May 21, 2017

For The Future

The NBA opened a first-of-its-kind Academy in India. We spoke to Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum to find out why.

I originally wrote this article for SLAM Magazine's website on May 11, 2017. Read the original feature on here.

In only his second year as the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner, Mark Tatum shook hands with history. And those hands, he says, were so large that his own palms completely disappeared.

Tatum was on stage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to call the 52nd pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, a little-known 7-1 giant out of Punjab. That young man, Satnam Singh, turned out to be the first Indian player ever to be drafted into the NBA. “I was so thrilled to be a part of that,” says Tatum, “to know that I’ll be part of that history.”

Tatum—and the NBA—haven’t stopped shaking hands with India since. Last summer, he visited the country with Robin Lopez and Seth Curry to attend a Jr. NBA Elite Camp in Noida, a city close to the country’s capital, New Delhi. Tatum is back in the country, helping the NBA launch its most-ambitious investment in India yet: an elite basketball academy where the League will develop top young male and female prospects from around the country. The NBA’s hope is that the results will pay off longterm to build a stronger basketball culture in the country.

On Tuesday, the NBA announced the official opening of NBA Academy India at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Complex in Greater Noida. Twenty-one elite male prospects, who were selected following a three-month, nationwide basketball talent search, will receive scholarships and training the first-of-its-kind academy.

The NBA says that the Academy in India will employ a holistic, 360-degree approach to player development with focuses on education, leadership, character development and life skills.

The official opening of NBA Academy India follows the launch of academies in Hangzhou, Jinan and Ürümqi, China; Thies, Senegal; and the planned launch of NBA Global Academy in Canberra, Australia. The Academies include educational development for top international male and female prospects and mark the NBA’s most significant investment in elite player development.

While the Academy will serve to the top-of-the-line prospects in the country, the NBA has taken steps to reach deep into the grassroots to make basketball more ubiquitous around India. Over the last few years, the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA program has trained millions of young players and instructors. The NBA also launched an ‘NBA Basketball School’ earlier this year in Mumbai, with plans to open more in the near future.

We caught up with Tatum over the phone from Mumbai earlier this week to discuss the ambitions for the Academy, the challenges and opportunities presented by India, and more.

SLAM: What has been your very first impression of India and of the basketball talent available for the NBA Academy?

Mark Tatum: My first impression was that the players had a true understanding of the game, and I was impressed by their willingness and desire to learn. I remember Seth [Curry] was teaching them how to shoot and Robin [Lopez] was taking them through drills. I remember vividly a couple of big, young gentlemen listening intently to what Robin had to say. They had knowledge and a passion to want to get better.

SLAM: Cricket is India’s most important sport and basketball is still not popular in the mainstream—no India-born player has played in the NBA. Why did the NBA show so much interest in India and choose to invest in this massive venture?

MT: India has 1.3 billion people. We think it has the potential to be the next China for the NBA. I had the opportunity to call out Satnam Singh’s name as the 52nd pick in the draft—I think it was inspiring and will inspire more Indian kids to play. The sport is really growing in popularity here. Our Jr. NBA program reached six million youth and we have taught five thousand physical education teachers since 2013. We have seven million Facebook fans from India, and that number is growing at a rapid pace.

This Academy is really the next step in helping to develop elite talent in the marketplace by providing best-in-class training and development. For us, it’s a longterm opportunity and investment.

SLAM: Many in India believe that the best-case scenario is to follow that China model. The two countries have similarly large populations and potential, and if India can get a breakthrough like Yao, it would be huge for basketball and NBA in the country. But what do you think India can offer to the basketball world that perhaps differs from any other model?

MT: India is unique in the size of its middle-class population and how young the demographic is. In terms of basketball, China is a very mature basketball market: they have been playing the sport for over a hundred years. The game was brought there in the early 1900s! For us, the opportunity in India is to get more younger kids and more instructors teaching basketball, playing in schools and having a younger demographic who likes action. These youngsters are multi-talented. They are engaged in digital and mobile activities, which the NBA is perfectly suited for.

SLAM: The Academy aims to employ a “holistic, 360-degree approach to player development with focuses on education, leadership, character development, and life skills.” Why has the NBA chosen to taken this additional responsibility for youth development outside the basketball court?

MT: We believe basketball and sport have benefits beyond the sport. Life lessons from team sports, specifically basketball, can help improve individuals and society. The lessons that I learned growing up playing basketball and baseball growing up were: how to be a good teammate, how to respect others, the values of hard work, that if you work hard at something you can get better at it. You learn how to overcome adversity and learn how to lose too. For us it’s about more than basketball on the court – there can be really valuable life lessons that individuals learn from the game.

SLAM: There are already NBA Academies in China, Africa, and Australia. Many of them follow the NBA’s basic curriculum and philosophy in coaching and player development. Each culture is different, and India obviously has its own separate set of challenges and opportunities. What will be the approach for the Academy that will be unique to India at the grassroots level?

MT: I think the opportunity is that, in a short amount of time, there are kids here who have been identified through a national scouting network. What’s so positive is the level of talent we’re seeing from young kids in a market where basketball infrastructure hasn’t been great. It is a huge opportunity that we’re excited about.

