July 20, 2014

Iran recapture FIBA Asia Cup title; Team India performs wonders at Wuhan

In a nine-day tournament of ups and downs, highs and lows, and surprises aplenty, the end result finally brought back some sense of predictability back to the Asian game. When the dust settled at the 5th FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan China after the Final on Saturday, July 19th, reigning champions Iran - who are also the holders of the FIBA Asia Championship crown - finished at the top of the continental hoops bracket once more. After a few questionable early performances, Iran turned on their switch when necessary to blaze through the knockouts stage and defeat Chinese Taipei in the final.

But from an Indian perspective, the tournament will go down in the annals of basketball history as a major turning point for the national team programme. Through the course of the tournament, India defeated powerhouses China, gave a scare to the continent's other top teams, and despite just a seventh place finish, displayed performances on court that are sure to earn them respect in major Asian tournaments in the future.

Behind the prowess of their giant superstar Hamed Haddadi - the most high-profile player at the tournament - Iran stepped up on the gas in the second half of a competitive final against Chinese Taipei. With the score tied at 42-42 at halftime, Taipei could not keep up their aggressive start in the second half of the game, and Haddadi (21 points) and Mohammad Jamshidi (20) helped Iran outclass their opponents en route to the 10 point victory.

Taipei were led by naturalized player Quincy Davis in the final, who finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds. Ying Chun-Chen added 16 for Taipei, who were playing in their first final in 50 years.

Haddadi, who averaged 13.6 points and 8.8 rebounds through the course of the tournament, was named MVP.

Philippines, who along with Iran will be one of Asia's two representatives at next year's FIBA World Cup, ended the tournament at third place by edging hosts China 80-79. Philippines relied on the leadership of Ranidel De Ocampo (18) in the victory, undoing a game-high scoring performance by China's Kelanbaike Makan (23).

Philippines had been defeated with easy a day earlier at the Semi-Finals stage of the tournament, 76-55, as Jamshidi (19) and Behnam Yakhchalidehkordi (18) showed no mercy to their south-east Asian opponents. In the other semi-final, Taipei shocked China for the second time in two years (after last year's FIBA Asia Championship) with an 83-74 win. China had no answer for the duo of Cheng Liu (22) and Ying-Chun Chen (16). Makan (22) and Hanlin Tao (17) were the leading scorers for China.

India were defeated in the Quarter-Final state by the Philippines. On paper, India's seventh-place finish of the nine teams was just as where it was expected to be: above Singapore and Indonesia but below the likes of Iran, Taipei, China, Philippines, Jordan, and Japan. Apart from China, there were no other upset victories for India. And yet, India's performances in Wuhan will always be remembered for their bravery and the passion under Head Coach Scott Flemming.

Before the tournament even began, Flemming had lamented India's lack of an exposure trip under their belts to give a team an idea and identity of having played together. Game 1 came up against Japan, and India's nervousness showed. India started off the tournament on the wrong foot as Japan headed to a blowout win, 75-52. Despite some stretches of good defense, India couldn’t defend Japan from the perimeter and committed too many turnovers throughout the course of the game.

India's opening game also sparked some controversy for FIBA: after coach Flemming had been given the understanding that his two Sikh players - Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh - could play with their turbans on (as they had always done in every tournament domestic or international in the past), FIBA surprisingly enacted their 'No Headgear' rule minutes before the game against Japan. The sudden implementation of the rule led both players to wait on the bench to remove their turbans and tie their hair back with bands. For the rest of the tournament, they played without their turbans. This decision has outraged the international Sikh community against FIBA since, and many have joined the #LetSikhsPlay twitter campaign to implore FIBA to change their rule.

Meanwhile, Team India had a different worry: the very next night, they were set to face hosts and one of the tournament's favourites, China. But India had a surprise in store. Unfazed by the might and history of their opponents - whom India had never defeated in an international basketball matchup previously - India started the game confidently and held on to a surprising two point lead at halftime. China predictably improved after the halftime break and took a two point lead of their own. But the final quarter belonged to the Indians, who played inspired defense, held China to just eight points in the final period, and went on to celebrate a historic 65-58 victory. The win - which I've since dubbed the 'Wonder of Wuhan' - sparked a flurry of excitement among Indian basketball fans back home and kindled international attention on Team India more than ever before. From this moment on, Flemming's squad played with confidence and belief that they could match eye-to-eye versus any opponent.

Still basking in the after-glow of the previous day’s historic victory over China, India showed no mercy from the start in their next game against Indonesia, smothering their opponents en route to a 91-55 victory. India's captain Vishesh Bhriguvanshi was the leading scorer with 16 points, while Indonesia's Andika Ramadhani added 16, too. With two wins in Group A, India had ensured qualification to the Quarter-Final and established a strong defensive identity.

India had another positive start against Iran - the Asian champions - and once again held an early lead. But Iran chipped away, cutting India's advantage to just two points at halftime and then took complete control of the third quarter, eventually heading to a hard-fought 62-49 victory. Hadaddi had 16 points for Iran while Amjyot Singh answered back with 16 for India. Still, a better-than-expected performance in this last Group A game had India feeling confident going into the Quarter-Final.

