Last weekend, one hundred and twenty-two of India's finest basketball players, coaches, referees, and support staff woke up to the bitter news that they were going to banned from participation in all official basketball activities in India and abroad. The news has since shook up the basketball fraternity in India to the core and created another fissure within the divided sport.
sent out a warning message that all players, coaches, etc participating in 'unauthorised competitions' won't be allowed to take part in official national or international basketball events. The BFI is the governing body of the sport in India and has affiliation from FIBA internationally. The primary target of their warning was the UBA Basketball League, an independent basketball competition launched a year ago and completed their third season last week.
Now that UBA's Season 3 is over, the BFI sent out another circular following up with their threat, and this time, named 122 individuals - many of whom are legends of the game or can strengthen India's current basketball programme - who will not have permission to participate in basketball activities in India or abroad.
On Thursday, August 4, BFI's Secretary-General Chander Mukhi Sharma sent out a circular to all presidents and secretaries of the BFI's affiliated units with the subject: 'No permission to the listed Players & Officials to participate in any Basketball activities in India and abroad'. The circular stated that, "You are hereby notified to ensure that the attached list of Players, Coaches, Support staff & Referees are not permitted in any All India tournaments, International and National competitions within India and abroad as they have played in an unrecognized Championship/Competition of the Basketball Federation of India."
The 'unrecognized Championship/Competition' obviously refers to the UBA. Attached to the circular was a four page list of the 122 names. These include 95 players, 17 coaches, and ten technical staff.
PDF: Here's the circular with full list of banned individuals.
Some of the Indian players now barred from representing their teams in All India championships or trying out for the national team include talents like Season 2 UBA MVP Vinay Kaushik (Delhi), Kaif Zia (Karnataka), Jagdeep Singh Bains (Punjab), Gurvinder Singh Gill (Punjab), Loveneet Singh (Punjab), Ajay Pratap Singh (Indian Railways), Akashdeep Hazra (Indian Railways), Gopal Ram (Services), Jai Ram Jat (Services), Joginder Singh (Services), and UBA Season 3 MVP Narender Grewal (Services). Interestingly, the BFI even named foreign players (who couldn't represent India in domestic/international competitions anyways) in their list, too, including Australia's Eban Hyams and Mahesh Padmanabhan and Nigeria's Chukwunanu Agu.
Well-respected and accomplished Indian coaches Prasanna Jayasankar, Ram Kumar, Jora Singh while technical staff members like Vinod Vachani are among the others now banned by the BFI. Many of the players, coaches, and staff named above have already represented India at the international level.
This was a massive step taken by the BFI and a risky power-play by their President, K Govindraj. Indian basketball is already a divided land; the BFI has broken it into further fissures and created more animosity among the fraternity.
The story behind BFI's current state is a complicated tale that would look the Triangle Offense look like a playground shootaround. A year and a half ago, the BFI split into two executive committees - a group led by Govindraj and one led by Poonam Mahajan - in conflict for control for the governing seat of Indian Basketball. Team Govindraj eventually wrested control once they won the support of FIBA - the international basketball federation - and have since been holding both national and international events. However, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports of the Government of India favoured Team Mahajan, and the Govindraj-led BFI hit several roadblocks over the past 16 months. The conflict eventually led to basketball at the 2016 South Asian Games getting de-recognised by FIBA since the teams India sent were affiliated to the IOA but not the BFI. In turn, in April this year, the Government of India didn't recognise basketball among the country's National Sports Federations.
Without the support of the government, the BFI has had to raise funds and hold national/international events independently. Also, the Govindraj-led BFI were cut off from IMG Reliance, the sponsors who had signed a deal to support the original BFI several years ago. As they started over, Team Govindraj and the BFI lost IMG Reliance and the Government's help to launch India's first professional basketball league.
And so came in the UBA, a company that is a partnership between foreign investors and Indian management who decided to get eight teams together out to a couple of destinations for three quick seasons of short, professional basketball. Each season has only lasted a few weeks and several of India's top male players and all women have been missing from the UBA's talent pool. Nevertheless, they were able to provide an alternative source of work to Indian players, specially those suffering in the political infighting between the warring factions of the BFI, and create hype for the game in India through televised games on the Ten Network and a strong social media presence. Most importantly, they provided struggling Indian sportsmen with their most important priority: payment.
The UBA has filled in a gap of league basketball action that the BFI weren't able to implement themselves. Instead of embracing and recognising their efforts, the BFI has instead reacted with hostility.
27-year-old Narender Grewal is an Indian sporting hero. Known for his awkward jump-shot and the ferocious appetite to score on the court, Grewal's skills earned him a spot with the Indian Air Force, the national Services basketball team, and eventually, with the Indian national squad that defeated China in the 'Wonder of Wuhan' at the FIBA Asia Cup two years ago. He played for around six years for India in various important international competitions.
Grewal joined the UBA Basketball League, played for the Pune Peshwas, and his excellent performances as the league's leading scorer earned him the Season 3 MVP trophy. However, his actions will now see him miss out on a chance to represent the country again.
"Basketball is growing in India, so it should be supported, not stopped," Grewal told me over the phone on Monday. "The UBA is not doing anything wrong. They are giving people an opportunity to play. Every season, the league is getting better. Players are making a name for themselves in India, getting exposure, and making money. It's a good thing for Indian basketball."
Grewal, who originally hails from Bhiwani District in Haryana, added that he knew very well the warnings from the BFI about playing in the league, but the political infighting between the two-opposing factions of the BFI had already hurt his career and that of many other basketball players in India over the past one and a half years. With the UBA, he could get back to what he knew best - basketball - instead of being bogged down by the politics.
"We already have problems that their are two federations in India," he added, "and if we play for one, we are annoying the other. So the biggest problem is, where do I play? So I decided to play for the UBA. I'm a player, and playing is important for me. With them, I got exposure and I got a job. BFI wants to ban all of us, but first, they need to fix their own two federations issue. Once they launch their own league, of course I would like to play for them."
Grewal brought up the example of India's stars Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh who played professionally abroad in Japan's D-League last year. They were, of course, not banned, and currently make up for Team India's formidable international frontcourt.
"I love what Amrit Pal and Amjyot have done for India and how they have made us proud abroad," said Grewal. "But if the BFI doesn't have a problem with them, then why us? Not all of us can play in leagues abroad; at least the UBA offered us an option to play in a basketball league at home in India."
Now, despite his heroics for India in the past, Grewal's future with the national team seems bleak. "As long as I'm fit and I'm given a chance, I want to play for my country. Hopefully, I get a chance again."
Grewal is just one of the over hundred individuals affected by the BFI's decision. This ban hurts all parties involved. While our national team is showing some progress at the international stage, we will miss a chance to have a deeper talent pool to provide competition for spots and lose the expertise of many experienced and talented coaches at the domestic and national stage. The ban will hurt Indian domestic basketball championships as each team will be missing several star players and the quality of basketball on-court will eventually suffer. Of course, the ban hurts the players themselves, who have had to choose between earning through basketball and having a shot at their state/unit or national teams. The next generation of young Indian players will see this conflict and be wary of making a career in the game altogether: if Indian Basketball is going to create animosity within itself every few years, then why take the risk of such an unstable and unpredictable career?
The Govindraj-led BFI has done remarkably well for itself and for basketball in India over the past year, especially in light of the antagonism they've faced from the Indian government. But in turn, their own antagonism towards the UBA is a major misstep. Waiting for a BFI Basketball League isn't enough for players/officials searching for an opportunity. Hopefully, a compromise can be reached for all basketball to peacefully coexist in the country.