June 29, 2014

The Next Reign: Who snatches the NBA’s next MVP trophy after the LeBron-Durant era.

Who is the most likely candidate to snag the MVP trophy away from the LeBron-Durant two-headed monster? I’m here to take a peer forward into the near future to identify the future stars of the league, and who among them will have the best chance of starting a new reign at the top of the league’s player standings.

Click here to read full feature.

June 28, 2014

Simmering Summer? Undrafted Sim Bhullar signed by the Sacramento Kings

It's 2014, and we live in a world where the difference between a historical moment and a forgettable one can be made in under 140 characters.

In case you haven't been paying attention, the NBA Draft was conducted yesterday, a selection to bring in the top amateur and international talents into the world's finest basketball league. After 60 selections over two rounds, one big name went uncalled. That name was of Sim Bhullar. 7-foot-5 by height. Canadian by nationality. New Mexico State by foregone alma mater. And most importantly for our discussion here, Indian by race.

Bhullar was the closest that an Indian-origin basketball player had yet come to be drafted into the NBA, and he missed his chance...

... Until a few hours ago, this happened:

Through a simple tweet, TNT's NBA correspondent David Aldridge informed the world (via Bhullar's agent) that the Sacramento Kings are set to sign Sim Bhullar. Since then, there have been no further confirmations or denials of this news, but there certainly has been a whole lotta reaction to it. For the first time, a player of Indian-origin had been signed by an NBA team. It may not be the 'Yao Ming' moment for the diaspora of South Asians worldwide, but it's certainly a major first step into breaking one of the last racial barriers in the NBA.

The fact that it was the Kings who took the plunge with the massive center is no surprise at all. Around this time last year, the Sacramento Kings became the first NBA team to have a majority owner that was born in India: Vivek Ranadive. While the team itself hasn't made any major improvements on court, Ranadive's vision and off the court efforts have transformed the culture around the franchise. Ranadive has already placed importance in reaching out to the untapped market of basketball fans in India and has hopes to turn the Kings into India's favourite team in the near future. It seemed obvious that the team with most interest in reaching out to Indians will be the team that reaches out to the one Indian with (fringe) NBA potential. And now, the obvious seems to have happened.

Bhullar is still far away from actually securing a 'real' NBA contract and suiting up for a team at this point. As a first step, he'll be playing for the Kings in their Summer League team in Las Vegas next month, from July 11-21. Bhullar will have to prove that he belongs among other young rising prospects here. For the past few years, despite his successes with New Mexico State University (NMSU), he was questioned for his motor on court and doubted if he could truly handle the pace of the game at the NBA level. The Summer League will be a shade of what he can expect.

From there on, if Bhullar doesn't make to the final cut of the Kings' roster straight away, he'll probably hope to get a chance with a few teams in the NBA's D-League, including the Reno Bighorns, who are the single-affiliate D-League team of the Kings. If he is able to develop his game from there, he could have another chance of earning an NBA call-up.

It is also my fantasy/Christmas wish/Diwali wish to see Bhullar play alongside DeMarcus Cousins one day to form the most lovable big man tandem of all time. #BoogieBhangra

There is of course, eventually, the overseas option as well. But, as former NMSU state guard (and Euro-ball experienced) Billy Keys suggested to the Las Cruces Sun-News, the wear and tear of travel in Europe and elsewhere abroad could be detrimental to a big man like Bhullar; persisting to play in the US/NBA would really be the best option.

Worst-case scenario? Bhullar was drafted by the Harlem Globetrotters two days before the NBA draft, along with American Football player Johnny Manziel, real football player Landon Donovan, and a guy who holds the Guinness World record for the longest basketball shot. So there's that.

For now, let's remain optimistic that it'll be a 'simmering summer' for Sim in the Summer League. Let's go our various brown/desi/Indian gods and good luck charms and do what we have to do to hope that the big guy gets his chance with the NBA. Let's place good luck charms with lemons and chillies outside the Sleep Train Arena and hope that Bhullar stays clear of too much ghee in his diet. Fingers crossed and all that - an Indian guy (by way of Canada) is nearly in the NBA. The big day of desi-hoops reckoning cometh!

June 27, 2014

Wiggins, Parker, & Embiid highlight NBA draft class for the ages

After becoming the number one pick, Andrew Wiggins has the potential of becoming a leader in the draft that we could one day look back at fondly for being one of the deepest ones in recent memory. Between Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Noah Vonleh, and Dario Saric, I feel that there are many future stars coming out this year. And there are sure to be many more hidden jewels deeper into the picks, whose ultimate talent only time will reveal.

Click here to read full feature.

June 25, 2014

The Easiest Target

The greatest thing about LeBron James in my opinion isn’t that he’s the complete balance of Michael and Magic, it isn’t that that he can play and defend almost any position, it isn’t that he's fast as a guard and strong as a power forward, and it isn’t all the stats and accolades that his skills have brought him. Nope. The greatest thing about him is the fact that he has learned how to blank out all the noise and the chatter and find peace, peace between himself and that round bouncy ball, and play at a level where very few can match or better him.