India started toe-to-toe with the much-favoured Philippines side in the Quarter-Final, but a strong second quarter performance by their opponents had India staring at a 12-point deficit at halftime. India sharpened the edges in the second half, and when they found themselves down 16 in the game's last five minutes, they made an inspired comeback, scoring the last 12 points of the game. Yet, their just wasn't enough time left on the clock and the Philippines survived for a 70-66 victory to book a place in the Semi-Final. Amrit Pal Singh had a monster line of 20 points and 10 rebounds in India's failed comeback effort.

India were now relegated to the 5-8th place bracket, where they faced Jordan in the first game. True to recent form, India proved tougher than expected for their opponents, who were ranked over 30 places higher than India in the FIBA World Rankings. India held on to a six point lead at halftime, but Jordan's offense finally broke through after the halftime break and Ahmed Al Dwairi exploded for a game high 21 points en route to Jordan's 69-65 win. Bhriguvanshi led India with 17.

India's last game at the tournament was a 7th/8th place playoff against Singapore. India used the game to vent out the frustration of their recent losses, bucking behind Amjyot Singh's scoreline of 30 points and seven rebounds to a 85-36 blowout victory. India's dominance was highlighted by a scintillating second quarter, where they outscored Singapore 23-3.

India will be leaving Wuhan encouraged and energized by their performances. Rarely in Indian basketball history had the team captured the attentions of the fans, and even in their losses they proved to be a serious opponent to worry about for Asia's finest. Despite not having any professional players or naturalized foreign talents, India's played at a high level, with top-notch defensive performances that truly earned them the respect of attending media, fans, and other opponents.

"We’ve made some strides," said Flemming of India's improvement, "We’re now a competitive team with the best teams in Asia. But I’m greedy, and if you get that close, why not win? But… I know, I’m pleased with them. Overall, we’ve made some strides. We’re a new team, and we’re a team everybody has to worry about now."

India can particularly feel confident about the maturing games of their two starting bigs - Amjyot and Amrit Pal - who were as good a tandem as any at the tournament on both ends of the floor. Amjyot led India in points (14.7 ppg), rebounds (6.9 rpg), and steals (1.7 spg). Guard and captain Vishesh Bhriguvanshi also proved to be a capable leader and became the spark for India from the backcourt, and he was the tournament's leading assist-getter for all teams (4.1 apg). Sharp-shooter Pratham Singh had important clutch moments to become one of India's heroes at Wuhan. The likes of Joginder Singh, Narendar Grewal, Rikin Pethani also stepped up at various moments for the Young Cagers.

Flemming's team can now confidently look ahead and truly believe that can continue their recent momentum in future tournaments. Their next challenge will be an invitational tournament in Dubai, scheduled for early September. From September 20th, India could find themselves taking part in the basketball tournament at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon, Korea.

The future could be bright for Indian Basketball - now, hopefully, the federation back home can continue to focus on building the country's grassroots basketball structure to improve and identify top-level talent from the ground up and turn some of those close losses into victories. India performed wonders at Wuhan - let's hope that this wonderful run continues far into the future!

Final Standings
  • 1. Iran
  • 2. Philippines
  • 3. Chinese Taipei
  • 4. China
  • 5. Jordan

July 18, 2014

Don't Call it a Comeback: Pratham Singh returned from injury to become one of India's heroes at Wuhan

No pressure. It was only the chance of leading India to their biggest win in history. It was only their first opportunity to ever defeat China, historically Asia's most successful team. It was only a chance to overturn years and even decades of Team India falling short of their potential, over and over again. So, yes, no pressure.

In the fourth quarter of what became a surprisingly closely-contested match-up, China made every attempt to avoid an astronomical upset. And for every question that China posed, India's 23-year-old Pratham Singh had an answer. Pratham hit three of the biggest shots of his career - clutch three-pointers - in the fourth quarter to give India the lead for good, and helped secure the win which will forever be remembered as the 'Wonder of Wuhan', of the first time India silenced the mighty Chinese on the basketball court.

And throughout this heroic, clutch performance, he remained calm. No over-reaction, no nervous breakdown, no shot taken too quickly or taken too slow. No pressure.

A few days later, when I asked Pratham Singh about his calm under the storm of that entertaining contest in Wuhan, China, at the 5th FIBA Asia Cup, he responded with humility, instead crediting the whole team for his individual performance.

"It's all about team defense," he said, "When the team is playing good defensively, and you're playing well defensively, too, then you automatically get confident and you feed off that good defense on the offensive end. The offense comes easy then. But if your defense lacks, then it gets in your head on the offensive end, too. Our team plays great defense, just as we did against China in those possessions."

Pratham talked about being lost in the moment of the game, when it's just him and the bucket, and him his job off the ball. His job was to stop China and his job was to hit those open shots. He did just that, and three after three after three, he was successful.

For Pratham Singh, each big moment now plays as the perfect balm to heal the missed opportunities of his past. One by one, each three he hit in the fourth quarter against China soothed the pains that he went through as a younger player, the pains that derailed his career and threatened to end a promising career before it could even take off.

