event in Vancouver on August 6th, which featured Jamal Crawford and Nav Bhatia. Satnam got a standing ovation at the game from everyone in the arena, a lot of Indians were there and was honoured with an award from Ball Don't Stop and the Canadian Government. It was a great moment."

"The next day we shot our launcher episode. We put him through a strength and conditioning workout at our facility Vancity Strength. This launch episode is just to catch peoples attention; we will be following Satnam throughout his journey to and in the NBA. This will be a huge project for us and as the episodes go on he will be opening up more. This will be shown to over 200,000 fans throughout Ball Don't Stop. It will be on our YouTube channel and debut on Balldontstop.com."

The series Satnam's journey should give basketball fans worldwide an interesting insight into the sacrifices, challenges, and potential glory of following a hoop dream. Hopefully, the journey - in real life as well as in the Ball Don't Stop series - can one day feature Satnam getting his big breakthrough and playing in the NBA!

August 15, 2016

EXCLUSIVE: Basketball Federation of India responds to UBA League ban


Last week, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), who are the governing body of the sport in India, dropped a bombshell when they named one hundred and twenty-two players, coaches, and officials who would be banned from participating in all Indian basketball activities. The individuals banned all participated in season 3 of the UBA Basketball League, a short, independent competition, which took place in Pune last month. The BFI deemed this league an 'unauthorized competition' and their circular listed several individuals who would now not be permitted in any All India tournaments, International and National competitions within India and abroad.

The reaction to this announcement in Indian basketball circles was swift and savage. Players and fans criticised the BFI for hampering the growth of the game in India. A Change.org petition was created to urge BFI to stop the ban on UBA participants and signed by hundreds of supporters in a few days.

To tell their side of the story, I was able to connect with the BFI's Secretary-General Chander Mukhi Sharma - who had signed off the controversial circular last week - and ask him several questions via email about the reasoning behind his ban, the relationship between the BFI and the UBA, the future of the banned individuals, and the future of Indian basketball. Here is my exclusive Q-and-A with Sharma as he responds to some of the most pressing concerns of the Indian basketball family.

Hoopistani: Why did the BFI decide to revoke permission from all the players, coaches, and officials who played in the 'unrecognised competition', the UBA League?

Chander Mukhi Sharma: The BFI never revoked any permission, because we did not give permission to any participants. In a circular dated 26th June 2016 sent to all our affiliated units, we made it clear that players, coaches and officials should not participate in any unauthorised league. As the governing body of basketball in India, it is our responsibility to ensure the long-term health of the game in India.

Hoopistani: Why has the BFI not given recognition or affiliation to the UBA League even though it features several top players and coaches of India?

Sharma: The UBA never asked us for any recognition or affiliation.

Hoopistani: Does the UBA League hamper or harm BFI's vision of Indian Basketball in any way?

Sharma: The BFI does not recognise the UBA, and considers it a non-entity. We do not know the purpose and motive of the UBA, who their promoters are, and to my knowledge, they are not sports professionals. They failed at creating a professional American Football League (EFLI) in India and they came here only for their commercial venture without following any norms/procedures. An ad-hoc league with one week or less preparation of teams/players created solely with the purpose of generating television revenue will end up harming the game in the long run.

Now some of the players has made a complaint to the BFI regarding how non-transparent the UBA is, particularly they entered into the contract with the players and not given them the any copy of the contract for their record.

Hoopistani: Is the ban permanent? What do the players or officials have to do to reverse this ruling for themselves?

Sharma: The ban is not permanent. Most of the players have approached us and informed us that they went on mistake or not having the knowledge of the entire situation. Moreover, some of them feel cheated we they didn’t get the copy of their contract. Some of the players/participants had approached us through their respective state associations for revoking the ban. We will take a decision on a case-by-case evaluation of each of the players/participant.

Hoopistani: What about Indian players who play in professional leagues abroad, like Amjyot and Amrit Pal in Japan or Satnam in the USA - will they face a similar ban to those who choose to play basketball professionally in India?

