October 30, 2014

FIBA Asia to conduct clinic for basketball referees & commissioners in New Delhi in December

FIBA Asia will work with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) to organizers a special FIBA basketball clinic for referees and commissioners in India. The clinic is set to be held in New Delhi on December 6-7, 2014 under the supervision of Lubomir Kotleba, the director of sports for FIBA.

The BFI has suggested that, to register for this clinics, all the State Associations/Units need to nominate an active 'A' Class BFI Referee - preferably below 35 years of age - who will be willing to appear as a fresh candidate to obtain the FIBA License.
Click here for the registration form and email the forms through the State Association to . The last date to submit the form is 15th November, 2014. The Technical Commission will scrutinize and recommend the final list of fresh candidates.

October 29, 2014

Former Champion Bruce Bowen to visit India for NBA Jam and Reliance Foundation events

A three-time NBA champion and one of the fiercest defensive players of his time, Bruce Bowen is set to visit India from October 31 - November 6. Bowen will be attending events at this season's NBA Jam in Kolkata, Gurgaon, Chandigarh, and Ludhiana. The week-long visit will be part of a promotional tour to support the growth of basketball and to connect with fans in India, and it happens at an opportune time, too: Bowen will get a chance to promote the new NBA season, which tipped off earlier today with his former team (and reigning champions), the San Antonio Spurs.

Bowen won all three of his NBA championship rings in San Antonio (2003, 2005, 2007), playing alongside the likes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and (briefly) David Robinson. Known for his fierce competitiveness on the defensive end and his ability to hit the occasional big shot, Bowen was named to five NBA All Defensive First Teams and three All Defensive Second Teams. Bowen retired in 2009 and the Spurs retired his jersey (12) two years ago.

Bowen will make the first official NBA player visit to Kolkata, and only the second trip by an NBA player to the 'City of Joy' since Kyle Korver in 2008, who was there for charity work. Bowen will also be the first NBA player to visit Ludhiana and Chandigarh; apart from the Delhi-NCR region, the majority of official NBA visits had been limited to further south in the country.

Bowen would make his first stop in Kolkata from October 31 to November 1, where he will engage with students at St. Xavier's College as part of NBA Jam. From Kolkata, he will travel to Gurgaon on November 2, where he will participate in a special fan engagement event. He will go to Chandigarh on November 4 to take part in the next leg of the NBA Jam at Punjab University. His final stop will be Ludhiana on November 5-6 at the Guru Nanak Stadium during the Reliance Foundation Junior NBA City Finals, where he will work with standout young players and coaches from across Punjab.

The NBA Jam is a hugely popular college basketball and youth festival, which is being held in a record 16 Indian cities this year from August 18 till December 4. The Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme is a school-based programme - held in eight Indian cities this year - which focuses on inspiring youth to adopt a healthy, active lifestyle by integrating basketball into each participating school’s physical education curriculum.

"I understand that the popularity of basketball is growing rapidly in India and that more and more children are picking up the game," said Bowen of his upcoming visit, "I can't wait to experience this myself and help train and interact with the promising young talents the country has to offer."

Yannick Colaco, NBA India Managing Director, said, "We are committed to the growth of basketball in India and Bruce Bowen's visit is another step forward in this endeavour."

Bowen's story is as remarkable as it is inspirational. Undrafted coming of out Cal State Fullerton in 1993, Bowen was a struggling basketball pariah, spending four years as a professional playing in France and for various teams in the former CBA. The Miami Heat finally brought Bowen to the NBA in 1997. He played for the Heat, Celtics, 76ers, and was back in Miami again before finally finding his eventual NBA home in San Antonio in 2001. The rest was history: Bowen was a perfect fit for the Spurs and became a regular starter as the team won three championships over the next six years.

Of course, we can't mention Bowen without mention the dark side, can we? Just YouTube search his name for a further exploration of Bowen's infamous antics, including a video hilariously named, 'Dirty Player Mix'.

Welcome to India, Mr. Bowen: hopefully your defensive intensity, competitiveness, and championship pedigree is able to rub off on the next generation of basketball players at the grassroots level in India.

October 28, 2014

Return, Reload, Repeat: Predictions for all the drama ahead for the 2014-15 NBA Season

In many ways, there is no better day then Opening Night for an NBA season. For one day, everyone is equal. Every team – whether it’s the San Antonio Spurs or the Philadelphia 76ers – will start with the same record: 0-0 and LeBron James will be as close to an MVP award as Hasheem Thabeet. All slates are clean and all the canvases are empty. Starting tomorrow, every team and every player will get a chance to paint in their own destinies.

But once we look past the fog of change, refreshed outlooks, and optimism, what do we see? Here are my predictions for the 2014-15 NBA season, where I predict that – after the reloading and the returns – the final winner will be a repeat performance.

Click here to read the full feature.

October 27, 2014

Thiruvanthapuram (Women) and Ernakulum (Men) retain their titles at 59th Kerala State Basketball Championship

After six days of intense basketball action at the 59th Kerala State Basketball Championship for Men and Women in Aluva, the cream rose to the top once again. On the tournament's exciting final day at Aluva's temporarily-built Carmel Club indoor stadium, the reigning champs from last year - Thiruvanathapuram (Women) and Ernakulum (Men) - both defended their crowns to lift the Kerala state titles.

Thiruvanathapuram's Women's side were led by Indian international Jeena PS as well as rising star Stephy Nixon. After last year's triumph, Thiruvanathapuram met familiar foes in the final once more - Palakkad - marking it the third consecutive year that these two teams had played each other in the tournament's finale. The match was evenly contested in the first quarter but Jeena (23) Grima Merlin Varghese (16) did enough to help Thiruvanathapuram pull away to a massive 47-24 lead. Thiruvanathapuram held on to their comfortable advantage, and despite a 16-point performance by Palakkad's Neenumol PS, went on to win the game 58-47.