The challenge is that there hasn’t been a strong culture of basketball for over a century. How do you quickly build that culture? How do you expose these kids to the best competition in the world? The academy concept is really going to help with that. We’re going to accelerate the development with access to best coaches and best trainers. They’ll have a chance to travel and play against other academies in China, Australia, Africa, and potentially, teams in the US. This is a tremendous opportunity and we have some of the top prospects in the country.

SLAM: You played a part of Indian basketball history two years ago when you called out Satnam Singh’s name in the draft. When you were informed of the Mavericks’ pick, did you feel that this was going to be a historic moment?

MT: Oh yes, I remember that moment so vividly! I was thrilled to be a part of history. Earlier on draft day—all the draftees were at one hotel—I spotted Satnam and went up to say hello to him. He was so nervous and excited about the prospect of hearing his name. I said, ‘Satnam, I hope I get to call your name tonight’.

How the draft works is that I wait in a room in the back. I get a card handed to me, and when I saw his name, I began to smile from ear to ear. I knew how happy he would be and what a huge moment it would be for the youth in India. So, I went out there. I knew where he was sitting, glanced at him, and called his name. it was an exciting moment for me, for him, for the country, for the history of the NBA. We’ll look 10-20 years from now and realize what a big day it was.

I know that he is working hard—he is very talented, very skilled. He had a decent season in the D-League and I think he learned a lot. I still view him as a young big man who has an opportunity to make it.

SLAM: From what you know of India’s potential, how long do you feel it would be for India to produce a decent NBA talent?

MT: There will be lot of divergent pathways. Some kids play in Division I colleges in the United States; some will play in the D-league; some will play in other leagues around the world. We’re hopeful that in the next five-to-ten years or so that we’ll see an NBA talent coming through these academies.

May 20, 2017

Team India is in Maldives for 2017 SABA Basketball Championship hoping for 5th consecutive title

The South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) championship has been held four times, once every two years. India has won the title four times.

This week, India's Senior Men's national basketball squad is in Male, Maldives, to try and make it a perfect five for five.

Team India headed to Maldives for the 5th SABA Basketball Championship from May 19-23 to take part in the five-team tournament. The winner of this championship will qualify for the lone South Asian spot in the continent's most prestigious basketball event, the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup, set to be held in Lebanon in August. The participants in this year's events are India, hosts Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal. As can be gleaned from past SABA editions, the Indian men’s team, with a blend of youth and experience, will start off yet again as strong favourites.

India’s attempt at a five-peat of the tournament will be led by experienced point guard Akilan Pari. Also featured in the squad are centre Amritpal Singh, guard Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and veteran forward Yadwinder Singh, the trio who recently took part in the NBL Draft Combine in Australia. Other familiar faces are centre Rikin Pethani, forward Prasanna Venkatesh, shooting guard Arjun Singh, centre Ravi Bhardwaj and forward Anil Kumar BK. Missing from the squad are a few notable big names that we hope will return to the team if India qualifies for the FIBA Asia Cup, including Amjyot Singh, Palpreet Singh, and Satnam Singh.

Photo via: Basketball Federation of India
Team India at 2017 SABA Basketball Championship
  • Akilan Pari - Captain
  • Muin Bek Hafeez
  • Prasanna Sivakumar
  • Anil Kumar Gowda
  • Arjun Singh
  • Vishesh Bhriguvanshi
  • Amritpal Singh
  • Vishal Kumar Gupta
  • Ravi Bhardwaj
  • Jeevanatham Pandi
  • Yadwinder Singh
  • Head Coach: Sappaniambalam Baskar
  • Assistant Coach: Sebastian Padipurakkal Joseph
  • Manager: Sushil Kumar

"Our motto as a team is to win big and make sure that the juniors of our team get playing time," said Pari, the team's captain. "This championship is important for them to get good exposure and will be crucial in their development as players."

India’s training camp for the tournament was held from 1st-17th May, at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, New Delhi with 33 players, and the final selections were made on 7th May. A conscious effort was made by the selectors and Head Coach Baskar Sappaniambalam to ensure that the right blend of youth and experience was picked for their campaign in Maldives. "India has had a solid record at the SABA Championship and we aim to continue that trend," Sappaniambalam said. "It is the only tournament where we can provide an opportunity to our younger players and hence we have selected 3 players under the age of 22. Our main aim is to win and qualify for the FIBA Asia Cup taking place in Lebanon in August."

India's Schedule at the 2017 SABA Championship
  • May 19: India vs. Maldives
  • May 21: Sri Lanka vs. India
  • May 22: India vs. Bangladesh
  • May 23: Nepal vs. India

Kenneth Faried is in India, watching the Playoffs and chilling at the Taj

In case you missed it, the "Manimal" himself, Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets, landed in India earlier this week in behalf of the NBA to promote the ongoing NBA Playoffs. He will be travelling to Mumbai, Delhi, and Agra during his trip.

