September 28, 2014

Indian basketball leagues, financial challenges, and the NBA dream: A comprehensive Q&A with BFI CEO Roopam Sharma

After drudging slowly along and failing to beat the shot clock, basketball in India in on a fast-break and now taking rapid strides forward. A few years ago, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) agreed to a 30-year partnership with IMG-Reliance, a partnership that eventually spawned the birth of school and college inner-city leagues around the country. This year, the leagues have received an unprecedented boost, re-branded officially as the Indian School Basketball League (ISBL) and the Indian College Basketball League (ICBL) in 24 Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities in India. While the leagues serve as a grassroots programme, India continues to make steady improvement at the top - the Men and Women's national teams - both of whom have enjoyed historically successful moments over the past year.

But where do we go from here? A constant battle remains for the BFI and others invested in helping basketball - or any 'alternative' sport - in India against disadvantageous treatment by India's Sports Ministry and the nation's mainstream media. Social, academic, and family pressures discourage young talents from reaching their potential. Stagnancy at the government units and states lead our top talents to plateau after a certain point. Basketball infrastructure in India is still years behind accepted world-class standards. Fans are largely unaware or uninterested in the local game. And the lack of a professional league limits the growth of the game while forcing India's top players to remain semi-pros with other day jobs.

The launch of the re-branded ICBL and ISBL won't change things overnight, but it's a positive and ambitious step forward to connect with over 1100 institutions and 13,000 young players across India. A step like this will not only help to create a feeder system for the higher national/international level, but also create more basketball fans and lovers in the country than ever before.

About two and a half years ago, Roopam Sharma took over the CEO of the BFI, and has been building on the groundwork set by her Late husband and former CEO Harish Sharma. On the eve of the launch of the ISBL and ICBL, I got a chance to interview Sharma at the BFI's headquarters in New Delhi about the leagues and eventually, the challenges of basketball in India, and the future of the game.

Hoopistani: Apart from the expanded size of the re-branded leagues, how will the ISBL and ICBL be different from the IMG-Reliance School/College leagues that have been held in India over the past few years?

Sharma: This is the fourth session the School/College leagues. We have increased the number of host cities every year step by step, and this year, our aim is to expand horizons in the grassroots areas as much as possible. We are taking a more professinal approach than ever before.

Basketball is the third-most followed game in India now. IMG Reliance are looking to prepare and collate date and information about our players and teams to give the league a more comprehensive and professional look this year. We are aiming at higher visibility through the media so people can learn more about basketball. It's important eventually to attract more and more school boys and girls to play basketball, from more cities.

We are holding 3,568 total basketball matches around India for the entire league. We invite as many buyers and corporates to support us to join hands and promote the game. Eventually, we hope that this league will help us scout more talent both at grassroots and college level to create a better final structure for basketball.

I'm confident that all the help and support from IMG Reliance will help us in the BFI make good headway this year. We hope to expand this format to be even bigger and better in the coming years.

For the national champions of the different sections in both leagues, we have decided to support them by offering complete refurbishment of their basketball courts.

We have requested the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports to officially recognize the ICBL and ISBL. If young players take part in the league in school, this recognition will help them with their college admissions. In India, where there is a lot of family pressure to focus on academics, it will be a big step forward if basketball can help with academic placement.

Hoopistani: What will be the other eventual incentives or rewards for the winning teams?

Sharma: We have trophies and cash awards for all the winners, but more than that, I'm looking forward to the long-term growth of the game to each of the participating institutions, which will be a product of continuous four or five months of play. This is a big gain for players, coaches, and referees. I think this will eventually help the grassroots growth of the game.

Hoopistani Is the eventual plan to use these leagues to create a backbone for India's first professional basketball league?

Sharma: Well, I think that the manifestation of any sport aims to see a professional league in its final stage. Most sports in India - like us - are now looking to eventually launch a pro league.

Hoopistani When will the professional basketball league be launched?

Sharma: There is no confirmed dates on the timeline of the launch, but it is definitely on the plate for the future. BFI and IMG Reliance want to prepared so that, when the league is launched, it's launched in the best-possible way.

Hoopistani On the launch of football's Indian Super League (ISL) - also done in partnership with IMG Reliance - IMG's chairman Mike Dolan mentioned that the ISL could be used as a model to launch India's first basketball league over the next year. Are you looking at the ISL as a blueprint for the Indian basketball league?

Sharma: I haven't seen the blueprint for the ISL, but we can consider it. If it flatters our expectations, then we can emulate it. The most important thing for our league is that it should be relevant for the Indian environment.

Hoopistani Basketball in India does have a competitive advantage over football as it can be a more urban game because of it's small space advantage...

Sharma: Basketball is an urban game, but it also isn't. In India, a lot of the top talent is coming the villages, and our best players are not really city kids. But yes, space limitations in the cities make the game more adaptable for an urban set-up. We hope to have infrastructure in our participating cities at par with national and international standards.

Hoopistani Apart from the ICBL and ISBL, what other projects is BFI working on to raise the level of basketball in India?

Sharma: There are various parameters by which we are evaluating our performance right now.

We have improved the consistency and standards of our coaching staff at the top level, with three international coaches. [Scott Flemming - Men's National Team, Francisco Garcia - Women's National Team, Tommy Heffelfinger - Strength and Conditioning Coach].

We have improved our coaching camp conditions, shifting from SAI centers to the best courts at Jaypee Greens in Greater Noida to improve the competitive level of our top national teams.

We have done well in providing better physical conditions and improved diets for our players.

When I took over the BFI over two years ago, the Men's team was ranked 14th in Asia, and now we have jumped up to number seven. We beat China and even our losses to other strong teams were by a narrow margin. At the Lusofonia Games, the Men's team won a gold and Women won silver. The Women's team is now fifth in Asia behind China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, and Korea. We are trying to bridge that gap and the girls have undertaken aggressive training to improve their level of play. We were also happy to see Geethu Anna Jose receive an Arjuna Award this year. Outside of basketball, our players continue to get excellent career opportunities.

We have shown great degree of improvement in 3x3 basketball too: our Senior team won gold at the FIBA Asia 3x3 championship and the junior boys and girls won U18 FIBA Asia 3x3 championship silver medals.

There is now good potential for the senior teams and additionally, a great lineup of future players waiting at both the senior and under-18 levels. Our goal for the national teams is to feature a mix of experienced and young players.

BFI and IMG Reliance have been tracking significant improvement of several state teams at the national championships. We are also giving exposure to the game by taking the game to more cities as possible through the nationals. It's important to bring basketball closer to fans in more cities, and not just the metros in India. We have now ensured that all our cities hosting national championships have indoor courts to reduce injuries.

The nationals are now not just a championship, but a basketball festival.

BFI has been lucky in getting FIBA international instructors like Nelson Isley to come to India the last two years and train our young coaches in at least 12 Indian cities. These young coaches have been passing with great distinction. India's referees are now much sought-after for international tournaments like the Basketball World Cup and even the Olympics.