The Men's final was also a rematch in it's third year running, between Ernakulum and Thiruvanathapuram, and Ernakulum were bidding to win the contest for the third year in a row. But unlike last year, this was no cakewalk for the holding champs. Boosted by their young talents like Arjun GK (18) and Umesh Krishnan (16), Thiruvanathapuram took an early lead and were up by 38-31 at halftime. But Ernakulum chipped away at the advantage in the second half and made a spectacular fourth quarter comeback to take the lead and secure a 69-62 victory for a three-peat of titles. Shinumon Augustine and Monish Wilson scored 18 and 16 points respectively to help Ernakulum in their triumph.

Thiruvanathapuram's duo of Jeena PS (Women) and Umesh Krishnan (Men) were adjudged to be the best players of the tournament and handed the P S Viswappan Gold Medal. The award of most promising player - named in memorial of P Paremeswaran Pillai - was handed to Thiruvanathapuram's Grima Merlin Varghese (Women) and Ernakulum's Nikhil KR (Men).

This year's Lifetime Achievement award name din honour of PC Thomas (former Coach, international referee, and technical officer of Kerala State Sports Council) was handed by the Kerala Basketball Association to PP Varghese, the secretary of the association, in recognition for his achievement in the field of basketball.

Earlier in the day, Thrissur had no problem dominating Ernakulum en route to a 48-29 victory and the bronze medal in the Women's division. The Men's bronze medal game was won by Kollam, who defeated Palakkad 58-38 behind 16 points each by Rahul Krishnan and SS Deepu. Palakkad's Shabu Kumar also added 16 in the loss.

The best performers of the championship will comprise of the state team to represent Kerala at India's Senior National Basketball Championship.

October 21, 2014

Sacramento Kings cut Sim Bhullar - so where does the Indo-Canadian big man go now?

Sim Bhullar's last official moment with the Sacramento Kings was also his sweetest. After barely getting any action to showcase his skills in the Kings' first few preseason games, Bhullar - the first player of Indian-descent to be sign an NBA contract - was given some burn at the end of Sacramento's exhibition contest against Israeli squad Maccabi Haifa a few days ago. The Kings were already up by 30 points when Bhullar received a pass from Ray McCallum, pivoted in, and dropped an easy finger roll for his first two NBA preseason points. His basket drew the biggest cheer of the night and he was mobbed by many of his Kings' teammates in celebration. Later, Bhullar posted a photograph of his teammates celebrating the basket with him on his Instagram account with the caption 'Blessed'.

A photo posted by Sim Bhullar (@simbhullar32) on

Yes indeed, the Canada born Bhullar - a 7-foot-5 son of Punjabi parents - has been quite blessed. His hard work and hustle took him further than any desi ever before: to an (plus-plus-plus-size) official NBA jersey. Bhullar attended training camp with the Kings, took part in the preseason, travelled to China, scored a couple of points, and seemed to have made some good relationships within the team.

Alas, immediately after the game, it was announced that the 21-year-old's NBA dream was going to get a rude awakening. To cut their roster down to an NBA maximum 15 players, Bhullar was among three players waived by the Kings on Sunday night, along with Deonte Burton and David Wear. Bhullar immediately became an unrestricted free agent.

The decision to cut Bhullar wasn't wholly surprising: the undrafted big man was signed by the Kings and given a chance to prove himself as a backup to DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings happened to be owned by Vivek Ranadive, the first and only Indian owner of an NBA team. Ranadive has had great hopes in Bhullar's potential, particularly in the cultural impact the big man could have on new NBA fans in the growing Indian market. Unfortunately, no amount of 'Indianness' was going to make Bhullar a better player. The NBA is the toughest, most competitive basketball league in the world, where only the best of the best survive. Doubters believed that Bhullar was signed more for business reasons than for basketball. Unfortunately, with limited chance to prove himself in the preseason, Bhullar couldn't prove that his skillset was worth counting on. In the end, the Kings made it clear that cutting Bhullar from their final roster was a decision based on basketball, rather than business.

Fortunately, all is not lost for the big man. Sources close to Kings' beat writer James Ham and HoopsHype Canada both claim that Bhullar's career is far from over. The next step, it seems, is the NBA's D-League, and an opportunity with the Kings' affiliate squad Reno Bighorns.

“It’s always been part of the plan. He will join their D-league affiliate in Reno in two weeks," cited the HoopsHype Canada source. "They’ll be making sure he cuts weight and gets in better shape. Sim just needs to focus now and use the D league to develop."

The D-League seems like a more obvious destination for Bhullar for basketball reasons as it will give him a chance to further get into the desired NBA shape and earn more playing time to prove himself. Unfortunately for him, the Bighorns are known to have one of the most fast-paced teams in the D-League, and Bhullar isn't exactly suited for a run-and-gun full-court offense yet. Hopefully, he'll be able to find his fit, prove that he can dominate the D-League level, and earn the NBA call-up back to the Kings when the time is right.

When he was Beijing for the 'China Games' last week with the Kings, Bhullar told me that he can eventually help break a racial barrier and change the perception of Indians in the world of professional athletes. Despite his first cut from the Kings, it seems that he his still on track to doing just that - after all, he could still be the first player of Indian-descent in the D-League as well.

As for the NBA dreams - here's hoping that the sweet finger roll against Maccabi was just the first step and the Indo-Canadian has many more NBA points (and minutes, and rebounds, and blocks) scripted in his future.

October 20, 2014

IOB win first-ever Mulki Sunder Ram Shetty All India tournament in Bengaluru

From October 15-19, the city of Bengaluru hosted the inaugural Mulki Sunder Ram Shetty All India Basketball tournament, a men's championship that featured six of India's top club level or state teams. After five days of high-notch basketball, the tournament was settled with a comfortable final win by Indian Overseas Bank - IOB - against their Chennai city rivals ONGC on Sunday, October 19th at the Bharat Sports Union in Malleshwaram, Bengaluru.

After a neck-to-neck start to the final, IOB relied on the sharp-shooting abilities of India international Pratham Singh, who scored 25 points to help his team open up a double digit lead in the second half. IOB trailed in the first quarter, caught up before halftime, and then continued to ride their positive momentum en route to a 63-49 victory. The star-studded IOB squad, which also featured the likes of Amjyot Singh, Hareesh Koroth, Mihir Pandey, Aravind A., and Prasanna V., thus became the first claimants to the Mulki Sunder Ram Shetty winner's trophy.

