This is a work of fiction.
Game 6 of the 2030 IBA Finals had already been etched in Indian Basketball lore. Two overtimes, the loudest basketball arena in the country at fever pitch, the biggest stars of the game battling against each other at the biggest stage, and a game-winning shot. "I've been in this 15 years," Kochi's veteran guard Om Rajendran was quoted in the The Hindu the following morning, "I've won an MVP award and a championship, but I've never been part of a game like the one tonight. Decades from now, Indian Basketball fans will still talk about Azam's shot."
The shot itself was nothing spectacular. Kaif Azam, the undisputed best player in the country, was an all-business, no-flash monster in the post. In the second overtime, he had decided that it was time to finally end the long night, and with less than three-seconds left in the game-clock, he flushed in his patented hook shot over the outstretched arms of Debanshu Chaudhary to seal the game. A simple shot, one he hit at least eight or nine times every game and practiced a hundred times every day. But it proved to be the difference between Ludhiana raising the banner for their record eighth IBA championship and Kochi forcing a Game 7 back to their home court.
If Azam had missed, Rajendran's career would've been over. The 37-year-old legend had announced his retirement before the Finals began and was ready to walk away from the game after a successful IBA and short NBA career. Instead, he would have one last professional basketball game in Kochi colours and one more chance to win his second IBA championship.
Yet, despite the new generation of names, faces, changing arenas, technology, increased salaries and professionalism into the sport in India, the title challengers were still the same in 2030 as they had been 15 years ago: The Ludhiana Sikandars. Rajendran hated them for all those years he had suffered defeat at their hands in his younger years. He thirsted for revenge.
Sitting in the locker room pre-game before one of the biggest games of his life, Jaipal Harsh Singh tried to forget about the past. Forget about the fact that, the jersey that hung in front of him represented the most successful franchise in the 15-year history of the Indian Basketball Association (IBA). Forget that, when he represented the Ludhiana Sikandars, he wasn't just representing himself and his 11 teammates, but representing the greats who had dominated the past decade in the league. For years, he had enjoyed success playing besides Bipin Singh Raj, the most successful player in IBA history. But ever since Raj's retirement, the Sikandars had suffered from a minor identity crisis. They had added a couple of nice new players, sure, but the onus was on him to lead the team now. It was on him to mobilize his troops and lead them to the Promised Land again, to start a fresh, new dynasty. They had done pretty well so far this season. They had defeated prodigious individual talents and well-honed experienced teams. They had found themselves back in the IBA Finals for the first time since Raj's retirement.
Singh knew what he represented. He knew what he had to do.
But he couldn't worry about the past. He couldn't worry about Raj and all those glories of Ludhiana's basketball history, all those times when the fervent fans had rushed the famous Guru Nanak Stadium floor, hoisting him in their arms and dancing to bhangra all night to celebrate championship after championship. He had made the mistake of envisioning that scene even before it had happened. Holding on to a 3-2 lead, he had envisioned that his team would close out the series in Game 6 on their home court, that he would dance with the fans again, that he would celebrate by driving down with his teammates to the old city and feasting on Butter Chicken.
Unfortunately, his opponents - or more specifically - one of his opponents, had different plans. History had to wait. There would be no bhangra and Butter Chicken celebration for the Sikandars and Singh after Game 6. There would be heartbreak and sullen faces. There would be a return to Kochi for one final game. There would be a Game 7.
"My mother said that the whole of Kerala had been praying for me, like it was Onam in December!"
Kaif Azam wasn't a big speaker. His third IBA MVP acceptance speech sounded a carbon copy of his past two. When he became the sixth Indian player to be drafted into the NBA, he responded with a calm nod and smile, thanking the Milwaukee Bucks franchise and the past countrymen that had paved the way for Indian Basketball, but not much else. On the court, he was all business. He didn't show much emotion, didn't smile, didn't frown, didn't laugh and didn't fight. But it was still hard to ignore the 7-footed giant, who had stormed into the IBA to win a championship for the Kochi Kayals as a rookie, became the first Indian to play in the NBA All Star game, and now, four years later, found himself a game away from his second IBA trophy. Azam's arrival had changed Kochi's fortunes completely. They had finished with the best record in the regular season and the Mumbai-born silent assassin had once again been the center of attention for the entire league.
