August 21, 2014

Great Leap Forward

Last month, American coach Scott Flemming inspired India to their biggest-ever victory. Could this be the game-changing moment for basketball in the country, asks Karan Madhok

This article was first published in Tehelka Magazine (Issue 33, Volume 11) in the magazine's August 16, 2014 edition. Here is another look at the feature.

Coming of age: Indian players celebrate their Asia Cup victory over China in Wuhan. Photo: Karan Madhok for

When the buzzer rang to signify the game’s end, all 12 members of the Indian men’s basketball team — affectionately nicknamed the Young Cagers — jumped into each other’s arms, celebrating together with glee rarely felt in the country’s basketball scene before.

For the first time in India’s seven-decade- long basketball history, they had done the impossible, defeating China 65- 58 last month in Wuhan, the most populous city in central China. The Chinese are the Goliaths of Asian basketball and among the top dozen teams in the world. India, placed 61st in the Federation Internationale de Basketball (FIBA) rankings, shocked the home crowd during the 5th FIBA Asia Cup, a biennial tournament featuring the continent’s top teams. Two years ago, the Indians were at the bottom of the pile, while China usually finish at the top more often than any other side. But on 13 July, the tables were turned.

While India’s heroes celebrated the stunning win on the court, the mastermind behind this improbable victory watched in silence from the sidelines, calmly soaking in the once-in-a-lifetime moment for him and his team.

In 2012, American Scott Flemming became the latest in the line of foreign coaches hired to make the most of India’s untapped potential. Two years later, he finally saw the fruits of his labours. India didn’t just defeat China, they became the breakout story of the tournament, as they gave headaches to top Asian teams such as Iran and the Philippines.

“I think we have proved that we belong,” said Flemming, 56, as he looked back at the team’s improved performances. “I don’t think there is anybody here that we feel we can’t beat. We have gotten past that point where we thought we had very little chance of winning. Those days are long gone. Now, we are going into every game knowing that we have an opportunity. It is a new day for India.”

But was this performance just a fluke in India’s otherwise dismal history?

The first national basketball championship was held in New Delhi in 1934 and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), the game’s governing body in the country, was formed in 1950. Fifteen years later, the men’s team first took part in the FIBA Asia Championship — the highest platform for the game in the continent. Their best finish in the tournament was fourth place in 1975, and they have never reached those heights again. In 1980, as many countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics at the height of the Cold War, India made their first and only Olympic basketball appearance, but lost all seven of their games by an average margin of over 48 points each.

Game-changer Coach Scott Flemming. Photo:
Limited to mostly Asian tournaments over the past few decades, the Indian team had been reduced to the role of minnows against the continent’s giants, happy to compete for participation points rather than gold. India’s current FIBA world ranking sees them trail behind the likes of the Virgin Islands, Cape Verde and Georgia.

Which is why the ‘Wonder of Wuhan’ — India’s surprise victory over China last month — will be remembered in the country’s basketball history forever. Although China fielded mostly a second-string squad for this tournament, they still featured those who will play professionally in the Chinese Basketball Association, one of the continent’s top professional leagues. Truly, all the countries India faced had players who play professional basketball for a living. The only exception was India.

All of India’s finest players today, such as Amjyot Singh, Vishesh Bhrighuvanshi and Amrit Pal Singh, are semi-professionals who have other day jobs and only participate in basketball tournaments to represent their state or the government unit that they work for. India is also among the handful of teams in Asia that don’t take advantage of FIBA’s ‘naturalised player’ rule, which allows each country to field one foreign-born player ‘naturalised’ into their nation. Since India doesn’t allow dual citizenship, no foreign player has given up his/her original passport to join India’s cause. Every single member of Team India was born, bred, and learnt to dribble the basketball — for better or worse — in India.

While India managed to defeat China, the latter is miles ahead in the marathon. Basketball is China’s favourite sport and the country boasts of world-class basketball infrastructure, star players such as Yao Ming, who have featured in the NBA (the world’s top basketball league in the US), and concentrated grassroots efforts that have produced hundreds of millions of talented young players.

Meanwhile, India has an unbalanced and mostly disorganised grassroots nursing system, and sorely lacks the necessary infrastructure to support our top talents, and the team’s exploits are mostly ignored by the mainstream media.

Worst of all, internal politics within the national and state federations have stunted any real growth and there is rarely any motivation from those who are in the basketball fraternity to rise higher. Many stay content to swivel around in mediocrity.

When he first came to India, an important part of Flemming’s mission was to change this attitude. So far, he has helped India take baby steps to success. On the court, the team has vastly improved on the defensive end and takes better care of the ball on the offence. Additionally, a growing sense of team chemistry through continuity has helped produce improved results in international tournaments over the past year, such as the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship in the Philippines and the Lusofonia Games in Goa where India won gold.

Flemming succeeded fellow American Kenny Natt, a former NBA player and head coach. But with limited time and resources, Natt couldn’t provide the team the needed turnaround in his 18-month stint. In 2012, Flemming came to India with 30 years of coaching experience, mostly at top college programmes in the US. He last served as an assistant coach to the NBA’s Development League side Texas Legends.

“My mission has been to improve India’s total national team programme from the under-14 team to the senior team,” says Flemming. “This can be done only with some consistency in player development methods and installing the same system of play. I also wanted to be a coach to other coaches in the country.

“It was my goal to narrow the gap between the top teams in Asia and our Indian national team. I have really emphasised the defensive part of the game with our team. I think this is being demonstrated by our opponents’ lower field goal percentages and lower scores. Defence will always help neutralise teams with more talent.”

India’s improved performances are a perfect underdog story, but it shouldn’t be. The country has the population and enough wealth to take bigger strides in the sport than they have taken so far.

Jayasankar Menon, who captained the national team in the 1990s, says that although India has taken real steps forward, only a professional league can herald a period of sustained success.

“Without a pro league, India cannot improve any further,” he says, “As far as players are concerned, playing for India once or a hundred times is the same. I have come across this situation after playing for India for a decade. The players need to be financially settled and only a pro league can make this happen. It is the right time for the administrators to act. Watch how the kabaddi and badminton leagues have done it. I know there are a lot of ifs and buts but the pro league is the answer.”

The responsibility for providing this answer will ultimately fall upon the BFI and its sponsors, a partnership between global sports/media company IMG Worldwide and India’s biggest conglomerate, Reliance. IMG-Reliance and the BFI have been planning to launch a professional league for years, and their efforts to grow the game at the grassroots with school and college leagues across cities has been a major step forward to get the game to more youth than ever before.

The recent launch of the football Indian Super League (ISL) — also organised by IMG-Reliance — provides a ray of hope for Indian basketball, as IMG chairman Mike Dolan announced that the ISL model would be used to launch India’s first professional league next year.

As many global observers have noted, basketball is one of the world’s fastestgrowing sports. With the interest of IMG-Reliance and the NBA, the 1.2 billion-strong country has the potential to become the game’s next lucrative market. But only a high-quality product will capture the fans’ attention, and the future performances of the national squad will determine if India can continue to provide a product to market to the larger masses.

“After the Asia Cup we have the confidence that we can compete with the top teams in Asia,” says Flemming, “We need to take the next step and win more of those games. We have come a long way, but still have a lot of room for improvement.”

Flemming’s two-year contract with Team India will come to an end in a few months, and he has said that he will evaluate the plans of his family and of the BFI before taking any future decisions. But regardless of his future, he has already secured his name in Indian basketball history by helping the Young Cagers finally grow up to defeat China and giving basketball fans in the country a moment that could change the game forever.

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