May 16, 2014

Powering Forward: Foreign Coaches playing for the present and planning for the future of Indian Basketball

This article was first published in my column on Ekalavyas on May 6, 2014. You can find the original post here. 

Indian Women’s Head Coach Francisco Garcia at work with his team during training camp Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Center in Greater Noida.

“Vamos! Vamos! Vamos!” Coach Francisco Garcia energetically roared at the young Indian women on court, “Go! Go! Go!”

Garcia – a Spaniard – admits the occasional language gap from his mother tongue to English to Hindi or any of the other regional languages like Marathi, Tamil, or Malayalam that the girls in his team spoke. And the girls admit that, particularly in the heat of the moment, their Head Coach for the past 10 months reverted back to instructions in Spanish.

Everyone understands “Vamos!” though. Come on. Let’s Go. Forward. Aagey Chalo.

Looking forward has become the mantra for basketball in India. Garcia, and his associate Scott Flemming who is the head coach of India’s Men’s National Basketball team, were appointed between a year and a year-and-a-half ago for the first big challenges of leading India to FIBA Asia’s Women’s and Men’s Championships. They’ve stuck around since, and as both coaches reach the end of their first contracts, their eyes seem to be as much at the present of Indian Basketball – the next few international tournaments – as they are on the future.

I caught both the national team coaches and the senior men and women squads in practice recently, as they were in camp to prepare for future international tournaments at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Center in Greater Noida. This was the first time that the coaches were formally interacting with their senior squads since India’s inspired performances at the Lusofonia Games in Goa back in January. Being at the great new facility and the success of the recent past seemed to have inspired the coaches to think more optimistically than ever. And amidst their practices, they both conveyed a sense of long-term planning and preparation to ensure that India remains on the path to becoming a basketball power even after their time in the country.

The responsibility of being ‘Head Coach’ in India extends far beyond the 12 men or women in the national team or the 20 or so probables that arrive in camp; both Flemming and Garcia have been working to instill a system of coaching, training, and selection junior players from a young age so that they are better prepared for the senior level as they grow older. Both of them have also spent a considerable amount of their time in India coaching other coaches to make sure their system and philosophies are passed on.

For Flemming, his senior team assistant coaches have been instilling his tactics in the Men’s Under-18 and Under-16 teams for India.

Meanwhile, the Senior Men’s team has a big year ahead. In a few weeks, they will be heading to Kathmandu (Nepal) to take part in the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) Basketball Championship. Victory there 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).

“We’ll be together all summer long,” said Flemming.

“I love my players and my coaches,” he added, “It feels great to be able to help young men improve on and off the court. I feel that I’m here with a bigger purpose than to just coach the game. I’m here to make a difference in their lives.”

One of his fondest moments so far in the country was his team’s gold medal victory at the Lusofonia Games against Angola. Flemming said 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," he said, "For our players, it was great to have that support at home that basketball doesn't usually get." Flemming wants to ensure that moments like those keep coming to India’s top basketball players and fans of the team.

To do that, he will have to provide continuity for the national team like never before. “I was hired to be here long-term,” he said, “No American basketball head coach has been able to stay in India for over one year. I am nearing the end of my second year now. I might stay longer, but will probably know my future plans clearer sometime over the next month. In any case, I know that I always want to remain connected with Indian basketball.”

Women’s coach Francisco Garcia admitted to being a little hazier on his individual future plans, but his preparations for the future of his team seemed to be very much on track. “My contract expires at the end of June,” Garcia says, “We will see what happens after that.”

If he stays the course, Garcia will oversee two more Women’s national camps, lead the team for an international exposure games trip at some point, and then head out to the Asian Games in Incheon, Korea, in September.

Garcia spoke to me last week about looking ahead to an Indian team beyond the talents of the great Geethu Anna Jose, who has been one of the most dominant players in the continent over the past decade. As she has gotten older, Garcia is aware that the youth will have to eventually step up to take her place. 

“The younger players in the system have already shown a lot of improvement,” said Garcia, who had played mostly an under-23 squad at the Lusofonia Games. Recently, in the delay before some of the veterans had showed up to the India camp, he claimed that the youngsters had continuing to impress him, “After [Jose] 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.”

Jose has been an anomaly to basketball in India, a player so talented that nobody has even come close to match her production ever in women’s basketball. For a decade (or more), Jose was 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 important 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.

So do we have the talent to make up for her eventual swan song from the game?

“India definitely has the talent [after Jose],” Garcia said, “But we have to work at honing that talent. We must build a system where we can train these players at a younger age. There are other young players now like Kavita Akula, Poojamol KS, or Jeena PS who all have the potential to become good enough to play in foreign professional leagues and have a good career.”

Since Garcia took over, the Women’s side finished at a best-ever fifth place at the FIBA Asia Championship for Women and won bronze at the Lusofonia Games. Meanwhile, Flemming’s Men’s team has improved their FIBA Asia finish from 14th to 11th (and they were two close losses away from perhaps finishing a couple of spots higher) and won gold at the Lusofonia Games. Both coaches have taken a deep role in the development of youth players and Indian coaches.

But both Flemming and Garcia know that, for India to truly get a bigger boost forward, a professional basketball league could be the game-changer.

“When the league finally happens, our best players will have a platform to shine on and to play regularly, at least for those few months every year,” said Flemming, “Theoretically, there will also be good coaches to guide them and the players will also stay in shape around the year. Hopefully, the players wouldn’t need to take part in the smaller invitational tournaments.”

“Moreover, the league might even allow NRIs to play at a competitive level in India,” Flemming added, “That is the dream for many of the star Indian-origin players in other parts of the world right now.”

“A proper league would make the players practice and compete continuously,” said Garcia, “It would help our players a lot, and especially if he can have them learn to play among talented import players.”

Despite India’s billion-plus population, sports – not named cricket – have usually taken a back seat, and basketball like many other sports has unfortunately overseen year after year of unfulfilled potential among Indian talents. Things are improving though, but everyone involved with the game in the country knows that the improvement won’t be an overnight miracle; we have to be patient with the baby steps out of the cellar.

And the Coaches at the helm – Flemming and Garcia – who are both on track for the longest tenures of any foreign senior basketball head coaches in India yet, understand the importance of keeping an eye out at the future. Whether they stay long term with the teams or not, we hope that they can leave a working system behind that continues to identity and train talents from an earlier age, prepare the coaches with the right coaching tactics and philosophies, and eventually, turn some of those baby steps to improvement into giant strides forward. 

So, all together now, Aagey Chalo. Vamos.

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