August 25, 2010

Superman Invades India

Dwight Howard asks: Who's the Big Three?

This feature was first published on August 18th, 2010 on SLAM Online

“He is the only Superman to play on the basketball court,” came the introduction, and soon enough the cheering public at the mall in Gurgaon, outside New Delhi, saw Dwight Howard stroll up to the stage with a signature beaming smile. I immediately sensed a potential “Shaq vs.” episode at the “only Superman” statement. The Big Leprechaun was always the only basketball Superman I believed in, but in Dwight, the NBA-starved Indian fans got a chance to meet the next biggest thing. It’s not every day that a devastating two-time Defensive Player of the Year flies down our desi skies.

The relationship between India and the NBA really started to gain momentum four years ago, when the current Basketball Federation of India (BFI) Secretary-general Harish Sharma went into an agreement with the NBA to promote basketball in India. It was around that summer of 2006 that a certain Minnesota Timberwolf, Kevin Garnett, made a low-key visit to the Indian shores. Apart from a few adidas store openings and school appearances, the Big Ticket’s visit went mostly under the radar. After all, this wasn’t China, it was India, where the average person still believed that Michael Jordan invented basketball.

Fast forward four years — KG became a Celtic, became an NBA champion. And NBA kept coming to India. Baron Davis was here, and so was Kyle Korver and Ronny Turiaf for a Basketball Without Borders program. Some legends came too: Dominique Wilkins, AC Green and others.

But it took the Summer of 2010 for the NBA to once again to make its massive presence felt on the Indian shores, and that presence came in the form name of Dwight Howard.

Suddenly, ‘Superman’ became sort of the flavor of the month amongst the basketball circles in India, and for a country full of many, many flavors and masalas, he came in as a hell of a big deal. Dwight was in India from August 10-14, sandwiching his visit here between a couple of visits to East Asian countries like China and Taiwan. Although the popularity of the NBA popularity in India still has a long way to go to match those other countries, it has been growing rapidly in recent years.

When asked what India can do to help the growth of basketball, Dwight had very simple advice: “Just pick up a ball and play. Basketball is such a fun sport — the more people play it, the more they will realize how great it is. Basketball is a very lively sport — it is my sanctuary — I love to put a smile on people’s faces through the game. I encourage people in India to pick it up too because it has the power of bringing people together.”

Over the past few days, Howard has brought his message of the joys of basketball to India, visiting Bangalore and New Delhi in his tour. India is a country that sorely lacks modern sport infrastructure and facilities, but Howard said that this shouldn’t deter young players from working on improving their athletic ability.

“I started playing this game when I was just 3 years old,” he said, “Growing up, I didn’t have the best conditions and facilities around me. And I wasn’t always this tall — I worked at this game every single day to get to this level.”

He added: “Inevitably, the game is more about heart and mental strength.”

Indian players have gotten the reputation of simply not being athletically built enough to survive the toughness of all-world level basketball. This may be true on certain levels, but I feel that we just haven’t developed the right potential into right talent.

In recent years, India’s own talent churning factory has been the state of Chhattisgarh, which has been developing strong, athletic youngsters from tribal villages (sort of like ‘The Air Up There,’ but imagine Kevin Bacon with an Indian accent) into phenomenal basketball players. Similarly, villages in Punjab are filled with giants like the 7-footer Satnam Singh, who, still a few months shy of his 15th birthday, has already been labeled as the country’s “Chosen one.” Raised on buffalo milk and an excess of homemade white butter, these players have been blessed with the right mold, but have no access to the right infrastructure and training to raise their level. India’s most regular hoop culture resides amongst players in the bigger cities like Mumbai and Chennai, yet without the right kind of conditioning and training, they too fade away into obscurity.

Dwight had some sound advice for Indian players hoping to improve their conditioning: The most important thing for Indian players hoping to make the NBA is to keep training all the time. “Train in the offseason, train when you don’t have any games, just keep working every single day to improve. That is the best way to stay in shape.”

