September 23, 2011
Nawabketball? Lucknow has its own special liaison with hoops
Known to most as the ‘City of Nawabs’, Lucknow is a city that has popular across the country for its history of Kings and Nawabs, for its ‘Chikan’ embroidery, for its amazing monuments, its literature and poetry, its mouth-watering kebabs and biryanis, and its welcoming, secular culture. In the area of sports, the capital of Uttar Pradesh has had a distinguished history in providing some famous names to India’s most popular sport (cricket) and its national sport (hockey).
But few know that this city holds a special liaison with basketball, too. For the past week, the RDSO basketball courts in Lucknow have been hosting the 38th Sub Junior National Basketball Championship; but let’s turn back the chapters in the pages of history to the year 1978, when the first basketball court was constructed in the RDSO ground.
This ground holds special significance for hoops aficionados, because, not long after the construction of this new court, the Indian National Basketball team played a match here against the squad from ‘Athletes in Action’, a popular touring basketball team from the USA.
From that first court, both RDSO and the culture of hoops in the city have come a long way. “Basketball is growing a lot in this city, but things could certainly get better,” says Pankaj Singh, the former Secretary of the Lucknow District Basketball Association (LDBA), “Of course, the main sport here is cricket, which is popular everywhere in this city. And Lucknow also has a great history in hockey.”
Basketball may not have produced stars from the city like Cricket or Hockey did, but in terms of local success at the state and national level, the game hasn’t been far behind. “Lucknow is one of the oldest cities with a basketball culture in the country,” claims Bhupendra Shahi, the General-Secretary of the Uttar Pradesh Basketball Association (UPBA), “At this point, there must be around 70-80 good basketball courts around Lucknow: it is a city with several good convent schools and they all boast a court.”
At the senior level, Lucknow also has a five teams which represent the city in State championships: RDSO, Lucknow District, Lucknow University, UP Police, and Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL). Lucknow is one of the few districts in UP which constantly fields strong basketball teams, along with Varanasi, Gorakhpur, Kanpur, and Allahabad.
The current RDSO squad, which has been UP champions over the past three years, is littered with several players who have played at the national level.
Shahi also recalls a great period from the mid 70s to the early 90s where UP Police were the most dominating team in the state, winning consecutive championships for almost two decades.
Lucknow has also produced a few players who have gone on to represent the Indian Basketball team at the international level. Past stars include Abhinav Singh amd Shagun Singh. Currently, Rakesh Yadav has been a regular feature in India’s international team camps.
And the epicenter of hoops activity in the city is back where we began: at the RDSO courts, where the Sub-Jr. Nationals are now. There are now three courts at the RDSO grounds – the last two were constructed in 1986. “The main RDSO building is also now being renovated,” adds Shahi.
Here in these courts, a total of nine All-India Inter-Railway basketball championships have been played, and three pre-Asian championships with the Indian national teams have been held, too. The 38th Sub-Jr Nationals are also the third National Basketball championship being held in Lucknow: in 1986, RDSO hosted the Senior Nationals, and in 2007, the Youth Nationals were held here. The courts have also hosted half a dozen state championships.
But what excites Shahi more about the city’s basketball story is its future: “We have started a day-boarding scheme at the SAI Center in the KD Singh Babu Stadium in the city,” Shahi says, “All of our Junior level kids practice here and improve their game under good SAI coaches. The improving performance of our junior players at the national level is proof of this.”
The current Uttar Pradesh Sub-Jr team, featuring several youngsters from Lucknow, continued that tradition of steady improvement for the state. The boys’ team in particular improved their standing from 7th place in 2010 to 5th place this time around, a placing which doesn’t tell the full story of the exciting basketball and hard-work that the youngsters brought to the championship.
N Shiv Kumar, a former national-level basketball player and current RDSO employee, has spent 19 years in Lucknow, and soon after retiring from the game of basketball, got his first chance at coaching in the nationals when he was handed the help of the UP Sub-Jr Boys team in this year’s Nationals. This team has four players who hail from the city of Lucknow itself, and the girls’ team had six local players.
Speaking on the boys’ squad, Kumar said: “This team has played well in the championship. And some of these young players have a lot of potential.”
Kumar does admit that teams who practice and play in Lucknow will tend to struggle when they leave state to play in national championships in other parts of the country, a reason he attributes to the lack of an indoor court in the city. “Lucknow is badly in need of an indoor court,” said Kumar, “Most of the Nationals are now taking place in indoor courts: our players, who spend most of their time practicing outdoors, struggle to adapt at the national level.”
There were plans to build an indoor court several years ago at the RDSO grounds, says Kumar, but the plans soon went awry as the government funds were allocated to other sports.
Basketball in the city needs a boost, and the next step in this city of great cultural and special hoops history would be the construction of an indoor court. The city’s burgeoning basketball-loving public await the day when a new court is build at the RDSO, and they can host an event as spectacular as the Indian national team and the Athletes In Action once again!