Born in Amritsar, Punjab, but trained as a rising young talent at the Bhilai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh, Pratham's performances caught the eye of the Indian Overseas Bank (IOB) in Chennai when he was just a teenager, They brought in the 6-3 sharp-shooter in to strengthen their wing position for the future. It was around the same time - in 2009 - that he moved up from India's junior squads to get a first senior team call-up. But Pratham's career paused before it could truly begin to ascent; a knee injury put him out of action for two years. For two years, basketball in IOB and internationally for India passed him by, and Pratham waited on the sidelines as it seemed to leave him behind.

An injury like this could've proven to be the end of an elite career for many players, but Pratham, gracious as ever, credited his IOB teammates for not letting him get down on himself.

"The team I got - IOB - were really good and supportive," he said, "So even when I wasn't playing, I wasn't disconnected from basketball. The senior players like S. Robinson and others who played for Team India really supported me and kept encouraging me. They told me that all players suffer through injuries, but it's only the ones who come back strong that become really great. Slowly I started coming back to practice and made a comeback."

The comeback, so far, has been electrifying. Once Pratham got his strength and explosiveness back, he became a can't-miss player - literally and figuratively speaking - for club, state, and country. He took a bigger role at IOB as the likes of Robinson made way for a younger generation, he helped Tamil Nadu - the state whom he represents now - reach the top by winning this year's Senior National Championship, and, most importantly, he found himself back in Team India colours - this time for good.

While the injury stole two years of basketball away from Pratham, he looked back at it now as a great learning experience, and his comeback for Team India has been all the better for it. "I was inexperienced as a Junior," he said, "But playing with and spending time with players like Robinson in IOB, I learnt a lot more about the game, I became stronger, and all of that helped me when I returned."

Since last year, Pratham has become an indispensable part of India's rotation. He made his national comeback by playing for India's 3x3 side at the FIBA Asia 3x3 Championship in Qatar. He was picked by Scott Flemming for the FIBA Asia Championship team, the Lusofonia Games, the SABA Qualifiers, and now, here at the FIBA Asia Cup. He is a regular starter for India, and for his clutch antics, a regular finisher in close games, too.

Pratham's rise has come parallel to the team's surprising rise as well. "In the last FIBA Asia Championship, we were losing to these same teams very badly in all our games," he said, "For this tournament, we didn't get an exposure trip before we started, and if we had, we would've done better against Japan in the first game. Of course, then the best thing happened and we beat China - after that our confidence level went up. Before we used to look at Iran, and think within ourselves that they're a really good team. We used to fear them. Now, we think of them, like, 'Okay, it's Iran, but we can play them well.' Teams like Iran and Philippines used to big us big. We've turned things around now."

"Our confidence level after this tournament has gone really high," he repeated, "And the coaches feel that this team can do well. Our players have improved, specially defensively. At the last Asia Championship, we played scared. Now, we know that if we practice hard in the future, we can do better."

The confidence in Pratham individually seems to be at an all-time high too, despite the fact that India followed their wins against China and Indonesia with three losses at the hands of Iran, Philippines, and Jordan. Despite the losses, the team left a strong impression and turned some heads. India's next big challenge after Wuhan will be an invitational basketball tournament in Dubai, and after that, they will likely head to Incheon, Korea, for the Asian Games in mid-September.

"My dream is that India plays well at the FIBA Asia Championship," he said, "This time we nearly did it, but missed. It was a great chance to make semi-finals but we lost by just 4 points. Next time, we'll try in Dubai tournament to reach semis or finals. And then continue good work in Asian Games as well."

These are bold ambitions from a player who represents a team that has rarely cracked the top four of Asia's best. But India's new crop of players - among whom Pratham Singh is their clutch, cool three-point threat - now have the conviction to look any opponent in the eye and believe that they could be taken down. After beating China, Pratham Singh and India have the conviction to make history again.

So yes, no pressure.

July 17, 2014

Semi-Pros: Despite having no professional basketball players, Team India are earning respect at FIBA Asia Cup

Yadwinder Singh, the most experienced current member of the Indian National Basketball team, has been travelling abroad for international tours with the squad for 12 years. And yet, despite some highlights in the past, he had never quite experienced something like this before. India had just defeated Asian powerhouses China in a game considered to be India's greatest basketball victory in history. A day later, they had easily blown out Indonesia to secure a spot in the Quarter-Finals of the 5th FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan, China.

"We are starting to feel like a real team," Yadwinder said, "It feels great when we get into an elevator, and strangers see us and congratulate us. Now they know who we are. They know we are Team India"

India have won two and lost two games at the tournament so far, a record that sounds less flattering than it truly is. India's first victory came against China, the best team in the continent whom India had never defeated before. Their second loss was to Iran, Asian champions, who were made to sweat and stumble against the persistent Indians after amazingly, finding themselves down at halftime. On the court, India may have only had two victories; but off of it, they are winning fans, respect, media attention, and adoration.

And the primary reason for this growing attention on Team India's success has been that Head Coach Scott Flemming has made this team into a feared competitor, despite having any talents in his roster holding on to a professional contract. All of India's finest players, including Amjyot Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amrit Pal Singh, Pratham Singh, and more, are semi-professionals, holding various other day jobs back home in India and only participating in basketball tournaments to represent their state or the government that they work for. There is no professional league in India and none of these players has ever been paid to play basketball abroad. When they're not playing basketball, India's best players can be found employed employed on sports quotas with government agencies like the Railways, armed forces, public sector companies like ONGC and BSNL, or nationalized banks such as Indian Overseas Bank and Vijaya Bank, a trend that Gopalakrishnan R. went in greater depth writing about on his feature for Fountain Ink magazine earlier this year.