Faried's first stop was already at the Taj Mahal in Agra soon after he landed up in India on Wednesday. On Saturday, May 20, he will stop over in New Delhi where he will engage with fans at the Ambience Mall in Gurgaon as part of NBA Zone powered by Jabong, the largest basketball entertainment festival in India. On May 21, Faried will travel to Mumbai for a live television appearance on Sony SIX’s NBA morning show “Around the Hoop” to share his perspective on the NBA Playoffs.

“I’m excited to visit India for the first time and celebrate the Playoffs with fans,” said Faried. “The NBA is doing a lot to develop young players there, and I’m looking forward to seeing the passion they have for the game firsthand.”

“Hosting NBA players in India is an important part of our continued efforts to grow basketball across the country,” said NBA India Managing Director Yannick Colaco. “The opportunity to meet and interact with a player of Kenneth’s caliber will inspire young boys and girls to learn the game and the values it teaches, including teamwork, integrity and respect.”

Faried, a 6’8” forward from Newark, New Jersey, was selected 22nd overall by the Denver Nuggets in the 2011 NBA Draft. Faried was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team in 2012 and selected as the Rising Stars Challenge MVP at NBA All-Star 2013 in Houston. Faried averaged 9.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game over the past season for the Nuggets, who finished 9th in the West.

NBA Zone powered by Jabong is a basketball lifestyle event that brings the NBA experience to fans in India through digital and social media engagement, oncourt competitions, an innovative cinematic experience, gaming, music, merchandise giveaways and more. The event is free and open to the public and will be conducted over 26 weekends in malls across Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi, reaching more than half a million fans.

May 18, 2017

FIBA Asia Women's Cup 2017: India drawn in Division B, Group A

The last time India's Women's squad played in a major FIBA Asia tournament, they returned in failure. India lost all of their preliminary group games in Level 1 and then lost their playoff game, too, to fall down to the lower Level 2 of the tournament. It was a difficult time for our national team, and the last two years have been spent with the mission to return to the higher rung of competition.

In a few months, India will have some extra motivation for success: home court. For the first time since 2009, we will be hosting not one, but two major FIBA Asia events - the FIBA Asia Women's Cup and the FIBA Asia U16 Championship for Women - over the next few months. The former of these will be held in Bengaluru from July 23-29.

As the competition dates loom nearer, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and FIBA took the next major step in preparation: On Wednesday morning in Bengaluru, the official draw for the FIBA Women's Asia Cup 2017 was held at the city's Krishna Hall. This year's list of squads, for the first time, include teams from the Oceania region in the Asian competition, too. The expanded fray of participants also presented a changed format in the tournament, with two groups in each "Division" (instead of Level). India were drawn into the lower Division B, Group A, along with Sri Lanka, American Samoa, and Uzbekistan.

Results: FIBA Asia Women's Cup 2017 Draw
  • Division A, Group A: New Zealand, Chinese Taipei, North Korea, China.
  • Division A, Group B: South Korea, Philippines, Japan, Australia.
  • Division B, Group A: Sri Lanka, India, American Samoa, Uzbekistan.
  • Division B, Group B: Lebanon, Singapore, Kazakhstan, Fiji.

Japan, the champions from 2015, will be among the favourites again, but will have to contend with a couple of strong sides in Australia and South Korea in their group. China and Chinese Taipei will be the strongest squads in Division A's Group A.

In terms of FIBA's World Rankings, India is still the fifth-highest ranked team in Asia, and should be able to top their group easily. India's main threat is likely to be Uzbekistan. If India can top Division B, they will be promoted to Division A for the next iteration of the championship.

The draw ceremony in Bengaluru on Wednesday was attended by BFI President K Govindaraj, BFI Secretary-General Chander Mukhi Sharma, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, his Sports Minister Pramod Madhvaraj and Minister for Bengaluru Development and Town Planning KJ George.

May 17, 2017

Hoopdarshan Episode 46: NBA Operations' Vanja Cernivec on basketball in India, Slovenia, Spain, China, and more

It's a busy month for basketball, with the NBA Playoffs, Euroleague Final Four, launch of the NBA Academy India, and hoops fever all over the globe. For Episode 46 of Hoopdarshan, Vanja Cernivec - an NBA Operations Specialist currently for the Europe-Middle East-Africa region, joins hosts Kaushik Lakshman and Karan Madhok to talk about all types of hoops: coaching in India, China, Spain, closely observing the Euroleague, NBA playoffs, and the rise of her fellow Slovenian prodigy Luka Doncic

In addition Kaushik and Karan discuss more recent news in Indian basketball, such as catching India's top players at the NBL Draft Combine in Melbourne, India's draw for the FIBA World Cup qualifiers, FIBA's end of the "Headgear Ban", and the launch of NBA Academy India.

Hoopdarshan is the truest voice of Indian basketball, and since we're such hopeless fans of the game, it will become the voice of everything basketball related we love, from the NBA to international hoops, too. On every episode of Hoopdarshan, we will be inviting a special guest to interview or chat to about a variety of topics. With expert insight from some of the brightest and most-involved people in the world of Indian basketball, we hope to bring this conversation to a many more interested fans, players, and followers of the game.

Make sure to follow Hoopdarshan on Soundcloud or search for 'Hoopdarshan' on the iTunes Store! Auto-sync Hoopdarshan to your preferred podcast app NOW!