Sharma: No, in their cases the players and respective promoters/teams have taken prior approval from us by submitting formal requests as well as copies of their contracts.

Hoopistani: Will the BFI refuse to recognise independent competitions like the UBA League or others in the future, or is there any chance of an agreement between the BFI and the UBA?

Sharma: If organisations follow the proper procedures we will not refuse any competitions. Regular private tournaments are held regularly throughout India and are approved via the proper channels. For example, All-India Tournaments are held by Arise Steel, Vijaya Bank, and other organizations. Most recently, PSG Club in Coimbatore held an All-India Competition who’s approval was sought through the proper channel and approved.

Hoopistani: There are several players who were caught in the political tug-of-war following the breakup of the BFI's executive committee. What should their course of action be if they want to continue making a living through basketball with the UBA but still have hopes to play in official BFI events domestically and internationally?

Sharma: There is no break up of the BFI’s Executive Committee. The BFI will not allow any player, coach or technical official who participates in any un-recognized or un-authorized competition/event, to participate in any BFI Event.

Hoopistani: Does the BFI have support from the IOA and the Indian government? If not, what are the challenges that the federation is facing as it works independently to help basketball in India?

Sharma: The BFI is an autonomous body, who runs its operations without the interference by the IOA or the Government of India. This is the same situation for all National Federations.

Over the past year and a half, the following milestones have been reached by the BFI:

- Conducted a FIBA Level 3 Certification for the first time ever, under the guidance of FIBA Instructor Nelson Isley, from the USA.
- Hundreds of FIBA Certified Grassroot basketball trainers across the country.
- Launched the Indian School Basketball League in 16 states
- Reached the Quarterfinals for both Senior Men and U-18 Men in their respective FIBA Asia Championships (first time for both in 12 years).
- Invited to numerous International Events, namely Dubai International Invitational, William Jones Cup, and Super Kung Shueng Cup.
- Senior Men won its first ever William Jones Cup game.
- In two consecutive years i.e. 2015 and 2016, FIBA has provided the BFI with the opportunity to conduct the Senior Men’s South Asian Basketball Association Championships / Qualifying Rounds in India.

Hoopistani: Will the BFI launch its own professional basketball league? If so, when, and what will be the league's specifics?

Sharma: Yes, we will be starting our own professional basketball league. Once the Indian School Basketball League is completed, we will announce the details at the appropriate time.

Hoopistani: What more can we expect from the BFI for the future of basketball in India?

Sharma: The BFI is committed and dedicated to improving the development of the game across the country. Major objectives include:

1. Create a transparent working for the basketball fraternity
2. Continue Coaching Education Programs under the guidance of FIBA Instructor Nelson Isley (USA), including identifying and training Level 3 coaches across the country.
3. Create a unified coaching structure and system
4. Continue to expand and develop the Indian School Basketball League to become the feeder system to National Teams and eventual Professional League
5. Improve the basketball infrastructure across the country
6. Already started the Talent Hunts across the country for all levels.

August 9, 2016

Supreme Courts: UP College – How basketball became Varanasi’s most unlikely export


This article was first published in my column for Ekalavyas.com on July 29, 2016. Click here to read the original piece.


The purest way to experience Varanasi is to take a boat ride across the Ganga at the crack of dawn, to hear the ringing of temple bells from the ghats by your side, the splashing of morning devotees into the holy river, to smell the incense in the air, to sip on a cup of sweet chai off of the river’s banks, and to watch the entire history of mankind reflect off the water’s surface with the sun’s earliest rays.

Growing up in Varanasi, I was made aware soon enough that there was no city in the world like this. Varanasi, or Banaras, or Kashi, is one of the oldest-living cities in the world, a continuous civilization where the scenes described above would have been sensed uninterrupted from the times of the Upanishads to the age of Snapchat filters. It’s the city that Shiva adopted, where death is celebrated as a release and moksha into continuous permanence, like the city itself.

Because of this permanence, citizens – Banarasis – can be blamed for having a skewed concept of time. The past, present, and future blend together seamlessly, like the peaceful ebbs and flow of the Ganga river. The ringing of temple bells and splashes of oars into the water have been heard for thousands of years, and will continue to be the soundtrack to the city for a thousand more.

