September 9, 2011
Hareesh Koroth: Unexpected Rise; Unfinished Business
At the Asian Games in Guangzhou (China) last year, the Indian Men’s Basketball team created history, by marking their first ever win in the competition in the tournament’s first, playoff game, against South Asian rivals Afghanistan. Facing a shortage of quality in the backcourt, India’s then coach Bill Harris handed an unexpected start to Kerala born, Tamil Nadu groomed guard Hareesh Koroth. The sharp-shooter, who was a relatively late bloomer as a basketball prospect, reached the zenith of an Indian player’s ambition at age 25 with this start.
But the start alone wasn’t enough: in the first few matches at the Asian Games, Koroth developed into one of India’s most valuable players. He scored 17 points in the win over Afghanistan, and followed it with a team-high 24 in a loss to Qatar. India went on to lose all their other games in the tough group, but Koroth, who had already achieved so much in so little time, returned brimming with confidence for his future with the Indian squad. A natural shooter and proud defender, he was ready to put in the work to continue as a regular in the team.
That hard work shows – a little less than a year later, the Indian team has a new coach, has a lot of new young faces, and a new challenge to face: the 26th FIBA Asia Championship for Men in Wuhan (China) from mid September – but Koroth, now one of the seniors in the young squad, remains a constant force.
Once a player who started off his career with low expectations surrounding his basketball potential, Koroth now shoulders the burden as one of the experienced leaders of a new-look team heading out to battle again.
Standing at 6 feet 1 inch, Koroth is shorter than the average player running and gunning on a basketball court, but he has made up for his lack of height with hard work and tenacity. Starring in India’s national squad is not a simple process: before getting to the highest level of hoops in India, most players have to master the game from a young age, dominating other youngsters of their age level and steadily improving until they can one day have the privilege of representing India at the Senior level.
But this was hardly the script followed by the Koroth: Born in Calicut, Kerala, Koroth first picked up the game at age 10, but the future star was a slow riser. Koroth didn’t play his first national tournament until the Junior (under-18) level, where the little dynamo finally broke out and began to show his impeccable shooting tough. It was then that the floodgates opened for him.
“I didn’t play much at the Youth stage at the highest level,” says Koroth, “But in college, I got selected into Kerela’s senior team.”
After two nationals with Kerala, Koroth moved a little across the state border, joining Indian Overseas Bank (IOB) in Chennai in September 2007, and then, began to represent Tamil Nadu at the national level. “Soon after that, I was invited to India’s senior team,” Koroth recalls, “It all happened very quickly! Back then, I wasn’t thinking too far. I wasn’t thinking about playing for India – I was just thinking about each small step."
Once a state famous for producing international level players on the regular, Koroth is now the only TN-based player in India’s senior squad.
There is no secret to reveal, no code to decrypt, and no puzzle to solve: Koroth’s incredible rise into becoming one of the most unstoppable players in India has been the product of the simplest basketball cliché: practice. “It’s not just about working hard in camp or in tournaments,” he says, “I continue working, continue practicing during the off days, during holidays. Whenever I can, I spend several hours daily on the court, perfecting my shot, and time in gym if I can to improve my fitness.”
Koroth adds: “That is also the major difference between us and some of the younger players coming up to prominence in the country now – they practice hard in the camps but laze around during the holidays. You have to keep working hard even when you’re home to stay at the highest level.”
With time, Koroth began to see a sense of maturity and patience seeping into his game. “With the new coach (Kenny Natt), the Indian team has improved a lot, and I have seen improvements in my own game,” he says, “I play a more set, patient form of basketball, where I wait for the play to be created before making my move, instead of just shooting at every chance.”
Koroth’s role as a back-up shooting guard in Natt’s Indian side was first put on display when India played against SAARC rivals Sri Lanka and Bangladesh at the Middle Asia Zone Qualifying Round in New Delhi. Vying for a place in the FIBA Asia Championship, India took little effort in brushing off their competition, winning their three matches by a margin of nearly 68 points per game. With the competition posing little threat, Natt could afford to give major minutes to the players on the bench. In the balanced offense, only three players averaged double digits in scoring!
It was Koroth, who emerged as one of India’s main men: despite starting as a substitute, Koroth led the team in minutes played (23 per game) over the three games. He scored, rebounded, and created with ease, and especially showed off his deadly accuracy from the three-point range. India qualified for the FIBA Championships with ease, and now, the real test is about to begin.
“Coach Kenny made a lot of good changes with the side,” says Koroth, “He was able to give a lot of players the chance to play, created a system where we could score fast and score efficiently, and also helped us improve on the defensive end.”
Defense is something that Koroth obviously takes a lot of pride in. Natt’s India plays a help-defense style, so that there is not so much pressure on individuals, but Koroth adds that when the time comes, he relishes a good man-on-man defensive challenge. “I try my hardest to stop the best player on the other team, or at least, hold him below his average,” he says, “It’s important to find a balance between good defense and concentrating on offense.”
The task at hand is clear now: the FIBA ABC in Wuhan begins on September 15th, and India is focused on nothing but their very first game, against Lebanon on opening night.
“The last time we took part in this competition , we finished 13th (out of 16),” says Koroth, “I am aiming higher this time, hoping that we get up to eighth place. Our opponents are Korea, who are a very strong team, Lebanon, who will make us work very hard, Malaysia, who we hope to beat.”
Koroth will most likely be playing the backup shooting-guard position in Natt’s team – he is an able ball handler who shared the point-guard responsibilities with Vishesh Bhriguvanshi at the Asian Games, but this time, the likes of TJ Sahi and Prakash Mishra will be doing the bulk of the ball-handling for India, leaving Koroth free to focus on shooting. Being undersized and smaller than the other guards in the team, though, Koroth is likely to play his primarily defense against the opposing teams’ point guards.
“We are ready and focused,” Koroth repeats, speaking now not only of himself but of the 12-man team that stands with him, and the experienced Coach Kenny Natt that leads from the front. “Our coach now knows us, and we know him. We are familiar with each other and understand each other.”
In Natt, Koroth and the players have found an easy figure to respect and follow: For nearly two decades, Natt has had coaching roles in the NBA. He has been an assistant with the Utah Jazz, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and with the Kings – he was also an interim head coach with the latter. He has worked with hall-of-famers and future hall-of-famers, so the players in the Indian side have little problem in gleaning confidence off of him.
“Things are improving in basketball in India,” says Koroth, “We are confident in our Coach, and now we have a Strength and Conditioning coach, Zak Penwell, who is helping us stay fit and away from injury. We have better facilities, better kits, and better accommodation: we’re ready!”
It isn't just the improved facilities that have helped the team spirit: Koroth's infectious friendly nature has also spread amongst the players and helped in improving team chemistry. "We are all one team," he says, "It's good to be friends amongst each other - we have to stay together against our opponents."
The rise, success, and preparation so far have made for a stellar career for the star,: but there is still unfinished business: and it is at the FIBA ABC where the next chapter in his story will be written.