All of this is common knowledge to the average Indian basketball fan; but the media in attendance at Wuhan and fans across Asia closely following this tournament have expressed disbelief and pleasant delight over this bit of news. What's more, unlike many other Asian teams, India doesn't have a single 'naturalized' foreign player on their roster: every single one of these twelve 'Young Cagers' was born, bred, and learnt to dribble the basketball - for better or worse - in India. Naturalization in basketball is a race that may be leaving India far behind, and a lot of followers of the team - including the coach - believe that allowing interested NRI players into the national system may be an important step forward.

The surprising thing - which also saddens me a bit - is that this team has already received more mainstream media coverage in China than it probably ever would back home. A few days ago, China's national and most prominent sports channel CCTV covered India's rising profile and tried to comprehend how a team of semi-professionals could defeat China's team of young rising stars.

On their loss to India, China could (and many have) use the excuse that the team they sent to the FIBA Asia Cup was a younger squad, but even all these young players will be making big money and having prominent roles in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) from the coming season. And in this very tournament, this same Chinese team has defeated Iran (Asian champions at their best) and Japan. All three of these teams, whom India also played, are full of professional players who play in leagues either in their respective countries or abroad - like Iran's Hamed Haddadi who has played in the NBA or Japan's Takumi Ishizaki, who plays in Germany. India's quarter final today will be against Philippines, featuring players all in the PBA and the naturalized American Marcus Douthit who was drafted into the NBA ten years ago.

If Indian players can give a good fight to these professionals, why can't they play at a professional level themselves? Amjyot Singh should be good enough to play in the CBA, and should definitely dominate any of the smaller pro leagues in the continent. The likes of Amrit Pal Singh and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi have a shot, too.

And there are many other youngsters waiting in the wings. But the problem is that, in most Asian professional leagues, there is a cap on the number of foreign players any team can have - a cap on both Asian foreigners and those outside the continent. That is why most teams in China, Japan, Philippines, or elsewhere spend their foreigner slot on North American or European players and pick more talented Asian individuals for their 'other Asian' slot. Only the cream of the crop Indians will be recruited professionally by these leagues, and it has only happened to our women players so far, like Geethu Anna Jose and Anitha Paul Durai.

Unfortunately, many of our top men players will have to wait for Indian to launch a professional league of their own, something that I have argued in the past will completely revolutionize the sport in India over the long run. The onus is already on the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and IMG-Reliance to launch this league, hopefully as soon as next year. Only then will our top players not have to hold faux-office jobs with the railways or with banks and focus on basketball alone. Only then will they get to play quality basketball games all year, games that actually hold some meaning and value, instead of small tournaments where they face the same talent, or lack of talent, and rarely grow as players.

India's improved performances are a perfect underdog story, but they shouldn't be. India have the population, the space, and enough wealth to take bigger strides in the sport than we have taken so far. The fact that our players have been successful despite being professional should be celebrated, but the fact that it's 2014 and we can still not provide a professional platform for the same players is a shame.

Cinderella Stories, such as Team India's performances here at Wuhan, usually come to an abrupt end. But through a better basketball future for our top players, let's hope that moments like these don't remain a surprise, but become the norm. And the next time our players are recognized for being members of 'Team India', it is by strangers back home in India itself.

July 16, 2014

Indian refs also calling the shots at FIBA Asia Cup

India's national men's team are earning both wins and respect on the court at the 5th FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan, China, but they are not the only representatives from the nation making the 'tiranga' proud: India have also sent two of its most experienced referees - Snehal Bendkel and Ceciline Michael Vino - to call the shots on the court from a different angle. The tournament has added yet another feather in the cap for both these exceptional officials.

Bendke, born in the city of Kohlapur in Maharashtra, is truly one of our lesser-known national treasures. She has a ever-growing list of "firsts" next to her resume: she was among the first Indian women to become a FIBA referees, she was the first Indian woman to be nominated to officiate at the Olympics games, and she was among the two first women of any nationality to officiate at a Men's FIBA Asia Championship last year. She has refereed in the Women's World Championship and in Women's FIBA Asia tournaments for all age groups: U16, U18, and Seniors. And now, she is back to impose her ruling on the Asian Men's scene as one of the referees at the Men's FIBA Asia Cup.

"No, the men don't bully me!" she said, "But they're not afraid of me either, they know me now. In Manila - at the FIBA ABC last year - they were surprised to find a woman officiating them for the first time. They used to come and ask and make sure if I really was an official. Now, they're used to it!"

"The level of basketball so far at the Asia Cup has been really high," she said, "These are the top 10 teams in the tournament, and they are all playing at a high level."

After accomplishing nearly everything on a referees radar, Bendke still has a few more accomplishments to check off her list: "I want to referee in the World Championship for Men, and referee Finals for the World Championships!" she said.

The last time we checked in with Ceciline Michael Vino, he had just officiated the biggest game of his career, the Final of the Women's FIBA Asia Championship in 2011. The former All India University Championship player, bailing from Nagercoil in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, has only added to his growing list of referring accomplishments since. In total, he has officiated at two Men's FIBA Asia tournaments and three Women's tournaments in the past.