Hoopdarshan can be found on...

May 15, 2017

Basketball Without Barriers – FIBA to finally allow headgear like turban and hijab in the international game

This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India on May 4, 2017. Click here for the original piece.

Three years ago, India’s national basketball team had one of its greatest moments in history. On July 13, 2014, at the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan, China, India – ranked 53rd in the world – did the unthinkable: they defeated China – Asia’s top-ranked squad – for the first time in over seven decades of international basketball. I was in the stands at the Wuhan Sports Centre Gymnasium, one eye on my computer screen live-blogging this historic game, the other eye staring at the court in disbelief. Soon, the moment went viral and arguably became Indian basketball’s biggest cause for celebration.

But this isn’t a story about that day. This is a story of July 12, just 24-hours prior to making history, when the same Indian team created news in a completely different way, sparked an infamous controversy for the Switzerland-based International Basketball Federation (FIBA), and propelled a crusade that took over three years to resolve.

On July 12, 2014, India’s coach Scott Flemming prepared his team for the first game of the tournament against Japan. Minutes before tip-off however, I noticed that two of India’s most important players – the giant Punjabi duo of Amjyot Singh Gill and Amritpal Singh – were missing from the starting line-up. It turned out that FIBA officials at the game had summoned a controversial policy – the “No Headgear” rule – and withheld the two turbaned Sikh players from entering the game. On the sidelines of a major international basketball contest, Amjyot and Amritpal had to take off their turbans, open their hair, and tie it back together with headbands and rubber-bands. It was awkward moment, Amjyot told me after the game, but for the sake of the team, the two players pleaded to return and play. The team never recovered from the funk and lost by 23 points.

Like most Sikh players, Amjyot and Amritpal had become accustomed to growing their hair long, practicing basketball, and playing in international and domestic games with their turbans. But, according to Article 4.4.2 of FIBA’s Official Basketball Rules, headgear like turbans, hijab, or yarmulkes were considered injurious and banned. Another Indian Sikh player, Anmol Singh, was forced to remove his turban at the FIBA Junior Asian Championship in Qatar a month later. Around the same time, Qatar’s women’s basketball team pulled out of the Asian Games in South Korea because the ban asked them to play without their hijab.

The response to FIBA’s close-minded policy – which considered harmless religious headgear a hazard to the game – raised concern with activists and policy-makers around the world, including protests by top American lawmakers. Soon, FIBA announced their decision to review this policy, and in early 2017, recommended a change in the rule at their annual board meeting.

Good news finally arrived at FIBA’s Mid-Term Congress in Hong Kong this week: the congress of 139 national federations unanimously ratified the board’s decision for a new rule that will now allow players to wear headgear. The rule was developed with caution to minimise risk of injuries and preserve consistency of colour of the teams’ uniforms. It will come into effect from October 1, 2017, which is soon, but not soon enough: the big FIBA Asia tournaments for Women and Men this year will be held in July and August.

This is a smart, progressive step by FIBA. Basketball is not a game that belongs to a single culture anymore. There are star players and new avenues to the game all around the world, and changing this institution will help basketball grow in more communities.

However, there is a poignant afterthought to this story. Let’s return back to Amjyot and Amritpal, back to July 2014, and that championship in Wuhan that thrust India into international news for the wrong and the right reasons. A day after adjusting their hair, the two players ended up being the main difference-makers in India’s win over China. Amjyot led all scorers in the game with 13 while Amritpal played suffocating post defence on China’s top players, including future NBA-draftee Zhou Qi.

But even the thrill of victory couldn’t wipe away the sour taste of this experience. To avoid becoming a distraction for the national team again, both Amjyot and Amritpal cut their hair short a few months later. The two bigs have since continued on their path to success, playing professionally in Japan, participating in an Australian league draft combine, and teaming up to defeat China again last year.

Amjyot and Amritpal will be in the forefront of the queue of a long line of talented Sikh basketball players in India, most of whom have been the product of the same basketball academy in Ludhiana, Punjab. As India prepares for the FIBA Asia Cup this year, names like NBA draftee Satnam Singh, NBA D-League draftee Palpreet Singh, and veteran forward Yadwinder Singh will all be vying for roster spots.

Several other international sports, like football and volleyball were ahead of the curve in allowing acceptable headgear; it took an uphill battle, but basketball – finally – seems to have caught up. In the past, all of the Indian Sikh players mentioned above chose to avoid controversy and cut their hair off for basketball participation. In other parts of the world, women players in hijab and Jewish players have faced similar forks in the road between career and religious practice. Looking forward, talented athletes around the world will hopefully not have to make that decision again.

May 14, 2017

“If Indian players get a chance, we’ll give 200 percent effort” – Basketball star Yadwinder Singh speaks about NBL Draft Combine in Australia

This article was first published in my column for on May 4, 2017. See the original piece here.

It was an unprecedented honour. In mid-April, four of the top players of India’s national basketball team – Amjyot Singh, Amritpal Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, and Yadwinder Singh – were invited to Melbourne to take part in Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL) Draft Combine.