But it was only after that Game 6 performance - particularly after that incredible hook shot that instantly entered into Indian basketball lore - that Azam showed the first sign of any emotion. His face was all over the country's national news channels the next day, which replayed videos of his historic shot followed by his post-game interview where he thanked his mother and the wishes of his adopted home state. The notoriously fervent Ludhiana crowd had been silenced. With the score now tied at 3-3, one of the most memorable series in recent times would reach it's fitting conclusion.
Before the inception of the IBA - India's first professional basketball league - the best players in the country were semi-professionals working in various government units or representing their various states. They played for the Railways, for ONGC, for the Police, or for their states, representing Kerala, Chhattsigarh, or Maharashtra. The state-level national championships still existed, but they were now mostly an outlet for the second tier stars of the country, the ones who weren't good enough to get on to an IBA roster. The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) organized tournaments for juniors served as the perfect feeder championship for the country's best clubs to scout young players and sign them at the pre-season auctions. It was through these auctions that greats like Bipin Singh Raj, W. Arundas, and Jubraj Yadav were first discovered. The trio became the first three Indian players to also be drafted into the NBA, and later opened the doors for the likes of Om Rajendran and Jaipal Singh. By the time young Kaif Azam was bought by Kochi, professional basketball was thriving in India and even the fringe players on each roster were earning comfortably and didn't need to take part in smaller tournaments across the country. But since the IBA shut down from January-July, many of these players showed up for historically popular championships like Mastan or Ramu Memorial anyways.
Azam and Rajendran had been teammates in Kochi for the last four years, and Azam knew that, with Rajendran's pending retirement, this would be their last run together. He vowed that he would help the veteran go out in style after lifting their second IBA championship. So far, the season had gone to plan. Kochi finished the regular season with a 23-9 record to lead the Southern Conference and also win home court advantage through the playoffs. Azam was also named IBA MVP for the third time in his young career. The Kayals played against the aging Chennai side in the First Round, and dismissed them fairly easily with a 4-1 victory, thus putting an end to the careers of former superstars W. Arundas and Jubraj Yadav. In the Conference Finals, they came up against a strong Bangalore Leapers squad, known for their gritty defense and unselfish play on the offensive end. While the two sides seemed evenly matched before the series, Kochi relied on a magnificent performance by their MVP Azam - who averaged 28 points and 13 rebounds in the series - to sweep Bangalore 4-0.
While Kochi celebrated, Kayals' coach D. Bhavithira had cause for concern. The team relied too much on Azam, and while the big man had delivered so far, he knew that a bruising battle against the Northern Conference bigs would serve as a problem in the Final. He was particularly concerned about Ludhiana's Debanshu Chaudhary, an undersized but powerful Center who had given Azam problems in the past during the regular season. As Bhavithira waited, he secretly rooted for the smaller, older Delhi team to make a return into the IBA Finals and present Kochi with a more favourable matchup.
Delhi Dashers were the reigning IBA champions, featuring a team of several experienced stars and led by the league's most respected Coach Ravi Anand. The Dashers played a brand of exciting, selfless basketball, sharing the ball perfectly to create fast-paced offense. Delhi also formed one of the core Television markets for the IBA, and were amongst three other teams - Mumbai, Chennai, and Ludhiana - to have the highest national viewership whenever their games were broadcast live on ESPN/Star. Thanks to Azam, the small-market Kochi were creeping up the ratings too, but even he wasn't enough to disturb the hardcore followers of the traditionally successful teams. Unfortunately for Delhi, the 2029 championship had seemed like the last hurrah, and although their aging side was still a contender in 2030, it seemed unlikely that they would have enough gas to repeat.
Plus, this was the year that Ludhiana's post-Raj rebuilding project seemed to be nearly completed. While the Kayals were wreaking havoc down south with their superstar, the Sikandars had built a deeper team with less quality but more quantity. Singh was the leader and, at the small forward position, perhaps the most complete all-round player in the league. Chaudhary was a strong post player and rebounder. And in JJ Mehta, they had the best sharp-shooter in the country. The Sikandars won 22 games in the regular season and finished at the top of their conference. They also had the best home record in the league and vowed to protect their bastion at the Guru Nanak Stadium through the post-season.