Being a FIBA referee doesn't only involve staying sharp on court; there is immense responsibility among all FIBA officials to study FIBA's rule changes and live up to the high expectations to keep evolving as the game itself evolves. But Vino said that, with the change in rules, practice makes perfect. "We practice a lot whenever the rules change," he said, "FIBA always announce such changes six months prior, so it's very easy for us to cope with them by the time they are implemented."

"My best experiences so far have really been at the Women's ABC Finals in Tokyo, and the semi-finals of the next tournament in the same category in Bangkok last year," he added.

Indian fans will truly be hoping that their team's Cinderella run continues and they can shock the continent by reaching the Finals in Wuhan. But if they fail on any step of the way, we will be rooting for one (or both?) of our refs to represent us in the biggest game of the tournament.

July 15, 2014

FIBA forces India's Sikh basketball players to ditch their turbans at Asia Cup

While India's surprising success at the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan (China) has been a complete team effort, a special nod should be given towards the country's formidable frontcourt, which has perplexed opponents on both ends of the floor so far. India have relied particularly on 6-foot-10 Amrit Pal Singh (23) and 6-foot-8 Amjyot Singh (22), both players who have developed out of Punjab's great basketball academies. The former has been one of the tournament's best defensive players and the latter has been among India's scoring leaders.

Before the tournament began, it was clear that the two players would have to be at the top of their respective games for India to have a chance at defeating some of the more fancied Asian opponents. And yet, when the team took the floor for their first game against Japan on Saturday evening, Amrit Pal and Amjyot were out of the starting lineup.

Their omission had nothing to do with their form, their health, or their behaviour. And it had everything to do with their religion - or, more precisely - on FIBA's misunderstanding of their religious customs.

Amjyot and Amrit Pal are both of the Sikh religion, and for those who may be unaware, it is part of a strict code of conduct for Sikhs to a). not cut their hair and b). keep their hear covered under a turban so it can be in its natural, unaltered state. Like people of any religion or custom, Sikhs can't be generalized and not all of them follow the custom closely. Some cut their hair, some don't wear turbans, while some follow every strict code of conduct by the book. Turban or no turban, millions of Sikhs seem to be getting along around the world just fine - in most cases. Amjyot and Amrit Pal both play basketball with their turbans on; Amrit Pal only began wearing his turban a few years ago, Amjyot has worn it all his life. Both had taken part in various FIBA basketball events at home and abroad and their headgear had presented no issue in the past.

Until Saturday. For the first time, FIBA officials at the Japan-India game decided to invoke FIBA's "No Headgear" rule in an international game. Neither Amjyot and Amrit Pal could start the game, since they both had to scramble to open their turbans and then tie their hair back using a headband of some sort. They finally checked in two minutes later, but the roughly tied hair was uncomfortable for both of them, and additionally, the referees stopped them several times to show if their hair was fine. Both reported after the game that it felt awkward to play this way. India went on to lose that game by 20 points, but there were a variety of other reasons beyond hair-troubles for our top big men that led to that defeat.

Rules are rules, and Article 4.4.2 of FIBA’s Official Basketball Rules states, "Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players," a list that includes headgear like turbans, hijab, etc. But India claim that they were misled about the implementation of this rule. A day before the tournament, India's Head Coach Scott Flemming had been given an affirmative from FIBA Asia officials that the Sikhs in his team could keep their turbans on for the game - but before the game itself, the officials changed their minds and disturbed not just the two players in question but also Team India's flow before the game.

"I spent a long time advocating for our players the day before the Japan game and finally thought we got the ok for [them] to wear their turbans," Flemming told me a few days after the incident, "I was then told right before the game there was a misunderstanding on what we agreed to. I again pleaded for our players on this ruling. Finally, the FIBA official made the ruling and we had no choice. I would never make our players do anything they were uncomfortable with according to their religious practices. It was up to them. They both decided to adjust to play in the game. It was disruptive but I thought they both handled it well."

Flemming added, "I am personally against a rule like this that infringes on someones religious beliefs that does not cause any harm to others. [But] it's is a FIBA rule."

A few weeks ago, Habeeba Husain on SLAMOnline.com had argued for the case for allowing hijab for Muslim basketball players, and on the ludicrous notion that FIBA has felt that small pieces of cloth worn to signify religious identity could pose a threat to anyone. One could make the same argument for turbans - they are a part of the lifelong identity and a matter of pride for many of these individuals, and asking them to play without it is not only insulting to them emotionally but also a deterrent to their regular habits of physical comfort.

"We have always played in turbans, even in last year's FIBA Asia Championship in Manila," said Amrit Pal, "But playing in the Japan game without it felt very awkward. I wear a turban in practice, too, and it was strange to not have it on during the game."

Amjyot, who had never experienced playing basketball without his turban, was disturbed, too. "It felt very bad that they did this right before the game, even after our coaches had felt that we had the permission to keep our turbans on," he said, "At least, eventually, they let us fix it with a band, but even that felt very awkward. In the China game, I tied my hair back with rubber-bands to make it hold on tighter. But I find it to be much more comfortable playing with turban, of course - that is part of my habit."