But over the last few decades, a new soundtrack has been remixed into the old voices of the eternal city. In the northwest of Varanasi, a few kilometres away from the banks of the Varuna river, the Raja of Bhinaga Udai Pratap Singh founded the Udai Pratap (UP) College over a hundred years ago. Little would the Raja have known back then that the UP College was going to birth an exciting new identity for the city and provide Varanasi with its most unlikely export: Basketball.

The first UP College basketball court was built in the 60s, and by the early 90s, a new court was built nearby in the sports field that has now achieved iconic status. Over the last few decades, this little, cemented outdoor court has provided dozens of superstars for city, state, and country. In 1993, Anup Minz broke through to become the first Varanasi superstar in international India jersey; including him, UP College has produced a total 22 international players for India, including Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Trideep Rai, Arjun Singh, and the popular Singh Sisters (Divya, Prashanti, Akanksha, Pratima).

While the city is better known for its saris, paan, educational institutions, temples, ghats, and lassis, UP College has done its share in ensuring that ‘basketball’ also enters the city’s eternal vernacular.

*

Dr. Ashok Singh was a young student at UP College in the 60s when he first tried his hand at the game. Nearly fifty years later, he remains closely involved with basketball and the institution that raised him. Today, he’s the secretary of the district basketball association and a principal at UP College.

“I recall that the court first began in 1961 or 62 with Dr. Aryan Singh,” Ashok Singh says. “Back then, we didn’t know what basketball was and used to play it like kabaddi! But slowly, we learnt the game from other coaches and visiting teams and improved.” Singh eventually played at the Uttar Pradesh state level.

The older court in UP College used to host the Hukum Singh Memorial Tournament from 1974-80, which featured the top eight teams from Uttar Pradesh every year. UP College also hosted basketball at the National Student Games in 1978 and 1980.

But it was with the construction of the new – and currently standing court – that UP College’s place in the national basketball realm rocketed off. Singh mentioned that the turning points were the two ‘Family Gold Cups’ held in 1992 and 1996, a major national-level tournament that truly started the basketball craze among the locals.

A number of young kids from the neighbourhood watched this exciting new game and were motivated to join in, too. Those little kids – boys and girls – forced their way into the court with the elder players to dribble, shoot, and run, too. They were the scrubs back then, the ‘mini’ players who had to do odd jobs like sweep the court or deliver lal peda and chai to seniors.

A decade later, several of those kids became icons of Varanasi, and went on to dominate the present era of Indian Basketball.

*

Varanasi Basketball’s fortunes reached their zenith when the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre at UP College brought in coach Amarjeet Singh in the early 2000s. During his time, the talent pool at the ground grew to be deeper than the Ganga. Divya, Prashanti, Akanksha, and Pratima Singh all went on to play for India’s national Women’s team. Divya and Prashanti served as captains while Divya is now a national coach. Trideep Rai, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, and Arjun Singh wore India colours for the Men’s squad, with Trideep and Vishesh serving as captains in the past.

“Every year, Varanasi wins at least six trophies in the various levels of Uttar Pradesh basketball championships,” says Vibhor Bhriguvanshi, a local icon, coach of the UP College team and with the district basketball association, and also Indian star Vishesh’s elder brother. “UP College is the best team in the state at the junior level, but the best senior players usually leave to work at ONGC, IOB, etc. or to college.”

Surendra Kumar Prasad, the current SAI coach at UP College, adds, “This court right here is the nursery of so many great players in the country. Players go from here to the Railways, the Army, nationwide. Now, almost every major team in the county has a player from Varanasi.” Prasad, original from Ranchi, has worked on and off at UP College from 2012.

Annually, UP College hosts a major district league in the fall, where some of the best teams in the city – UP College, Atulanand, DLW, Sunbeam School, Rajashri Club, and more – take part. In 2013, the court also hosted the Uttar Pradesh State Senior Championship. Somewhere between the city’s history, spirituality, and education, hordes of fans find their way around the court at every major event.