But the Northern Conference playoffs turned out to be more difficult than expected. Bottom-seeded Varanasi featured the league's leading scorer Balram Mardi. Mardi was an assassin from the mid-range, and exploded his scoring average to over 31 points per game in the First Round of the playoffs against Ludhiana. It took the best efforts of Singh on the defensive, but Varanasi was still able to stretch the series to six games before Ludhiana progressed. The Sikandars next faced old foes Delhi in the Conference Finals, but this time, they made short work of their older competitors. Ludhiana won the series 4-1 and were in the Finals again.
It was no surprise when, despite the ongoing India-Bangladesh Test Cricket series, the first segment on news on SportsCenter India was a preview of 2030 IBA Finals. Most sports fans in the country had lost interest in long-winded Test tournament, saving most of their passion and fervour for the IPL or major One-Day internationals. With the arrival and popularity of football, hockey, and basketball leagues in India, the annual calendar could now be devoted to domestic professional sports. And as more of the mainstream public was exposed to the game of basketball, the more the national media realized that the game's fast pace and exciting end-to-end action could catch on like wildfire across the country.
"It's a classic matchup of 'The Player' versus 'The Team'," the ESPN anchor announced on the eve of Game 1, "On one side we have Kaif Azam, perhaps the greatest Indian player of our time, maybe of All Time. On the other, we have the superpower from Ludhiana, who have ruled the Indian basketball landscape and boast of a more balanced team. Who do you think will have the edge here, Varun?"
While the world focused on Azam's growing legacy, Singh and the Sikandars sneaked right under their noses and stole Game 1 of the Finals in Kochi. The Sikandars played strong defense to hand the Kayals only their second loss in the postseason. The series became a back-and-forth battle from their on forth, with Kochi winning Game 2 and the team's alternating wins back in Ludhiana too. Home advantage became away advantage when Ludhiana won Game 5 in Kochi and Kochi survived game 6 with Azam's amazing game-winner in Ludhiana.
With averages of 33 points and 13 rebounds a game, Azam continued his great form from the previous series. But his opponent Chaudhary didn't back down and averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds against the MVP. On the wing, Singh wrecked havoc, posting two triple-doubles in the first five games and leading the Sikandars in both points and assists.
The Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Sports Complex was buzzing with anticipation. The 6,000-seater arena was full to the brim, and an extra 1000 had crept up to find space in the standing rafters high above. Fans from all over Kerala were here for Game 7 to watch their team try and win their second franchise title. But this time, the emotions were even stronger because of their opponents. Due to their constant success, the Ludhiana Sikandars had become into one of the most polarizing squads in the country. Fans either loved them or hated them. On this December night at the end of the 2030 calendar for Game 7 in Kochi, the stadium was filled with defeaning boos directed at the away side as Jaipal Singh, Chaudhary, Mehta and the rest of the team strutted out for their pre-game warm-up. But on one corner of the packed arena, a handful of a few hundred fans from Punjab had made their way down to Kerala, travelling with their favourite team. Even being heavily outnumbered didn't dampen their spirits: and they cheered and hooted for their basketball idols until their throats went dry.
The home side - Kayals - were still in the locker room, when Rajendran began to hear the chants.
"Azam! Azam! Azam! Azam!"
The veteran turned to the young Center and winked. "They're calling for you brother. It's your time now."
Azam barely flinched, refusing to give anyone - even his own teammates - a glimpse into his own emotion. While his heart was beating - no, thumping! - rapidly under his chest, his eyes stared blankly ahead.
"Let's go and get them," he announced.
The team huddled together and put their arms over each others' shoulders. Balu Phillip didn't get to play much, but he was the team's glue guy in the locker-room, the loudest voice on the bench, and the hyper motivator that brought them all together. "Let's say it together!" he instructed, "Onnu! Randu! Mooonu... Vijayam!"
"Azam! Azam! Azam!"