By the time the China game came around, both players had found a temporary fix for their hair, and on-court, they fixed the basketball issues, too. Both of them started: Amjyot was the leading scorer in the game as India defeated China for the first time in its basketball history. Amrit Pal was a beast on the defensive end, and made life extremely uncomfortable for Chinese bigs such as Zhou Qi. A day later, India continued their bright form to blow out Indonesia. They lost to Iran in today's last group stage game, but still qualified for the Quarter-Finals.

Now, India finds itself in the Quarter-Finals with dreams to go even further. And both our big long-haired Sikh superstars will be an integral part of realizing that dream, with or without their turbans.

But more importantly for their culture and for their beliefs, we hope they earn some respect to make the rest of the basketball world realize that it's not Indians' headgear they should fear; it's their game.

UPDATE: Simran Jeet Singh & SALDEF have responded with #LetSikhsPlay campaign. Basketball shouldn't discriminate on basis of harmless cultural insignia like turbans or hijab

July 14, 2014

Wonder of Wuhan: India should build on historic win over China to spark a basketball revolution

Sometimes, revolutions don't need pomp and noise, or confetti or loud celebrations. Some revolutions aren't greeted with cheering voices or waving flags. Some revolutions happen in stunned silence.

The last five minutes of India's historic first-ever win over China - perhaps the greatest win in 78 years of India's international basketball history - were played under an eerie hush. The game was talking place at the Wuhan Sports Center in Wuhan, the most populous city in Central China. This was the 5th FIBA Asia Cup, a biennial tournament held between 10 of the top teams on the continent. This is a relatively smaller tournament than the more highly-regarded FIBA Asia Basketball Championship (ABC), and the local Chinese fans only filled up a fraction of the 13,000-seat arena in Wuhan's Zhuankou suburb.

The hosts, favourites to win the tournament after winning their first two games and defeating Asian champions Iran in the process, were confident against India. The fans were out with vuvuzelas, balloon clappers, and there were animated MCs and scantily-clad cheerleaders to boost their spirits. Yet, nothing could divert their horrifically stunned attentions away from the upset on court. As the clock ticket away in the game's final minutes and it seemed that India would achieve the impossible, the arena grew quieter. Each squeak of a shoe sole on the polished wooden floor reverberated across the gymnasium. Each word of encouragement from the Indian bench to the heroes on court could be heard by every fan, media-person, and official in attendance.

And in this silence, India found joy: the team nicknamed the 'Young Cagers' - led by Head Coach Scott Flemming - finally grew up, and announced the coming of age of all of Indian Basketball with a memorable win. All the odds had been stacked against India, who are ranked 61st in the FIBA World Basketball rankings compared to China, who are 12th and are tops in Asia. India had lost their first game against Japan a day ago while China were riding a positive streak behind a talented youth movement. Yet, the final score read 65-58 in India's favour, and a milestone for Indian hoops was achieved.

Expectations, as they always are in such high-level Asian tournaments, were low for India. Always the minnows against other giants of the game, India returned without a win at bottom place in the previous iteration of the FIBA Asia Cup in Tokyo two years ago. In last year's FIBA Asia Championship in the Philippines, India showed some improvement, but were still defeated in blowout fashion against top teams like Iran, Korea, and of course, China, who beat India 79-45, just 11 months ago.

In the world of an Indian basketball follower, low expectations are the norm. We prematurely resign ourselves to embarrassing losses against the Chinas and the Irans of the continent, and hope for the best against teams ranked closer to our stature, like Kazakhstan or Bahrain. Rarely has India's senior men's team won a meaningful game of basketball in the past several decades, a hypnotizing lull of losses upon losses that numbed Indian media and fans into submission to the point of ignorance. China regularly expects to defeat India by 30, 40, or 50 points per contest. Coming into this tournament, India were once again ignored as outsiders with a seventh or eighth place finish (out of 10) as best-case scenario. Apart from the minuscule, almost-irrationally passionate fanbase of Indian basketball, the mainstream continued to not pay the team any attention.

Perhaps this was why, despite qualifying once more for a major Asian FIBA tournament, there were no mainstream media-houses from India covering the event, and the games itself weren't shown on any TV channel back home. China were stumped and India were absent, and, outside of the cheers and hoots from the victorious Indian locker-room, there was nothing but silence.

It was only through the power of the internet live commentary and social media that we were able to get the word out, and once the news leaked, it quickly went viral. Thousands of supporters of the Indian hoops cause were made aware of the news that no other traditional media outlet had covered. The players and the coaches who had made this achievement possible - ironically - couldn't even hear the online applause, finding themselves stuck behind the Great Firewall of China and unable to access the hysteria of Indian fans thousands of miles away.

One of those voices online was of Bobby Sharma, the senior VP of global basketball for IMG Worldwide, the company which, in their partnership with Reliance and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) is hoping to usher in India's first professional basketball league in coming years. Sharma congratulated the BFI by calling this upset a 'monumental watershed moment'. Indeed, the achievements of those 12 men on court and their coaches in one simple game could be the springboard that India needs to finally take that basketball leap we have long been dreaming of.

Indian basketball will always remember the day - July 13, 2014 - that they eclipsed the mighty Chinese. This victory is set to change India's attitude and approach looking forward at all our basketball encounters in the future. If this team indeed has the ability to beat China, then it prepare with a realistic mentality of having a shot in every match-up, against any opponent. There are no reasons to throw in the towel before any game, and every Indian team from here on out should look up at Wonder in Wuhan on July 13 and find the motivation to do it again.