*

It’s monsoon season in Varanasi this year when I revisit the UP College court. The rains have cleared up the skies but turned the city’s notoriously shoddy roads into a swamp. Rain is always threatening to disrupt basketball practice at the outdoor ground, but the players – to whom basketball is a daily ritual righter than rain – are not deterred.

Basketball practice is held from Monday to Saturday twice a day, from 5:30 to 9 AM in the mornings and from 3 to 8 PM at night. It’s a democratic, all-inclusive scene, as the ‘minis’ – the youngest players – hit the court first, in both the boys’ and girls’ divisions, followed by the junior boys and girls, followed by the seniors.

Currently, there are a total of 250 registered players at the ground, starting from six years old. While most players are from UP College itself, Vibhor Bhriguvanshi told me that there are some who bicycle as much as 18 kilometres every day to get to the court.

Whenever local legends are in town, they hit the court to assist the coaches in the practice session. When I visit, Arjun “Golu” Singh, who recently helped India win the South Asian Championship in Bengaluru, and Barkha Sonkar, a recruit and graduate of the IMG Basketball Academy, are on the court among many others to play, teach, and inspire.

Before basketball, however, I had to indulge in the local lal peda, sold fresh every day right by the side of the court for decades. “It’s the best in the world,” says Coach Surendra Prasad, and I joke that it is probably the secret behind the success of Varanasi basketball players.

But Prasad, of course, has a more logical reason. “Players have really struggled for their achievements here,” he says, “The competition is really high. You have ten players fighting for one spot on the team. When they see the legendary players from this court around, they see that hard work can land up a job with ONGC or a spot with the national team. All the young players want to be Vishesh, Golu, or Divya.”

One of these young players is 16-year-old Vivek Punia, who stands out not just because of his ability, but, at 6-foot-8, is also the tallest person on the court. Punia was recruited from Meerut earlier this year and is among the eighteen boys in the basketball division staying at the recently re-opened SAI hostel at UP College. Punia had the height when he first came to Varanasi, but was too weak and thin to be a force on the court. Over the last few months, under the tutelage of coaches like Bhriguvanshi, Prasad, and Karthick Ram, he has improved his game enough and could be a force in the upcoming junior and youth championships for the state.

I’m also introduced to a group of talented girls who have all recently played for Uttar Pradesh at the U16 Nationals, Shivani Gupta, Pratibha Singh, and Shruti Yadav. All three look up to the Singh Sisters and want to follow in their footsteps to success. Another male player, Lav Singh (16), has already played for the state at the Youth and Junior level and is considered one of the best future prospects from the city.

*

But, even after such as illustrious past, there are concerns about the future of the court and basketball in Varanasi. Some coaches say that the motivation of many of the younger players isn’t what it used to be anymore.

“The competition level is the same as before,” says Prasad. “But the players don’t practice as much as they used to. Now, they are looking for work more than focusing on basketball.

Additionally, a parallel problem has arisen among those who are motivated, but are stunted because of a shortage of space and resources. Bhriguvanshi says that, with such a large number of players, one court alone isn’t enough to give them all time to play.

“We definitely need one more court here to accommodate the rising number of players,” says Bhriguvanshi. “SAI has opened a hostel for boys this year – now, we need a girls’ hostel, too.”

Another experienced voice from UP College is Arjun Singh, ‘Golu’, who has witnessed first-hand every stage from mini, to senior team stardom, to international success, and back to lending a helping hand to the coaches for the next generation of players.

“For a few years in the middle, basketball progress had stalled here,” Arjun says, “But now with Coaches Bhriguvanshi and Prasad, the young players are picking up the important fundamentals again. If the young prospects here stay on the right path, they can be future stars, too.”

*

If a small town like this can become a basketball powerhouse, Varanasi can be an inspiration to hundreds of other similar cities in the country that could unearth their potential with a little more effort by coaches, some good fortune, and maybe some magical lal peda!

UP College has definitely contributed to basketball’s immense growth in Varanasi, but the work is not yet complete. The city has a lot more to offer, and both the SAI and the district need to ensure that players are provided with the coaching and facilities to keep the cycle of international basketball stars rolling uninterrupted.