Prasanna was named the tournament's MVP.

In a high-scoring encounter for third-place earlier on Sunday, host team Vijaya Bank relied on the efforts of Anil (26) and Arvind (24) to defeat the Karnataka State team 89-75. Visu led the way with 24 for Karnataka.

Only teams from three southern Indian states - Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala - took part in the inaugural iteration of this tournament. The participating teams were: ONGC, Vijaya Bank, Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), Tamil Nadu, IOB, Cochin Customs, Chennai Customs, and Kerala.

Final Standings
  • IOB
  • ONGC
  • Vijaya Bank
Check out the complete coverage on Ekalavyas.com for more from this tournament.

October 19, 2014

Team India coach Scott Flemming is bringing individual player basketball development videos

Over the past two years, American basketball coach Scott Flemming has already earned his way into the hearts of hoop fans in India as the Head Coach of the senior national Men's team. Under Flemming, the team has taken significant steps forward and shown improved performances in international tournaments such as the Lusofonia Games and the FIBA Asia Cup.

But Flemming's job responsibilities don't just end with the 12 men that represent India at the senior level internationally; as the national head coach, he is also invested in helping improve the grassroots talent of young players in the country and also pass on some of his coaching advice to aspiring Indian trainers and coaches, too.

Working with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), Flemming is bringing a series of videos teaching individual player development drills such as dribbling, footwork, shooting, and more. As they are uploaded, the videos will be available from the BFI's official website. Flemming has also received assistance from senior and junior Indian national players to produce the content for the drills in the development videos.

The first of this video series was released a couple of days ago, with a focus on ball handling.

"There will be 4 different areas focused on this series of player development drills." Flemming told me recently, "These drills will be a resource for players to include in their regular workouts to improve their skills. They will also be a resource for coaches to use to specifically work with individuals or small groups to improve their fundamentals. There are no plays or team concepts here. They are designed for skill development. These are not only my drills but many of them are used by some of the top coaches in the world."

"I trust our coaches and players will incorporate them in their practices and workouts," he added, "This player development series will continue with a focus on offensive separation moves, shooting (perimeter and low post) and defense."

As Flemming mentioned in the introduction to the first video, these drills can be worked on many times by an individual or by players in small groups. And he stressed the key of being consistent with the drills and doing them regularly - every single day.

So, too all young Indian players with hoop dreams, here is a great place to start: you can get access to similar coaching tips that our nation's top players are learning in the comfort of your own home. Just make sure to stay persistent. As Coach Flemming said in the video: "Preparation creates confidence," and India could sure do with many more confident basketball players to become stars of the future.

October 18, 2014

China crowned 2014 FIBA Asia U18 Women's champs in Jordan; India finish 6th and stay in Level I

With a victory over rivals Japan in the final, the Chinese eves completed a three-peat of titles at the FIBA Asia U18 Championship for Women in Amman (Jordan) on Friday, October 17th. This was China's 14th overall title in the 22nd edition of the tournament as they continued to be the driving force in junior Asian women's basketball.

India, who played in the tougher Level I of the tournament, lost all their preliminary group games but won the crucial Level I qualifier to remain in the higher fray of the competition for 2016.

China got off to a fast start against Japan in the Final, racing to a comfortable 17-point lead by halftime. The undefeated Chinese women had been the only squad to beat Japan earlier in the group stage, and once again were in cruise control in the tournament's finale. Japan played much-improved basketball after the halftime break, but it was too little too late as China held on to their lead for a 60-53 win.

A closer contest was played earlier on the final day in the fight for the bronze medal between South Korea and Chinese Taipei. Korea's Ji Su Park (20 points, 21 rebounds) and Taipei's Yi-Wen Yu (20 points) went head to head as the two teams stayed on each other's heels every step of the way. The game was finally decided in a low-scoring final period when South Korea inched away to a 57-54 win.

A day earlier, Japan were led by Nao Sogabe's 17 points as they got off to an early 16 point lead and pranced away to a 83-50 win over Korea in the semi-final. Ji Su Park had a game-high 19 for Korea in the losing effort. The second girls' semi-final between China and Chinese Taipei started off as a closer affair, as China led by just five at halftime. But an improved performance after halftime and an explosive final period saw China race away to an eventually comfortable 80-52 win. Si Jing Huang led the way for China with 23 points and nine rebounds while Shuai Liu added 19 and seven off the bench.

Team India - led by Coach PC Anthony - featured a roster of 12 young up-and-comers hungry to make a mark at the junior stage and prove that they had the talents to be selected at the senior level. Because they had finished among the top six in the continent, India were selected to play in the tougher Level I of the competition, along with China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand.

It was baptism by fire for the Indians, who were humbled by the mighty Chinese in their very first game. Relying on an explosive offense and equally stingy defense, China raced to a huge 34-7 lead after just the first quarter. India were outscored by double digits in the second quarter too and faced an insurmountable 38 point deficit at halftime. China eased their pace after halftime, allowing India to perform a little better, but the result was never in doubt. Led by Dilishati Dilana (19), Jin Bo Xing (17 points, 13 rebounds), and Si Jing Huang (17 points, 10 rebounds), China cruised to a 124-72 win. India's bright sparks were the performances by Shruti Menon (25) and Sangeeta Kaur (21) in the loss.

India got no respite the next day against Chinese Taipei. Once again, the Indians were down big - 34-15 - after just the first period. In a game that began to mirror the previous day's loss, Chinese Taipei dominated on all ends of the floor and blew India out en route to a 111-70 win. Taipei's top performers were Chia-Chieh Li (25) and You-Jing Zhang (17 points, 15 rebounds). For India, Poojamol Kochuparambu impressed with a 20 point outing.

India played their worst offensive game of the tournament in the game against eventual silver-medalists Japan. Mamiko Tanaka led the way with 25 points and seven rebounds for the Japanese who put the clamps on India, allowing just 27 percent shooting from the floor all game. India found themselves down 66-28 at halftime and seemed to have thrown in the towel in the game's final two quarters, eventually ending the night with a 107-47 loss.