All our under-14, under-16, under-18, and senior levels, in both boys and girls, are improving. But I feel that exposure trips for our teams is essential as a final challenge before international tournaments. If we want to win, we need more and more games under our belts. I was disappointed with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) when they didn't approve our recent exposure trips. That is a regret for me, the players, and the coaches. SAI has budget for the national team which wasn't used for its purpose.

Hoopistani: You mentioned that you are looking to engage fans in more cities in India. Has this been a challenge to get fans to come watch basketball at the nationals or the school/college leagues?

Sharma: The good schools in India will usually have 2000-odd kids, and during school hours, it's ensured that many of these kids will come to see the basketball games. The same in colleges, too. For the ICBL/ISBL national finals in New Delhi, we will have several top teams who are city winners. We are looking to take professional help from event managers here to invite people to come and witness the competition.

For the nationals, I think that it is media which has the potential to make or break a lot of our activities. We are hoping that the media will support our sports endeavour. We want to communicate more with our fans to popularize the sport. We have sponsors at the nationals and we hope that they will help us attract a local fan following. There is a need for more visibility of the game in all the cities.

I want to make our games more entertaining, we are planning to have radio partners soon and hopefully tie up with TV-Media partners in the future.

We want to reach out to the maximum number of Indian basketball fans directly through our website, social media, and tools such as WhatsApp etc.

Hoopistani: What would you say are some challenges that BFI faces in their endeavours to grow the game?

Sharma: The biggest challenges are financial and the commercial viability of the sport. Infrastructure costs are huge. Readily-made infrastructure that meets our conditions isn't easily available or costs a lot of money. I think that the Government of India should give sports federations like us more help. I can requests the corporate partners but without indoor courts, which the government can help with, I'll always be limited.

Secondly, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports need to support us and not only think of potential medal winners [The Ministry nearly cancelled Indian basketball participation at the Asian Games because of this]. A budget should be created by SAI not just for the individual performers but also for teams who have larger size. India needs to evaluate its budget for team sports.

SAI needs to promote the sport and not wait till the last minute to give us approval. The government needs a strong policy regarding this. Also, they want us to use our own funding for exposure trips. I told them in a letter that the national federation didn't have such deep pockets. Fortunately, they replied positively and have said that they will grant our requests for future exposure trips. The people in the government should be aware of the sports federations' restrictions and problems, and find ways in which they can help us. They shouldn't be a controller, they should be a facilitator.

If we want to view India as a medal prospect at any level of basketball, we need to seriously train our players better. It's crucial to set up academies for training of future stars.

Hoopistani: And looking ahead at the future, what does the BFI hope to achieve for basketball in the next few years?

Sharma: We'll be taking small steps to align ourselves with the ultimate objective of developing the game in India. We have to increase and improve when we participate in international tournaments and create basketball icons in India which the young fans be inspired by. If we can create our own Yao Ming, it will act as a catalyst to the game of basketball in India.

Hoopistani: Do we have a potential India 'Yao Ming' in the pipeline?

Sharma: We currently have players who are tall, athletic, and young, but without continuous support, they cannot compete at the NBA level, except for Satnam Singh Bhamara, who is currently training at the IMG Academy in the USA and getting the needed basketball exposure. We need to work hard at improving the skill level of other players by getting specialized trainers.

The NBA has shown intent in India, and this gives me a flicker of hope that they must have done their homework. Out of 125 million young Indians, maybe one or two can fit the bill!

September 27, 2014

NBA/Reliance Foundation complete Train the Trainers workshop in Kochi

The NBA and the Reliance Foundation successful concluded the two-day 'Train the Trainers' workshop in Kochi (Kerala), as part of their expanded Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme. The workshop featured 200 physical education instructors representing 165 schools from across the state to implement a turnkey NBA curriculum In Kerala.

Apart from Kochi, similar programmes are also slated to be held in Chennai, Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai, Ludhiana, and Jalandhar.

The clinic was led by the Portuguese Carlos Barroca, the new Senior Director of Basketball Operations for NBA India, who has recently replaced the predecessor Troy Justice in India. Barroca was joined in Kochi with Canadian basketball coach Jaison Frolkna.

The Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme enters it's second year in India with expansion into eight cities. In Kerala, The first year of the programme has operated in 100 schools where 80,000 kids have participated in the districts of Ernakulam, Kottayam, Alapuzha, Thrissur, and Pathanamthitta. This year, the programme has added 75 more schools from the state.

All the trainers at the camp received ‘Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA Basketball in a Bag,’ which contained resources for them to grow the game in their communities as well as their schools. The bag included an 100 page India-specific coaching guide with curriculum for in-school and after-school programmes, nets, whistles, cones, air pumps and a Jr. NBA poster. 15 basketballs were given to each school in the region and five basketballs to the affiliates to run their programmes, too.

The Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme will promote health, fitness and an active lifestyle through basketball, and teach the values of the game such as teamwork, sacrifice, discipline, dedication and sportsmanship. The programme will feature a combination of in-school and after-school activities along with basketball competitions.

"We are excited to partner with NBA, the world’s premier basketball league, in transforming India’s basketball landscape," said Nita Ambani, the Reliance Foundation Chairperson, "India has a rich reservoir of sporting talents and schools are the fountainhead where those talents can be identified and nurtured. Through this historic association, Reliance Foundation looks forward to bringing the NBA’s world-class expertise and curriculum and taking Indian basketball to greater standards of excellence."

The programme will be supported by international NBA coaches include Syndney Haydel (USA), Jala Richard (Portugal), and Joao Rocha (USA). Local trainer Shibu Robert and eight assistant coaches from Kerala have also been recruited for the programme. They will be visiting 125 schools to support the trained physical education instructors who will be conducting daily basketball-led physical education classes for grades 4-10 in their schools.

In addition to the in-school portion, three centers have identified as elite training centers; selected student from these 125 schools will receive advance training at the elite centers from the international coaches every Saturday during the duration of the programme.

September 26, 2014

BFI / IMG Reliance expand School/College leagues to 24 Indian cities this season

Since we're always hoop-minded over here, compare the following bit of news to a team that maintains a slower pace through the first three quarters of the game, before letting out the floodgates for a dominant finish.

After three years of steady growth, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and IMG Reliance organized school and college basketball leagues around India are set for an explosive acceleration this year. The BFI announced that the new seasons of the Indian School Basketball League (ISBL) and the Indian College Basketball League (ICBL) will be held in 22 and 21 Indian cities respectively. Over 1100 institutions and 13,000 combined school or college students - both men and women - will be participating in the ISBL and ICBL in 24 total cities. The games are starting this week and will conclude with the National Finals for all winners in New Delhi in December.

Roopam Sharma, the CEO of the BFI, and Ashu Jindal, the CEO of IMG Reliance, announced the new chapter of the leagues at a launch event in New Delhi on Thursday with Chief Guest Sarbananda Sonowal, the Union Minister of State-Independent Charge for Sports & Youth Affairs, Skill Development & Entrepreneurship. India's chief basketball coach KK Chansoria was also present at the occasion.