Click here for full feature

June 24, 2014

Mocking All The Way: My 2014 NBA Mock Draft

Parker or Wiggins? Wiggins or Parker? The 2014 draft will bring another battle between the two young rivals, the questions around Joel Embiid, and one of the deepest drafts in recent years. As usual, this is an exciting time for NBA fans ready to welcome a truckload of new talent into the league. And to continue my annual tradition a few days before Draft Day, here is my official mock draft of the 2014 lottery picks, barring any trades that take place between now and then.

Click here to read full feature.

June 23, 2014

Oxymoron: Russell Westbrook is Basketball’s Walking Contradiction

This feature was first published in 131st edition (2014 - No. 10) of SLAM China magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.

There goes Russell Westbrook, grabbing a rebound, sprinting frantically down the floor, and expertly dropping the ball into Kevin Durant’s hands for an easy two points.

There goes Russell Westbrook, turning an easy pass into a turnover.

There’s Westbrook taking and missing a contested, ill-advised three-pointer, when two of his teammates are wide open for better shots.

And now, here he is attacking the basket, getting to the free-throw line, and tying the game to take his team into overtime.
In overtime, there goes Russell Westbrook converting a tough lay-up to give the Thunder the lead in Game 6 of the Conference Finals, with his team facing elimination against the Spurs, and just two and a half minutes remaining on the clock.

But with 42 seconds left in the Thunder’s season, there is Westbrook attempting another go-ahead shot, only to see it blocked by the outstretched hands of Kawhi Leonard. The Thunder never get a chance again, and the game, the series, as well as their season, ends less than a minute of basketball time later.

Welcome to the complete Russell Westbrook experience. A scorer in the guise of point guard. A passer in the guise of an athletic shoot-first player. Called selfish for not creating enough for Kevin Durant. Called selfless for taking a step behind the spotlight of Durant. Loved by many and hated by a lot. Welcome to the world of the most complex and polarizing star in the NBA today.

The above moments – all from Game 6 of the 2014 Conference Finals – offered all aspects of the Russell Westbrook experience. They showed the jaw-dropping moments and the frustrating ones. Westbrook was the player who helped the Thunder get this far but also the player who made several mistakes to hurt his own team. It was his unpredictable play and his fighting spirit that kept his team in the game until the last seconds. But it was also the same unpredictable style that many blame for the Thunder’s lack of cohesion.

So who exactly is the real Russell Westbrook?

To close followers of the game, the story is by now very well known. Explosive guard out of UCLA is selected with the fourth pick in the 2008 draft by the Seattle Supersonics. Before he can play a minute for his home team in Seattle, the entire team picked up and relocated to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder. For Westbrook, a defensive specialist in college, there seemed to be no set position on the offensive end. He shot the ball too much for a point guard, but dribbled too much for a shooting guard. Is he a scorer or a creator? An offensive force or a defensive specialist?

The team began their first season in Oklahoma City 3-29 and finished with just 23 wins. But there is hope.

A year later, the core of young players lead the Thunder to a dramatic turnaround and compiled a 50-win season. They lost in the First Round of the playoffs after giving some headaches to eventual champions Lakers. A season from then, Westbrook made his first All Star appearance and began to legitimately find his name among the NBA’s top players. His numbers rose across the board and his team shot up to the Western Conference Finals.

But with a rise in prominence there is also a rise in notoriety. For every staunch supporter, there was now a vocal critic. As he rose in the spotlight, the glare also revealed his weaknesses. His inability to be pigeon-holed by position or style. His passion overtaking his sensibilities. But it is the same passion that made him special. And so the two opposing forces pull him in different directions, giving birth to an exciting, yet unpredictable NBA talent.

A year later, at just 23, Westbrook and the Thunder were in the NBA Finals. The pendulum swung the other way again, as the next season, Westbrook got hurt in the playoffs and his team couldn’t make it past the Second Round. And a few weeks ago, we saw them lose to the Spurs in an overtime loss in the Conference Finals, closing the chapter of yet another season unfulfilled.

This is the Russell Westbrook that we know today. The three-time All Star, the three-time member of the All NBA Second Team, and one of the best guards – positions be damned – in the league today. This is the Westbrook that has made his team one of the strongest and most-feared in the league.

Are we forgetting something? Or someone?

The story of Westbrook so far is impossible to tell without the story of Kevin Durant. That same Kevin Durant who was the Sonics’ original building block before Westbrook was drafted and the team became the Thunder. The same Durant who has led the league in scoring four of the last five seasons, while also somehow morphing into one of the most efficient shooters of our time. The Durant who came into the league with promise of becoming a game-changer, and then has gone on to deliver on that promise by a young age. The Durant who justifiably won the NBA’s MVP award this season.

Westbrook’s own legacy is complicated by the man with whom he shares the court. Both players need each other to thrive in the NBA, but most experts believe that, ironically, they are not suited to play together at all. Their styles clash. One is the quiet, efficient assassin, with the capability of turning any system into a winning system. The other is the turbo-charged monster, whose command on the ball becomes the system itself.

Westbrook is sorely missed when Durant fails by himself, but he is blamed when the Thunder fail with the two on the floor together. Durant earns high praise – deservedly – for OKC’s successes, but praise for Westbrook is reserved more for his possession-by-possession brilliance instead of his impact on the entire game.