India's first real opportunity for a victory came against Thailand, the only Level I squad that closely matched their standing among the Asian opponents in the group. India started off determined to pick up their first victory of the tournament, and in a neck-to-neck contest, held a two point lead at halftime. But it was a game-changing third quarter by Thailand that put them back in the driver's seat, and India failed to make a comeback in the fourth. By the final buzzer, Thailand had held on for a 68-62 victory led by Amphawa Thuamon (20 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists). Poojamol was once more India's bright spark, leading the team with 17.

India's final preliminary round game was against Korea, and this time, they seemed determined to put the past performances behind them. A hot start by both teams saw Korea leading 29-26 after the first quarter. India trailed but had managed to put in their best stretch of play in the tournament so far. But Korea began to find a better defensive rhythm in the second and third quarters, and extended their lead to a comfortable 69-50 after three periods. India attempted a strong comeback in the fourth, but the damage had already been done and Korea secured a 90-77 win. Korea's dominant Center Ji Su Park finished the night with 16 points and 18 rebounds. For India, the aggressive backcourt of Poojamol (25) and Barkha Sonkar (24) scored nearly two-thirds of the team's points together.

India had finished the group stage with five losses in five games, and their only opportunity for redemption was to make sure that they secured their status as a Level I team. They were challenged by Level II winners Malaysia in their last game of the tournament for this status, and India started off the game in no mood for mistakes. A dominating first half had India sitting comfortably up 41-26 at halftime. Malaysia turned their fortunes around in the second half and made a valiant comeback, but time would not be on their side and India eventually survived for a 81-76 win. Poojamol was India's star again and scored 29 points in the win. For Malaysia, the top performer was Chia Qian Tai (25).

India ended the tournament with a 1-5 record at sixth place, but managed to retain their Level I status.

Overall, the performances by India's junior girls were highly disappointing. While fans had been hoping for India to catch up to best in the continent, it seemed that the gulf had been stretched even wider. India lost their games to the 'Big Four' of China-Chinese Taipei-Korea-Japan by an average of over 41 points each, with only their final performance against Korea showing a hint of fight. The biggest disappointment was the loss to Thailand, a team that India must start defeating on a regular basis to truly take the jump up to the next level.

A positive was the performance of rising young star Poojamol Kochuparambu from Kerala, who was India's leading scorer through the course of the tournament. Poojamol has been dominating at the domestic level for years and is primed to become a big star for India's senior national squad in the future. Poojamol's backcourt mate Barkha Sonkar - who is currently training at the IMG Academy in Florida - is a highly capable point guard and is also a sure shot to become a regular in the senior side in the future.

Final Rankings
  • 1. China
  • 2. Japan
  • 3. South Korea
  • 4. Chinese Taipei
  • 5. Thailand

October 17, 2014

A quick chat with Sim Bhullar: Changing the perception of Indian athletes

When the Sacramento Kings signed undrafted 7-foot-5 Canadian giant Sim Bhullar to their roster, they didn't just add extra depth in the Center position behind DeMarcus Cousins. They also made Bhullar into the first player of Indian-origin to make it to an NBA roster. Bhullar has since been in training camp with the Kings, and fans have been hoping that his presence helps the popularity of basketball among Indians take giant strides forward.

Last week, Bhullar was with the rest of the Kings in China for the NBA's annual 'China Games'. The Kings played the Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai and Beijing in two preseason exhibition games. I was able to attend the practices and the games in Beijing and shared some quotes, photographs, and my thoughts about the events earlier.

Before the Sacramento Kings took the floor to practice at the MasterCard Center in Beijing, I got an opportunity to have a quick chat with Bhullar about his goals for the season and his thoughts on becoming the first Indian-origin player in the NBA.

Hoopistani: How does it feel to be here in Beijing with the Kings for the China Games?

Bhullar: It's fun to be here man. It's a beautiful city and I'm enjoying the culture.

Hoopistani: Is this your first time in China?

Bhullar: Yes.

Hoopistani: You mentioned that you have been to India often, though, right?

Bhullar: Yes, I've been to India about four times now. Most recent was about five years ago.

Hoopistani: How does it feel to be on the roster and practicing with the Kings - how is that experience going so far?

Bhullar: It's been good for me so far. I'm enjoying it. I'm blessed to be here. I'm excited for the what's to come for the next couple of weeks and months.

Hoopistani: What's your goal for the season?

Bhullar: Definitely to get better. To help the team in any way I can, and just improve overall.

Hoopistani: Now, how have the team's veterans - especially the big guys - helped you find your NBA feet so far?

Bhullar: They've been helping me out a lot. They're mentors. They've been teaching me a lot of stuff on the court and off the court. They're excited for me to be here.

Hoopistani: You mentioned off-the-court: is there a next leap of professionalism that you have to go through as an NBA player as compared to how it was in college?

Bhullar: Yes, there Definitely is. Because off the court all eyes are on you when people know you're in the NBA. You're always in the spotlight no matter what you do. That's what they tell me: always take care of yourself and think of it as everybody is watching you at all times.

Hoopistani: You've become the first player of Indian descent to be on an NBA roster. Do you feel there is a sense of pressure or responsibility with that? What has been your approach?

Bhullar: I don't really feel the pressure. It's a great thing that I'm the first, but hopefully there are a lot more players to come. It's just basketball at the end of the day for me. So whatever happens, happens.

Hoopistani: Do you feel that your presence as the first of Indian-descent can break the racial barrier in the NBA and they can start looking at players from other backgrounds as well?

Bhullar: Ya, hopefully people can see us as more than just 'workers' and stuff or people who only hold everyday jobs. Hopefully they can see us as professional athletes in football, baseball or something like that. Who knows, maybe it can change the [perception] of the way people think.

Click here for a more in-depth interview I did with Bhullar for NBA.com/India a few months ago.