"Sport anywhere cannot be developed without nurturing the grassroots," said Sharma, "We firmly believe that a strong grassroots endeavor like this will not only cultivate a strong talent pool for basketball and it will popularize the sport among the youth in an unparalleled way. These leagues confirm BFI’s commitment to raise the profile of the sport in the country and help India excel to even higher heights on the world stage."

These leagues will form the foundation of one of the nation’s most robust school and college based grassroots sports programme. According to the BFI, the structured, pan-India leagues will allow players and coaches to develop their skills through continued performance over the dedicated three month season. Successful execution of this initiative will play a key role in transforming the sporting and basketball culture in the country, from the grassroots to the professional level. Furthermore, the ICBL and ISBL will serve as a feeder system into India’s Men’s and Women’s National Teams. The format of the leagues will emphasize continuous participation and improvement and provides an excellent platform for players, coaches and officials to develop the critical basketball skills required to compete and excel at the highest levels.

The ultimate conclusion for both the leagues will be the National Championship, which will be held at the Thyagraj Stadium in New Delhi in December 2014.

Speaking about the initiative, Jindal said, "The Indian School Basketball League and Indian College Basketball League are groundbreaking additions to India’s sporting landscape. It is only through ambitious grassroots development programs, such as these that the sporting culture in India will truly transform. These leagues and our continued partnership with the BFI confirm IMG Reliance’s commitment to growing the sport of basketball in the country."

Both the ISBL and ICBL are divided into two divisions: The Premier League and the Challenger League. A total of 10 teams will take part from each city in each league and in each gender division.

ISBL Participating Cities
  • Premier League: Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Ludhiana, Indore, Cochin, Jaipur. 
  • Challenger League: Pune, Gurgaon, Noida, Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Bhubaneshwar, Patna, Goa, Bhilai, Varanasi, Dehradun, Guwahati.

ICBL Participating Cities
  • Premier League: Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Ludhiana, Indore, Thiruvanathapuram, Jaipur. 
  • Challenger League: Pune, Gurgaon, Noida, Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Bhubaneshwar, Patna, Goa, Raipur, Varanasi, Dehradun.
The winners of each city's 'Premier League' will travel to Delhi to play in the National Finals for both the ICBL and the ISBL and for both boys and girls. The format in both the ISBL and the ICBL will feature a 'relegation and promotion' system. The bottom two Premier League teams will play against the top two Challenge League teams in special playoffs to determine the winning two teams for the Premier League next season and losing two teams for the Challenge League.

The BFI will award the winning school and college at the national level with a refurbished basketball court, in addition to cash awards, certificates and trophies for standout performers.

September 23, 2014

India drawn in Level I of 22nd FIBA Asia U18 Championship for Women

After going undefeated at the FIBA Asia U18 Championship for Women two years ago, India's Juniors have won promotion into Level 1 of the tournament and joined the fray with Asia's top squads for the 22nd FIBA Asia U18 Championship for Women, set to be held in Amman (Jordan) from October 10-17, 2014. At total of 12 teams from across Asia were drawn in Levels I and II of the tournament by FIBA Asia recently.

Draw for the 2014 FIBA Asia U18 Championship for Women in Amman
  • Level I: China, India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Chinese Taipei
  • Level II: Hong Kong, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka.

Two years ago, at the previous iteration of this tournament in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, India started in Level II where they beat Singapore, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia to qualify for Level I. The probables for Team India will soon be heading to the SAI Center in Aurangabad to train for the tournament. India last played in Level 1 back in 2008.

September 21, 2014

The Age Old Question

Age frauds hurt the present & the future of Indian Basketball

This article was first published in my column for on September 8, 2014. Click here to read the original post. 

Illustration credit: Deepak 'Chuck' Gopalakrishnan for

“Everybody does it.”

The first Indian national basketball tournament I closely covered were the Sub-Junior (under-14) nationals in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, back in September 2010. The tournament featured the youngest members of the Indian basketball family from dozens of different states. While my first order of interest was obviously the result and the performances of the teams during the week-long tournament, it was also fascinating to wonder which of those young players could one day grow to become future stars of India’s Senior teams.

Scouting talent – especially among 12 or 13 year olds – is a wild and hugely unpredictable science. When a young player shows promise, the scout has to think more about their potential for growth over the next six or seven years instead of their performances in the present day. In many cases, the best performers at the sub-junior level can fizzle out and never reach their potential. In other cases, the converse could happen, and a wiry-thin bench warmer at 13 could enjoy an unbelievable growth spurt and become a superstar by 18.

There was one player in Kangra who stood head and shoulders above the rest, a player with performances so sublime that even the casual observer could bet that this young man was destined for stardom. He was taller, stronger, and quicker than the rest. He attacked the basket with ease and bullied his opponents on the way to a dominating performance. No matter who won the tournament, it was this individual that stole the hearts of all observers.

But then, like there always are in such cases, there were whispers. Whispers of cheating, of a lie. Whispers that said that there could be no possibility of this star player being under 14. Whispers of ‘age fraud’.

There is a reason why those whispers never turned into louder discussions in Kangra, and why, in every junior level national tournament in India (under-14, under-16, or under-18), there are similar whispers that go ignored. That is because most of those whispers come from guilty parties themselves. There are rarely any innocents in Indian basketball when it comes to age fraud. Only ones without sin could throw the first stone, and thus, there are no stones thrown at all.

And over and over, the whispers die down with the same sign and defeated acceptance. “Everybody does it,” they say.

That star player from Kangra – along with many of the other young talents I saw in 2010 – are now on the cusp of senior level in India. Many of those under-14s are at the under-18 level, and some of them were even part of the team that represented India at the FIBA Asia U18 Championship in Doha (Qatar) last week. India didn’t perform very well in Doha for a variety of reasons. India rarely performs well at the Asian/international level at all. Age fraud from a younger age isn’t the only ailment that hurts us at the national level, but a senior referee from Maharashtra recently told me that it doesn’t exactly help either.

“Our federations want better performances at international level,” he said, “But rather than focusing on our players getting better, they focus on trying to get better results from older players.  Meanwhile, the younger players don’t get a chance to shine and improve. The older ones only play for instant glory instead of long-term improvement.”

Because “everyone does it”, it has become the only way for various state teams at the National tournaments to remain competitive. At every national tournament, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) appoints an Age Verification / Medical Committee to conduct a medical test. Every once in a while, a handful of players are adjudged to be older and barred from taking part. But this test – and its results – only hit the tip of the iceberg.

Frankly, the numbers of age frauds at these nationals are much larger than what the Medical Committee reveals. It is easy to forge documents for the kids at a young age, and unless they truly stand out in their muscular built, they are rarely suspected of age fraud. The result is that it becomes common to see 16-year-olds at the under-14 nationals, 18-year-olds at the under-16s, and 20-year-olds at the under-18s.

