Since April 15, India's Senior Men's Basketball team probables have been at training camp at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Center in Greater Noida with Head Coach Scott Flemming. A week later - on April 22 - the women's senior team joined in too, led by Head Coach Francisco Garcia. This was the first time that India's national squads were using this facility. But these camps aren't just to give our players and our coaches a cushy spot to shoot hoops; there is serious business in progress here, the business to prepare the national squads for a busy calender of basketball ahead.
I got a chance to visit the national camp earlier today, speak to both the foreign Head Coaches, interact with some of India's top national team players, and also witness some of the training sessions.
On this day, the Men's squad practiced first. Unlike the Women's side - whose next assured major tournament won't be until the Asian Games in September - the Men have several more urgent matters on their schedule. In a few weeks, they will be heading to Kathmandu (Nepal) to take part in the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) Basketball Championship, where they will face other South Asian squads such as Nepal, Bangladesh, or Bhutan. Afghanistan, who have pumped their national team with Afghan-Americans, are usually India's closest challenger in these tournaments, but Coach Scott Flemming wasn't sure if they would be participating this year. Victory in the SABA Championship (which is almost assured) will help India qualify for the Asia Cup, set to be held in Wuhan (China) in Mid-July. Sometime in August, the national team might head to Dubai for a top level Asian invitational basketball tournament. And finally in September, they will shift their attention to the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon (South Korea).
Very early in our conversation, Flemming makes sure to mention that, above all the cultural and professional differences that an American faces when working in India, his salvation is found easily on the court. "I love my players and my coaches here," he says, "And I have always loved practice." He has been in India a year and a half now since his appointment, prior to which he was an assistant coach of the NBDL side Texas Legends.
The last time Flemming worked with the national team was when he guided India to a memorable gold medal win at the Lusofonia Games in Goa in January. Flemming recalled the victory fondly, saying that he was amazed to see over 4,000 fans in the stadium in final against Angola chanting 'In-dia!" "In-dia!'. "It was like an NBA home court advantage," Flemming said, "For our players, it was great to have that support at home that basketball doesn't usually get."
The Lusofonia Games triumph also showcased India's improving confidence against top sides, and their ability to finish off close games. Flemming told me that the team had learnt a lot from the tragic, close losses to Bahrain and Japan last August at the FIBA Asia Championship and were able to withstand the pressure against their challengers in the Lusofonia Games.
"Another thing that we've been working on are proper offensive systems and sets. I want to give my players freedom from time to time on offense, but it has to be within the structure."
Flemming also added that a lot of the current camp's focus is on individual player development to help the veterans of the Indian squad keep improving. He is also looking to continue bringing a younger crop of players to give them exposure - currently he said that there were "four of five" first-timers with the senior team in the national camp.
Flemming noted that players like Amjyot Singh, Amrit Pal Singh, and Joginder Singh had all made major improvements to their game since his arrival, while veterans such as Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Yadwinder Singh have continued to be match-winners and an important part of the squad. When asked about 7-foot teenage phenom Satnam Singh Bhamara who is currently playing at the IMG Acadmey in Florida, Flemming made it clear that the team couldn't count on his return for this summer's events. "He has had several injuries and is now recovering," said Flemming, "It is probably better for him to focus on his conditioning over in Florida for now."
But Flemming believes that, while India can continue making baby steps in improvement at the Asian level in the next few years, a major ruling will always hold them back from take a giant leap forward. That ruling is of the naturalization of foreign players. Most Asian teams have at least one player - usually their best player - who has little to no connection to that country at all. FIBA allows every team to have only one naturalized foreign player on their roster, a rule that is stretched and abused liberally by most squads. India, however, doesn't allow naturalization: to become an Indian citizen (and thus be a naturalized player for India), one has to surrender their foreign passport, unlike other countries. India doesn't allow dual citizenship. It is this dilemma that has kept a number of talented Non-Resident Indian (NRI) talents who have played a high-level of basketball in North America or elsewhere from committing to the Indian national team.
Inderbir Gill or Varun Ram, who have expressed their desire or passion to play for India, but it is tough to expect them to denounce their foreign passports. Almost every other Asian country however has at least one foreigner. Really, all I wish for is a level-playing field. Either no team should be allowed to have naturalized players, or at some point in the future, we are allowed to at least feature a few players of Indian-origin in the Indian roster. For us to make a big jump forward, this has to be a part of it."
I also briefly spoke to Bhriguvanshi, Yadwinder, Amjyot, Amrit Pal, Joginder, and Pratham Singh, all of whom were in praise of the coach and were eager to embody the philosophy of team first. "We are all starters," Yadwinder said, "Ask any of the players in the camp and they are all good enough to start for India."
Among themselves, the players noted that Amjyot had probably improved the most, while Joginder had also become a key cog in the squad.
"Previously, there was a lot more individual play in the team," said Amjyot, "I think the team is very unselfish now."
India's Women's side has a little longer to go, a little more time to prepare, and a little more uncertainty while they wait for the next international challenge. Their big tournament is the Asian Games in Korea in September, but before that, Coach Francisco Garcia's side will have a camp at Greater Noida until May 17th, two more camps, and hopefully an exposure trip of friendly games before the tournament in September.
The Spaniard Garcia, a veteran of 20 years of coaching experience in Spain, Denmark, and Finland, was appointed India's Women's Head Coach about 10 months ago. Since then, he helped lead India to a best-ever fifth-place finish at the FIBA Asia Championship, which included a memorable overtime victory over Kazakhstan. Garcia hopes to continue the momentum looking ahead.
"The biggest challenge is to hold on to the fifth place," says Garcia, "It will not be easy because other teams like Kazakhstan or Malaysia are right on our toes. Unfortunately, the top four of Women's basketball in Asia - China, Japan, Chinese Taipei, and Korea - is quite set. I think we need a proper professional league in India so that our girls can get the exposure and talent to play at the high level if we are to challenge any of those teams."
Currently, several of the more recognizable faces of the Indian women's squad, such as Geethu Anna Jose, Anitha Paul Durai, Prashanti Singh, Akanksha Singh, Raspreet Sidhu, Poojamol KS, Jeena PS, and more hadn't arrived at the camp yet for various reasons. Garcia confirmed that all of them - with the exception of Anitha who will not be playing this year due to personal reasons - will be coming into camp over the next few weeks. A total of 17 girls are expected.
Like Flemming's Men's squad, Garcia is also focusing on improvement at two levels for the women: defense, and more organized offense.
One of the other challenges that Garcia's team will face ahead is moving on forward as the skills and fitness of Geethu Anna Jose - the greatest player of this generation in India - start to fade. For a decade (or more), Jose had dominated Indian basketball, been a force at the Asian level too, played professionally in Australia and Thailand, and even earned trials with three WNBA teams. Jose was not at her best for India at the recent FIBA Asia Championship, but was still a force in the post at crucial moments and played a part in India's fifth-place finish. But overall, for the first time in the 'Jose era', the team didn't need her to put up monster numbers in each game, and instead, the offense was more divided than it has ever been in recent years.
"A good team has to have balance on both the inside and outside," Garcia says, "Geethu wasn't in the best shape at the championship but she still helped us a lot. After she leaves the team, we'll have a major gap in the middle and will need to find another player who can dominate the paint. But in other areas, I think that the team has enough talent."
After practice, both teams headed out for their afternoon break, and both would return for more in the evening. It's a grueling schedule to get the best of all the players involved in the national system and to make sure that both teams maintain or improve their current standings at the international level.