October 16, 2014

2014 NBA China Games: Sights, quotes, & thoughts from covering Nets vs. Kings in Beijing

It's the ultimate juxtaposition of China: inside the glitzy MasterCard center in Beijing - the 18,000 seating arena which was host to the 2008 Olympics basketball tournament - are some of the biggest names in the basketball world. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is around. The Sacramento Kings' billionaire owner (and India-born) Vivek Ranadive is in attendance. Former hoops legends like Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming, Vlade Divac, Chris Mullin, Peja Stojakovic and more make special appearances. Former and future NBA All Stars like Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and DeMarcus Cousins are on the rosters. Everything from the cheerleaders and the mascots to the in-arena music and the kiss-cam feels imported.

Yet, the event rarely loses it's distinct and refreshing sense of Chinese-ness. The chants of 'Brook-lyn' come accompanied by creative fan chants in Mandarin. Old 'Lao Ren' dance along to traditional Chinese music. Outside the arena, the 'unofficial' ticket sellers swarm you as you make your way in and the counterfeit Nets and Kings jerseys sell quicker than the originals inside. With the Sacramento Kings and the Brooklyn Nets playing pre-season games in Shanghai and Beijing, the NBA once again came to China this off-season. And while the Nets swept the 2014 China Games tour 2-0, it was the passion for the game of the Chinese fans that was the real winner.

Kevin Garnett takes center stage at Brooklyn Nets practice in Beijing #NBAChinaGames #Beijing #China #KevinGarnett #BrooklynNets

It's become the NBA's annual ritual now, ever since the Kings were here China 10 years ago for the country's first exhibition game against Yao Ming's Houston Rockets in 2004. The NBA China Games have been getting bigger and better every year, and the tried-and-tested format brings two teams every October for back-to-back pre-season games in Beijing and Shanghai. In between, the players, teams, and coaches also manage to squeeze in cultural experiences and charity 'NBA Cares' events.

This year, the Nets won the first game in Shanghai in a close contest, 97-95. They came to Beijing next, and over two days, held open practices, a charity event, and finally, the big game. I was present for the practices to catch some of the players for quick interviews and was able to attend the game on Wednesday, October 15th to see the two teams in action.

Practice and Media Availability - October 14

The Nets took the court first, and by the time the media was allowed in, we caught up practicing some half-court sets, led by point guard Deron Williams. After several indifferent years since his departure from the Jazz, Williams is looking ahead at this season with more optimistic eyes, and his play in China will surely be encouraging to new Head Coach Lionel Hollins. Meanwhile, as he enters his 19th NBA season, Kevin Garnett may have slowed down in his speed but showed no speed-bumps in his passion and intensity for the game. Some of the young players on the Nets side along with Sacramento Kings' legends Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac held an NBA Cares clinic after the first practice. The Kings' squad came in next to prepare for the game next. The Kings' roster included Canadian big man Sim Bhullar, the first player of Indian-descent signed into the league. I will be posting a longer Q&A with Bhullar on the blog over the next few days.

Here are a few soundbites from the players after practice:

Brook Lopez - Nets

Too many international basketball legends in one picture #VladeDivac #AndreiKirilenko #PejaStojakovic #SacramentoKings #BrooklynNets #NBAChinaGames #Beijing

"I've just been rehabbing and getting ready [to bounce back from last year's injury]. I'm very excited for the season to start and thankfully it's finally upon us."

"There's always an adjustment with a new coach. It's something we've been through before. But Lionel knows so much about the game, and there's a mature, intelligent group of assistants as well to help make the transition relatively easy for all of us."

"I've seen a lot of different things [in the new teammates]. I think the most important thing is that this is an unselfish group, has a high basketball IQ, plays hard on the floor, and knows what it takes to win."

Andrei Kirilenko - Nets

"It's gonna be the 13th or 14th season for me in the NBA. Time flies! Every preparation is a little bit different - this year we came to China. It's a great experience here. We have a chance to really see our Chinese fans. We got about two more weeks now and I think we'll be ready for the season."

"My offseason was pretty good. I spent a lot of time with my family and of course working out by myself. Working out without basketball. No international play this offseason - I'm done with that. Getting older! In the middle of August I came back to New York and spent a month and a half with the team's trainer working out for the season."

Boogie! #BoogieInBeijing #DeMarcusCousins #Beijing #SacramentoKings #NBAChinaGames

"I think we have a capable team. It's all on us right now - how well can we find the connection during the season because we got a new coach. We got a new system. I'm familiar with the system but there are a lot of things more to work on."

"Our season's goals are definitely the playoffs. Last year we made the playoffs and lost in the second round. But I think we can play better than that. Our goal is to be in the playoffs and play as well as we can."

Kevin Garnett - Nets

"The fact this this (basketball) is my job is a plus. Everyday I get to come and hoop and play with great guys and be around cool people. This is like a fantasy for me. As long as I'm able to play and as long as I'm able to contribute to a team, then I'll play."

Mason Plumlee - Nets

"It was a great offseason. I had a lot of fun in the Summer League and the FIBA World Cup. But now, it's a new team, new staff. I'm getting adjusted. Just starting fresh. I had a great experience but you have to set that aside and move forward now."

Checking in live from MasterCard Center in Beijing before tip off between Brooklyn Nets & Sacramento Kings #NBAChinaGames #MasterCardCenter #Beijing #China #SacramentoKings #BrooklynNets

"The FIBA tournament was a different style of game. You have to take advantage of it in different ways. Setting better screens, playing more team ball, so that's a good thing to take back with you to your franchise."

"There will be more asked of me [with the Nets this season]. I'm looking forward to that. I think I'll play more minutes. And then I think I'll have more opportunities offensively. So those are the things I should prepare for."

[On fans expecting a bigger scoring output from him]. "Yes, and more rebounding. Everything should be up one level."

Derrick Williams - Kings

"As of right now, Coach [Mike Malone] wants me to be aggressive and be one of the spark-plugs on this team. He wants me to come off the bench right now and score the ball. My goal for this season is to try and win the Most Improved Player award. I believe I can actually win that."