So how deep rooted is the problem truly? Experienced Indian basketball scout and development expert Jonathan Rego believes that around 80 percent – if not more – of participants in any junior level national tournament may be lying about their age.

“It is way too rampant and blatant for my comfort,” Rego told me, “It’s a problem so deeply entrenched in the system that those who cheat, continue to do so because those who don't have accepted it as part of the system. There are protests, but more often than not those protests are dismissed by verification of a birth certificate, which can be easily forged especially in smaller towns and cities which is where most of the better players come from.”

It might sound like a quick and easy solution to get a result by playing an older player at a younger tournament, but in the long run, age fraud hurts both the player involved and the teams he plays for, including India’s national teams. For the player, it keeps him or her at the lower level for too long, denying them the opportunity to practice and glean experience by facing off against more players of their own age group. A 20-year-old might dominate a field of 17-18 year olds, but by the time he’s 22, he is inexperienced against foes his own age.

“For players who aren't cheating, they constantly feel like they are going up against ‘better’ competition and that maybe they aren't cut out for the game,” said Rego, “This is also a big factor since juniors are easily impressionable and take their early victories and defeats to heart.”

Eventually, the problem hits India where it hurts most: the national team. "As younger talents are forced to play second-fiddle in the appropriate age group, age frauds deprive them of much-needed early exposure and the chance to develop in the appropriate way as they get to the senior level. Meanwhile, Team India stuffs up with players who had made a name for themselves domestically at a junior level before realizing that many of the same players peaked too early against younger and less developed talent.

A lie is like an errant pass: once you commit the turnover, it is difficult to recover the ball in the same possession. Once a player begins to falsify his or her records, it is difficult to undo the deed. Age fraud denies certain players who have the talent to play high-school or college basketball abroad from starting their development and education at the right age. While they pretend to be younger, they really get older, and are only wastefully repeating those years of their youth instead of improving (on the court as well as the classroom) with their own age-group.

The problem is beyond basketball or sports, and is entrenched as a systematic part of corruption in India. In smaller towns, registration offices will happily take a bribe to change birth certificates. District level or state level tournament organizers will gladly turn a blind eye to favoured coaches or teams that are fielding clearly older players.

It’s incorrect to only blame the players in this regard. All of them are influenced to make a decision about changing their age by an adult when they are only in their pre-teens, and thus may not understand the long-term consequences of their mistake. It could be a parent, the first coach at the district level, the coach of the state team, or the team manager who encourages the age fraud: and by the time the player is passed on from academy to academy and coach to coach, it gets murkier and hazier to identify the true culprit.

So how do we curb this rampant problem? In 2009, India’s Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports – at least officially – set up the rules and consequences of age fraud. The ministry told state federations to ban any overage athletes for two years if caught cheating in first detection and for five years with any subsequent detection. The ministry also asked for mandatory ID cards for all athletes and conduct random age verification at regular intervals.

But these policies have been more talk and less action. As mentioned earlier, any type of age verification document is easy to forge. Secondly, despite the rule to ban overage athletes for two (or five) years, in practice, the ban ends up only applying to the player for the duration of the said tournament, before they are reinstated to be back in action the next time around.

As a solution, Rego suggested that players should be registered in a central database from the very first moment they play in a tournament that is affiliated or authorized by the Federation. Once registered, the centrally-managed database should be made available to all state federations and thus make tampering with age more difficult.  

He also believes that a more advanced physical test by the medical committee at the nationals could make a difference, too. “The bone density test is still a widely accepted and respected method of determining age,” he said, “There is argument against its high cost, but my counter is that, if administered and recorded properly, there is need to do it just once in a player's lifetime.”

“Nobody follows the rules,” said the referee from Maharashtra, “We need to hold both the state associations as well as the BFI accountable for letting this problem get worse. It shouldn’t be allowed to go haywire.”

Unfortunately, as of now, the problem has clearly gone haywire with no real resolution in the horizon. It will take a few brave and honest coaches, managers, or state associations to swim against the tide and refuse to play older players in junior tournaments – no matter the consequences. But, this being a circle of cause-and-effect, their efforts will only be recognized and emulated by others if they are able to be successful. With so many cracks in the system, it will ultimately come down to the honour of the coach to stick to doing the right thing.

Four years ago, I was in awe of that star player at the Under-14 nationals in Kangra as he dominated his competition with ease. Four years later, as the same star player reaches adulthood, I have begun to pity him a little: for the last few years, he was always the alpha dog in any team he played for or against. No doubt he was talented, but this was mostly because he also usually went up against those younger than him. Now he reaches an age where the difference of two or three years doesn’t matter as much anymore, but since he never learnt the ability to muscle past those as strong, fast, tall, or talented as him, he remains in grave danger of getting left behind. He might be a participant for India at the international stage but it’s unlikely that he’ll ever be a star.

Pity, because Indian basketball could sure use young superstars to peak at the right time. Hopefully, there is a steady change in the system so we can look past instant glory to ensure more long-term success.

If “everybody does it” then perhaps, together, everybody can stop, too. 

September 20, 2014

Gasolina: A celebration of Pau Gasol as one of basketball’s All Time great international players

Few international players have had his measure of success in the modern era as Pau Gasol, who helped usher in Spain's golden generation and made La Roja the world's most feared basketball team outside of USA. Here's a celebration of Gasol's stellar international career.

Click here to read the full feature.

September 19, 2014

2014 Asian Games: The Complete Team India Basketball Preview

The journey - as it usually is with Indian sports - wasn't easy, and threatened to unravel into disaster as, less than 10 days before the beginning of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon (Korea), the fate of India's basketball (and a few other sports) teams hung in the balance. Luckily for the Indian athletes and hoop lovers back home, the turmoil finally ended last week and India's Men's and Women's Senior basketball squads were confirmed to participate at the basketball tournament in Incheon, set to be held from September 20 - October 4.

The 17th Asian Games - or the XVII Asiad - will be held in Incheon from September 19 - October 4, 2014. A total of 439 events from 36 sports and disciplines set to feature in the Games. The basketball tournament at the Games will be held at the Samsan World Gymnasium and the Hwaseong Sports Complex.

India's Men's Basketball team at the 17th Asian Games
  • Joginder Singh
  • Narender Kumar Grewal
  • Akilan Pari
  • Prakash Mishra
  • Pratham Singh
  • Vishesh Bhriguvanshi
  • Amrit Pal Singh (Captain)
  • Prasanna Venkatesh Sivakumar
  • Palpreet Singh Brar
  • Amjyot Singh
  • Yadwinder Singh
  • Rikin Shantilal Pethani
  • Head Coach: Scott Flemming
  • Coach: Prasad Rama Linga
  • Physiotherapist: Naved Hameed
Head Coach Scott Flemming has opted for a completely unchanged roster for Team India from the squad that performed wonders at the 5th FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan (China) in July this year. Flemming's decision is no surprise at all: this is the same Indian squad that defeated the mighty Chinese on their home soil at the FIBA Asia Cup for the first time in the nation's basketball history. Although India finished the tournament at only 7th place, they managed to scare much-favoured Asian squads like Iran and the Philippines (both of whom played at the FIBA World Cup) and proved that they were much better than their 61st FIBA World Ranking proclaimed. India will once again rely on their three most talented players - Vishesh Bhrighuvanshi, Amjyot Singh, and new captain Amrit Pal Singh - to strike fear in their opponents.