No Indian player has ever played in the NBL. Amjyot, Amritpal, Bhriguvanshi, and Yadwinder – all of whom have helped India make rapid strides in improvement in recent years – were among a total of 80 players at the Combine at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic on April 17-18 with hopes to cracking into the nation’s top professional basketball league.

The Combine was an opportunity for coaches and scouts of different NBL teams to gauge the talent at hand and sign the players they believe could help their team. NBL teams are usually allowed only three spots for foreign players, but under the new rules, players belonging to the countries of the FIBA Asia zone will be given an additional separate spot. This could really encourage one of the NBL's eight teams to sign one of the Indians.

Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh are no stranger to foreign league attention. Both Punjabi big men have played professionally in Japan's BJ Summer League and their Development League, winning the Japanese D-League title as teammates in the latter for the Tokyo Excellence. Last year, Amjyot and Amritpal also declared for the NBA's D-League draft but were not picked. Bhriguvanshi is one of India's most experienced and talented players and is recognised as one of the best shooting guards in Asia.

The most experienced of India’s representatives in Australia was Yadwinder Singh. ‘Yadu’ (30) has been playing internationally for India for over a dozen years. The 6-foot-6 forward is known to be one of team’s most beloved players and has played crucial roles behind the “Big Three” of Amjyot, Amritpal, and Bhriguvanshi in India’s successful campaigns in the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge and 2014 FIBA Asia Cup. Domestically, he plays for ONGC in Dehradun and most-recently represented the Haryana Gold squad in the UBA Basketball League.

After he returned back to his home in Rasulpur near Amritsar in Punjab, I got an opportunity to interview Yadwinder about his experiences in Melbourne and his future plans.

Q. How did you hear about the opportunity to take part in the NBL Draft Combine and what was your first reaction?

Yadwinder: I was first told about the opportunity by Vishnu Ravi Shanker (the co-founder of Pursuit India) about three or four weeks before the Combine. Of course, I was very happy to hear this news. I know that I’m old – I’m over 30 now – and I was glad to still get this opportunity. Usually, foreign leagues are only interested in players under 25. I started practicing for it right away and I knew I had to do my best.

This was my second time in Australia; I played for India at the 2006 CommonWealth Games in Melbourne.

Q. How helpful was it that you had Amjyot, Amritpal, and Vishesh - three guys who you have spent so much time playing with internationally and domestically - by your side for this trip?

Yadwinder: The four of us, we have a brotherhood. I was so happy that I was there with guys that I have played with so much. I play with Vishesh and Amrit in ONGC and with Amjyot in the national team. So it was a lot of fun. I would have been more anxious if I was there alone, but with all four of us, there was no pressure. We encouraged each other to play better.

The trip was comfortable off the court, too. My sister lives in Melbourne, she has been in Australia for 10-11 years. She took care of everything for us and we had no problems getting around.

Q. Tell me about the schedule of the Combine, and what types of workouts they had you guys go through?

Yadwinder: We were registered on our first day with the other players. There were players mostly from Australia, but some from the USA, and some Canadians were also there. Several Chinese players were invited but they didn’t show up. They did a physical test first for our heights and weights, and then separated us all into different teams of about five or six. All of us four Indians were put into different teams. We took part in shuffle exercises, sprinting, jumping for our vertical, etc. on that first day. Then, after lunch, all of our teams played a few casual games.

The next day, they called all of the teams back and told us a little bit more about the Combine. Then they tested our shooting percentages and I think we Indians were the best! All of us – Vishesh, Amjyot, Amritpal – shot really well. Amrit must have hit twelve or thirteen threes! There was one more game in the end before the closing.

I really liked Melbourne, it’s a very good city. If I get the opportunity, I would enjoy playing there or anywhere in Australia.

Q. What lessons from the Combine do you think you've picked up that will help you improve your game back in India?

Yadwinder: We were there just for two days, so everything was a little rushed. But I know that that they stressed on the importance of playing in the team system, about how a new player can adjust in a team. It was also great playing with some of the other foreign players: I noticed their speed, their shooting ability, and definitely how their fitness-level was better than ours. We have to improve our fitness levels, too.

Playing with a lot of those players, I think our confidence level improved a lot. I feel that I can play against anyone. Of course, Amjyot and Amritpal have proven themselves in the Japan. There’s nothing that we can’t achieve; if Indian players get a chance, we’ll give two hundred percent effort.

Q. The FIBA Asia Cup is in August. How is the team preparing for it and what are the goals this time around after India made history at the FIBA Asia Challenge last year?

Yadwinder: We are improving every day and doing our best. The national team camp will begin at the IG Stadium in New Delhi Day from May 1st. We are all in rhythm and have been playing a lot. I also heard that Satnam Singh will be joining us for the FIBA Asia Cup. Our team will be much stronger.

The aim is to not to repeat the mistakes of the close games we lost in the past. We have to study where we fell short against teams like Iran and the Philippines and make improvements. We understand those teams better now.