"We have a lot of different ways of playing that Coach wants me to play. When we play small-ball, he wants me to use my speed and quickness against forwards. Even when we go big, with a lineup of myself, Rudy [Gay], Cuz [DeMarcus Cousins], JT [Jason Thompson], we can all interchange 2-3-4. It'll be hard to guard when you have three or four guys who are 6-8/6-9 on the floor. Not so many teams have guys that can guard us like that."
The Brooklyn Nets get hyped prior to tip off in Beijing #BrooklynNets #Beijing #NBAChinaGames #SacramentoKings #China

"I'm from right outside of Los Angeles. It's always good to be home and play against the Clippers and Lakers. I have a lot of family that can come to the games. It's always good to have support from your family and friends."

Brooklyn Nets vs. Sacramento Kings - October 15

Despite all the bigger names on the sidelines of each roster, the result of the game eventually came down to the contributions of both teams' bench mobs, all of whom were given the exposure they needed in the preseason to raise their confidence level for the game. Kevin Garnett and DeMarcus Cousins - the two most anticipated names for the fans in Beijing - both earned DNP-CDs in the game and watched as hype-men from the bench. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to see Sim Bhullar in action for the Kings either: Coach Malone had the team playing a faster offense all game without Cousins and the slow, half-court style pace of Bhullar earned no minutes either.

Garnett was by far the most-loved player on court, and fans chanted his name at every timeout or every possibility of a substitution. Alas! Coach Lionel Hollins didn't grant the wishes of the good people of Beijing, and Garnett never checked into the game. KG's fan-following here is quite remarkable: his was clearly the most popular jersey in attendance, and his shoe deal with Chinese company ANTA has see him return to China often over the last few years.

The Nets heavily relied on their European starting duo of the Bosnian Mirza Teletovic and the Croatian rookie Bojan Bogdanovic. Mirza and Bojan put up a ball-moving clinic, creating offense with flair and efficiency all game. Teletovic had a game-high 22 points.

Derrick Williams of the Kings had stated his Most Improved Player desires a day earlier, but early foul trouble kept limited him to just 18 minutes and 10 points in the game.

Big Shaq in the building #Shaq #SacramentoKings #NBAChinaGames #Beijing #China

Between the likes of Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, Mason Plumlee, Teletovic, Bogdanovic, Jarret Jack, and Sergey Kasarev, the Nets have a lot of depth of average to above-average players. But unless Lopez, Johnson, or Williams take a superstar turn, the depth alone might not be enough to help them from improving on last year's second-round exit.

Quick Kevin Garnett tangent: KG fist-bumps everyone, including every last guy on the bench, the coaching staff, the referees before the game, and even the towel boys and ball boys.

During a timeout, Beijing honours Sacramento Kings legends Mitch Richmond, Vlade Divac, and Peja Stojakovic. Shaquille O'Neal sat on the sidelines and earned numerous cheers, as did Kings' adviser and former NBA legend Chris Mullin. China's greatest ever star Yao Ming was in attendance too.

For the Kings, Rudy Gay seemed to be the most impressive and aggressive player, finishing with 21 points, seven rebounds, and five assists, and showcasing a incredibly impressive mid-range shot all night.

Deron Williams hates the ankles of all opposing players. He particularly tortured Ramon Sessions with four straight crossovers in the game. Williams drew quite a few 'aahs' and 'oohs' for his antics all night.

1st half action from Beijing between the Nets & the Kings #SacramentoKings #BrooklynNets #NBAChinaGames #Beijing

The Nets staged a second half comeback and took a late lead in the game, but a clutch three-pointer by Omar Casspi tied the score at 112 all with 10 seconds left in regulation, and the game soon headed to overtime. Brooklyn took control of the extra period, outscoring Sacramento 17-5 and finishing with a 129-117 win.

Both teams have already flown out of China now, and although this was 'only' the preseason and the stats or records don't matter, trips like these end up having a far more intangible cultural influence. The league's biggest international fanbase gets another chance to see some of the league's top players - as well as many up-and-coming stars up close and personal. Plus, for the team themselves, there is no better opportunity to bond than a long road trip: with both squads ambitious to make a steady improvement for the coming season, the China trip would have served as a great cauldron for better team chemistry.

Next year, a couple more teams will be back, with glitz and glamour and high-quality NBA action. But as always, China will remain true to its character, and it is that distinct character which will offer a tidbit in shaping the evolving face of the NBA, too.

October 15, 2014

31st Youth National Championship: Jubilant Tamil Nadu win both Boys' & Girls' championships

Indian national tournaments are always an exciting festival of culture and languages, as teams and young players gather from across the nation's varied corners onto the basketball court. While hoops is the prevalent language above all on-court, there are dozens of different dialects and languages spoken off of it. This was the case for the last week in Chandigarh, the host city of 31st Youth (U16) National Basketball Championship for Boys and Girls featuring the best Under-16 players in the country, where participants included 26 boys' teams and 26 girls' squads from different Indian states/territories.

But on the championship's final evening on Tuesday, October 14, after all the other competitors had been eliminated, the variety of the championship had been narrowed down to just two: Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The two neighbouring southern states had overcome the toughest of challenges and were the last one's standing both the boys' and the girls' finals . When the dust settled after two exciting final games, it was Tamil Nadu who stamped their dominance on the future talents of Indian hoops by becoming Indian hoop championships in both divisions.

The championship was organised by the Chandigarh Basketball Association under the aegis of Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and IMG-Reliance Group.

When two of the best teams play in the final, the separation between them are paper thin. And this is just what happened in the boys' final between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. After a strong first half when TN raced to a 33-18 lead, Kerala bounced back in style, outscoring TN 23-6 in the third period and taking a slight edge going into the deciding final period of the game. A back-and-forth contest eventually left the result in the hands of TN's Eshwar PB on the free-throw line. A miss by Eshwar with the score tied at 58-all led the game into overtime. It was in the extra period that TN regained their early form, outscoring Kerala 17-7 and finally creating enough separation again to win the final 75-65. TN's captain R Hariram led the charge with 27 points and 15 rebounds while Eshwar PB added 24 to go with seven rebounds of his own. P Sudarsan (30) and H Haridas (17) were the leading scorers for Kerala in the loss.

