October 9, 2013

Naturalization in Basketball: Is India getting left behind?

Indian basketball is on a steady rise. The national team scored a tiny improvement - from 14th to 11th at the recent FIBA Asia Championship and there is cautious optimism about the young crop of talents that could help raise the level of the game in the future.

But there seems to be one major issue troubling Team India: all players in the Indian national team are Indians.

Don't be confounded. India is amongst the very small handful of regulars competing for Asia's most prestigious basketball trophy that doesn't have a single foreign naturalized player on their roster. At the FIBA Asia Championship in Manila, Philippines in August, Indian defense stumbled against names like Jerry Johnson of Kazakhstan, Gregory Stevenson (aka Moon Tae-Young) of Korea, JR Henderson (aka JR Sakuragi) of Japan, and CJ Giles of Bahrain.

FIBA rules allow every team to have only one naturalized foreign player on their roster, if the player had been naturalized after the age of 16. Once a player plays for a country in an official FIBA competition after the age of 18, he or she cannot play for anyone else.

This ruling has given the opportunity to several talented, mostly American players, who struggle to find roster slots in the NBA (much less have a shot at USA's stacked national team) to make their senior international debuts with foreign squads. From research done by HoopsHype, when all Men's FIBA competitions in advance of next year's World Cup come to an end in September, 66 players born in the United States could have potentially represented 37 different countries.

In the past, the USA have also boasted of several high-profile cases of naturalized foreign players that boosted their national team. Legends like Patrick Ewing (Jamaica), Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria), and Tim Duncan (US Virgin Islands) all naturalized to play for America. Young All Star Kyrie Irving has dual citizenship of Australia and USA, and has already made it clear that when his number is called, he will be playing for the latter.

There are several high-profile cases of naturalized players in Europe, too. One of the most famous is American turned Russian JR Holden. Holden may have never played in the NBA, but the 37-year old enjoyed a legendary career in the European leagues. He was awarded Russian citizenship by Vladimir Putin in 2003, led Russia to the gold medal at the 2007 EuroBasket, and was part of Russia's 2008 Olympic squad, too.

Congo's Serge Ibaka was granted Spanish citizenship in 2011 after living in Spain for a few years, and is now part of their stacked frontcourt. American Chris Kaman acquired German citizenship in 2008, since his great-grandparents were German, and has represented the German national team since the 2008 Olympics.

Closer to home in Asia, the plethora of naturalized stars playing for the various national teams became a key factor in the FIBA Asia meet. Most teams have one, and it's always an interesting story. Former UCLA forward JR Henderson played professionally in Japan since 2001 and applied for Japanese citizenship in 2007. To comply with Japanese naturalization requirements, Sakuragi taught himself to read, speak and write Japanese at a "rudimentary level". He chose the name 'Sakuragi' which translates to 'cherry blossom tree', but is also the name of a character on the popular Japanese manga series Slam Dunk.

At the FIBA Championship, the Philippines featured big man Marcus Douthit, Jordan had Jimmy Baxter, Chinese Taipei fielded Quincy Davis, Lebanon featured Loren Woods, Kazakhstan had Jerry Johnson, and Korea gave the slot to Korean-American Gregory Stevenson, who became Moon Tae-Young. CJ Giles played professionally in the Philippines, Lebanon, and Iraq, before finally settling in with Bahrain and joining their national squad. Former NBA journeyman Jarvis Hayes finds himself a citizen of Qatar, and has become one of the stars of their national team. Qatar have faced controversies in naturalization before: At the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, they were disqualified from the tournament when five of their players were found ineligible without proper citizenship documentation.

