For a former captain of the Indian Basketball Team with nearly a decade of international experience, Trideep Rai (26) comes of as humble and brashly honest. But perhaps the humbleness shouldn’t surprise me – Indian basketball ‘stars’ have always seemed down to earth, since most of these stars get their shine dimmed early and often in their professional careers. They have no choice but to be ‘down to earth’, because a career in basketball in India has never given them an opportunity to aim too much higher.
But it is his honesty that does surprise – disillusioned by what they believe to be incomprehensible decision-making by the higher authorities, most pro players silently accept the system for the fear of banishment from the national camps. On a self-imposed exile from the Young Cagers, Trideep spoke to me about his career, the pros and cons of the Indian professional system, and the potentially troubled future of the national team.
I have a personal connection with him, too – Trideep happens to be one of the many great players to have grown out of my hometown, Varanasi. He first played the game at the UP College in the city, and my older brother has played pick-up games with him on several occasions.
Trideep started playing basketball at age 13 at the UP College basketball court, but only at age 17 when he was called up for India’s Under-19 camp did he begin to consider the sport as a possible career option. At age 19, he began to play for the Western Railways, where he was for three years. He then moved on to play for the Indian Overseas Bank for a years, and for the past three years, he has been a part of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC).
He has been involved with the Young Cagers from 2000 onwards, last playing in a tournament in Indonesia earlier this year. The highlights of his national career have included captaining the team during the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, and in the same year, winning the distinction of Most Valuable Player and leading scorer in the Prince Crown Invitational Cup in Thailand, where India finished a respectable third place.
He is a high-scoring ‘forward’ (or more specifically, shooting guard, for the NBA-oriented reader). He is a good long-distance shooter and is known to regularly attack the lane.
On his career… “I consider myself to be luckier than most other players,” Trideep says, “In all of my postings (Railways, Indian Overseas Bank, ONGC) I’ve never had to do any actual work – I was recruited as a basketball player and was only expected to play basketball.”
“There are many other players I know – legends of the game in India whom I look up to – who have had to toil through years of a schedule of basketball practice in the morning, working at a railway platform in the afternoon, and then practice again in the evening.”
The system, Trideep admits, has its pros and cons: Indian “professionals” are actually only semi-pro players who are given a post in a government service. The post, as in Trideep’s case, can often be nothing more than a formality – at the Indian Overseas Bank, where he was a probationary officer, Trideep says that he only had to check in his name every morning and his job was done. At the ONGC he has been ceremoniously named an ‘Assistant HR Executive’; he admits that he isn’t expected to actually report to work, and instead, only focus on basketball practice and games come tournament time.
The lack of a league system definitely hinders the players’ exposure and being tied up by other jobs means that they can’t fully dedicate their lives to the game like professionals in other countries. “But it has its advantages,” says Trideep, “A league system in Indian basketball will never be very rich, and even the best players will only earn a contract of around 1-2 lakh (100,000-200,000) rupees per year. With a government job we have a guaranteed salary and job post-basketball – if I get injured or decide to retire from the game, I can at least be sure that there will be something for me to fall back on.”
“It’s the same reason why most players don’t accept offers to go into leagues in other countries,” he says, “The potential for growth and exposure is exciting, but we don’t want to give up the job security we have here.”
It is a very different system to that from the United States, and had indubitably affected the state of international level talent produced in India today – but I’ll leave that debate for a future story.
On improving the standard of basketball in India… Trideep’s suggests that first and foremost, it is the infrastructure in India that needs an overhaul. “We play on outdoor courts and with rubber balls most of the time, and are expected to get used to indoor wooden courts and leather balls in a short period before any international tournament,” he says, “Every city in India needs at least a good indoor court.”
He speaks about the tension between the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and its players, too. “The players blame the federation, and the federation blames the players, but the fault needs to be shared: the players don’t work as hard as they should at the most competitive level, and the federation doesn’t provide us with the right facilities.”
“There needs to be more transparency in the system,” he adds, “The federation often makes perplexing personnel decisions which leave a lot of its players angry and dissatisfied.”
Trideep speaks of several talented basketball players who’ve quit a career in the game or have been seriously hindered by the federation or the service that employs them. There is widespread depression amongst many professionals who just don’t believe that they’ll have the support that they will need, even as pro athletes.
Another major push is needed in the early development of youngsters. “We don’t usually learn the basics here in India till we’re a bit older,” feels Trideep, and this feeds into a later comment he makes on “pro players getting disillusioned and disinterested in the game after a certain level.” Basketball, even for those who are in love with the game, remains just that – a game. If a love and the basics for the game are instilled at an earlier age, the older players would go out and enjoy it without losing their focus, no matter the level or the competition.
And picking up from that point, Trideep adds that there is definitely need for more incentive for the players to continue playing. “After a certain point, when players make it to the highest service/semi-pro level (which many believe to be at the ONGC), players run out of further ambition. They need to think higher…”
On Transparency… “The international team’s successes need to be advertised more, but it isn’t done so because then our failures, which are much more frequent, would be advertised, too. This is okay – as long as we can build an interest amongst the media.”
On Physical Competency… “It is true that the physical level of Indian players isn’t naturally at par with those in America or Europe, but this is no excuse. Countries like Kazakhstan, who we used to thrash, have brought in the right facilities to improve physically, and now they are able to beat us. We have all the right skills but are just missing out on the physical standard.”
“We need to prepare a lot to get to the level of other Asian teams,” he adds, “We have no physical trainer, no dietician – it is no surprise that we keep lagging behind!”
On the future… “The future isn’t looking too good,” he says frankly, “Our position has fallen down amongst Asian nations over the last few years. I must commend the Federation for trying to give us more exposure, but the team performance hasn’t improved and morale is low.”
Trideep has voluntarily pulled out of the team in recent competitions, and low on confidence, he ponders if he will return to the squad in time for the Commonwealth Games next year, which will be held in New Delhi. There are many others like him, disenchanted by the sport and disinterested in ambition after the never-ending whispers of corruption, short-cuts, and unfair advantages in the entire system.
At 26, he may not even have hit his prime yet, and is already been slowed down and dogged by the same things he warns others to beware of.
Low on confidence and ambition, his story is a cautionary tale for youngsters hoping to make it into the game here: it is very possible to lose faith in the system, but the love for basketball should rise above the external crises.