We watch a lot of our own games online and pay attention to our mistakes. We have to learn and improve. I’ll give you a personal example: say that I am on defence, guarding a player, and another player who is being guarded by Amritpal provides a screen. I get stuck in those situations, and I have to analyse how to squeeze out of that screen and recover to defend my man, and how Amritpal can recover quickly back to his man, too. Many of the offences in the international teams rely very heavily on screen-and-rolls and pick-and-rolls. That is something that I know I have to be in the lookout for on the defensive end.

I want to give my team one hundred percent. Do whatever my team wants or needs from me. The coaches know where to use me on court and I would do whatever it takes.

Between Satnam, Amrit, Amjyot, and Vishesh, we have a very good set of players in the team now.

Q. What do you hope to achieve for the team and yourself over the next year?

Yadwinder: We want to play even better and finish even higher in the FIBA Asia Cup. I’m not saying that we’ll get a medal, but we have to improve our standing. Every team rises slowly. The last time we played in a major tournament, there were problems with the federation in India but we played well without a lot of good players. This time, we will have more high-level players available.

Personally, I have to improve my shooting percentage. Of course, I always concentrate on defence, that’s my thing. We have enough good scorers in our team: Vishesh, Amritpal, Amjyot, and Palpreet [Singh Brar], who is now doing really well too. So I don’t have to worry about scoring; my focus is on defence.

May 11, 2017

My Other Home

When his NBA career ended, Stephon Marbury ventured to China and impacted the country beyond his wildest dreams.

I originally wrote this article for SLAM Magazine's website on May 1, 2017. Read the original feature on here.

On a cool October evening some five years ago, I was among the approximately ten thousand fans that flocked into the Wukesong Sports Center—now known as the LeSports Center—in Beijing for an exhibition game. I had moved from India to China just a few months before and this was my first chance to see my new “local” team, the Beijing Ducks, in preseason action. There was a special sense of electricity in the air: the visiting team was a troupe of retired and amateur American players, headlined by the almighty Allen Iverson and the ever-entertaining Jason Williams.

But even the presence of The Answer and White Chocolate himself wasn’t enough to steal the spotlight from the home team. The Ducks feature a rabid base of perhaps the Chinese Basketball Association’s most passionate fans and a few months before this game, these fans were rewarded with their first CBA title.

When the starting line-ups were announced, the biggest cheers were reserved for the new messiah of Chinese basketball. In my beginner’s Chinese, only three syllables stood out from the PA announcer: “Ma Bu Li”, the man who rose to heroic heights to deliver Beijing their elusive title, whose statue now stood by the parking lot outside the famous arena.

Stephon Marbury.

A pregame incident gave the first hint of true lore of Marbury in one of the world’s most populous cities. A few young fans were called midcourt to answer questions from the hype-man at the game, and a friend translated for me. One girl, aged around 10 or so, was asked who was her favorite Chinese player on the Ducks—each CBA team is allowed only two or three foreigners and the rest of the roster is packed with China’s finest. With little hesitation, the girl screamed out, “Ma Bu Li”.

Everyone laughed, then cheered, and there was no clarification or follow-up. Her answer immediately made complete sense. Born in Coney Island, Brooklyn, in another time, in another life, Stephon Marbury was once the quintessential great New York City player. At the height of his NBA career, he was a scoring superstar point guard years ahead of his time, and one of the most loved and complicated players of his generation. But now, he was here. He was in China.

And he was one of them.

I spent three more years in Beijing and during the course of this time, Marbury brought two more championships to the Ducks, made memorable playoff runs every year, and became a cultural icon in China. He was featured on Chinese national stamps, acted in a musical about his own life, became the first foreign athlete to receive a Chinese permanent residency (green card), named a ‘Model Citizen’ of Beijing, and a museum was built in his honor.

But after six years with Ducks, the 40-year-old is parting ways with the organization. Unlike some of his previous basketball breakups, the goodbye to Beijing has been congenial; Marbury was grateful for what the team and the city meant to him, and hopes to continue playing basketball elsewhere.

Beijing and Marbury forged a city-to-player relationship like no other. The playoff nights at the Wukesong in particular, were epic, where fans in those ubiquitous white and light-blue Marbury Ducks jerseys (I bought one, too!) roared for him pregame, chanted his name at every heroic moment, cried in joy alongside him when he shed tears over the championships.

“I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I think they – Beijing – are the best fans on the planet,” Marbury told me in an interview I conducted with him for SLAM at his apartment in Beijing two years ago. “The energy that they bring towards the players and the atmosphere in Wukesong is different and it’s rare. And it’s consistent throughout the whole game. They’re very knowledgeable, they understand the game, they know when someone’s shot isn’t going, and they know when someone needs to be encouraged. You can’t really put a price tag on that or compare it to anything.”

Former NBA players had taken their talents to China before, including the great lockout journey to the East that included JR Smith, Wilson Chandler, Patty Mills, and Kenyon Martin, and during my time in the country, former All Stars like Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas. But none of them embraced the ‘Middle Kingdom’ like Starbury. He embraced the culture, food, language, and the people like none other, and they embraced him back. For him, China was not just a stepping stone, it was the destination. Later this year, he will even release a film called My Other Home about his journey East, from New York to Beijing.