There are two divergent schools of thought with Westbrook. The ‘Let Westbrook be Westbrook Team’ believes that a player of his prodigious talents shouldn’t be caged in with traditional definitions of NBA positions and tactics. He was the only player in the post-season to be top four in both scoring (26.7 ppg) and assists (8.1 apg). Beyond the stats, he motivates his team with his much-needed passion. Durant is the ever-constant working engine, the remixed Tim Duncan for the new generation. But Westbrook is the fire that can ignites the team in ways Durant’s quiet style rarely does. Westbrook may or may not be a great point guard, but there is no doubt that he’s a great player.

But there is the other school of thought which believes that, for Thunder to finally turn their championship potential into actual championships, the ball has to go through Kevin Durant more often and there needs to be a quick-passing system of offense around him, which could only happen with a diminished role for Westbrook. For Durant and his other talented teammates like Serge Ibaka to reach their full offensive potential, they need a true point guard to set plays, find the open man, and keep the ball moving. Despite his talents, Westbrook is not that player. He is prone to taking more shots than Durant, many of which are ill-advised. He is prone to turnovers or turning a blind eye to open teammates. He is prone to doing the very things that make him great, and the same things that make him a problem. He is prone to ‘Being Westbrook’.

In the Second Round of this year’s playoffs, the Thunder faced the Los Angeles Clippers, and Westbrook went directly against the man who currently serves as the model citizen of their position. Although he was suffering with minor niggles, Chris Paul is widely regarded as perhaps the best point guard in the league, a true team-first player who helps to make his teammates better, rarely turns the ball over, leads by example, and can be a devastating scorer when the moment calls. The Thunder got the best of the Clippers in the series, but Paul could be a reminder to Westbrook of how effective he could be if he honed his energy and intelligence in the right direction.

Westbrook and Durant are still young players with the primes of their careers in front of them, but their window of opportunity won’t last forever. With their talent, they will be expected to challenge for championships for years to come. But, the question once again comes around to their co-habitability. The two superstars make for a great team together, but can they truly make an NBA champion?

The onus will be not only on the two stars to redefine their gams to make the most of each other’s abilities, but also on the team’s coach to get more creative with his offensive sets to create easier scoring opportunities for all the players on the court. Having Westbrook as a starting point guard for any coach is a challenge, but the challenge can reap huge rewards if his skills are harnessed the right way.

The complete Russell Westbrook experience is a rollercoaster, delighting and disconcerting from one possession to the next. He gambles on defense, but can be a menace defensive when he is dialed in. He takes too many shots, but is unstoppable when those shots start falling. He commits too many turnovers, but he can attract defensive attention away from his teammates and help create shots for others. He’s a superstar who is accused of taking shots away from the league’s MVP, but he is also someone who makes life easier for the same MVP.

Westbrook has the potential of becoming something special: a new generation hybrid player, with the skill-set and ability that we have never seen before. He’s nearly there, and his on-court evolution from this point on will determine his legacy. Will he always struggle to find the balance between a scorer and a passer? Or will be become that perfect scoring and passing hybrid, the first player with a real chance of leading the modern NBA in both points and assists after Tiny Archibald did it in 1973?
In his emotional MVP speech, Kevin Durant saved his note for Westbrook for the very last among his teammates. And it was for good reason. Despite the apparent differences between them, the two are as close as any teammates in the league, and are determined to grow and succeed together.

“I don’t take it for granted,” Durant told him in his speech, “There’s days that I just wanna tackle you, and tell you to snap out of sometimes. I know there’s days you wanna do the same thing with me. I love you man… A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player and I’m the first to have your back, man, through it all. Just stay the person you are… You made me better… You’re an MVP-caliber player. It’s a blessing to play with you.”

Durant’s words of support for his prodigious teammate say it all. Westbrook is imperfect, and he and Durant are imperfect together. But they make each other better. And for the foreseeable future, the camaraderie that they have among each other is unlikely to be broken off. So all they have left to do is try and make it work, to try and fit the imperfect pieces of the puzzle into a perfect result.

The Thunder couldn’t get that perfect result this season. By the time Game 6 of the Conference Finals ended in an overtime loss to the Spurs, they found themselves outclassed by a savvier, more balanced squad. Westbrook ended up with 34 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, and six steals. He made 17 of his 18 free throw attempts. But conversely, he only made eight of his 23 attempts from the field, turned the ball over seven times, and was in foul trouble throughout. He helped his team a lot, but also hurt them a little.

It was yet another see-saw night from the league’s walking contradiction. But once the creases can be straightened and rough edges sharpened up, Westbrook can live with the contradictions if he starts walking towards a championship.

June 16, 2014

Spurstastic: The Spurs play the beautiful game to lift 2013-14 NBA Championship

Years from now, young people learning how to play this beautiful game should watch videos of the Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals. Instead of offering us individual stars to emulate, this team offered us lessons on how to play winning basketball selflessly. How to think further than individual stats or glory, and how to think about the working unit as a whole instead of different pieces of a puzzle.

Click here to read full feature.

June 14, 2014

She’s Got Game: Women’s Basketball stands toe to toe with Men in India

This article was first published in my column on Ekalavyas on June 3, 2014. You can find the original post here.

