March 12, 2010

Basketball at Gunpoint: The harsh realities of corruption in Indian basketball

Here's an article of mine that was recently published of It is a modified version of my article Farceketball: Indian basketball's rotten core.

Sport is supposed to be different. Sport is supposed to be a platform where a combination of talent, practice, and luck mesh together to create an alternative reality. In a vast and culturally dense country like India, the population is divided amongst millions of subgroups by state, language, caste, color, profession, and politics.

But sports, and in our case, basketball, is supposed to be different — when basketball players step on to the court, something in their nature changes. They are no longer the desk clerk, the IT technician, the law-student, the father of two, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Marxist, or the liberal. They become basketball players. All the other staples of community division go out the window — the rich man doesn’t always win, the darker one isn’t discriminated against, the educated holds no advantage over the illiterate.

Well, all that is supposed to happen, anyways.

There are not many who take the sport seriously in India, but for the small population who do, basketball is their lifeline, their way out of dreaded pigeonholing in everyday society, where a boy in the service class will take a government job just like his father and a girl — any girl — will be married off sooner than she can learn to pronounce “Independence”. This is obviously not the trend in the modern, urban, upper-class Indian society; but the majority of middle and lower class ball players prefer to live in the alternative reality where their jump shot is more valuable to the world than the caste they were born into.

For these serious ball players, the basketball court is held in reverence, respected like a temple, where all other realities become blurred away leaving room for something that puts them on a common playing field, something that is fair.

But what is the point of reverence when it is nothing but a farce? When games are played not to win but to pave way for the ‘natural order’ of sport in the country; when results are determined not by the team with the more talent but the team with the stronger voice?

Here is the latest example: Last month, the All India Inter University Basketball tournament, featuring the best college-level talent in the country, concluded in my hometown of Varanasi. Hosted by the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), this tournament featured the best four teams from each of the four zones in the country. 16 teams took part in this exciting competition, which featured two local teams in the final — the hosts BHU versus the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth (MGKV). BHU beat MGKV 63-56 to lift the trophy in front of their home fans, and thus became the best university basketball team in the country.

But the result is far from the complete truth. Players from visiting Delhi and Rajasthan universities alleged that they had to forfeit or lose their games over threats at gunpoint!

To everyone’s shock (or perhaps not), the entire starting five of the MGKV squad didn’t play a single minute in the tournament’s final against the BHU. These included 23-year-old Vikram ‘Dicky’ Parmar, the best player in the tournament, and one of the most talented young players in the country. The excuses for this ranged from “mild injuries” to “protecting the players from future injuries”.

Really? Why would you protect your players in the FINAL of the most important basketball tournament of their time in university?

The truth is this: It had been agreed from before that the MGKV coach would only play his reserves against BHU in the final, so that BHU could win their hometown tournament and BHU’s longtime revered coach KN Rai would be given a victorious retirement party.

The game itself exposed this charade further — after trailing for most of the three quarters, MGKV reserves actually made an amazing comeback in the fourth and took a one-point lead against BHU in the final two minutes. At this point, the MGKV coach had a word with his second squad, and subsequently, MGKV players practically gave up, loosening up their defense and standing around as the BHU scored freely to pick up a victory.

The most shocking fact about this farce isn’t that the above mentioned incidents took place; it is that everyone involved with the tournament and the teams taking part in the finals silently let it happen. The crowd, although uncomfortable with the happenings on court, simply sat back and watched. The media made a soft whimper about it on the following days, but the organizing associations turned a blind eye. Even the coaches and players of MGKV could only respond with a sigh, agreeing “these things just happen.”

They just happen. When I spoke to former UP player and Varanasi-based basketball coach Jitendar Kumar about this incident, his only response was that these things are “natural” in such tournaments — everyone from the referees, gun-toting bullies, and even opposing coaches and players get involved in making sure the home squads take the trophy. The teams agree to the result: That is what is supposed to happen because it always does.

Let me also add Varanasi has had a reputation of being uniquely illustrious in churning out national-level basketball talents. Unfortunately, this ancient city, also known for attracting pilgrims and tourists from around the world, happens to be in one of India’s major crime belts across Eastern Uttar Pradesh.

In the days following this story, I received a range of reactions from the fans. Subhash Mahajan, who is a basketball coach in rural parts of India, shared that he wasn’t surprised with the result, adding the sport is tainted on every district, state, or institution level in the country.

Players from the other teams who took part in the competition also complained of how the atrocities could take place under the nose of some of the event’s organizers. I can’t think of an apt NBA equivalent — how about Gilbert Arenas threatening the Lakers at gunpoint to lose the NBA Finals, right under David Stern’s eye. The gunpoint thing may not be completely unimaginable in Arenas’ case, although the thought of the Wizards in the Finals may be a bit too farfetched.

A reader of my blog, Vivek Taterway, once shared this tragic story: “My brother, who had mistakenly scored a goal at a University Football Tournament many summers ago at their rival’s home ground, barely escaped with his life. He actually ran off before the game ended! Today that event is recalled at family gatherings with loads of laughter but the irony cannot be missed.”

If the biggest university-level championship is treated under such conditions, we are doing nothing but corrupting the very core of what will shape our national sport teams in the future. What is the point of being true to basketball when those who run it won’t be true to you? If Indian authorities are really serious about promoting basketball as a major sport in India, it should first clean out such practices in all levels — a task much easier said than done, and for as long as our authorities remain corrupt, there is no chance of any serious attempt at this.

Basketball (and sport) is supposed to be an escape from the harsh realities from life’s other trends and professions, but we have unfortunately become used to accepting a corrupt system as the only reality. We need a united effort in the fans, players, and federation to fight against this. Let’s not convince our players to corrupt the one thing in life they love most: basketball.

*First published on on March 9, 2010.

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