June 8, 2010

The NBA-wallahs are here: Will India echo with the sound of bounce?

This article was first published on SLAMOnline on June 4, 2010.

Does India need basketball?

As an Indian would say, the NBA-wallahs are coming. The Basketball-wallahs are here. (wallah: Hindi & Urdu – a person who is associated with a particular work or who performs a specific duty or service -- usually used in combination [with another word]: Merriam-Webster) For the past few years, the NBA has accelerated its interest in promoting basketball in India – it seems a logical step at a huge Asian market after the NBA’s successes in China. I got a chance to interview NBA’s Director of Basketball Operations in India, Troy Justice, and as I sat down to write and share the NBA’s vision through him, this most basic of questions struck me.

Does India really need basketball?

India has long been a ‘one-sport’ nation, a nation where the majority of our money, talent, TV spots, sponsorships, results, superstars, loyal fans, crazed fans, media, scandals, congratulations, criticisms, successes, failures, hard work, corruption, headlines, breaking news, scoreboards, painted faces, flags, idols, Facebook status updates, Twitter Trending Topics, and heated conversations in chai-shops and in train compartments involve cricket and only cricket. Every other sport in the country has been overshadowed by cricket…

… And when it hasn’t, there still doesn’t seem to be space for basketball in our history. When an Indian sports magazine released a special list of 101 Milestones in Indian Sporting History, nowhere amongst the “good, bad, and ugly” of events in our history is there sign of basketball, amongst a list that included Cricket, Field Hockey, Football, Shooting, Chess, Billiards, Badminton, Tennis, Track & Field, Wrestling, Mountaineering, Swimming, Golf, Volleyball, Snooker, Cycling, Weightlifting, Boxing, Table-Tennis, and Formula One Racing.

Yes, Table friggin Tennis.

Not to say that basketball in India hasn’t had its own memorable milestones – they have just been insignificant when compared to other sports. Particularly cricket.

But the more I spoke to Troy Justice, the more I began to believe that this was about to change. In all my years as a basketball fan, player, and recently, as a writer, I have never felt more optimistic about the future of basketball in India. And this movement towards change is ready to take-off astronomically with the arrival of Justice and the NBA-wallahs. The time that basketball scores a major milestone in Indian sports history is not too far off…

Justice has been involved with bringing basketball to India in different capacities for nearly two decades. For 15 years, he worked for ‘Athletes in Action – Basketball’ in various capacities as a professional international player, head coach, and Director of Basketball. In the early 90s, he brought a team from the US to India to compete against the national team, clubs, and universities. He has been returning to India over the past 19 years with teams from the USA to play competitive games, run coaching clinics and basketball camps. When he began working with the NBA, it made perfect sense for the association to choose him to lead basketball operations in India.

“India has been giving signals of its development globally,” said Justice, “Not just in sport, but in terms of its expanding economy and infrastructure. The world understands the country’s growth, and it is a natural process for the NBA to come here as the league continues to develop a global platform.”

“India is a sport loving and passionate country – Basketball can and will be successful here.”

The biggest venture that the NBA is involved with in India is the Mahindra-NBA Challenge – a multi-city, community-based, recreational league. The league began in Mumbai on April 17th, and after seven weeks, will be concluding this weekend with its playoffs, an All-Star game, Shooting Competitions, and the Championship Games. It involves a youth and an adult division has and attracted more than 1000 basketball enthusiasts in Mumbai.

What is perhaps more important in the programme are the training through which Justice and others have been teaching basketball fundamentals to the participants. Justice will next be overseeing similar Mahindra-NBA challenge programmes in two more Indian cities in the coming months: Bangalore and Ludhiana.

Justice has been involved in holding coaching clinics throughout the country, through which he is looking to train and develop NBA coaches at the grassroots level. He was in the city of Nagpur most recently holding a clinic with around 50 coaches. Coaching development is an important issue that the NBA is hoping to engage with deeper – India has no shortage of basketball coaches, but a constant complaint has always been that the coaching styles, tactics, and philosophy hasn’t evolved positively over the years.

In terms of player development, the NBA is looking to be involved through clinics, camps, and via the country’s academic structure. “We will be working with all the age ranges and basketball ability,” said Justice, “From children in the grassroots to schools, colleges, and then working with the elite players in the national team.”

The above initiative is an important one – basketball’s stature may be dubious in India in terms of milestone events, but there is no shortage of opportunity. Most of the schools in the country have basketball courts and most communities have access to a court. If the will is there, a basketball court is never too far for the average Indian child.

“The current basketball community in India is very passionate about the sport and committed to seeing it grow,” Justice continues, “People are willing to engage and help us. The coaches, players, are all enthusiastic about learning and maximising their opportunities.”