Photo courtesy: Ekalavyas.com

As always, the women’s final was held first, a little bit earlier in the evening, before the prime-time crowds were expected to show up. Only a few of the other players, close friends, and some of the organizing officials sat through most of the game; looking around the arena, there were far more empty seats than occupied ones. As the game ended, anticipation arose for the men’s final which was to follow right after. Crowds doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. A calm arena had been turned into an energetic spectacle.

The scenes above don’t describe any one tournament – they are a glimpse of the sights and sounds at most sporting events. Throughout the sporting sphere in the country – and abroad, too – women who excel in popular sports like cricket, football, hockey, etc. are usually greeted with scarce attention from their Federations and scarcer crowds at their field of play.

Fortunately, for basketball in India, this is usually not the case. From the top level – where India’s best female players and national teams usually perform better than their male counterparts – to the grassroots – where young girls get an equal opportunity to shine as the boys – India’s women stand toe to toe with the men in the game.

For most of India – as it is in several other parts of the world – gender equality is still a work in progress. India still has a highly skewed child sex ratio (under age six) of 919 girls per 1000 boys. India stands 132nd out of 148 countries on the UNDP Gender Inequality Index. And women in several parts of India are at a disadvantage, facing limited access to resources, education, and are victims of gender-based violence. India has long been a patriarchal society where culture and custom has given social authority to men over women for thousands of years.

Perhaps it is because of these inequalities that, when given an opportunity, the discriminated gender has set out with a fire in their belly to prove a point and perform at a high level. For several years now, India’s women’s national basketball team has ranked much higher in the FIBA rankings than the men. While the men’s teams have struggled to break through to the top eight of recent Asian tournaments, India finished at an All Time best fifth place in the FIBA Asia Championship for Women last year. While basketball fans in India and abroad have been desperately searching for India’s answer to Yao Ming – the first of our nation to make it to the NBA – the closest Indian in the big leagues has actually been a woman: Geethu Anna Jose. Jose has played professionally in Australia and Thailand and came close to securing a spot in a WNBA roster a few years ago. Among Indian basketball fans, the names of female players like Jose, Varanasi’s “Singh Sisters”, Anitha Paul Durai, the successful girls from Chhattisgarh, and the youth brigade out in Kerala are as popular as the best-known male players.

Credit must be given to the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) as well as the various State Federations in the country who have managed to keep men and women’s basketball at relatively equal footing even though many have suffered from overall inefficiencies in other areas. A few years ago, the BFI’s late CEO Harish Sharma mentioned that as the BFI works to take the game of basketball to the next level, they would also maintain gender equality. “We will focus equally on men and women,” he had said, “Basketball is a gender-friendly sport!”

Indeed, it is. Or, it almost is. Despite having equal standing in almost every way (close to the same number of male and female teams participate in Indian national tournaments annually), the women still receive a smaller participating or medal-winning fee than the men.

In his excellent review of Indian Basketball for Fountain Ink magazine earlier this year, Ekalavyas’ own Gopalakrishnan R. reported that, while men in India receive employment on the sports quota in various government services, public telecom, banks, police departments, railways, and more, the women really have nowhere to go but the Railways.

“So when the Indian Railway boasts of a virtually unbeaten run in the last 20 years at the Senior National Championship,” wrote Gopalakrishnan, “It is simply because it is one of the few establishments that hires women!”

That ‘virtually unbeaten’ run by the Indian Railways women was finally stalled this year by Chhattisgarh, the rising stars of India’s women’s basketball, who won the Senior Nationals Women’s gold and ended Railways’ decade-long hold of the title.

Sometimes, an unlikely basketball success story can be traced back to the efforts of one individual. For Chhattisgarh, that individual has been Rajesh Patel, the coach of all of Chhattisgarh’s female teams of the sub-junior, youth, junior, and senior levels. Patel recruits talented players with potential at a young age from tribal and other disadvantaged economic conditions to the Bhilai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh and then helps them reach that potential. Since the Chhattisgarh state was formed in 2000, Patel’s vision has come to reality, with the women winning gold at every level, and several of his protégés making their way to India’s National squad.

Kerala, Maharashtra, Delhi, and Tamil Nadu are also among the leaders of promoting women’s basketball on equal footing with the men. All these states – and several others who also have similar, successful models – have done a fine job of organizing tournaments with equal participation for both genders, a practice that has gone on to help produce top players from these states for the national squad. But once again, going back to Gopalakrishnan’s article mentioned above, opportunities for many women at the senior domestic level are few and far between.

At the international stage, India’s women have indeed been given the same opportunity to succeed as the men have. For the last few years, whenever a capable foreign coach has been hired for India’s national men’s teams (Bill Harris, Kenny Natt, Scott Flemming), the same has been done for the women (Tamika Raymond, Pete Gaudet, Francisco Garcia). Led by talents like Jose, the Sr women’s team finds themselves at 40th in the FIBA rankings (Men are currently 61st) and the Girls (U16) team are at 37th (Boys are 48th). India is now at fifth place among Women in Asia, behind only the unstoppable ‘big four’ of China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, and Japan. India’s women have been successful at FIBA Asia 3×3 competitions, too. While India’s male players have barely registered a blimp against the competition in Asia, Jose has been able to finish as Asia’s top scorer or be a part of All Tournament teams in recent FIBA Asia Championships.