This comfort in what he often called his ‘new home’ was evident when I met him. “Beijing is home,” he said. “I mean, America’s gonna always be home. But this is where I live at, this is home. This is where my life is at – here in China.”

“At first, it was a trying time because it was all brand new,” he said of his early years in China, when he played two losing seasons in for Shanxi and Foshan. “I was ready to do something different and be a part of something different. I wanted to evolve to a new area in my life and in basketball. It was a trying time because of the culture barrier and not being able to speak the language and not being able to communicate.”

“I understand the culture now. I love the food. I now know why people do what they do when they do it. Even though I can’t speak the language as well as I would like, I know a little bit more than when I first came here.

“It’s just growth.”

May 7, 2017

India's path to the 2019 FIBA World Cup explained - Qualifiers draw and Schedule

FIBA, the international basketball federation, made an important change to their competition system last year. Under their new calendar, qualification for the FIBA Basketball World Cup - scheduled to be held in China in 2019 - will follow a long journey of qualifying rounds. This is great news for Indian basketball fans: India will get the experience of playing in many more international basketball games in the qualifying process, and get the chance to host major FIBA matches on our home soil.

32 teams from around the world will play in the FIBA World Cup in 2019, out of which seven will be from the Asia/Oceania. Based on our past performances at the FIBA Asia stage, India are among the 16 Asian/Oceanic teams to have a chance to qualify for those seven spots.

Before the draw for the qualifiers, India were placed in 'Pot 6'. The draw for all of the FIBA World Cup qualifying groups around the world - Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia/Oceania - was held in a major ceremony in Guangzhou, China, on Sunday. India were drawn into Group C, along with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. And yes, that was former NBA legend Scottie Pippen holding up a piece of paper as he announced 'India'!

2019 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers Draw for the First Round:

  • Group A: China, New Zealand, Korea, Hong Kong.
  • Group B: Japan, Chinese Taipei, Australia, Philippines.
  • Group C: Syria, Lebanon, India, Jordan.
  • Group D: Iraq, Qatar, Kazakhstan, Iran.

Teams in each group will play each other home and away between November 2017 to July 2018 in the First Round. Here is the schedule for qualifying games for India (home team first): Mark these dates on your calendars; it's still not clear where exactly these games will be played, but I'm already hoping for a big home crowd for our national men's squad wherever they play!

  • November 23, 2017: Lebanon vs. India
  • November 26, 2017: India vs. Syria
  • February 23, 2018: India vs. Jordan
  • February 26, 2018: India vs. Lebanon
  • June 28, 2018: Syria vs. India
  • July 1, 2018: Jordan vs. India

To qualify for the Second Round, India have to finish within the top three of their group. As they currently stand in the FIBA rankings, India are the third-best team in Group C, behind Jordan and Lebanon. And based on our recent trends of improvement, India is definitely better than what the current FIBA ranking (53) indicate. As long as the team can put up a strong performance up to their expectations, they will make it to the next round.

12 of the above 16 Asian/Oceania teams will be in the Second Round of the qualifiers, where they will carry over the results from the First Round (which is why it's important for India to not just finish in top three but amass as many points as possible), and then be divided into two groups of six. Between September 2018 to February 2019, teams in each group will once again play in home and away games among each other. The top three teams from each group, along with the best-placed fourth team, will qualify for the World Cup!

The 2019 World Cup is currently scheduled to be held in eight host cities in China from August 31 - September 15, 2019.

But before all that, India have to set their sights at the upcoming FIBA Asia Cup, set to be held in Lebanon from August 10-20, 2017.

May 1, 2017

The company of giants

India has made basketball history without their most popular basketball player. Now, as Satnam Singh returns to the national team, could he lead the team to further greatness?

This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India on April 21, 2017. Click here for the original piece.

Years before he made history by becoming the first Indian player to be drafted into the NBA, Satnam Singh was asked to punch far above his weight. He was a 15-year-old giant when he was selected to make his debut for India’s men’s national team in 2011 by head coach Kenny Natt. Natt had decided to inject some youth and size into the men’s roster for the Middle Asia Zone qualifiers in New Delhi. Satnam was to become the youngest-player to ever don a Senior India basketball jersey, but a couple of other teenage Punjabi talents – Amjyot Singh Gill and Amritpal Singh – were picked to make their senior debuts, too.

I was present at the Thyagraj Stadium for that qualifying round – Natt, Satnam, Amjyot, and Amritpal’s first senior international outings – when India showed glimpses of their future potential with comfortable wins at home against South Asian opponents. Later that year, this team headed to China for the FIBA Asia Championship and underperformed, but the seeds of the future had been sown. In these three teenagers, India had found the size they were looking for.

Fast forward nearly six years, and the Indian basketball side finds itself in much better shape. Natt provided the spark, which was lit brighter by his successor Scott Flemming, and it continued to shine even after Flemming’s departure. Over the last few years, led by Amjyot, Amritpal, star shooting-guard Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, and a deep supporting cast, India has twice defeated Asia’s top-ranked team China in international competitions, and most recently, had their best basketball performance in nearly three decades with a 7th place finish at the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge in Tehran.

