January 15, 2014

Homecoming: Inderbir Gill brings his basketball knowledge back to India

While India is yet to produce a world-class basketball talent, there have been several Indian-origin players who have had some measure of success in foreign leagues or with colleges. And in many cases, a number of these players have expressed the desire to look to the country of their origin and contribute to the game. Of course, India has more complex rulings about the naturalization of foreign players, and so many of the playing dreams have been incomplete.

Inderbir Gill, who was born in Punjab and immigrated to the USA at age 11 and went on to become a basketball star Northern University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), had those dreams, too. In 2011, Gill was named the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association (CCAA) Player of the Year. A few months later, he spoke to me about his intentions to returns to his parents' homeland.

"I am a proud Indian and to represent India and to wear India’s basketball jersey would be the greatest honour for me," Gill said, "Basketball is on the rise in India and it would be great to be a part of it."

That vision didn't materialize, but Gill has found another way of contributing to the growth of Indian hoops over the past few months.

Gill is currently holding an internship position with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), working with India's national coaches on the field and travelling across the country - from Chhattisgarh to Delhi to Gujarat - to track and train young talent. He has been in India since November and his internship - part of the Masters degree in Athletics Leadership that he is currently pursuing with the University of Washington - will stretch out till April.

Gill has worked primarily with India's two foreign national team coaches, Scott Flemming (Men) and Francisco Garcia (Women). He travelled with Garcia, Strength and Conditioning Coach Zak Penwell, and Assistant and former player Divya Singh to hold a basketball camp in Bhilai (Chhattisgarh) starting late November 2013, where he helped train over 50 players from the ages of 6-20. He worked with India's national-level under-14 boys and girls at a camp in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, along with Coach Scott Flemming. And he was also at the Federation Cup in Ahmedabad a couple of weeks ago, watching over India's top talent.

"My schedule has been pleasantly hectic with travels to several camps in the time that I have been here," Gill said, "The best part of my trip has been meeting all the players, the coaches, and the support staff. There is a lot of talent here that just needs the right support and teaching to flourish. It feels great to be contributing towards the future of this game and towards skills development and future of these young talented players."

Gill has been in the unique position to learn from two great coaching minds while teaching to other coaches and young players at the same time. "I have learned a lot from both of the coaches [Flemming and Garcia] in my short time so far. I have not yet had the time to fully reflect on all of the experiences, but that will hopefully happen by the end of the internship! They have differing styles, of course: Coach Flemming's style is American, while Coach Garcia's style is European. The styles reflect somewhat different philosophies but both coaches have been very successful. Despite the differences, they both emphasize the importance of basketball fundamentals and paying attention to detail during the plays."

Gill was born in 1987 in the city of Hoshiarpur in North Punjab. He still has family near Jalandhar. In 1998, when he was just 11 years old, Gill's family left India and immigrated to the United States. They settled in the city of Spokane in Washington State in 2000. It was here that he was first introduced to basketball and the hoops journey took off: Gill used his quickness and natural instincts to master the game and was soon selected for his high school basketball team. From there on, the 6-foot point guard got better every year, leading eventually to his starring years at UNBC.

In UNBC, he was a perfect fit, leading the team to their best-ever finish at the National Tournament in his first season (4th), and being named in the BCCAA first team all star. A year later came the glory - UNBC went 17-1 over the course of the season, finishing at the top of the conference table. Gill was named the CCAA Male Athlete of the Year across all sports, but saved his best for the CCAA National Tournament. Behind 32 points and 6 assists by Gill, UNBC won the CCAA National Championship, and Gill was named the tournament's MVP. A year later, the CCAA recognised him as Player of the Year.

Gill only returned to India twice after immigrating, but this internship has rekindled that long-lost relationship with the country of his birth.

"It's been a lot of fun for me," he says, "I have enjoyed working with the kids: they really want to learn and put in a lot of hours in improving their game."

But India - as we all know - still has a long way to go.

"The camp in Chhattisgarh was a great platform for the players to show their skills and learn. I feel that the players really worked hard but lacked resources, such as proper training facility (the court was too slippery and dangerous to play on), shoes, and basketballs. They spent a great deal of the day (about 6-8 hours) practicing, which I felt is too long for practices and not appropriately utilized. We encouraged them to pay attention to details and to the basketball fundamentals."

"The most shocking and surprising thing for me has been how slow things progress in India," he added, "It is frustrating to see how laziness is delaying the progress of basketball."

"If I could change a few things about basketball in India, I would create an academy where all the national players can practice and be coached all year around. It is evident that our players don't get enough training from experienced or highly qualified coaches which is impeding their success and the growth of basketball in this country."

Gill has his own coaching ambitions of course, and perhaps, even after his internship ends, he will continue to have an eye on progress in India.

"I hope to learn as much as I can about the game of basketball, about the operations of sports, about leadership, and about coaching this amazing game. I have a deep passion for basketball and for working with young players and contributing to their skills development," Gill said. "Being born and raised in India, I do feel a need to give back to this wonderful country and contribute to its development. Sports not only brings people from diverse backgrounds together but also provides a platform for individuals to improve as humans beings and learn the skills of hard work, motivation, working towards a unified goal, and team work--to name a few. Additionally, with our nation's youth being misguided by drugs and lack of activity, sports is a great way to keep the mind, the body, and the society a healthier place."

Gill's story and current involvement with the game is encouraging on various levels. It is great that young basketball players see someone who spent over a decade of his life growing up and India, discovered the game late, and was able to capitalize on the opportunities he received abroad to have a stellar college career. Gill is proof that other Indians can excel in basketball too if they put in the hard work and if India can provide them similar opportunities to the ones he received.

His internship with the BFI will also be an example to others who want to give back to the game in India. Basketball in India is still in its relative infancy, and it can use all the help it can get.

Gill has been truthful about the problems that plague the system, but he was also clear that "the basketball makes up for everything." More importantly, he sees real potential in the future.

"Yes, there is a lot of potential in the young players," he said, "I was impressed with the enthusiasm of the under 14 camp participants and their determination to improve. But, it is important that they keep working hard, and are focused on being properly trained."

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