India’s women do have a major advantage over the men when it comes to Asian tournaments: they have less competition. Higher-ranked nations in the men’s division like Iran, Jordan, and Qatar don’t field women’s basketball teams at all. India’s men have to play against tougher and larger number of opponents, and thus, struggle to emulate the success of the women.

Additionally, worldwide, women’s basketball is generally a lot more balanced than the counterparts in men. With the women’s game focusing on fundamentals and tactics a little more than athletic or physical ability, India’s women theoretically have had the chance to match closer to powerhouses around the world than the men do. While most Federations around the world have generally focused their attention on the men’s national sides, India’s efforts of keeping basketball ‘gender-friendly’ have helped the women stay competitive, participate in as many international tournaments as the men do, and receive the same level of coaching and physiotherapy.

At pretty much every level of the game, men’s basketball gets more attention and hype than the women. The NBA is more popular than the WNBA, FIBA’s Men’s Championships garner bigger crowds than FIBA women’s, and male players make more money and are given better sponsorships than their women counterparts. Considering this global gender imbalance, it isn’t shocking that the attention of fans and organizers in India is to find India’s Yao Ming or Wang Zhi Zhi and have an Indian player make it to the NBA.

But, it may well be more likely that the first Indian to make it to basketball’s biggest league will be a woman, and that big league will be the WNBA, rather than the NBA. Jose came agonizingly close when she earned tryouts with the Chicago Sky, Los Angeles Sparks, and San Antonio Silver Stars three years ago. If her successors are given the right opportunity, they could take one step further. Last month, India’s Women’s coach Francisco Garcia mentioned that young players like Kavita Akula, Poojamol KS, and Jeena PS all have the talent to play in professional leagues abroad. If, at an earlier age, India’s young stars are given the right guidance, training, and opportunity, we might finally find a talent to break through to the highest level of the game.

Let’s be real: Basketball is too minor an issue to solve India’s gender inequalities. But a basketball success story could add to the growing list of talented sportswomen in India, and become yet another small step away from the generations of patriarchy in the nation.

June 13, 2014

Three Indian players at Basketball Without Borders Asia Camp in Taipei

Every year, a small number of the most talented young basketball players blessed with star potential are invited to one of the NBA and FIBA organized 'Basketball Without Borders' (BWB) camps around the world. This year, for the first time, the Basketball Without Borders Asia camp is being held in Taipei, Taiwan. A small group of current and former NBA players are set to be at the helm of this camp, overseeing and training the future generation of Asian and Oceania stars, a generation that consists of three players who have been invited from India: Vishal Gupta (Andhra Pradesh), Ashish Briggs (Madhya Pradesh), and Mahipal Singh (Rajasthan).

Photo courtesy: Troy Justice
The camp is being held in Taipei from June 13-16 this year. NBA players invited to the camp include Nicolas Batum (Portland Trail Blazers), John Salmons (Toronto Raptors), Ronny Turiaf (Minnesota Timberwolves), and Cody Zeller (Charlotte Bobcats). The biggest presence - literally and figuratively - will be of NBA Legend Yao Ming. Yao is the greatest Asian to ever play the game, was the cornerstone of China's national team, and played nine years with the Houston Rockets.

Gupta, Briggs, and Singh will be among 50 of the top young players from Asia and Oceania. The Business Standard interviewed some of the Indian players prior to the beginning of the camp:

"Training at the BWB camp will make a lot of difference in my style of play, and it will be an unparalleled experience to interact with NBA legend Yao Ming and the other stars making their way to the camp," said Gupta.
"Hailing from a small town like Ujjain, one can only dream of visiting such international camps and learning the technical aspects of the game from the best players in the world. I can't wait to be there and learn as much I can in those four days," said Briggs.

This year, BWB camps have already been held in Rome and Italy. The last camp is scheduled to be held in South Africa in the first week of August.

June 12, 2014

Reliance Foundation & NBA to install basketball hoops across Mumbai schools

50 schools in Mumbai are about to get a whole lot hoopier - and happier - very soon.

The NBA have announced that the next step of their partnership with the Reliance Foundation in India will be to install basketball hoops in more than 50 schools across Mumbai as part of their joint commitment to developing basketball infrastructure in India and to facilitate access to the game. The NBA and the Reliance Foundation made this announcement with Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas in attendance, who has been in Mumbai and Chennai to help promote the game of basketball in India.

This is set to be the first stage of NBA and Reliance's Basketball Hoops Infrastructure project, which also included hosting a youth clinic at the IES School in Dadar, Mumbai. The NBA and Reliance Foundation teamed up last year to launch the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA Programme, which reached hundreds of thousands of youth and hundreds of schools in Mumbai and Kochi (as well as the rest of Kerala) in its first season last year. The programme is set to expand to six Indian cities this year.

Here are some quotes from the announcement, via IndianTelevision.com:

"This is my first visit to India, and I am really excited to see the passion for basketball here that I have been hearing about," said Isaiah Thomas, "NBA India and the Reliance Foundation are doing a great job in the development and promotion of the sport here, and I look forward to helping them as much as possible."