The author Mark Twain once said that Varanasi is older than history and legend. The eternal city has provided the world with its unique personality and culture for almost as long as civilization has existed. Now, it has an opportunity to make basketball a part of it eternal culture, too.

August 8, 2016

BFI bans 122 (!!) UBA League players, coaches, and staff from participating in official India Basketball competitions



Last weekend, one hundred and twenty-two of India's finest basketball players, coaches, referees, and support staff woke up to the bitter news that they were going to banned from participation in all official basketball activities in India and abroad. The news has since shook up the basketball fraternity in India to the core and created another fissure within the divided sport.

A month ago, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) sent out a warning message that all players, coaches, etc participating in 'unauthorised competitions' won't be allowed to take part in official national or international basketball events. The BFI is the governing body of the sport in India and has affiliation from FIBA internationally. The primary target of their warning was the UBA Basketball League, an independent basketball competition launched a year ago and completed their third season last week.

Now that UBA's Season 3 is over, the BFI sent out another circular following up with their threat, and this time, named 122 individuals - many of whom are legends of the game or can strengthen India's current basketball programme - who will not have permission to participate in basketball activities in India or abroad.

On Thursday, August 4, BFI's Secretary-General Chander Mukhi Sharma sent out a circular to all presidents and secretaries of the BFI's affiliated units with the subject: 'No permission to the listed Players & Officials to participate in any Basketball activities in India and abroad'. The circular stated that, "You are hereby notified to ensure that the attached list of Players, Coaches, Support staff & Referees are not permitted in any All India tournaments, International and National competitions within India and abroad as they have played in an unrecognized Championship/Competition of the Basketball Federation of India."

The 'unrecognized Championship/Competition' obviously refers to the UBA. Attached to the circular was a four page list of the 122 names. These include 95 players, 17 coaches, and ten technical staff.

PDF: Here's the circular with full list of banned individuals.

Some of the Indian players now barred from representing their teams in All India championships or trying out for the national team include talents like Season 2 UBA MVP Vinay Kaushik (Delhi), Kaif Zia (Karnataka), Jagdeep Singh Bains (Punjab), Gurvinder Singh Gill (Punjab), Loveneet Singh (Punjab), Ajay Pratap Singh (Indian Railways), Akashdeep Hazra (Indian Railways), Gopal Ram (Services), Jai Ram Jat (Services), Joginder Singh (Services), and UBA Season 3 MVP Narender Grewal (Services). Interestingly, the BFI even named foreign players (who couldn't represent India in domestic/international competitions anyways) in their list, too, including Australia's Eban Hyams and Mahesh Padmanabhan and Nigeria's Chukwunanu Agu.

Well-respected and accomplished Indian coaches Prasanna Jayasankar, Ram Kumar, Jora Singh while technical staff members like Vinod Vachani are among the others now banned by the BFI. Many of the players, coaches, and staff named above have already represented India at the international level.

This was a massive step taken by the BFI and a risky power-play by their President, K Govindraj. Indian basketball is already a divided land; the BFI has broken it into further fissures and created more animosity among the fraternity.

The story behind BFI's current state is a complicated tale that would look the Triangle Offense look like  a playground shootaround. A year and a half ago, the BFI split into two executive committees - a group led by Govindraj and one led by Poonam Mahajan - in conflict for control for the governing seat of Indian Basketball. Team Govindraj eventually wrested control once they won the support of FIBA - the international basketball federation - and have since been holding both national and international events. However, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports of the Government of India favoured Team Mahajan, and the Govindraj-led BFI hit several roadblocks over the past 16 months. The conflict eventually led to basketball at the 2016 South Asian Games getting de-recognised by FIBA since the teams India sent were affiliated to the IOA but not the BFI. In turn, in April this year, the Government of India didn't recognise basketball among the country's National Sports Federations.