India will start the tournament in Group B of the Qualifying Round.

Asian Games Men's Basketball Groups
  • Qualifying Round Group A: Mongolia, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Maldives. 
  • Qualifying Round Group B: Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Palestine, India
  • Preliminary Round Group C: China, Chinese Taipei, B2. 
  • Preliminary Round Group D: South Korea, Jordan, A2. 
  • Preliminary Round Group E: Iran, Philippines, B1. 
  • Preliminary Round Group F: Japan, Qatar, A1.
To qualify for the Preliminary Round of the tournament, India must finish in top 2 of the qualifying round stage. India should be able to do just that: Kazakhstan are slight favourites for Group B but India should be able to defeat Saudi Arabia and Palestine. If India can beat Kazakhstan too, they will top the group. Either way, if India qualifies for the Preliminary Round, they will thrown right into the fire. Finishing top will see them in a group with Asia's World Cup representatives Iran and Philippines and finishing second will place them with Asia's top seed China as well as FIBA Asia Cup runner-ups Chinese Taipei.

The top two teams from from Groups C, D, E, and F will move on to two more groups (G and H) of round-robin games as the Quarter-Final round, and the four best from these groups will finally be in the semi-final knockout stage.

India's Men's Qualifying Round Schedule - all timings IST
  • September 20 - 12:45 PM - India vs. Palestine.
  • September 21 - 12:45 PM - India vs. Saudi Arabia.
  • September 22 - 12:45 PM - Kazakhstan vs. India.
"It has been a long wait and one with uncertainty," Coach Flemming told me as Team India readied to head out to Korea for the Asian Games, "We are very glad that we have been given approval to participate in the Asian Games. At the same time we are again battling the odds with no preparatory games and a limited coaching staff. We will again need to be overcomers and overachievers. We draw confidence from our play in the Asia Cup earlier this summer. Our team will do our best to meet the challenge ahead of us."

My Prediction: At the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou (China), India's Men finished winless, losing all five of their games. This year, circumstances and groupings are different and India should be able to notch a couple of Qualifying Round victories. India will have to use the first two games against Palestine and Saudi Arabia as their 'preparatory' games before their biggest early challenge against Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs are known to be tall and athletic, but I feel that this Indian side has enough confidence and talent now to beat them and top Group B. Unfortunately, they will have to go against Iran and Philippines in the Preliminary Round then, and only another miracle (like our win over China two months ago) will be able to see India survive for the Quarter-Finals.

India's Women's Basketball team at the 17th Asian Games
  • Akanksha Singh
  • Kavita Akula
  • Kruthika Lakshman
  • Kavita Kumari
  • Poojamol KS
  • Raspreet Sidhu
  • Prashanti Singh
  • Smruthi Radhakrishnan (Captain)
  • Rajapriyadharshini
  • Jeena PS
  • Stephy Nixon
  • Head Coach: Francisco Garcia
  • Coach: Divya Singh
  • Physiotherapist: Rajesh Chavan
It's been a long time since we've seen a full-strength India Women's basketball team in action. It's been almost 10 months, actually. Garcia led India to a best-ever fifth-place finish at the 25th FIBA Asia Championship for Women in Bangkok (Thailand) last year, and India notched their first-ever Level 1 victory in the tournament, too. Since then, India's only major international exposure has been at the Lusofonia Games in January, where Garcia opted to play a younger, less experienced squad. Although several of the big guns are back in the roster for India, this team is missing some familiar faces like recent Arjuna Award winner Geethu Anna Jose and young rising star Shireen Limaye, who tore her ACL just days before the team was due to fly to Korea. Jose's Railways' teammate Anitha Paul Durai is also missing in action. India will be relying on the potential of youngsters Jeena PS and Kavita Kumari, the leadership of captain Smruthi Radhakrishnan, and the experienced Singh Sisters - Prashanti and Akanksha - in the campaign. Because they finished in Level 1 of last year's FIBA Asia Championship, India's Women have already been seeded to the competitions final round.

Asian Games Women's Basketball Seedings
  • Qualifying Round: Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Qatar.
  • Final Round: China, South Korea, Japan, Chinese Taipei, Thailand, India.
The top team from the Qualifying Round will play Korea in the Quarter-Final while the second-best team will play China. India's first game at the tournament will be a Quarter-Final clash against Japan on September 28th at 9:30 AM IST. If India win this game, they will play either Korea or the top team from the Qualifying Round in the Semi-Final. If India lose, they will be slotted in the 5th-8th place tournament.

"Our preparation for the Asian Games was not the best," Coach Garcia said, "We ran three camps but our exposure trip was cancelled even when we were ready with visas to head to China for practice games. So at the end of the day we go there [Incheon] without playing a single game. As far as I know, our opponents have been playing in international tournaments since the end of July. Also, we'll be going there without our two best scorers (Jose and Paul Durai) and rebounder (Jose) of the last FIBA Asia Championship. Days ago, Shireen Limaye, an important player in our system, tore her ACL so she won't be able to play either. But still, we expect to compete at 500 percent; we have been working very hard and although we have adversities, I believe in this group to give their best in the tournament."

My Prediction: India's Women were also winless at the 2010 Asian Games, going 0-3 in the tournament. By being seeded in the final round this year and starting in the Quarter-Final, India are ensured at least a top 8 finish. India's chances of winning that quarter-final against Japan are low since the Japanese are the reigning FIBA Women's champions. If they lose, they will have to face against other Quarter-Final losers in the 5th-8th tournament, where their biggest challenger will probably be Thailand. India proved last year that they were ready to cement their position as Asia's fifth-best women's team after the big four of China, Chinese Taipei, Korea and Japan, and I expect them to be good enough for fifth-place again this time around.

September 18, 2014

International Watch: Ranking the top 10 FIBA World Cup players outside the USA

Although the USA – the world’s number one ranked team – were an automatic favourite to be crowned champions at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, few predicted that they would achieve the feat with such relative ease, winning each game by an average margin of 32.5 points per game and continuing their 63 game unbeaten streak in international basketball contests. But don’t let the Americans’ dominance distract you from the top performers from the rest of the world, many of whom, even in defeat, used the World Cup stage to further define their legacies.

Here are the top 10 players from the 2014 FIBA World Cup outside the USA. Click here for full feature.