"The progress under the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme in reaching approximately 150,000 youth through in-school and after school programs has been very satisfying," said Jagannatha Kumar, CEO, Reliance Foundation, "The Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA Programme is now providing the basic infrastructure needed to play the game of basketball. By installing these hoops, hundreds of thousands of Indian youth can play the game together and help grow the game throughout India."
"This is the next step in our partnership with the Reliance Foundation as we continue to grow basketball across India," said Yannick Colaco, Managing Director, NBA India. "Since our partnership last year, the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA program has integrated basketball into the school level and helps promote a healthy and active lifestyle to Indian youth."

Congrats young Mumbaikars. Not all basketball lovers in India have close access to good courts: I hope you all make the most of this opportunity!

June 9, 2014

India drawn in Group A of FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan (China)

Three weeks ago, India defeated South Asian rivals to win the SABA Basketball Championship in Kathmandu, and thus, qualifed for the 5th FIBA Asia Cup. And on Sunday, June 8th, the draw for the championship - previously known as the Stankovic Cup - was made in this year's host city of Wuhan (China). India have found themselves in Group A, along with the hosts China, FIBA Asia Championship and FIBA Asia Cup defending champs Iran, Japan, and Indonesia.

India is among 10 teams slated to take part in the FIBA Asia Cup this year, set to be held in Wuhan from July 11-10, 2014.

Here is the complete draw:
  • Group A: China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan.
  • Group B: Chinese Taipei, Jordan, Philippines, Singapore, Uzbekistan.
For the FIBA Asia Cup, each zone of FIBA Asia sends one representative, and the hosts (China) and the defending FIBA Asia Champions (Iran) automatically qualify. The remaining two places were allocated to the zones according to performance in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship.

India, led by Head Coach Scott Flemming, will face a tough challenge in the tournament, which will begin in a little over a month from now. Hosts China and Iran are the top two ranked teams in all of Asian basketball, and it is unlikely that India will be able to pose much of a threat to either of these giants. But to qualify for the Quarter-Finals, India only needs to finish in the top four of the five teams, meaning that they only need one victory in the Preliminary Round stage. While Japan has historically been a better team than India, the Indians have shown flashes of strong play (in losing efforts, nevertheless) against the Japanese in recent years, and it may not be outlandish to dream of Team India to spring a surprise in this game. Finally, India should be expected to match almost evenly head-to-head with Indonesia, but this is the most winnable game of the initial round and our ticket into the Quarters.

India's best finish at this tournament was at fifth place back in 2008. Two years ago, in the last iteration of the FIBA Asia Cup in Tokyo, India lost all their games and finished at last place. Even though India has been drawn in a top-heavy group this time, we will be hoping for better results and an appearance in the knockout stage.

June 6, 2014

Isaiah Thomas of the Sacramento Kings visits India this week

The 2011 NBA Draft - though not the greatest in recent memory - still saw some exciting young players join the NBA. Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kenneth Faried, Jimmy Butler, and Chandler Parsons were all among the names that were called. But one young 5-foot-9 guard, despite a great college career for the Washington Huskies where he was named as an AP All American Honourable Mention, kept on waiting for his time. Finally, with the 60th and last pick in the Second Round, the Sacramento Kings selected Isaiah Thomas, making him an NBA professional. The tiny guard entered the league with a huge chip on his shoulder.

And then chip kept on getting bigger and bigger. Determined to prove to all the teams that passed him over (twice!), Thomas won the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award twice in his first season and finished in the All Rookie Second Team. In three years in the NBA, he has earned the starting spot for the young Kings, and has upped his scoring averages dramatically every year. In 2013-14, Thomas ended up averaging 20.3 points per game (up by nearly seven ppg from a season ago) and dished out 6.3 assists per contest, leading his squad in that category.

As the 25-year-old continues to improve his game on the court, he is set to become a bigger name off of it: the NBA has announced that Thomas will be visiting India this week, becoming the league's first official visit to India of an active player since Chris Bosh last July. Thomas is scheduled to spend time in Mumbai and Chennai, where he will visit schools, community organizations, and conduct youth clinics. He will also join the NBA's official broadcaster in India Sony SIX to provide analysis of the ongoing NBA Finals become the first NBA player to conduct a Google Hangout in India.

"I’m honored to be representing the Kings and the entire NBA in India this offseason and will do whatever I can to help grow the game here by inspiring children," said Thomas.

Thomas marks the 31st NBA or WNBA player or legend to travel to India since 2006 to help grow the game following All-Stars such as Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard.

Being a young and talented NBA guard isn't the only reason that Thomas' visit to India is a big deal. Thomas happens to man the point for the NBA's first and only team to have a majority Indian-born owner: Vivek Ranadive. A little over a year ago, Ranadive's group officially purchased the Kings and helped them stay in Sacramento. Since then, the Mumbai-born tech entrepreneur has spoken on various occasions of his plans to promote his team and the game of basketball in India. Ranadive had hopes (which seemed to have now died out) of the Kings playing an exhibition game in India in the coming pre-season. The Kings became the first team to launch a Hindi website and wear shooting shirts with the Hindi Devanagari script saying their name. Ranadive even released a classic video reaching out to Indian fans to vote Kings' big man DeMarcus Cousins to the All Star Game.

