November 29, 2010

Interview with Bill Harris and Tamika Raymond: head coaches of India’s basketball teams at the Asian Games

American basketball coaches Bill Harris and Tamika Raymond have accomplished several historical feats over the last few months alone. The two became the first American head coaches of the Indian Senior Men’s and Women’s national basketball teams respectively. They led the Indian team into their first appearance in the 2010 Asian Games basketball tournament in 28 years. Under Harris, the Men’s team also won their first ever basketball game at the Asian Games, beating Afghanistan 83-76 in their pre-qualifying match-up.

The contract for both the coaches expires at the end of the month, and both Harris and Raymond will be returning to the USA after bidding farewell to the teams. The two have been working with the teams since the end of September/beginning of October at the Senior camp in Chennai. The Men’s team played a friendly game against Hong Kong before heading off to Guangzhou, China, for the Asian Games. After beating Afghanistan, the Men lost all their five group games to Qatar, Chinese Taipei, Iran, Philippines, and Japan.

Men’s coach Harris has over 30 years of experience as a head coach in the game of basketball across several institutions in the US. His most-recent previous appointment was with Wheaton College (1991-2009), where he had tremendous success posting the highest career winning percentage as a head coach in the institution’s history.

Despite India’s poor final showing, Harris showed his optimism and excitement for the experienced gained by the players. “This tournament was an opportunity for the players to compete against the best countries in Asia. While training, the Indian players got a chance to push themselves further than ever before and get a glimpse of their full potential if they keep working harder at it.”

“I am very proud of our win against Afghanistan,” he added, “It will also be a memorable moment for the players and for me, especially considering that we were the lowest seed in the competition and were not expected to beat them after the two losses to Afghanistan earlier this year [at the South Asian Games]. The win gave us the opportunity to qualify for the group stage and compete against Asia’s best.”

Both the Indian teams were amongst the youngest squads in the tournament, and the Men’s team was led by captain Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, who just turned 20. They also lost valuable players such as Trideep Rai to injury for three games, and leading scorer Jagdeep Singh also missed the last match against Japan. Despite this, Harris was impressed by the character that the Young Cagers showed in China.

“We played a good game against Iran, who are one of the strongest teams in the world,” Harris said, “After a bad first half, we played Iran even in the second period and lost only by 15 points. Against Philippines, we had a good first half, and were down only by one point then before letting them take a big lead in the second. Against Japan too, without two important players, we were able to stick close for three quarters. In The Japan game we were able to call upon Dishant Shah, who is at junior level, to start the game and play big minutes, which was very impressive.”

Harris was known to command a lot of respect amongst the players and brought a disciplined approach to the team during training in Chennai. “I have been tough and demanding on them, but they know that I did this because I cared for their success. During the training, they began to see gradually that they can develop into great players.”

Now, at the end of his tenure, Harris is leaving behind personalised training regimes for each of the players so that can continue to put in work into their ability. His only concern is that now without him, the players must become self-motivated to follow the regimes.

Discussing the future of the Men’s team, Harris stressed that it is important for the players to continue to strive for betterment. “The BFI and the NBA have to figure out a way to make sure that the national players can stay together and play together. I feel that India needs to get 20 of its best players for the national team and then keep them together all year round to train together, improve their team chemistry, and grow as a team.”

Harris said that it was hard to leave behind the team, who had become like a family to him. He will now be returning to US, where he is still undecided about his future but is looking forward to spending some time with this family.

Under Tamika Raymond, the Women’s team played a few practice games against professional teams from China in Chennai before heading to Guangzhou. There, they lost all three of their group games to China, South Korea, and Thailand. Raymond is a former WNBA player and NCAA Division I Assistant Coach.

“Getting beat that badly definitely wasn’t fun, but the kids learning so much is something that I wouldn’t trade for the world,” Raymond said, “For India basketball, sending a team to this tournament has been a great foundation to build upon.”

Raymond’s team was tested by the best in Guangzhou. They played first two games against China and South Korea, who were the two finalists of the tournament. China is ranked 4th in the entire world and South Korea 8th. After two big losses, India played well against Thailand in the third game before losing out by eight points in the fourth quarter.

One of the stand-out players for Raymond was Anitha Pauldurai, who played the most minutes for the team and showed much needed leadership and experience. Raymond added that Anitha showed a “coach’s mentality”, which was rare.

Another player for whom Raymond reserved special praise was Indian basketball legend Geethu Anna Jose. “Geethu is a very talented player, and has a great future,” Raymond said, “Unfortunately I don’t think that she has been challenged enough in India. To improve, she needs to play against other great players.”

Raymond added that the team’s point guard Akanksha Singh was the squad’s most hard-working player, showing great confidence and persistence against all the competition. She also mentioned youngsters such as Pratima Singh, Raja Priyadarshini, Sneha Rajguru, and Rajpreet Sandhu, who stepped their game up in China to offer the coach a pleasant surprise.

Raymond feels that the next stage for India to improve the quality of its basketball players is to focus on their conditioning. “To be as good as the teams we face, we first have to look like them,” she said, “We have the length, but we need the right kind of weight room training, nutrition, built, and strength to try and look like other strong teams such as China or Korea.”

“It was surprising at times that some of the basic training techniques that we worked with that players learn at a much younger age in America were new to these girls, but they enjoyed all the weight room training work that we did, where we worked particularly on their agility and fitness.”

Another factor that Raymond believes that India needs work on is improving their basketball IQ and their will to win. “It is not just important to play the game but also to think it,” she said, “They shouldn’t just play basketball; they should want to play smart and want to win. They should want to be great.” The players had to learn many things to improve their basketball IQ, such as plays and important defensive concepts.

Finally, Raymond feels that there is a need for uniformity in the coaching process in India, and a need for the coaches to be trained better, so that in turn they can pass on valuable information to the young players. This process, she feels, must start at the Junior level so that the players are comfortable with the system by the time they reach the Senior National team.

“The next stage for India should be to reach out again and bring in more quality coaches for their teams,” Raymond suggested, “The team’s future will depend on how much time they can spend together and on their future coach. It is sad that when the players return they get separated and go back to represent their separate regions and teams, and the lower level of play can hurt their development. In other countries, the national team stays and trains together to improve.”

“The NBA and BFI have a wonderful arranged marriage, and basketball in India can only get better!”

Raymond can be seen on ESPN in America, where she will be a sideline reporter for Women’s basketball. She added that there is a chance that she will also work at a few WNBA games when the season begins.

The secretary-general of the BFI Harish Sharma was very satisfied with Harris’ and Raymond’s work in India. “The American coaches came from a background of great work culture in basketball,” Sharma said, “Both of them have done well to improve the standard of basketball in India. It was good to see that, under them, our national players brought a level of much-needed discipline to their game. They improve their shot selection, and their defense improved tremendously under both coaches.”

“We want to hire more foreign coaches to replace them and lead the Indian senior teams for the next two or three years.” Sharma added.

Troy Justice, the NBA’s Director of Basketball Operations in India, who helped the BFI in bringing Harris and Raymond to India, confirms that the NBA will once again to an extensive global search for future national coaches for the Indian squads. “We will be looking not just for good coaches, but for coaches who will be right for India and will be committed whole-heartedly to India,” Justice said.

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