September 11, 2015

"We can't play in the FIBA Asia tournament with this little practice" India Women's Head Coach Francisco Garcia interview

A year after bringing success and joy to India's Men's national basketball team, the Chinese city of Wuhan failed to carry on the same stroke of luck for the Indian Women. Earlier this week, Team India returned from the 2015 FIBA Asia Basketball Championship for Women in Wuhan after taking two step backwards. India finished the tournament with six losses in six games, finished at 6th place, and worst of all, lost their place in the Level 1 group at the championship for its next iteration. There were 100 point losses, quarters with only four points for the offensive side, and close losses that could've turned tragedy into triumph.

Two years ago, at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, India had a new Head Coach, the Spaniard Francisco Garcia. Garcia helped lead the team to history, helping India win its first-ever Level 1 game and finished at 5th place. Two years later, Garcia couldn't end his India tenure with the same flourish that he started it. With his contract expiring after the tournament in Wuhan, Garcia returns to Spain disappointed. The project that he began with India couldn't improve on its earlier highs; instead, India's position in Asian Women Basketball - falling to Level 2 - is the worst it has been in a decade.

Starting in Level 1 this year, India faced Asia's four toughest teams - Chinese Taipei, Japan (the eventual champions), hosts China, and Korea - and predictably, lost without much of a fight to each one. Their most realistic chances of victory were against the fifth Level 1 team (Thailand) and their Level 1 playoff game against Philippines, but India lost both of those games as well.

I spoke to Garcia on the morning of his last day in India to review the team's performances in Wuhan and give an honest assessment of the external and internal problems that have plagued the results.

"The tournament was not good at all," Garcia said, "There were many factors that made us not perform well."

The biggest factor, as Garcia has always stressed, is India's practice time and exposure - or lack thereof - before such major tournaments.

"We can't play in the FIBA Asia tournament with this little practice," Garcia said, after the team got only about six weeks of practice time in Bengaluru in preparation for the tournament, "Even Thailand and Philippines started practicing 5 months ago and got international exposure. We lost close games against them because we had so little preparation."

"We cannot go into the championships with the situation in Indian Basketball," he added, referring to the power struggle between two competing executive committees for the Basketball Federation of India, "The girls were totally unfit. Some were overweight. They went 7 months without touching a basketball. In the past we had many camps, but this time, unluckily we didn't get that opportunity. It's not the fault of the Federation, it's just the situation of Indian Basketball right now."

Another problem for India was that, two days before the tournament, they lost their likely starting point guard Kavita Akula. Akula had been applying for a US visa for college, and with the visa process not done in time, she couldn't leave India for China to be the main driving force of the team. Without Akula, veteran captain Anitha Paul Durai - a natural wing player returning the team after a year of maternity leave - had to play point most of the time and share the position with talented-but-inexperienced Bhandavya HM. Neither were able to handle the court's most responsible position against top level talent from across the continent.

"When we had Kavita Akula here at practice, we were playing the most dynamic and fastest I've ever seen them play in India," Garcia said, "We practiced with her as the point guard in whole camp, but two days before leaving to Wuhan, we found out that she could not come. I had no time to adjust the team after her. Anitha played as a PG, but she would get really tired. We put 17-year-old Bhandavya at the spot. She was good but inexperienced. We made general mistakes due to this lack of experience."

This was also India's first FIBA Asia tournament in a decade without Geethu Anna Jose, the Arjuna-Awardee who has been India's greatest-ever player and dominated for India in the center position for many years. "Our inside game was not very good without her," Garcia admitted, "We need somebody over there that is big. We were soft. Our offense was alright, but in defense we were very soft. Our game against the Philippines: we lost it mostly because of our defense."

Sometimes, the difference between making history and returning home as failures can depend on a few late game moments of heroism or mistakes. India's two losses to Thailand and the Philippines could've easily been wins had the team held their composure in certain moments or had the favour or luck.