September 17, 2014

After numerous voices of protest, FIBA (tentatively) relaxes Headgear rule for international basketball

It took voices of protest from in and outside India, from the Sikh and Muslim communities and from many more who chose to support the right cause, and finally, there seems to be some progress. FIBA - the International Basketball Federation - announced at the first meeting of their newly-elected Central Board that they will be tentatively 'relaxing' their rules banning players donning headgear (such as turbans or hijab) from participating in international basketball games.'s provides more of the news below, with details that show FIBA's steps into the right direction:

In response to the various requests received, the Central Board held in-depth discussions regarding rules about uniforms and decided to put a testing phase into place for the next two years that will consist of:
- Relaxing the current rules regarding headgear in order to enable national federations to request, as of now, exceptions to be applied at the national level within their territory without incurring any sanctions for violation of FIBA's Official Basketball Rules. National Federations wishing to apply for such an exception to the uniform regulations shall submit a detailed request to FIBA. Once approved, they shall submit follow-up reports twice a year to monitor the use of such exceptions.
- The players will be allowed to play in FIBA endorsed 3x3 competitions - both nationally and internationally - wearing headgear without restrictions, unless the latter presents a direct threat to their safety or that of other players on the court. Players wishing to take part in such competitions with headgear must ensure that a detailed request for approval is addressed to FIBA.
- FIBA will communicate with National Federations over the coming weeks on the subject of these request procedures.
The two years will serve as a test period. FIBA, through its competent bodies, will monitor these requests and their implementation from both the technical and sport development perspectives (for example in terms of manufacturing specificities, safety of athletes, look on the field of play and positive development of participation numbers in basketball within the demanding countries).
A first report will be provided to the Central Board in 2015, which will then determine whether tests at the lowest official international level shall be allowed as of next summer. A full review will be done in 2016 to take a decision on whether permanent changes to the Official Basketball Rules shall be made and implemented after the 2016 Olympic Games.

Wading through the intense wordiness above we find the the good news for Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, or players of other communities for whom the headgear is a crucial part of their religion and culture. They will now be allowed to take part in FIBA events with their headgear on just as long as the national federations submit an application asking for this exception beforehand. This rule specifically directs to India and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI): The BFI claimed discrimination when Sikh players of the Indian national team at the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan (China) and the U18 FIBA Asia Championship in Doha (Qatar) were not allowed to take part in the games unless they removed their turbans. The onus is now on India and the BFI to be at the top of their game each time and make sure to apply for these uniform exceptions in time and make sure to follow up twice a year (because FIBA doesn't want to make things too easy, do they?) to ensure that our Sikh players don't feel humiliated at the international stage again.

FIBA has set up a two year test period; hopefully, at the end of these two years, they are able to accept certain headgear as a normal part of the uniform and don't need constant applications/reminders about it. It will be great if the official FIBA rules regarding this are changed by the 2016 Olympics: not that India has any chance of participating in the basketball tournament, but there might be players from other nations who may don headgear, too.

The Sikh America Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), who share a lot of credit for bringing the turban issue to international attention, recognized FIBA's step forward. "FIBA has taken a step towards change, but this policy alteration will continue to lead to an unequal playing field," said Jasjit Singh, executive director of SALDEF, "We hope that FIBA will soon recognize Sikhs, Muslims and Orthodox Jews can freely play with their respective articles of faith, without process or paperwork and beyond their home countries. We ask all to join us as we tell FIBA to let Sikhs play freely."

Here's my personal guarantee about this issue: over the next two years, the test period will go swimmingly and FIBA will figure out manufacturing specificities etc. as they mentioned above. And soon enough, because we live in a world of large corporations that truly decide morality and culture at the commercial stage, sports-wear brands like Nike and adidas are going to start vying to sponsor athletic turbans, designed specifically for basketball, and coming fully FIBA-approved in their shape/size/design. And this train of thought leads me to believe that if LeBron James or Kobe Bryant had wanted to play in the Olympics with what FIBA had previously described as 'threatening' headgear, Nike would've changed the 'No Headgear' rule years ago.

Anyways, good step forward, FIBA. Hopefully the Indian national teams can put these distractions behind them and focus on taking even bigger steps forward on the basketball court.

September 16, 2014

Shooting High

The national aspirations of a decorated girls’ basketball team

I wrote this article for The Caravan Magazine, and it was originally published in the magazine's September 1, 2014 edition.

EMRS Girls form the majority of the
 Sikkim State team. Photo: Bijoy Gurung
At sunrise on a cold February morning, 18-year-old Nim Doma swept stones and leaves off a basketball court perched high on a hillside in western Sikkim. Around her, 11 other teenaged girls, all dressed in jerseys and shorts, did the same. They worked briskly for a few minutes, then put the brooms aside. Next they picked up basketballs, and started running drills. Morning practice had begun.

Doma is the star of the “Girls of Gangyap”—the basketball team of the Eklavya Model Residential School in the small village of Gangyap, about a six-hour drive west of the Sikkimese capital, Gangtok. The EMRS squad is one of the most explosive school teams in the nation. Since 2011, it has reached three consecutive finals and won two golds in the under-19 category at the CBSE National Championship, a basketball tournament for all the 15,468 public and private schools affiliated with the Indian government’s Central Board of Secondary Education. In all three years, Doma, who plays as a shooting guard, was named the tournament’s most valuable player. The girls are so dominant in Sikkim that they have formed almost the entirety of the state womens’ team in recent years. Yet despite such success, bureaucratic hurdles mean that the Girls of Gangyap are not eligible for selection to national teams for their age groups.

Less than a decade ago, few in Gangyap even knew what a basketball was. The village is home to slightly less than a thousand people, most of whom are poor farmers from scheduled tribes such as the Bhutia, Lepcha, Limbu, Tamang and Sherpa. Basketball arrived here with Sidharth Yonzone, a self-described “die-hard” fan of the US-based National Basketball Association league who grew up partly in western Sikkim. In 2007, when EMRS was founded as a free residential school funded by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Yonzone was appointed its principal. To share his love of the sport, he started to train interested students. While the boys were more drawn to football, the girls took to basketball with great passion. Soon, Yonzone became the head coach of the girls’ basketball team. “I had to teach them basketball from scratch,” he said over the phone in March. “I must give many of them credit for learning so quickly … I guess they fell in love with it. Now, all of them are also in love with the NBA, and the WNBA”—the women’s equivalent of the NBA.

The EMRS team has made a habit of overcoming disadvantages. “We never had a basketball court other than a tiny, makeshift mud-and-stone court for six-and-a-half years,” Yonzone said. “A new court was built just last year, and the girls helped out the construction crew to build it, carrying stones, sand, cement and more.” The girls have also learned to cope with relatively taller opponents from other states. Their strength, Yonzone said, lies in speed, and in creating rapid counter-attacks. “I ask the girls to make a run whenever they can, in order to take a commanding lead as early as we can,” he said.

The team’s rapid success has caught many off guard, including Sikkim’s basketball administrators. The sport’s official authority in the state, the Sikkim Basketball Association, is not recognized by the sport’s national governing body, the Basketball Federation of India. As a result, Sikkim does not compete at BFI-sanctioned state tournaments, at which players are evaluated for national selection. Jigme Wazalinpa, a former member of the SBA’s executive committee, told me in July that when the organisation was started in 1992, its members never thought “that a time would come that our players could compete on the national level.” The SBA, he said, has been slow to promote basketball in Sikkim, and has neglected opportunities beyond the state’s borders. After a schism in 2013, a group of former SBA members formed the rival Basketball Association of Sikkim, with plans to apply for recognition from the BFI.