The girls' final was a rematch of last year's final, when Kerala had defeated TN to win the gold. Kerala once again got out to a hot start, scoring the game's first 10 points and leading 18-8 in the first quarter. Kerala were up comfortably by double digits at halftime, but TN chipped away to cut down the deficit a little before the start of the final period. With one quarter to go, TN switched gears completely to play their best basketball of the night, heavily outscoring Kerala and finally stretching for a lead. TN held on to the lead in the final seconds to win the final 64-59 and get payback for last year's loss. Ishwarya J was Tamil Nadu's star with 16 points and 15 rebounds. Nivyaraj PP of Kerala scored a game-high 19 points.

Tamil Nadu's star performers through the course of the tournament - Eshwar PB (Boys) and Ishwarya J (Girls) - were named the most valuable players of the tournament.

Earlier in the day, Karnataka's girls ended their tournament on a high-note by securing the third-place, in a bronze-medal playoff contest against Maharashtra. Karnataka were down 18-6 in the first quarter, but an unstoppable 24-2 performance in the second quarter gave them the lead, and they rode their hot form after halftime to win the game 69-52. The trifecta of Priyanka P (21), Bhoomika P (21), and Lopamudra T (19) led the way for Karnataka. Maharashtra's breakout star of the tournament Shruti Sherigar had 27 points in a losing effort. In the boys' third/fourth place contest, the ascending Haryana team did one-up on their last year's fourth-place finish by winning the bronze medal. With the efforts of Ankit (20) and Sonu Kumar (17), Haryana defeated Chhattisgarh 76-62. Chhattisgarh's leading scorers included the young star Mithun Das (21) and P. Pandey (17).

According to the report by Ekalavyas.com, boy’s and girl’s MVPs were awarded Rs. 15,000 each in prize money and an MVP plaque. The winning team in the boys and girls category, Tamil Nadu, received Rs. 75,000 each, the first runners up, Kerala, received Rs. 50,000 each and the second runners up, Haryana for the boys and Karnataka for the girls, received Rs. 25,000 each.

The semi-finals of the Youth Nationals were held on Monday. Kerala faced off against Maharashtra, and despite the latter's feisty showings earlier in the tournament, Kerala played inspired defense to keep their challengers at bay. Led by Nivya Raj's 23 points, Kerala had no trouble outpacing Maharashtra en route to an easy 81-44 win. The second semi-final between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka was a close affair in the first quarter, all until an unstoppable 23-4 second quarter run by TN gave them the lead for good. Karnataka chipped away after the halftime break behind Lopamudra T (23), but it wasn't enough to avoid TN from winning the contest 65-58.

Tamil Nadu's boys had a much tougher time in their semi-final clash, playing versus the inspired team from Haryana. In the high-scoring contest, Haryana had edged to a 48-44 lead at halftime. But Tamil Nadu outscored the Haryanvis by double-digits in the third quarter to take a healthy lead. Haryana played well in the final period and, after multiple lead changes, the score was tied at 93-all in the game's last minute. A clutch layup by J Adarsh gave TN a 95-93 lead with 34 seconds to go, which they held on to for the win and to secure a berth in the final. P. Baladhan of TN and Deepak of Haryana were the game's leading scorers, with 23 points each. In the earlier boys' semi-final, Kerala fell behind to Chhattisgarh by eight points at the end of the third quarter. But an inspired final quarter performance behind Sudarshan (17) saw them reverse the scoreline and race ahead for a 63-55 win. Mithun Das led Chhattisgarh with 23 in a losing effort.

You can find more detailed news and recaps of the tournament by Vishnu Ravi Shankar on Ekalavyas.com.

Final Scores
  • Girls: Tamil Nadu (Ishwarya J 16) bt Kerala (Nivyaraj PP 19, Anusha IP 15, Aswathi J 13) 64-59 (8-18, 13-14, 24-19, 19-8).
  • Boys: Tamil Nadu (R. Hariram 27, Eshwar PB 24) bt Kerala (P. Sudarsan 30, H. Haridas 17) 75-65 OT (18-6, 15-12, 6-23, 19-17, 17-7).
Third/Fourth Place
  • Girls: Karnataka (Priyanka P 21, Bhoomika P 19, Lopamudra T 19) bt Maharashtra (Shruti Sherigar 27) 69-52 (6-18, 24-2, 15-14, 24-18).
  • Boys: Haryana (Ankit 20, Sonu Kumar 17) bt Chhattisgarh (Mithun Das 21, P. Pandey 17, A. Rai 14) 76-62 (21-16, 18-21, 20-12, 17-13).
  • Girls: Ishwarya J (Tamil Nadu).
  • Boys: Eshwar PB (Tamil Nadu).
Final Standings Girls
  • 1. Tamil Nadu
  • 2. Kerala
  • 3. Karnataka
  • 4. Maharashtra
  • 5. Madhya Pradesh
  • 1. Tamil Nadu
  • 2. Kerala
  • 3. Haryana
  • 4. Chhattisgarh
  • 5. Delhi

October 14, 2014

The Fit & the Furious

India’s Strength & Conditioning Coach Tommy Heffelfinger discusses the importance of keeping Indian basketball players healthy.

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

Tommy Heffelfinger gets the Indian Women's squad psyched up for a
strength and conditioning workout. Photo: Rajesh Chavan
As the final seconds ticked away in India’s Asian Games contest in Incheon (Korea) against the Philippines and an Indian loss was all but ensured, Indian swingman Pratham Singh suffered a nasty fall, hurting both his head and his back. As Pratham writhed in pain on court, a hush fell in the arena, and his teammates momentarily ignored the result to focus on their hurting teammate. Pratham was stretchered off court, and for the next few hours, the Indian basketball team, coaches, as well as fans held their breath and hoped for some good news from the medical team.

Over four and half thousand kilometers away from Incheon, India’s Strength & Conditioning Coach Tommy Heffelfinger followed the game in New Delhi with bated breath, too. Since his appointment by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) three months ago, Heffelfinger has worked closely with Pratham Singh and several others of India’s top players – both at the Senior and under-18 level in both genders – to ensure that serious injuries are reduced as much as possible.

“When injuries go down, the performances go up,” he stated, something that may sound obvious but is always easier said than done. For an individual like Pratham – a top-six rotation player for India’s Senior Men’s national basketball team – his fitness is directly related to his team’s performance.