Upon his arrival in India at Bangalore on August 10, Dwight soon headed to the Sri Kanteerava Stadium where he turned coach, working with several members of the Indian Senior Men’s team. Players such as Sambhaji Kadam, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Prakash Mishra, Jayaram, Harpal Veghala, Hirendra Singh and Somvir Chahal got an opportunity to get some tips from Howard.

The Indian team, also known as the ‘Young Cagers,’ are currently preparing for the Asian Games, set to be held in China in November. Dwight worked with the team on several drills, screen-and-rolls, and post-up plays. But Howard’s focus remained of defense, as he stressed on the important of defensive positioning to the players.

In Delhi, Dwight visited a mall to tip-off the ‘NBA Jam,’ which is NBA’s “traveling interactive fan event”. A horde of fans followed Howard to the mall to catch a glimpse of their favorite star as he came out, and he didn’t disappoint. The mall was covered with fans in Orlando Magic jerseys and ‘Superman’ t-shirts.

Finally, to rousing cheers of ‘Superman,’ Howard made his way out to greet the eager crowd. “It was my dream to visit India, and I’m very happy that it has been accomplished,” he said.

After some initial words, the floor was opened for the media to question him, and this was where two of my favorite events of the day occurred.

First, a confused Indian journalist, definitely not well-versed with the basketball world, asked Dwight (in Hindi) about his experience of grassroots VOLLEYBALL in India. A few awkward moments of silence later, Dwight was bailed out when Akash Jain (NBA Director, International Development - India) answered the journalist that, yes, the NBA is interested in digging out more sources of grassroots BASKETBALL in the country.

And soon enough, the inevitable happened when a bunch of not-so-well-mannered teenage fans from the back raised their voices for some questions.

“Dwight, how will you defeat the Big Three?”

Without a second’s hesitation, Dwight responded: “Who’s the Big Three?”

I few of us laughed out loud. After some bumbling amongst the kids in the back, another one grabbed the mic and asked: “How are you planning to stop Big Baby?”


Dwight (in a mock heavy voice): “I have no problems stopping him.”

Dwight went on to refuse the kids’ challenge for a one-on-one match-up (again, in a mock voice: “I don’t think you’re ready!”). Later, along with the Troy Justice, the NBA’s Director of Basketball Operations in India, he took the court where he taught shooting and defensive drills to a crowd of eager youngsters. Chants of “We want dunks!” quickly began to rise, and Dwight finally obliged them by slamming one down the basket.

I got a chance to interact with Dwight earlier that morning, where he spoke about his time in India, his work with the national team players, and looking forward to the ‘10-11 NBA season. He stressed how the players here should follow his own training schedule, which went all year round, with or without a game, with or without a season.

He also confessed that his own personal improvement this offseason was going to be more of a mental issue than a physical one. “In one way, I’m always improving, because I’m always growing older,” he said. “With age comes maturity and mental strength which will help me a lot on court. Every team in the NBA has improved this season, and we have to get better too to keep performing well.”

He will have to — and Magic fans will be hoping that his world travels this offseason help in developing the “mental strength” that Dwight talks about. The NBA shrewdly chose a personality like Dwight to come and provide the League as well as the game of basketball some exposure in a large market such as India. His short trip may not have distracted the imaginations of a cricket-crazy country (only the FIFA World Cup managed to do that!), but the interested players and fans got more than they wished for: an experience with a genuine NBA star, and more importantly, good advice on how to improve their own conditioning and take their game to the highest level.

Meanwhile, we in India will be hoping that the efforts of our basketball federation and the NBA can elevate the game to “Number Two” status in the country. It’s considered nonsensical to even discuss overthrowing cricket, so every other sport fights for this glorified silver medal.

As I write this, it also happens to be India’s Independence Day. So Jai Hind, and let’s pray for that Number Two spot.

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