Without the support of the government, the BFI has had to raise funds and hold national/international events independently. Also, the Govindraj-led BFI were cut off from IMG Reliance, the sponsors who had signed a deal to support the original BFI several years ago. As they started over, Team Govindraj and the BFI lost IMG Reliance and the Government's help to launch India's first professional basketball league.

And so came in the UBA, a company that is a partnership between foreign investors and Indian management who decided to get eight teams together out to a couple of destinations for three quick seasons of short, professional basketball. Each season has only lasted a few weeks and several of India's top male players and all women have been missing from the UBA's talent pool. Nevertheless, they were able to provide an alternative source of work to Indian players, specially those suffering in the political infighting between the warring factions of the BFI, and create hype for the game in India through televised games on the Ten Network and a strong social media presence. Most importantly, they provided struggling Indian sportsmen with their most important priority: payment.

The UBA has filled in a gap of league basketball action that the BFI weren't able to implement themselves. Instead of embracing and recognising their efforts, the BFI has instead reacted with hostility.

27-year-old Narender Grewal is an Indian sporting hero. Known for his awkward jump-shot and the ferocious appetite to score on the court, Grewal's skills earned him a spot with the Indian Air Force, the national Services basketball team, and eventually, with the Indian national squad that defeated China in the 'Wonder of Wuhan' at the FIBA Asia Cup two years ago. He played for around six years for India in various important international competitions.

Grewal joined the UBA Basketball League, played for the Pune Peshwas, and his excellent performances as the league's leading scorer earned him the Season 3 MVP trophy. However, his actions will now see him miss out on a chance to represent the country again.

"Basketball is growing in India, so it should be supported, not stopped," Grewal told me over the phone on Monday. "The UBA is not doing anything wrong. They are giving people an opportunity to play. Every season, the league is getting better. Players are making a name for themselves in India, getting exposure, and making money. It's a good thing for Indian basketball."

Grewal, who originally hails from Bhiwani District in Haryana, added that he knew very well the warnings from the BFI about playing in the league, but the political infighting between the two-opposing factions of the BFI had already hurt his career and that of many other basketball players in India over the past one and a half years. With the UBA, he could get back to what he knew best - basketball - instead of being bogged down by the politics.

"We already have problems that their are two federations in India," he added, "and if we play for one, we are annoying the other. So the biggest problem is, where do I play? So I decided to play for the UBA. I'm a player, and playing is important for me. With them, I got exposure and I got a job. BFI wants to ban all of us, but first, they need to fix their own two federations issue. Once they launch their own league, of course I would like to play for them."

Grewal brought up the example of India's stars Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh who played professionally abroad in Japan's D-League last year. They were, of course, not banned, and currently make up for Team India's formidable international frontcourt.

"I love what Amrit Pal and Amjyot have done for India and how they have made us proud abroad," said Grewal. "But if the BFI doesn't have a problem with them, then why us? Not all of us can play in leagues abroad; at least the UBA offered us an option to play in a basketball league at home in India."

Now, despite his heroics for India in the past, Grewal's future with the national team seems bleak. "As long as I'm fit and I'm given a chance, I want to play for my country. Hopefully, I get a chance again."

Grewal is just one of the over hundred individuals affected by the BFI's decision. This ban hurts all parties involved. While our national team is showing some progress at the international stage, we will miss a chance to have a deeper talent pool to provide competition for spots and lose the expertise of many experienced and talented coaches at the domestic and national stage. The ban will hurt Indian domestic basketball championships as each team will be missing several star players and the quality of basketball on-court will eventually suffer. Of course, the ban hurts the players themselves, who have had to choose between earning through basketball and having a shot at their state/unit or national teams. The next generation of young Indian players will see this conflict and be wary of making a career in the game altogether: if Indian Basketball is going to create animosity within itself every few years, then why take the risk of such an unstable and unpredictable career?

The Govindraj-led BFI has done remarkably well for itself and for basketball in India over the past year, especially in light of the antagonism they've faced from the Indian government. But in turn, their own antagonism towards the UBA is a major misstep. Waiting for a BFI Basketball League isn't enough for players/officials searching for an opportunity. Hopefully, a compromise can be reached for all basketball to peacefully coexist in the country.