August 14, 2014

Road Game: How travel has turned the Indian basketball team into family

This article was first published in my column for on August 4, 2014. Click here to read the original post

India at a team dinner during FIBA Asia Cup. Image courtesy Ekalavyas/Chawn Flemming

In October 2008, a teenage basketball player Vishesh Bhriguvanshi was chosen to be part of India’s four-member squad for the first-ever Asian Beach Games, held at the picturesque island of Bali in Indonesia. It was a 3×3 beach basketball tournament and India was among the eight countries invited to take part. Little was expected for the team and from the rising young player.

In 2014, Bhriguvanshi is one of the leaders of India’s basketball team, the engine that revs up the system from the backcourt. Born in a humble home in Varanasi, more popular for its ghats than its shooting guards, Bhriguvanshi could’ve barely imagined that the game of basketball would one day take him across the continent and even further.

But back in 2008, he was just a teenager, as curious about stepping into the borders of a new nation with an Indonesian stamp on his passport as he was about this experimental new 3×3 form of the game.

India may be one nation but there is rarely any homogeny among Indian squads. Players speak in different mother tongues, have different religious beliefs and customs, and grow up accustomed to various different climatic conditions. Domestically, each player of the squad is at or close to their comfort zone, and thus, still held apart via the various separations that complete the jigsaw puzzle of our large nation. But on the road, the jigsaw pieces converge under the same tiranga flag with the one thread that connects them all: basketball.

There are few better ways of gaining that experience than travel. Bhriguvanshi, like other veterans of the national squad, has a passport full of visa stamps, and every journey – like his trip to Bali in 2008 – becomes another adventure to add to the scrapbook. And together, they turn their differences to grow from becoming more than a team, and into a brotherhood.

So why does Bhriguvanshi remember Bali so fondly? “We had no expectations, we just wanted to play well,” he recalled, “But we won once, we won twice, and soon enough, we somehow found ourselves in the Final. It was against the Philippines, who were considered to be a much stronger team and featured all of their top players from the recent FIBA Asia Championship. But we won that final: that until today is the biggest thing for me, that we got that gold medal, and I got to celebrate it with my teammates at the Beach Games.”

After eight years with Team India, Bhriguvanshi has been part of squads that have played on the road in Kuwait, Indonesia, Turkey, Japan, Philippines, and a half dozen times in China. It is in the squad’s most recent trip to China – to Wuhan for the 5th FIBA Asia Cup – where India displayed the perfect culmination of team spirit and camaraderie that helped elevate them from being mere pushovers to a team with real spirit, zeal and the ability to shock even the giants of the game in the continent. Bhriguvanshi and India couldn’t defeat Philippines this time when they faced off in the Quarter-Final, but they left Wuhan with an effort that would bond the squad together forever.

“We are starting to feel like a real team,” said Yadwinder Singh in the midst of India’s eye-opening Wuhan campaign. Yadwinder was the team’s most experienced and had been playing for India internationally since 2002, “It feels great when we get into an elevator, and strangers see us and congratulate us. Now they know who we are. They know we are Team India.”

“When the team plays together, like we’re doing these days,” he added, “We feel so happy. We eat together, we make fun of each other… Everything feels good.”

Playing abroad is about much more than the tournament itself; India’s Head Coaches in the past, including current coach Scott Flemming, have all stressed about the importance of taking as many exposure trips as possible so that the team can get a sense of togetherness and the challenges of being in a new environment. Together, these trips can help the Indian players to adjust to courts and facilities outside of India. Almost everywhere they travel, the basketball infrastructure is likely to be better than what they have at home; but ‘better’ can put them in the pressure of unfamiliarity. It’s always a challenge for players who have played a majority of their competitive games on outdoor cement courts to then move into perfectly-groomed indoor wooden arenas at FIBA international events.

Adjusting to different climates can be a challenge as well, but nothing matches the homesickness that the team feels when trying to adjust their palates to a myriad of different international cuisines.

“The worst thing [about travel abroad] is definitely the food,” he said, “It’s tough to get Indian food,” said Bhriguvanshi, and added that he missed the staple home cuisines more than anything else. “My favourite is just daal-chawal-subzi.”

Team India huddle. Image courtesy Ekalavyas/Chawn Flemming

“I don’t think anything is real tough [on the road] because they have each other and they care for each other like brothers,” said Coach Flemming, who has been the Head Coach for two years, longer than any foreign coach before him, “You can talk about small things like food. I’m sure they miss loved ones and family. But I think most of them have been doing this long enough that they’ve kinda got used to that. And the ones who are new are so excited to be here they’re not complaining.”

