February 24, 2014

The Indian Lob Pass: How Basketball is becoming an unlikely bridge to India

I wrote this article originally for the India Abroad Magazine and it was first published in their February 14, 2014 edition.

There is no shortage of basketball courts in India. There are courts in high schools, in colleges, in private and public clubs, at YMCAs, at government facilities, and even in some backyards. There are courts in the middle of the mountains and courts by the beach. There are some indoor courts, but mostly, there cement outdoor courts. There are courts that have hosted international basketball tournaments and courts that host parking lots.

The trouble is, there just aren’t that many dedicated players to fill these courts. As a sport that isn’t the government’s top athletic priority, basketball loses almost as many serious players as it attracts. Most quit the game to join that mysterious rat-race called ‘real life’ turning to academics or other sure-shot careers. Many are bullied off the floor by the rabid and overpopulated cricketers, who turn every nook, cranny, gullie, rooftop and basketball court into a cricket pitch. Soon, the sounds of bouncing rubber basketballs are replaced by sounds of willow on cork and leather. And many of those basketball courts go under-used, misused, or simply, unused.

This is something that a man called Vivek Ranadive – born in Mumbai but residing in California – would desperately like to change. Last year, Ranadive, a software entrepreneur and CEO of the billion-dollar company TIBCO, became the first-ever Indian majority-owner of an NBA team when he purchased the Sacramento Kings. As a bidder for the Kings, Ranadive had a very clear vision for basketball: to make it the world’s biggest sport, and to start with his homeland in India, where he believed that the sport is simple enough to spread like wildfire.

"Cricket will always be the national pastime in India," Ranadive said in an interview with NBA.com’s Jared Greenberg, “But if basketball can be a strong second, I think it will be an important step towards my vision of NBA 3.0, making basketball the premier sport of the 21st century. It's already become the fastest-growing sport in India… It's the kind of sport that can be played in a poor country like India; it can be played by one person, by a few people, by boys, by girls, in villages, in cities, you don't need a lot of space for it like you do for cricket. So I fully expect it to be very very popular.”

Within just the first few months of his Kings’ takeover, Ranadive has turned words into action. He has already professed his dream of making the Kings the first NBA team to play an exhibition game in India. The team then went ahead and signed a deal with Indian real-estate company the Krrish Group. Furthermore, the Kings made it clear that they will be announcing several more partnerships with India in the near future.

Meanwhile, back in Sacramento, the first home game for the Kings this season was a celebration for the city in succeeding to team the team in its home since 1985. On the historic night, the franchise also ensured their commitment to reach out to a whole new fanbase. From part-owner Shaquille O’Neal playing cricket to a festival of Bollywood flavours across the arena, the Kings started strong on their promise of becoming “India’s home team”. The Kings also become the NBA’s first-ever team to launch a Hindi website.

Ranadive understands that, to truly capture the imagination of Indian fans, his team has to play exciting and meaningful games on the court, first. Over the last year, there has been a massive increase of live NBA games broadcast back in India, many of which are Kings’ games. Ranadive is also banking on his star player DeMarcus Cousins to become a dominant and popular force, at his adopted home, as well as his homeland.

Other teams in the NBA have followed on a parallel thought-process as Ranadive and correctly identified India and the Indian community as the next market to target for their basketball product, after the success that the game has enjoyed with the other billion-plus population, China. Unlike China, India doesn’t have the same market for the game, a functioning league, or a Yao Ming like home-grown star yet. What they do have is the largest young population in the world. Before he was with the Kings, Ranadive attempted to tap to the Indian audience by hosting ‘Bollywood Nights’ as a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors. Meanwhile in Orlando, the Indian-American Chamber of Commerce have been organizing ‘India Day’ for the past two years for the Orlando Magic. Both events have featured colourful aspects of Indian culture tied in with the NBA.

The NBA has had their eyes on India for a while now. League representatives have been in the country for several years already, holding grassroots events and programmes to raise awareness about basketball and even playing host to dozens of current and former NBA stars that have started to add the country in their travel itineraries. NBA India opened their first office in the country in Mumbai a few years ago, and the league’s iconic former Commissioner – David Stern – made his first visit to India for a charity programme last year. Even after stepping down, Stern is likely to invest time supporting India’s Reliance Foundation to grow the Jr. NBA programme to reach hundreds of thousands of kids in the country.

The onus will now be on Adam Silver, Stern’s successor as NBA Commissioner, to turn the league's ambitions in India into a basketball revolution.

Working from the ground up to construct this revolution have been two very visible faces for NBA India: their Senior Director of Development and Indian-American Akash Jain, and NBA’s Worldwide Senior Director of Basketball Operations Troy Justice.

Unlike some other foreign sports and sporting leagues trying to breakthrough to the Indian market, the NBA has a distinct advantage: India already has a functioning system and culture of organized basketball that goes back almost 80 years.

The Basketball Federation of India (BFI), the governing and controlling body of basketball in the country, was launched in 1950 and has since been the backbone of sport in the country, conducting and associating with national, state, and district level tournaments every year and forming India’s international basketball squads. But it took about six decades of existence before the BFI took their biggest step forward: a sponsoring relationship with the American sports/events management company IMG Worldwide and one of India’s largest conglomerate companies, Reliance, in 2010. Aside from various promotional deals, BFI and IMG-Reliance have also invested in school and college level basketball leagues in India, and made promises of India’s first-ever professional basketball league in the future.

IMG hired Bobby Sharma, an Indian-American who formerly served as the Senior VP of the NBA’s Development League, to take the SVP position for IMG’s global basketball and strategic initiatives. Sharma helped steer IMG’s relationship with Reliance and the BFI in India as he joined the growing list of individuals further strengthening the basketball bridge between India and the States.

The Indian basketball dream is to see the country get more competitive at the international level, make the sport a bigger of the culture and activity among Indians – both recreationally and professionally – and of course, see Indian individuals develop into some the world’s finest players. But before that game-changing player comes around, India will need game-changing coaching.

IMG-Reliance have aggressively sought out interested American and international coaches to bring their expertise to Indian national squads. Over the past four years, former Wheaton College Coach Bill Harris, former WNBA player Tamika Raymond, former NBA Head Coach Kenny Natt, and former Duke University Assistant Pete Gaudet all came to India for short-term coaching tenures, working with the senior teams, young players, as well as other Indian coaches.

Currently, former NBDL Coach Scott Flemming and experienced Spanish Coach Francisco Garcia are working with the Men’s and Women’s team respectively, and both have overseen serious improvement for the national sides. IMG-Reliance also hired American Strength & Conditioning Coach Zak Penwell to be the first such trainer of his expertise ever in India.

From the NBA to IMG and everywhere else in between, all these individuals are weaving together a complex bond of basketball between India and the West, between expertise and potential, between the country where basketball was invented and the country that could be a major player in the game’s future.

For India, that future means more national team success, a functioning and popular pro league, and more interest in the sport on the grassroots level. Perhaps then, all those misused basketball courts could finally be utilized, and India could follow up with the infrastructure to support its world-class ambitions.

Basketball is a team game, where the different individuals on court offer different specialities and skills but merge together as one to accomplish the same goal. The goal in India is to realize the country’s promise as a consumer and a lover of game, and with each passing day, there are more players joining the team to make that promise come true.

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