Perhaps, more young Indians back home, disillusioned that the game has no future in India, will start believing in the amazing possibilities of sport once again. The achievements of our best players should inspire countless others to remain geared towards a career in basketball, and motivated to recreate and build upon the success of the current squad.

Perhaps, with increased attention from the Indian mainstream after this victory will shine a spotlight on India's national teams and force our media and our sponsors to acknowledge them. Maybe this leads to greater financial rewards for our players, the majority of whom come from poor families and chose basketball as their only way to a stable job.

This win means a lot many of India's individual players, who are on various points in their careers. Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, India's captain and most consistent performer in recent years will relish this game forever. Pratham Singh was India's fourth-quarter hero, and sank several clutch three-pointers to give India the lead for good. Amjyot Singh played fantastically on both ends of the floor and showed elite athleticism against China's 7-foot-1 prodigy Zhou Qi. Yadwinder Singh, India's energy bar, lifted the team with his hustle on the defensive end. Amrit Pal Singh was a farmer at age 19 when he discovered basketball; just four years later, he was controlling the defensive paint against Chinese bigs. The likes of Joginder Singh, Narendar Grewal, Rikin Pethani, and more in the rotation have etched their names in Indian hoops history forever.

And the man who should be celebrated with special plaudits after this historical night is Head Coach Scott Flemming. After 32 years of coaching experience in the USA, most recently with the NBDL side Texas Legends, Flemming chose a different challenge, coming to India to try and make a difference in a country on the basketball hinterlands. Two years after his appointment, he isn't only the longest-serving foreign coach in India, he is also one of the most successful. Flemming led India to a gold medal victory at the Lusofonia Games this January and a first place finish at the South Asian Basketball Championship. But this was, by far, his biggest win with India.

The FIBA Asia Cup is still in process. India play their third and fourth Preliminary Round games against Indonesia and Iran on Monday and Tuesday respectively. They've almost ensured qualification for the Quarter-Final stage. Coach Flemming has spoken optimistically of India's ability to continue performing basketball miracles.

For now, this victory is a wake-up call for Indian basketball to start believing in its potential. We beat China on the court yesterday, but China basketball are miles ahead in the longer marathon. Our best basketball facility is only as good as 50-60 of what Chinese Tier 2 or Tier 3 cities possess. China's young talents are trained and developed from a young age to maximize their potential. All of the players in China's national team are professionals in the well-established Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). They have developed NBA talent in the past and have the resources to develop more such talent in the future. They have much better coaching down to the grassroots level and have much more money to pump into their various basketball federations. India, meanwhile, have an unbalanced and mostly disorganized grassroots nursing system, don't have the infrastructure to provide our top talents and don't have enough support from the common public that rarely looks beyond cricket (or the FIFA World Cup) when the word 'sport' is uttered. Worst of all, internal politics stunts any real growth and there is rarely any motivations from those who are in the basketball fraternity to rise higher, as many stay content to swivel around in lower mediocrity.

And yet, if India can beat China despite being completely overshadowed across every sphere in the basketball world, imagine what we could do if we actually put in an honest effort to improve hoops in the country, from the grassroots to the top, instead of making the sport into just another way for bureaucrats to enjoy a small morsel of power?

Team India's moment - this Wonder of Wuhan - was a silent revolution indeed; but let's hope that the reaction to this moment is loud, energetic, and points to a brighter future for Indian basketball.

UPDATE: Thanks to FIBA, now we have the entire game tape of India's historic win over China on YouTube. Check it out here:

July 13, 2014

Talent Found: Amrit Pal Singh's astonishing story from farmer to Indian basketball star

In the larger scheme of things, four years is a mere blimp in time. It's the time between the last leap year and the next. Four year is the time between Spain defeating the Netherlands in the FIFA World Cup final in South Africa and Germany playing Argentina in the final in Brazil. It's the time it takes most people to complete their bachelor's degrees. It's the time it takes for the occurrence of every total solar eclipse.

Growing up a farmer in a tiny village in Punjab who had never heard of the word 'basketball', four years is also the period of time in which Amrit Pal Singh became one of the linchpins of India's senior national basketball team. In 2010, Amrit Pal was helping his father plow a rice field. In 2014, he is dominating the post to finish as leading scorer against the highest level of Asian hoops at the FIBA Asia Cup.

For those who have closely followed Indian hoops in recent years, Punjab's Amrit Pal Singh - currently employed by ONGC - has been a rising star in the game. The 23-year-old broke into the scene when he made his senior national debut for India back in 2011, in the Middle Asia Zone qualifiers in New Delhi for the team led by then-coach Kenny Natt. From then on, the 6-foot-11 big man's fortunes have risen higher and higher, and now, he finds himself as one of the indispensable pieces for the national team. At the domestic level, Amrit Pal has played valuable roles in title winning squads in national years, including winning national titles for Punjab and Federation Cup and other tournaments as the best performer for ONGC.

And yet, until the age of 19, he was a complete stranger to the game.

