January 11, 2012
New Basketball Club in India hopes to bring Indians home & abroad together in hoops
In the brave new flat world, everything and everyone is on the same level, no distance is too far, and no vision too outlandish. And it is one such vision – of a basketball player turned trainer turned coach (though not all necessarily in that same order!) – that could propel the birth of a unique new step for Indian basketball players, at home and abroad.
Born and bred in Kansas City, USA, but with the blood of Kashmiri parents running through his veins, Shahid Bhat, an athletic trainer back in the States, seems to have found his real calling thousands of kilometers away in his paternal homeland. Over the past few years, Bhat has been involved with coaching and promoting basketball in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. He is the founder and organiser of the Srinagar-based Srinagar Kashmir Basketball Academy (SKBA), a small league for basketball enthusiasts from across the state.
But Bhat’s next step could be his biggest: moving southwards to the capital of India – New Delhi – where Bhat plans to fulfill his dream and the dream of many Indian-origin basketball players from North America and around the world. Bhat has planted the seeds to create a new basketball club – tentatively called Formula 23 Basketball Club India (F23BCI) – where he will bring together and train amateur Indian and Indian-origin basketball players in New Delhi, before setting out his newly formed squad to take part in some of India’s top basketball competitions.
If Bhat’s vision is realised, F23BCI would play their first games together by Spring 2012.
“With the idea of this club, I want to reach out to more people in India who are interested in basketball,” Bhat said, “There are several talented players I know of in the US & Canada who haven’t been able to continue their basketball careers as they got older beyond casual pick-up games. Then, there are of course players in India who may not be signed to government service team but are still talented and interested in playing the game. I want to bring all these talented players of Indian backgrounds together and create a team that takes part in the top Indian basketball tournaments.”
Bhat’s novel venture will not only produce an entertaining squad, but also help fulfill the dreams of several talented basketball players who may not have had another outlet for their talents. The US, Canada, Australia, and a few other countries are loaded with Indian-origin basketball players, who, after a certain point in their career, may not be able to participate in a competitive environment again: this club will help create an environment and an interesting opportunity for them to bring the game to India. It will also help vanquish the mistaken belief amongst many Indians that our own kind is just not physically built for basketball: if the right kind of training and diet is provided to the players in India, they too could become elite athletes.
Another group that would benefit from this team would be Indian players who are currently not part of the government service teams system. Currently, the best basketball players in India are all government employees for various states and services and are semi-professionals who play in the various tournaments through the course of the year, while the younger ones play in the tournaments structured for their schools or colleges. But India has flocks of other players outside of the school/college structure and in non-government professions interested in remaining connected with the game: a short training camp and a true basketball-team environment could be a boon to their hoop dreams.
Bhat will be basing the club in Delhi, where he hosted tryouts for Indian players in early January at the Hansraj College Basketball Court. As the owner, general manager, and coach, Bhat announced the roster of the squad a few days ago, a team that featured former CCAA player of the year Inderbir Gill, Punjab's electrifying point guard and National Championship winner TJ Sahi, basketball analytics entrepreneur Vasu Kulkarni, and other players from around India or of Indian-origin.
Bhat is now looking to pick a convenient two to three week training period sometime early next year where he will schedule the team’s training. And then come the games and the tournaments!
All players on the F23BCI roster will be paid: players who live outside of Delhi (whether they’re from other parts of India or from across the globe) will be compensated for their travel and lodging expenditure once they become a part of the squad. Bhat hopes to have them sorted out in the near-future. “So far, I have been mostly funding for my projects myself,” he says, “But I have reached out to other people internationally who are interested in realising this dream for basketball in India.” Some of his efforts have already found financial results, encouraging Bhat to move on with his venture.
F23BCI isn’t exactly Bhat’s first project in India: the hoops enthusiast already has a few years of experience working with the game in India under his belt. Bhat had been regularly visiting Kashmir to visit his family members, and it was during one of these visits where he got a chance to help out in a volunteer basketball camp in Srinagar in 2009
“I had no exposure to basketball in India before,” he says, “I was so wrapped up with my own basketball career. It took a simple google search of ‘basketball’ & ‘Kashmir’, and that’s how the journey began.”
Bhat had briefly played at the Avila University in Kansas City back in the USA, and worked for several years as a high school basketball coach in his home town. Working as an athletic trainer in the city where he was born and raised, it was in his ancestral homeland of Kashmir where his second ‘career’ began.
After his experience volunteering with the camp in Srinagar, Bhat held a practice basketball session for children at a branch of the Delhi Public School (DPS) in the city. “That was an overwhelming experience,” he said, “I had no idea what to expect, and it became a learning experience for me.”
The students at the school hadn’t had enough – they kept on contacting Bhat long after his departure from Kashmir, and so he returned to DPS-Srinagar again a year later. The timing of this trip coincided with a local tournament in the city featuring several different schools. Without pay, Bhat began to volunteer in organising and running this tournament, and refereed several games in the process.
Realising the potential interest of schoolchildren in Kashmir and now having experienced working with Indian authorities, Bhat’s next plan was to open his own basketball academy in Srinagar. “I contacted DPS who allowed be to host the academy, and soon, this led to a full-blown local basketball league in Srinagar,” Bhat added.
From April – June 2011, the 1st Srinagar Kashmir Basketball Academy (SKBA) was held at DPS (Srinagar), helmed by Bhat. “We got a good response: a lot of young players were curious about the league. Other schools also began to send teams to play. About a 100 players signed up for the league. I was in charge of everything: refereeing, coaching, advertising the league, even cleaning the courts!”
“But the academy wasn’t funded well, so I remain unsure about its future,” he added, “In addition, I wanted to shift the academy out of DPS court. I have a dream of building an indoor court in Srinagar one day to host a top academy in India – one that is committed to teaching basketball the right way!”
Until that day comes, Bhat will fulfill his other dream of the F23BCI, another venture that will help him teach basketball the right way. The new club will not just play games but focus on training hard and practicing together. The players – from numerous different backgrounds but united under a loose ‘Indian ballers’ umbrella – will then head out as a team to play high level basketball, and be paid for it.
And like he has done in Kashmir for a few years now, Bhat will continue to back them up, giving in hard hours of work with little in return. “We know that there is little money in basketball right now, but we don’t do it for the money,” he says, “We do it because we love the game.”