Back in March, I spoke to Roopam Sharma, the CEO of the BFI, about Sikkim’s status. Sharma said the organisation would welcome any application for recognition from a representative body from Sikkim. Sharma has made public promises to bring BFI-sanctioned school and college basketball leagues—part of the organisation’s collaboration with IMG Reliance, a joint venture between Reliance Industries Limited and a US-based sports marketing firm—to Sikkim and other northeast states. That would help athletes from EMRS and other schools in the region to show the nation’s top scouts what they can do.

Doma told me the present obstacles would not faze her. “I want to keep playing the game in college and beyond,” she said. “My goal is to represent my country in basketball one day.”

September 15, 2014

USA stamps basketball dominance with another FIBA World Cup win

Without Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, or Carmelo Anthony. Without even Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, or Paul George. On paper, the 2014 World Cup featured a younger and 'weaker' USA side. This wasn't the 'redeemed' USA side that - since their last competitive loss in 2006 - had been undefeated and dominated opponents in every international basketball tournament since. This was, what many critics called, the 'C Team', the youngest USA side since the NBA began sending professionals back in 1992.

But basketball games aren't won on paper; Team USA's so-called 'C Team' turned the 'C' into 'Championship', defending the rebranded FIBA World Cup title for the first time in their history with a dominant performance that easily blew out the rest of the global competition. Winning every game by an average margin of 32.5 points, Team USA went an undefeated 9-0 at the World Cup in Spain, capping off their wonderful tournament with their best performance in the final: a 129-92 victory over Serbia in Madrid on Sunday, September 14.

After a slow start as Serbia raced to a 15-7 lead early in the game, USA bounced back with a 15-0 spurt and never looked back. USA made the most of the shortened international three-point line, hitting 11-16 threes in the final. Kyrie Irving (26) and James Harden (23) were the chief perpetrators as Serbia had no answer for the American onslaught. By the end of the contest, eight of the 12 USA players had scored in double figures en route to the 37 point win.

This was USA's fifth gold medal at the FIBA World Cup, tying for top slot with the former Yugoslavia. They have now won 63 straight games - 45 in official FIBA events and 18 in exhibition play - and are automatically qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

USA won all of their group games with relative ease, yet, because of their slow starts and the quality of their opponents, doubts remained about the true talent of this young team. By knocking out Mexico, Slovenia, Lithuania, and then Serbia on the way to the gold, USA went on to erase all such doubts. Kyrie Irving was named tournament's MVP, but this was far from a one-man effort: the likes of Kenneth Faried, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Klay Thompson, and more came up big from game to game to keep the Americans at the head of the race.

Since breaking up with Yugoslavia, the silver in 2014 was Serbia's first ever medal at the tournament. Serbia were the competition's unlikely finalists: they won only two of their five group games to sneak into the knockout stage, and then, they suddenly found a way to turn their performances around. The Serbs blew out favoured opponents like Greece and Brazil and held on to win in a classic Semi-Final over France to reach the final.

France won the bronze medal by scraping past Lithuania 95-93 for a close win on Saturday. Led by 27 points by Nicolas Batum, France bounced back from a fourth quarter deficit to claim victory. Lithuania's high scorer was their young center Jonas Valanciunas, who finished with 25 points and nine rebounds. France, who won last year's EuroBasket, will be happy with their performance at the World Cup, especially since they were able to win a medal without the likes of Tony Parker or Joakim Noah in their lineup.

The biggest disappointment at the World Cup was the performance of hosts Spain. Featuring the likes of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Serge Ibaka, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, and Rudy Fernandez, Spain entered the tournament at full strength and seemed to have all the pieces to be the only true challengers to USA's ascent. This was perhaps the last opportunity of Spain's "golden generation" heralded by Pau Gasol to beat the USA and claim their second World Cup win after 2006. Alas, after a fine start in the group stage and the round of 16, Spain were shocked in one of the great upsets in world basketball by France in the Quarter-Final. A defensive masterclass by the French knocked out the Spaniards and ended any hopes of the dream USA-Spain clash in the Final.

Final Standings
  • 1. USA
  • 2. Serbia
  • 3. France
All Tournament Team
  • Kyrie Irving (USA) - MVP 
  • Kenneth Faried (USA) 
  • Milos Teodosic (Serbia) 
  • Nicolas Batum (France) 
  • Pau Gasol (Spain)

September 14, 2014

The New Kingdom?

With the NBA’s first Indian owner Vivek Ranadive and first Indian-origin player Sim Bhullar, the Sacramento Kings are setting their sights at conquering basketball’s next great frontier

I wrote this feature for SLAM Online, and it was originally published on their website on September 3, 2014.

Up by three points with less than four minutes to go in their Preliminary Round game against China, India were on the cusp of history. If India could hold on to their lead, it would give them their first victory over Asian giants China in over 70 years of international competitive basketball.

Held in Wuhan, China this year, the FIBA Asia Cup featured nine or ten of the top teams of the continent. China had chosen to field mostly a second-string roster for this tournament, but nevertheless, they featured many players (like 18-year-old NBA prospect Zhou Qi) who would have a role in the upcoming Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) season. The Indian national team had no basketball professionals. A win over China – weakened squad or not – would be unprecedented.

Meanwhile, back home in India, hardly anyone knew of this game or the tournament at all. Basketball is a niche sport in a country of 1.2 billion people – the world’s second-largest population after China – most of whom weren’t even aware if India even had a basketball team. Beyond cricket – which is India’s most-loved and nearly-exclusive national pastime – there is much ignorance among the general public about the country’s exploits in other sports. This ignorance unfortunately extends to the larger Indian diaspora across the world too, from the United States and Canada to Britain and Australia.

“Do Indians even play basketball?” many wonder.

Back over in Wuhan, the 12 Indians of the national squad were playing basketball all right. After decades of 20, 30, 40, or 50 point losses to China in the past, here was an Indian team suddenly confident to be within close grasp of the impossible. They had blown a double-digit early lead already, fallen behind to the Chinese in the second half, and then bounced back again. Now, the score read 55-52 in India’s favour, with 4:07 remaining in the final quarter.

Limited to mostly Asian tournaments over the past few decades, the Indian team had been minnows against the continent’s giants, happy to compete for participation points rather than any medals. India’s current FIBA world ranking (61) sees them trail behind the likes of the Virgin Islands and Cape Verde, two countries with a combined population of a little more than Dehradun, India’s 76th most populous city. Despite some baby steps towards recent improvement, India have also made a habit of dramatic late-game breakdowns. A late three-point lead over China, in China, felt more like a house of cards ready to collapse. 