Since getting the entire Kings team to come play in India wasn't possible (there are many reasons why, plus, they're going to play in China in October), the Kings/Ranadive have done the next best thing: send a top player to China. If not Cousins or Rudy Gay, then Thomas seemed to be a good enough option. Plus, at his size, he will continue the message that the NBA has been preaching to Indian fans for several years, that basketball success requires much more than height. To ensure that message, Muggsy Bogues has been here twice and Brandon Jennings was here back in 2011.

"We are extremely excited to have a member of the Sacramento Kings visit India this summer, and Isaiah’s passion for the game and the community makes him a great ambassador for the sport in India,” said Ranadivé. “One of the key aspects of my NBA 3.0 vision is deepening the global imprint of basketball and India is a prime example of this. Basketball is rapidly becoming one of India’s most popular sports, second only to cricket, and interest in the game is expanding every day. I also have no doubt that India will one day become a hotbed of NBA-caliber talent."

During his stay in India, Thomas will conduct several basketball clinics at schools and community organizations across Mumbai and Chennai. He will provide in-depth Finals analysis for fans in India on Sony SIX. On June 7, Thomas will conduct the first-ever Google hangout to promote the official NBA online store in India, NBAStore.in. A few lucky fans will be selected to interact with Isaiah and showcase NBA merchandise.

He will also be on-hand to tip off the first stage of the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA’s Basketball Hoops Infrastructure project. Reliance Foundation and NBA India have partnered to install basketball hoops at schools across Mumbai. IES School in Dadar is the first school to receive the new equipment. Thomas will conduct clinics for students at the IES School in Dadar and at a local government school in Chennai.

Thomas will be joined by celebrity VJ and television star Rannvijay Sing, who will train with Thomas, learn what it takes to be a professional basketball player, and show him the best food Mumbai has to offer.

"Isaiah’s visit to India coincides with The Finals, an important opportunity to grow the NBA’s fanbase in India," said Yannick Colaco, Managing Director of NBA India. “Thank you to Isaiah for visiting Mumbai and for inspiring Indian youth to play basketball."

Hope that Thomas has a good trip and true fans get a chance to interact with him. I will post more information about the precise time and locations of his clinics/visits as it comes it.

I wonder if Ranadive himself will visit India anytime soon - he hasn't made an 'official' trip back to his homeland ever since becoming involved with the Kings (or prior to that, as a minority owner of the Warriors). It would be interesting to see his impact if he personally comes back to India and speaks about the NBA, from the point of view of someone who has seen both worlds. And hopefully, he'll bring Boogie along too.

Here is my running list of every NBA player - past and present - to have visited India.

June 5, 2014

India to take part in basketball tournament in Dubai in August

India's national basketball Men's team has accepted an invitation to take part in the inaugural B&B International Basketball Championship, set to be hosted by the Al Nasr Club in Dubai from August 20-27. India was among the first teams to confirm their participation in this competition. India is set to face other Asian national and club sides in this tournament.

Photo Courtesy: Ekalavyas.com
According to GulfNews.com, the only other national squad so far to be invited in the championship has been Iraq. Top club basketball sides from Malaysia, Australia, Lebanon, South Korea, China and the Philippines by Al Nasr to Dubai.

Via GulfNews.com

"Having the Indian team in Dubai for this international competition is a huge achievement for us. We hope the Indian supporters come and back their team," B&B General Manager, Abdullah Murad told Gulf News.
"In the past we have seen the huge response Indian teams have got in Dubai and I am convinced it will be no different this time," he added.

Invitations have been sent out to the Kelantan Warriors from Kuala Lumpur, the Wollongong Hawks from New South Wales, Australia, two-time former Fiba Asia Champions Cup winners Al Hekmeh Sagesse from Lebanon, Changwon LG Sakers from South Korea, Dongguan New Century Leopards from China and Air21 Express team that plays in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA). Joining these international sides will be local teams Al Wasl and Al Nasr.
"We have narrowed down on some of the top teams in Asia as we want the general public to attend and enjoy wholesome family entertainment," Murad said.
"We are still in contact with other international club teams and there will be additions as we build up towards this competition," he added.

Photo Courtesy: Ekalavyas.com
The tournament will serve as a good practice ground for India, who will hope to shift their attention right after towards the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon (South Korea) starting from mid-September.

India will be hoping to continue their recent slate of basketball success in the South Asian region. Led by Head Coach Scott Flemming, India's Men team captured the gold medal at the Lusofonia Games in Goa in January and the victory at the 3rd South Asian Basketball Championship in Nepal, which secured their qualification for the FIBA Asia Cup.

The 5th FIBA Asia Cup will be held in Wuhan (China) in Mid-July, and that is Team India's next major basketball tournament, a month before the B&B International Championship in Dubai.

June 4, 2014

Repeat or Redemption: The NBA Finals are set for a rematch for the ages

One by one, 28 of the 30 NBA teams were knocked out of title contention, and the last two remaining contenders for the title are the same teams who were right here exactly 12 months ago: the Heat and the Spurs. The 2014 NBA Finals will be a battle between a bid to repeat or a bid for redemption: Will the Heat Repeat (and thus, Three-Peat), or will the Spurs redeem themselves to win the title they believe they deserve?