Later that day, some good news trickled out of the Indian camp in Incheon back to Delhi: Pratham went through some tests on his back and leg, revealing no serious injuries. He was rested for the next day against Iran, but for the big picture, Heffelfinger let out a sigh of relief.

Hailing from Ann Arbor in Michigan, USA, sports took Heffelfinger across the pond to England for a decade, where he worked with national players from the British Basketball Team, football players of the English Premier League club West Ham United, and rugby players, too. Choosing to be nearer to his wife – who is from Nepal – Heffelfinger jumped at the opportunity of joining the BFI’s Strength & Conditioning team, taking over a position left vacant since the previous Coach – Zak Penwell – finished his tenure. Familiar with India and South Asia in the past, Heffelfinger skipped over the culture shock that most foreign coaches suffer in their initial stages of their visit.

“I felt like I was pretty much ready for anything when I got here,” he said when I met him in New Delhi in mid-September.

What his previous visits wouldn’t have prepared him for would’ve been the basketball. As his predecessor Penwell discovered during his two years in India, the exercise, diet, and fitness regimes of Indian basketball players were uniquely specific and, in some ways, separate from the athletes they would’ve trained before.

“In India, first of all the dietary restrictions are a big deal,” Heffelfinger said, “And this is something to which we are constantly adjusting on camp. Beyond that, when it comes to dealing with player workouts, I’ve learnt how difficult it is for our national team players to stick to their regimes outside of practice – all of these players have other day jobs outside of basketball. It is difficult for them to find dedicated time to follow up with their fitness schedules outside of camp.”

“The positive,” he added, “Is that kids in India tend to have better base mobility and movement. They still do not have better control of their body weight, and we have to work on making sure that they reach certain standards before they start working with heavier weights.”

Heffelfinger’s responsibilities encompass the entire plethora of Indian national teams, including the Seniors, the U18s, the U16s, and the U14s for both boys and girls. Over the past three months, he has only had a chance to work with the Seniors and the U18s, the latter of whom he took part in a camp most recently and will be heading out again to the SAI Center in Aurangabad to help the U18 girls’ prepare for the upcoming FIBA Asia U18 Championship for Women in Jordan in a few weeks.

When his responsibilities eventually trickle down to the U16s and U14s, Heffelfinger will be handed the keys to coaching kids at the most transformative of ages.

Tommy Heffelfinger takes the team through stretching exercises. Photo:
Rajesh Chavan.

“When kids get to a certain age, it is considered their peak-height velocity, after which we can begin more focus on strength training,” said Heffelfinger, “That is a maturation point, usually around 15-16 for most kids, where we can introduce heavy weights more. Before that age, most of the training is usually technique based.”

But once the young players begin to focus on lifting weights and sculpting their bodies for optimum basketball shape, Heffelfinger warns that there is a strict need to be aware of the right parts of the body to work on.

“It’s true, a lot of people don’t know which part of the body they must work on, and the same is true for basketball,” he said, “For example, in basketball, you need to have strong quads, and work on the hamstrings. Focusing on the lifting weights for the right parts of the body will improve performance and reduce risk of injury.”

“Players need to start addressing the balance of their bodies. Posterior imbalance can be the cause of a lot of injuries.”

Heffelfinger’s work over the past three months has already begun to show some early signs of improvement among the elite Indian athletes. He worked with the Senior Men’s team at camp in Greater Noida prior to the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan (China) a few months ago, a tournament now immortalized in Indian hoops history for showcasing some of India’s best-ever performances, including a memorable victory over Asian giants China. While the team’s Head Coach Scott Flemming deserved much of the credit for tactically preparing India – particularly on the defensive end – to punch above their weight, the work of Indian physiotherapists and strength trainers such as Heffelfinger in the background shouldn’t be ignored either; it was no doubt that the new Team India looked fitter than ever before and can now respond to many more of Coach Flemming’s gruelling demands.

In training camps, Heffelfinger has also noted improvement on more specific aspects of fitness. For example, he mentioned that the junior girls have improved their short-distance (20 meters) sprint times drastically over the past few months. “The improvement was off the roof,” he said, “I couldn’t even have hoped for them to improve their times so soon. They are all adding strength to their lower body.”

While the early returns have been positive, there are still several challenges that Heffelfinger hopes that India can overcome in the near future. The first priority, he said, is to find a place to lay out all the strength and conditioning related equipment and set up what he hopes will eventually become the ‘BFI Player Development Center’.

“We have all the equipment with us already,” he said, “But we still haven’t been able to use most of it, since we’re still waiting to find a place to set it up.”

Another concern for Heffelfinger has been the diet, and he has noted that the senior teams often return overweight or out of shape form breaks in national camps. With many players also being vegetarian, Heffelfinger has had to get creative with his dietary advice.

“First and foremost, they need to just stay away from oily food,” he said, “Currently, they also seem to have a very limited intake of food, which is shocking.”

Heffelfinger’s long-term goals for India start by prioritizing athlete health. He wishes to reduce basketball injuries by two-thirds and over-training injuries by one-half, too. He also has hopes to collect medical data of Indian players to create reports of players’ injury history. At this point, there is no such existing medical database in Indian basketball.

Further on, he plans to spend time with other strength coaches in India and train them to help create a pyramid system where each coach can then pass on health and fitness tips to many more around the country.

“I feel that there has been a distinct improvement in the national teams over the past few months,” said Heffelfinger, “It was extremely rewarding to see when the improvement leads to improved results.”

Some injuries – like Pratham Singh’s fall at Incheon – are unavoidable. Some are caused by unforeseen circumstances, an over-aggressive opponent, or simply bad luck. There is no perfect science to staying fit and no athlete – no matter how well trained – is going to be indestructible. But concentrated efforts from Heffelfinger and India’s health, fitness, and physiotherapy teams can seriously turn the odds around to avoiding injury.

And, as Heffelfinger states, the obvious fact is also the most important one. Healthier teams are more successful teams. For Indian basketball in the midst of a rapid push forward, any competitive edge for further success should be embraced.