The Sikandars heard the cheers too. And they heard the boos. Neither bothered them. This was a team that had been through it all, heard everything in every arena in the country, and come out victorious. Singh brought his team together - all 12 members of them - and gave them one last pep talk. This was no time to focus on one or two stars, this was the time for all 12 to join hands and play as a team. This was the time for Singh to bring back a championship for the Sikandars.
For six games, the Sikandars had been playing man-to-man defense on Azam, forcing Debanshu Chaudhary to stick by the big man alone. Chaudhary had done an adequate job, but Azam had still had his way with the Sikandar big and tired him in the process. Before Game 7, Ludhiana's Coach Satluj Singh decided that he had one last trump card up his sleeve.
"Double-team him," the Coach instructed his team, "Triple-team him, if neccessary. Stop Azam any way you can."
And they did. From the get go, Chaudhary and power forward Pankaj Sahi surrounded Azam every time he touched the ball, and a third teammate would join him if Azam dribbled it inside. The Sikandars were daring the Kayals to rely on their outside shooters to beat them. When Azam passed out to them, many of them were left open, but the shots weren't falling. The tactic worked in the first half and Azam was forced to still do the bulk of the scoring himself. On the other end, now rejuvenated with energy, Chaudhary had the best offensive game of his series and scored 20 points to help the Sikandars take a 8 point halftime lead.
The lead began to expand further in the second half. Quietly, Singh was orchestrating the offense and keeping Kochi's perimeter players - including Rajendran - in check. Time and time again, Azam found a teammate for an open shot, and time and time again, his teammates missed.
By the last five minutes, the game was already decided. Azam had still ended with 25 points, but got little help from his supporting cast. Chaudhary and Singh led a balanced scoring output for Ludhiana, and when Coach Satluj finally substituted his two biggest names in the game's dying minutes, it was the small contingent of Ludhiana supporters whose dholak drums now drowned out all the other sounds in the arena. It wasn't traditional for fans of the opposing side to storm the court, but this was a special game and a special occasion. By the time the final buzzer went, Singh and his teammates were already dancing on the bench. The fans were standing high in the stands with them.
The final score was 85-70, and the Sikandars had won their 8th IBA championship.
History does matter, he told himself.
Game 7 was also the last game of Om Rajendran's career. As the Kayals solemnly walked back into their locker room, their manager and coaching staff greeted Rajendran with a handshake and a hug. This was no day for celebration, but his had indeed been a career worth celebrating.
Azam came in last and hugged the veteran. "Sorry I couldn't win it for you, Bhaiya," he apologized.
"Don't say sorry, brother" Rajendran smiled, "Just being a part of this time has been a winning experience. You need to look ahead at your career now, young man. Go back to the NBA, learn from the best, and then bring it back home."
"Indeed," Azam nodded.
Rajendran refused to take part in the post-game conference. Instead, he rode back home alone, unsettled with the thoughts of the loss all night, thinking about what he would do better the next time.
But there would be no 'next time', he reminded himself. This was it. This was his career. And it was over.
By the following morning, he had finally settled down and was at peace with himself. A journalist from The Hindu had been calling him all evening and Rajendran and been ignoring the call. He decided to call back and calmly answer the journalist's questions.
A morning later, fans of Kochi and Ludhiana both picked up the newspaper and smiled. Fans of Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Varanasi, Lucknow, and Bangalore smiled too. League legends like Bipin Singh Raj and W. Arundas saw the paper too, and a tear dropped down their eye. Azam, Rajendran's Kochi teammate, was happy to read the headline. And the Ludhiana players, who were still in a celebratory mood after their championship win, beamed with pride, too. Singh held the paper up to his family and friends and read the headline of Rajendran's interview out aloud.
"Retiring IBA legend : 'I leave Indian basketball in better hands than when I found it.'"
12-year-old Vatsav Sharma was watching the game recap on NDTV when his mother called out to him.
"Turn the TV off Vatsav. Have you done your homework?"
"Then stop wasting time inside! Go out and play!"
Vatsav smiled and spun the basketball between his hands. "Yes, Mummy," he replied. He wore a Mumbai jersey on his back as he dribbled the ball to the park outside.
Back inside, the IBA Finals coverage on NDTV continued. It was Om Rajendran's voice, streaming out to all the ears across the country.
"I leave Indian basketball in better hands than when I found it."