Click here to read my full preview of the Finals.

June 3, 2014

2014 Junior Nationals: Chhattisgarh (Girls) and Punjab (Boys) take home the title in Kochi

It was a day of Finals rematches, and a chance at repeat or redemption. The 64th Junior National Basketball Championship for Under-18 Boys and Girls - held at Kochi (Kerala) from May 26th to June 2nd - came down to a double rematch in both the divisions from last year's Finals. In front of loud fans showing their support for the game on Monday evening at Kochi's Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium, Chhattisgarh defended the girls' title with a second consecutive Final victory over hosts Kerala. Punjab's Boys redeemed themselves after last year's loss in Cuttack to snatch the title over Delhi with a win in the Boys' finale.

The 'Junior Nationals' were organized by the Kerala Basketball Association (KBA) under the auspices of the Basketball Federation of India (BFI). The week-long tournament entertained 24 boys' and 23 girls' teams from across India competing for the title.

But, as the dust settled, the finalists were once again familiar faces from a year ago. After losing two league games earlier in the tournament, Punjab Boys gained momentum to storm in their into the final for a rematch against last year's champs, Delhi. Playing with flair and athleticism, Punjab took a double-digit lead in the first half and never looked back, holding on to their advantage en route to a 83-71 win. Arshpreet Singh (21) and Anmol Singh (16) carried the scoring load for the winners, while Delhi's guard Sunil scored 25 points in a losing effort.

The girls' final was also a repeat from 2013, featuring the host team Kerala and reigning champions Chhattisgarh. Despite facing a hostile crowd egging up the host side and trailing in the first quarter, Chhattisgarh stayed composed to craft a comeback with a dominant performance the rest of the way. Led by MVP Sharanjeet Kaur (28 points in the Final) and Riya Verma (24) Chhattisgarh took the lead and stretched it to double digits by the end of the game for a 79-66 victory. Kerala's missed the services of prodigious young star Poojamol KS in the final, who suffered a leg injury earlier in the league rounds. Arathi Vimal led the way with 17 points for the hosts.

Punjab's Arshpreet Singh (Boys) and Chhattisgarh's Sharanjeet Kaur (Girls) were handed the Harish Sharma Most Valuable Player Awards at the end of the tournament.

The bronze-medal games were also held earlier in Monday. In the Boys' game, Harish (31) and Muin Bek (22) helped Tamil Nadu defeat Maharashtra 83-80 in a thrilling encounter. Sandhu Sanson scored 21 while Harshal Parab added 18 for the losing side. Uttar Pradesh's girls continued their fairytale run in the tournament behind 20 points by Barkha Sonkar to defeat Punjab 73-39 in their bronze medal encounter. Sakshi Sharma added 17 for UP while Samriti with 20 was the leading scorer for the losing side.

The two winning teams received a cash prize of Rs 1,000,000 each while the runners-up were each handed Rs. 75,000.

In the Semi-Final stage a day earlier, Delhi outlasted Maharashtra in a high-scoring encounter in the boys' division with a 91-79 win. Hemant Hooda (24) and Sunil (20) were the high scorers for Delhi, while Maharashtra featured top performances by Ashraf Siddique (18) and Parab Harshal (17). In the second boys's semi-final, Punjab blew out Tamil Nadu early behind a captivating 31-point night by Gurvinder Singh Gill. Arshpreet Singh added 18 for Punjab in the win.

Eventual girls' champs Chhattisgarh ended Uttar Pradesh's hopes for a miracle upset with a 105-53 thumping. Behind the unstoppable duo of Sangeeta Kaur (32) and Sharanjeet Kaur (29), Chhattisgarh led the whole way for the easy victory. Barkha Sonkar finished with 27 points for UP in the loss. In the second semi-final between Kerala and Punjab, Elizabeth Hilarious (23) and Arathi Vimal (16) were too much to handle in 64-53 win for Kerala. Punjab's top scorer was Gagandeep Kaur, who had 28 points in a valiant losing effort.

Final Results
    Boys: Punjab (Arshpreet Singh 21, Anmol Singh 16) bt Delhi (Sunil 25, Narender 15) 83-71 (19-15, 21-14, 19-20, 24-22). 
    Girls: Chhattisgarh (Saranjeet Kaur 28, Riya Verma 24) bt Kerala (Arathi Vimal 17, Elizabeth Hilarious 14) 79-66 (17-22, 19-13, 20-10, 23-21).

Third/Fourth Place Matchups
    Boys: Tamil Nadu (Harish 31, Muin Bek 22) bt Maharashtra (Sandhu Sanson 21, Harshal Parab 18) 83-80 (17-23, 24-23, 19-17, 23-17). 
    Girls: Uttar Pradesh (Barkha Sonkar 20, Sakshi Sharma 17) bt Punjab (Samriti 20, Gagandeep 15) 73-59 (21-20, 19-16, 21-11, 22-12).

Final Standings

  • Punjab
  • Delhi
  • Tamil Nadu
  • Maharashtra
  • Madhya Pradesh
  • Chhattisgarh
  • Kerala
  • Uttar Pradesh
  • Punjab
  • Karnataka