"The game in Thailand was in our hands in the end," Garcia said of the game India lost 65-63, "We didn't play smart. Anitha missed two free-throws with one second left in the game, and if she had made those, we would've gone to overtime. When we played at the FIBA Asia Women two years ago, we played smart. We knew where to put the ball to hurt the other team. Now, since we didn't have a real PG, I think that turned out to be our main problem. We made stupid turnovers. For me, to have a PG is very important. It's like having a coach on the court. Not having one mattered a lot, especially at the end of games. Of course, in tight games, you must be a little bit lucky also. Two years ago, we were, but this time, luck was not on our side."

"We showed our lack of practice and regularity against the Philippines," Garcia continued, "We would play well for five or six minutes, and then badly for the next five minutes. We started very well against the Philippines, and then, we dissapeared on the defensive end in the second quarter. They had two tall girls [Afril Bernardino and Allena Lim] who were killing us. They kept driving in from the three-point line and our post players could not handle them. Our help defense was late. In the third quarter, I tried to change the pace of the game and tried to control those two girls, but we couldn't stop them. We went back to man-to-man defense, but by then, we were already 15 down. We made a good comeback and played well on both wells to finish this game. Jeena PS played really well for us. Again, with 1:24 left in the game, we were one point down and had possession. But we made silly turnover and lost our chance for a win."

Jeena PS turned out to be India's best offensive threat, eventually leading the team in scoring (14.3 ppg) and ending the tournament as the fifth-best scorer in Asia.

"We know that she was to be one of our main threats," Garcia said of the talented forward from Kerala, whose combination of size and speed eludes opponents, "She has a nice shot and is usually guarded by tall players who aren't as fast. In games against Thailand and the Philippines, we were clearly looking for her. She performed really well. She has taken one step ahead in this tournament. The day she starts to play some defense, she can be an international star. She is one of the best prospects we have here, but she must continue working hard."

"There is talent in some of the girls too. Shireen Limaye didn't play well at all but is recovering well from a knee injury and has potential. Poojamol KS was playing ok. When she starts to play defense she's going to be a good player. There are three for four girls - including Kavita Akula and Bhandavya who can have a good future."

For India and for Garcia, there is always a balance in such international tournaments to their approach against Asia's Big Four. The best teams, as Garcia admits, are leaps and bounds ahead of India, and those games are mostly used as practice or tune-up matches for the 'important' - or winnable - games.

"There is a big difference between those four teams and the rest," admitted Garcia, "For some of those games, I rested some of my top players or played them lesser to keep them healthier. The main thing is to not take risks. The goal was to get the girls healthy and less tired for the 'important' matches; I already knew that those teams were not in our league."

"Still, the team I put out on the floor was trying their best. I didn't put the best players to play 35 minutes against them - for me, that's nonsense. I was gonna lose anyways, so it's wasting energy against them, i think. The physical bodies of those girls makes them look like adults and us like kids. Physically, we cannot compete against them."

Before he left India and handed the keys of the Head Coaching job to his yet-unnamed successor, Garcia mapped out his ideas for what the future of India Basketball.

"First of all, the priority is to try and come back to Level 1," he said, "That is the main goal. We should have normal camps. Get back more players that we missed, like Raspreet Sidhu, and some players with more inside presence on the court. And of course, we need a Point Guard. I don't think that the situation we faced this year will happen again. We learnt a lesson this time."

"The team has a bright future. But I'll say the same thing if we are winning or losing: we need exposure. Girls need to compete internationally more. We could not practice more than one camp this time. They need to play more together. India needs to try and create a professional basketball league so these girls are continuously practicing throughout the year. That way, when they come for the national camps, they will be fit and in shape."

Garcia departure from India is on Friday, September 11. By Sunday, he said that he will already begin his new job: the head coach of Spain's Women's Division 2 side Basket Mar Gijon, in his hometown of Gijon.

It has been a topsy-turvy two years for Garcia in India, starting in jubilance at the FIBA Women's ABC, rising and falling and faced with drama (internal and external), and ending at the same tournament with a setback.

But his overall tenure in India will be remembered as a success, both on and off the court. Garcia helped lead the team to memorable performances at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship and the 2014 Lusofonia Games. Off the court, he took great interest at coaching coaches and players at the grassroots level. The end of his era was disturbed by the Indian federation's infighting and turmoil, but they haven't been able to tarnish the positive relationships that he built here over time. Hopefully, he can find more success in his new venture and can make another comeback to Indian basketball sometime in the future!

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