But there are trials and tribulations to working with a country like India – a country which is so rich and yet so poor, so fat and yet so hungry, with the most modern of technological infrastructures but in many ways still living in the 18th century. India presents a bizarre gamut of variety every day, something that is as much a challenge as it is an opportunity.

Despite steady growth, Justice admits that the biggest challenge for the NBA in India right now is still the infrastructure. “There are hardly any good indoor basketball courts in the country, and because get so hot here, we can’t hold games or clinics in the afternoons in the outdoors,” he says. It is a simple yet important point – for the players to play and train more, they need to play in better, indoor, cooler facilities. The NBA has lent a hand in improving infrastructure in India over the past two years: four new courts have been refurbished through the NBA-Cares programme.

The other issue which Justice calls more “manageable” is of scale. A famous Indian saying to describe the country’s massive size as “From Kashmir to Kanyakumari”, alluding to the more than three thousand kilometres from the northernmost to the southernmost point of the nation. “The number of participants is large and we have a lot of ground to cover!”

Justice believes that to eventually cover this ground and to be able to truly make a difference, the NBA’s relationship with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) will be extremely important. “We will need to work alongside them, and work alongside the coaches and managers in India. We are bringing our own information and expertise to the Indian coaches, and it will help if they continue to receive us with an open-mind.”

For the future, the NBA hope to continue the development of the Mahindra Challenge, which in 5-10 years, they see as an initiative that could grow drastically across the country. “We want to make this programme the best that it can be,” said Justice, “I want to see more and more coaching clinics and player training camps around India.”

Off the court, the NBA will be marketing itself, and thus, promoting the game of basketball in various ways. Keeping up with their reputation as being one of the forerunners in promotion through social media, the NBA introduced the NBA-India website several months ago along with the fast-growing NBA-India fan page on Facebook.

Justice knows that fan interest will follow if the NBA can send marquee players such as legends of the game and current all stars to India. Over the past few years, Baron Davis, Dominique Wilkins, Sam Perkins, Kyle Korver, Ronny Turiaf, Linton Johnson, Pat Garrity, AC Green, Dikembe Mutumbo, and Kevin Garnett have visited the country, and Justice hopes that the visits continue.

Another dream of any fan would be to actually see an NBA exhibition game in India. Asia is no stranger to NBA pre-season action. The NBA has played six games in Japan since the 1990s, and has held pre-season games in China since 2004, after Chinese star Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets in 2002: the first game obviously featured the Yao-powered Rockets against the Kings. In 2009, when the Nuggets met the Pacers in Taipei, it became the eight Asian city to host either an NBA regular season or preseason game, along with Tokyo, Yokohama, and Saitama in Japan; Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in China; and Macau.

But what do these countries have that India doesn’t? You guessed it… Infrastructure! “We would love to hold an exhibition game here,” said Justice, “But these are big events, and they require proper venue and timing – infrastructure is a key component and is still a challenge in India.”

The NBA have a long-term plan in India, and as infrastructure grows, exposure, popularity, and participation increases, and the country has more coaches equipped to teach the game to players from elementary school to pros, Justice believes that basketball can truly become the #2 sport here. It will obviously be a fool’s ambition to even pretend that the game has any chance against the maniacal popularity of cricket, but if basketball is able to gain a small percentage niche following in the country, that small percentage of a country of 1.2 billion can make a huge difference.

“In the future, I see the Indian national team definitely improving in the FIBA rankings,” said Justice. Currently, the Indian Men’s team, dubbed ‘Young Cagers’, lie 52nd in the FIBA world rankings and the Women rank 43rd – nothing to shout out loud from Himalayan mountaintops, but Justice believes that the potential is there. “In the future, I can envision top level Indian players playing in foreign pro leagues.”

Ultimately, the question that all Indian fans want answered is how soon the country can have our own NBA-inspired all-India basketball league. When I interviewed BFI’s secretary general Harish Sharma, he told me that India could potentially have a full professional league in two-three years. Justice added that the NBA will be doing everything it can to support the BFI’s plans.

“I have been well received in India – I love the heart of the Indian people who have gracious, humble and hospitable,” said Justice, “Now that I’m living and working here, this country has been everything I expected and more. It is very rewarding to go to work daily and give to the basketball community in India.”

“I can’t wait to see the day when the sounds of bouncing basketballs echoes all over the country.”

As we ended our conversation, I remembered something – India, its people, its variety, its culture, and its passion are damn near impossible to replicate. I’m not going to pretend and ignore the corruption and the mismanagement and the passiveness that plagues the mentalities of many of my fellow Indians, but eventually, there is a faint light at the end of the tunnel. Just like Justice and NBA have discovered, the country can offer as much to the game as the game can offer the country. Basketball is the fastest-growing sport in the world, and India is perfect platform for the game’s next big spurt.

So does India need basketball? There may not be an easy response to that particular question, but I know one thing for sure - basketball needs India.

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