While India tried to survive those remaining four minutes, thousands of kilometres away in the Western Hemisphere, there were a couple other Indians flirting with history. Last year, Mumbai-born Vivek Ranadive had become the first Indian majority owner of an NBA team when he purchased the Sacramento Kings. While Ranadive’s Kings struggled on court, the software tycoon focused on pushing the team’s brand off-court in his attempts to tie in his team with the country of his birth and use his unique opportunity to make the Kings into “India’s Team.”

Meanwhile, a Canadian born to Indian-immigrants in Ontario grew to become a 7-foot-5 inch behemoth and win a couple of back-to-back Western Athletic Conference (WAC) tournament MVP awards in two years at New Mexico State. This giant – Sim Bhullar – declared for the NBA draft, went undrafted, and was promptly picked up by Ranadive’s Kings for their Summer League squad. Coincidently, on the same day that India played China in Wuhan, Bhullar made his Summer League debut for the Kings against the Hornets in Las Vegas.

A month later, on the same day that India celebrated its 67th Independence Day, the Kings announced that they had signed Bhullar to a contract, officially making him the first player of Indian-origin in the NBA. With one signature, a racial barrier had been broken in the league and the Kings had taken another calculated step towards their outreach to India.

Ranadive stressed the importance of Bhullar’s cultural heritage and its influence on the Indian audience. “I’ve long believed that India is the next great frontier for the NBA, and adding a talented player like Sim only underscores the exponential growth basketball has experienced in that nation,” Ranadive said in a press release, “While Sim is the first player of Indian descent to sign with an NBA franchise, he represents one of many that will emerge from that region as the game continues to garner more attention and generate ever-increasing passion among a new generation of Indian fans.”       

Over the past year, Ranadive’s Kings have hosted Indian-culture nights, launched the NBA’s only Hindi-language website, and even released a classic video reaching out to Indian fans to vote DeMarcus Cousins into the past All Star Game. Ranadive also expressed his desire to take the Kings to India for the NBA’s first-ever exhibition game there.

Blake Ellington, an associate editor with, spoke to me recently from the perspective of Kings’ fans about the team’s ‘Indianization’, “Sacramento is a small market and Kings fans enjoy it when the team is on national television or involved in things like Vivek's efforts to expand the NBA into India,” he said, “The Kings held a Bollywood Night last season and the fans were exposed to some elements of Indian culture, and they seemed to have a good time with it… I think Kings fans do have sort of a kinship with India now.”

Just days after his signing was made official, Bhullar joined Ranadive to headline the largest-ever ‘India Day’ parade through New York City. While two other members of the Sacramento Kings – DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay – headed off to Spain to represent Team USA internationally, Ranadive and Bhullar were globalizing the Kings by reaching out to the Indian community in Sacramento, India, and worldwide.

On-court, the 21-year-old Bhullar – who will be the NBA’s tallest player next season – is still a work on progress. It would be unlikely for him to get an opportunity to be anything more than a fringe contributor in Sacramento, but he has the ambitions to prove his doubters – many who believe that he was signed for business rather than basketball reasons – wrong.

Photo: Karan Madhok for
“I just wanna get better,” Bhullar told me in an interview a few weeks ago, “I want to change my game to fit the NBA game. I want to get more comfortable with the league and prove all those who doubt me wrong. I’ll respond to [the critics] by just producing, by just doing what I do.”

Ellington believes that Bhullar still has a way to go before becoming an impact player for the Kings this season. “He isn't quick enough (at the moment) to compete with NBA-level players – we saw that on display in the NBA Summer League. He will probably get an opportunity to play on the Kings' D-League affiliate, the Reno Bighorns. This will be good experience for him and maybe with some extended playing time there he will work himself into a spot where he could get some minutes on the Kings roster… So is it cool that the Kings signed the first NBA player of Indian descent? Absolutely. Do I expect him to do much for the Kings this season? No.”

Off-the-court, Bhullar’s impact in India will be felt if he truly can become a role model to a people who need a basketball star to inspire the next generation. Indian basketball players – in India or abroad – rarely made the jump into mainstream consciousness. The best players in India’s national squad like Amjyot Singh, Amrit Pal Singh, or Vishesh Bhriguvanshi are barely recognized outside the small, core basketball circles in India. Success for Bhullar could promote the Kings and the NBA in India, and if basketball gets more popular in the country, the spotlight could also shift on the exploits of India’s own star players.

But for a brief moment in July, those star Indian players did enjoy their moment in that spotlight. India had played inspired defence to keep the Chinese at bay. And now, with a little over four minutes left on the clock, Bhriguvanshi dribbled the ball across the three-point arc. He had locked eyes with the athletic Amjyot Singh, who – aided by two picks from his teammates – found a clear lane to the rim. Bhriguvanshi lobbed the ball up high to the inside, and Amjyot caught it and slammed it down to give India a five-point lead. The alley-oop ignited the entire Indian bench, as the players screamed and threw their towels up in celebration. The home crowd were shell-shocked in silence.

India survived the last three minutes of the game with a couple more clutch plays on both ends, and when the final buzzer sounded, India had won 65-58. Head Coach Scott Flemming (formerly an assistant with the NBDL’s Texas Legends) had led India to the unthinkable: a basketball victory over China. The overall performance – capped by Amjyot’s electrifying clutch alley-oop finish – were the product of an unfamiliar, confident Indian side, a squad that casually brushed away decades of failure to announce the coming of a new India. 

For once, both mainstream and social media in India took notice, the news trended on Twitter and went viral across the nation. Only success and hype can capture the attention of the notoriously-fickle Indian audiences, and India’s success at Wuhan displayed a small fraction of basketball’s potential to Indians if it is developed and promoted the right way.

In a country of over a billion people, even that small fraction represents a number in the hundreds of thousands. It is these hundreds of thousands – or millions – that Ranadive and the NBA is counting on to turn into basketball’s next kingdom. China is famously the world’s largest basketball market, with some estimates counting around 300 million hoop fans in the world’s most populous nation. As the Chinese market gets more saturated, India presents a tantalizing new face for the sport.

“What Yao Ming did for China, we hope players like Sim will do for India,” said Ranadive at the Summer League, “I have this vision — I call it NBA 3.0 — where I want to make basketball the premier sport of the 21st century.”

While he strives hard to get in shape and improve his eventual on-court impact, Sim Bhullar’s broad shoulders will also be carrying the hopes of the South Asian (or desi) basketball community across the globe. This is a heavy burden on a 21-year-old NBA rookie who is only looking to secure his professional future and make a place for himself in the world’s toughest basketball league. But so far, Bhullar has responded to this extra responsibility with great aplomb.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Bhullar said, “I grew up in Ontario, Canada, and my parents came from India. I know that all the hard work that has been put leading up to this situation has paid out. I wanna be a role model: hopefully, I’ll get to see four or five more Indian-origin players in the NBA; that will be a great feeling!”

“Do Indians even play basketball?” they ask. Hopefully, Bhullar’s journey, coupled with the success of other Indian basketball players, can put to rest any further questions.