Then there are some high-profile cases from the weirder side of things. Word is that Knicks F/C Amar'e Stoudemire, who has Hebrew roots from the mother's side of his family, is applying for Israeli citizenship and has been invited to play for their national team by President Simone Peres. Stoudemire is currently a part-owner of Israeli pro club Hapoel Jerusalem. Meanwhile, basketball's greatest underdog-turned-star, Jeremy Lin, sparked interest by both Chinese Taipei (where his parents are from) and China (where his grandparents are from). He was offered Taiwanese citizenship to play for the national squad. But if he does so, unlike the other countries mentioned above, he would have to first renounce his current, American citizenship, and then re-apply for it again. For now, the 25-year-old seems to have not given up on the American dream.

There are some significant exceptions to the trend. Two of the best teams in Asia: Iran (the winners of the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship) and China haven't needed naturalized talents to dominate basketball in the continent. China have a long history of basketball fanaticism and are always able to find decent talents amongst their 1.4 billion population. Iran have won the FIBA ABC three out of the last four times, and are riding high in the era of dominating big man Hamed Hadaddi. Without naturalization, both these countries have shown ways of remaining relevant and successful in Asian hoops.

Which brings us back around to good ol' Hindustan, the other naysayer refusing to take advantage of FIBA's naturalization rule. Like Taiwan, to become an Indian citizen, one has to surrender their foreign passport, but unlike Taiwan, one cannot apply for it again. India doesn't allow dual-citizenship. The rules for becoming an Indian citizen state that the foreigner must either have Indian descent, or if they don't, marry an Indian, and/or reside in India for about a dozen years. For those that don't wish to give up their foreign passports, the best that they can hope for is to become an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI), but it means that they cannot vote, run for office, and will not receive an Indian Passport. And - and here is the part that concerns us - they can't represent Indian national teams in any sports.

Over the years, a number of extremely talented Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) have expressed an interest and desire to return to India and get a shot at the national team. These include former Canadian College player of the year Inderbir Gill, former Houston-Baptist player Timir Patel, and Australian-Israeli-Indian player (and former NBA India employee) Eban Hyams.

There are a whole host of Indian-origin players - past and present - who have played NCAA Division 1 basketball. If they weren't asked to surrender their US or Canadian passports, there would be no doubt that a handful of them would love to continue their basketball journey in India and help the national team against Asia's finest.

Scott Flemming, the American Head Coach of India's national Men's squad who had the front row seat as India played against other Asians (and naturalized Asians) at the FIBA Championship, seems to think so too. In a recent interview, he is quoted to have said, "On the international level, if the Indian government would loosen the rules allowing top players of Indian descent that do not have a passport to participate in our national teams, we could be much more competitive. I witnessed the majority of the other countries allowing such players to participate on their teams at the Asia Basketball Championship. In addition to that, most of them had “naturalized” players who were primarily from the United States. Right now, this causes a significant disadvantage."

So is India clearly getting left behind, or is there a long-term advantage in importing foreigners into the Indian roster?

If there is one major drawback to the naturalization trend, it is that in many cases, the talented foreign (mostly American) players become more than the system itself. They are expected to produce big numbers and dominate on both ends of the floor. Their presence might win, say, two more games at a FIBA Asia tournament, but in the process, they can hinder the development of the domestic talent. It is a delicate balance in finding an NRI - or other - to play for India; he may help the progress of the team, but in the process, he may hurt the progress of his teammates. Having a professional-quality player can bring positive energy into practice and help raise the training and preparation of Indian teams to international standards, but isn't that what a foreign coach is already there for?

The slow progress of basketball in India is definitely a concern. Fans have waited long enough for local talent to develop (without outside boosts), and yet, that talent continues to produce similar results in international tournaments. Without that outside boost, we may never see a stark improvement. Or maybe the answer lies in finally launching a domestic basketball league that will help young Indians see a clear future in basketball, bring more professionalism in the sport, and help Indian scouts find and train players and take advantage of the billion-plus population the same way that China has.

For now, the debate rages on. This is a government matter, beyond just the world of sport, and it seems unlikely anytime soon that India will allow dual-citizenship the same way that other nations do. Until that day, we have to wait for home-grown talent to keep progressing, and maybe in the process, we will finally find a diamond or two in the massive Indian haystack.

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