“So probably the toughest thing is being together all the time,” Flemming added, “It’s like a family. You know when you’re with your brothers and sisters all the time they get on your nerves. I probably get on theirs. So you have to keep it fresh and you gotta have fun. You can’t be serious or locked into the game all the time.”

Bhriguvanshi confessed that his favourite thing about playing on the road is the opportunity to face off against the top players on the continent in world-class arenas. A rising star as a teenager when he secured the MVP award at the Basketball Without Borders Asia camp back in 2008, Bhriguvanshi has been one of India’s best players ever since and has taken the role of captain for many international tours since. But, back at home, his rise has been stunted by limited opportunities against tougher competition, and instead, wasted the prime years of players like him or others at his level. International basketball not only gives them a much-needed competitive spike but also provides them a fitting stage to showcase their skills.

“I love playing against good teams,” Bhriguvanshi said after India had completed the Preliminary Round at the Asia Cup in Wuhan, after facing Japan, China, Indonesia, and Iran, “The grounds and facilities at many international arenas are great, and it feels good for us to play here.”

As India put together a string of strong performances in Wuhan, they began to earn respect among the foreign legion, too. Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino media, among others who were covering this event, began to fawn over India’s stars. Many found it hard to believe that this team without a single professional player or without any ‘naturalized’ Indian players could defeat China. It was pure passion and determination that led India to punch above their weight level and collect some big wins, and in the process they began winning hearts, too.

Yadwinder Singh said that the improved performances also improved the relationship between the team.

“I used to hate it when, before, we would go abroad, and we would all separate,” said Yadwinder, who has long been the team’s ‘glue-guy’ in the locker room, “We would eat separately from each other, and no one waited for anyone to eat together or go out. There’s nothing like that anymore. We are now glued together. We forgot the [opening loss] Japan game when we beat China.”

Yadwinder speaks from great experience, of travels that have taken him all across Asia and handed him two passports glued together to fit in all the visa stamps. “My first international trip was an Under-20 tournament in Kuwait. Since then, I’ve been to Australia for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, been to New Zealand, Malaysia, Dubai, Iran, Jordan, and China several times.”

Yadwinder stressed that, the infighting and blame games hurt the team in the past as much as their on-court performances did. “Before, our team would leave India united, but when we would lose the first game, we would separate. We would point fingers and blame each other,” he said, “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

It hasn’t all been all work and no play for the team, even though, technically, ‘work’ for a basketball player is ‘play’. On the road, Flemming has made sure to give the squad time off of the game, too to go sight-seeing and make the most of whatever free time they are able to have abroad. They’ve visited historical sites in Turkey and been go-karting together.

“It’s been really fun travelling with these guys,” said Flemming, “We’ve been to Turkey, to the Philippines, and to Nepal. We’ve been getting to know each other better. They get to know me. I feel the reason that we’re winning games and doing good things is because finally, all these things that I’ve been telling them are sinking in.”

Traveling abroad to unfamiliar countries has indeed brought many of these players closer together, many of whom who otherwise spend half the year in opposing state or club teams against each other. This is why ever Indian coach has always pleaded for more time with the national team: not just to coach them better and avoid other club/state obligations that might unnecessarily distract or even hurt the players, but also to help build up team spirit and an identity.

Wuhan was my first time witnessing India’s basketball team play abroad, and beyond the exhilaration of the team’s historic performances, it was a strange experience. India might be the world’s second largest population and more culturally relevant globally than most Asian countries, but they’re the ‘lovable underdogs’ in these tournaments, unfortunately garnering pity more than praise. In future tournaments, such as the invitational tournament in Dubai next month or the Asian Games in Korea after that, the team will play determined to be feared by their opponents. Veterans like Bhriguvanshi and Yadwinder will be hoping that, after years of travel, when the team puts in strong performances again in the future, it won’t be a surprise but an expectation.

But at the end of the day, playing abroad is about more than wins and losses, or unique adventures in other nations for India’s top players. For many of them, it’s about honouring the flag that is raised and the anthem that is heard before every game.

“Playing for India is by itself a huge honour,” said Bhriguvanshi, “It’s not like we get anything back for doing this – we play only for pride. If we’re going outside, we want to do well for India. We don’t want anything to think that this team is like any unsuccessful team of the past.”

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