Born in the village of Fattuwal, about 30-35 kilometers from Amritsar in Punjab, Amrit Pal was the child of humble farmers that grew rice, peas, potatoes and other vegetables. He attended a small village school and was destined to follow his father's footsteps into farming, an increasingly tough lifestyle choice in recent years where high costs of water, mechanized farming, indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, rising seed prices and the loan sharks have left many farmers facing a dark future ahead. Little did he know, Amrit Pal had a genetic advantage that existed in a field that he had never even heard of.

"I used to play kabaddi back then, which of course is the most popular sport in Punjabi villages," Amrit Pal Singh spoke to me outside of Team India's locker room at the Wuhan Sports Center in Wuhan (China), reflecting on his past, minutes after India's first game at the 5th FIBA Asia Cup. India lost the game to Japan, but Amrit Pal finished with game-high 15 points to go with eight rebounds, "I didn't know what basketball was. It was only when my Mama [mother's brother] approached my family and told us that my height could help me with this game. At age 19, he took me to a different village near Ludhiana to practice - and this village, unlike mine, had basketball court."

"In the beginning, I had no clue how to play the game," Amrit Pal added, "I didn't know how to dribble the basketball and I couldn't shoot it at all. But slowly, as I got better, I started to enjoy it and soon got an opportunity to play for the Ludhiana Basketball Academy (LBA)."

'Slowly' is far from the truth in Amrit Pal's case, who, within one year of picking up the basketball for the first time in his life, was picked for India's national squad. He was still a raw talent, but back in Punjab, he had landed in the Promised Land of potential Punjabi basketball stars. The LBA was led by legendary coach S. Subramanian, who passed away last year, but in his lifetime had been responsible for developing several key talents for India, including the likes of TJ Sahi, Yadwinder Singh, Jagdeep Singh Bains, Amjyot Singh, and Satnam Singh Bhamara in recent years. For Amrit Pal, it was a choice to master a new craft to ensure a future for himself - and he toiled hard to make sure that the craft was mastered.

"In the village, I had no job, and the only option was farming," he said, "My coaches showed me the way, they told me that if I play basketball, I could get a job. I was told that I had a chance to do so. I was told that I get a job, I could win medals, and I could even represent India. That motivation made me work extremely hard in the early years to improve my game."

Still, it's almost unheard of for a basketball story to start by the time one's teens are nearly over. At 19, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, India's captain and Amrit Pal's teammate in the current squad, was already the MVP of the Basketball Without Borders Asia camp. Meanwhile, Punjab's other story of a giant going from the farm to the court - Satnam Singh Bhamara - found the game at 10 and at 19, he's getting world class training at the IMG Basketball Academy in Florida. At 19, Canadian-Indian giant Sim Bhullar - who has now become the first Indian-origin player to be signed by an NBA squad - had already been recruited to a NCAA Division 1 programme at New Mexico State. At 19, Kobe Bryant had become the youngest NBA player to play (and start) in an All Star game.

At 19, Amrit Pal Singh was playing kabaddi. His migration to hoops has been kabaddi's loss and Indian basketball's gain.

"Early on, I was told that I would have to play close to the basket a lot, so I always focused on improving my post-game," Amrit Pal said, "In the village, when I played kabaddi, there was a lot of fighting. Kabaddi mein maar-peet to chalti hee hai (There's a bit of fighting in the kabaddi all the time). It was always physical, so it toughened me up. When I started playing for Punjab, [former Indian international] Jagdeep Singh warned me that if I wanted to play in post, I would face a lot of dhakka-mukki, physical, bruising play). So my attitude kept changing and i bought dhakka-mukki into my style."

For the past two years, Amrit Pal has been working with Scott Flemming, who he says has helped the big man's game by getting more powerful in the inside and adding more complex post-moves to the simpler ones he knew as a basketball novice. He also says that Coach has helped his pacing to match the rest of the team's pace on court.

Hearing about Amrit Pal's rapid improvement, and learning of the new skills that he continues to add to his game, should be encouraging news for Indian basketball fans, as the big man still has a lot of potential and can continue improving as he polishes his ultra-raw game. But before he looks too far in the future, Amrit Pal's challenge will to help India get a good result at the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan. At the previous iteration of this tournament in Tokyo two years ago, Amrit Pal put in what he believes are his best performances in the India jersey, and ended up leading all players from across Asia in rebounds.

Yet, India finished last two years ago with no wins to their name. With China, Iran, and Indonesia left in the Preliminary Group, they'll be looking to avoid a repeat of that performance.

"We have two very tough games ahead of us now in China and Iran," Amrit Pal said, "These are tough matches, and we have to play tougher."

From one sense, Amrit Pal's story is a joyous one. An unknown man's basketball talent - the potential for the talent which he didn't even know he had - was found. But from another perspective, the talent found was talent delayed. Imagine how much more the the big man could've learnt had he crossed paths with the game earlier? For those who come from a background like Amrit Pal, or Satnam Singh, opportunities that translate only in a different world can go amiss frequently. The Indian villages are potent with young Amrit Pals - young players who have the physical gifts and the personal motivation to become basketball stars - and we only hope that these young players can be found before their talent is delayed.

At 23, Amrit Pal can still get better individually, be he leaves our interview with national pride as the topmost agenda. "Until I help India make a huge improvement, help India get to top four in Asia, then nothing else can be possible. The first priority is India."