Although we have improved on various fronts, the true key to unlock this ‘golden era’ of sorts has been the maturation of our bigs. Amjyot (25 – 6-foot-8) and Amritpal (25 – 6-foot-10) have become one of the most formidable frontcourts in Asia, and their talents have taken them to play professionally in Japan, declare for the NBA’s D-League, and be invited to the NBL Draft Combine in Australia. Right behind them, players like Palpreet Singh Brar and Rikin Pethani have given us depth in that frontcourt, too: Palpreet (23 – 6-foot-9), in particular, has improved rapidly and became the first Indian to be drafted in the NBA D-League last year (although he never earned a roster spot). Veteran forward Yadwinder Singh (30 – 6-foot-6) is still an important part of the national team and impressed at the NBA Combine recently in Australia, too.

The only one missing from the equation has been Satnam (21 – 7-foot-2), the young man who became the poster boy of Indian basketball when he was drafted to the NBA by the Dallas Mavericks in 2015. Satnam, who was recruited to play at the IMG Academy in the United States as a 14-year-old in 2010, hasn’t played for India since 2013. Instead, he has spent the last few years improving his skills in the USA and playing for the NBA D-League team Texas Legends.

His absence has allowed Amjyot, Amritpal, and Palpreet to blossom into stars and India has, ironically, made basketball history without their most popular basketball player.

In a few months, it is all set to change. The 2017 FIBA Asia Cup – Asia’s most-prestigious basketball championship which will feature top teams from Oceania for the first time – is set to take place in Lebanon in August. With Amjyot, Amritpal, and Bhriguvanshi already in top form, India were looking poised to make some major noise and significantly improve their low FIBA World Ranking (currently 53rd). But earlier this week, the BFI announced that Satnam will be returning to the national team after a four-year hiatus. If all the available players are healthy, India will have its best-possible pool of talent to choose from for Lebanon.

The reunion of Satnam with Amjyot, Amritpal, and Yadwinder, alongside the younger wave of big men in contention like Palpreet, Pethani, Arvind Arumugam, Aravind Annadurai, and Ravi Bhardwaj have given India a sudden embarrassment of riches in the power forward and center positions. Counting the backcourt, only twelve can make the final roster for the FIBA Asia Cup; whoever will be appointed the team’s head coach (the last man in charge was Bhaskar Sappaniambalam for the Super Kung Sheung Cup in Hong Kong) will have the headache of sifting through these company of giants to pick six for Lebanon.

Furthermore, the coach will have to decide if he will continue to start with the successful duo of Amjyot and Amritpal and relegate Satnam – he of worldwide hype and NBA D-League experience – to the bench.

My pick for the starting five will be to stick with Amjyot and Amritpal; between the two of them, they have given India incredible frontcourt versatility over the last three years and formed a close bond from playing together in Japan. Amritpal, an elite post defender, plays closer to the basket on both ends of the floor. Amjyot has developed into a threat from both the perimeter and the post and helps space the floor for Amritpal in the middle. Satnam is a solid rim protector, can finish from inside and out and is stronger than both Amjyot and Amritpal. But he is slower on his feet and inexperienced with the national team.

At the FIBA Asia Challenge last year, India defeated Philippines and China to enter the Quarter-Final stage, where they were stopped by eventual winners, Iran. Iran featured Hamed Haddadi, the 7-foot-2 behemoth dominant center, who tormented India with 17 points and 23 rebounds in this crucial game. It will be in situations like these, going against elite strong players in the post, where Satnam’s presence will be most valuable, and India’s depth at the big man position will give us a fighting chance.

The bigger problem for India, however, is going to be in the backcourt. While Bhriguvanshi has proven to be one of the finer Asian players in his position, India have no other players who can consistently challenge to match the talent and athleticism of other international guards. Expectations will be high for TJ Sahi, Akilan Pari, and rising youngster Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi, but without better perimeter options, the Indian lineup will remain flawed.

Despite this unbalance, one of the secrets to India’s recent success has been the team’s chemistry and comfort-level with each other. My hope is that Satnam can intermingle his game smoothly with our other top players without disturbing this chemistry. The best-case scenario for India will be if he can master the delicate equilibrium between being at his individual best while playing within the team system.

All of Asia and Oceania’s top qualifying teams – China, Philippines, Iran, Japan, Lebanon, Australia, and New Zealand – will be sending their best-possible rosters for the prestigious tournament this year. With Satnam, Amjyot, Amritpal, Vishesh, and Palpreet on the roster, India may have, on paper, our greatest team ever. Could they lead the national team to further greatness?

April 22, 2017

The thrill of the chase – Following basketball in India

This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India on April 12, 2017. Click here for the original piece.

The opposition has possession of the ball and they’re dribbling down the court. You are on defence. Strict man-to-man, which means that you shouldn’t lose your cover under any circumstance. Your guy is playing off-the-ball. Follow him as he runs from baseline to baseline. Fight through the screens they set for him stick by his side. Keep your eye between him and the basket you are deputised to protect. Block the passing lanes.

Your man is a dangerous offensive talent. Lose him and you have lost the possession. You will sweat and you will lose your breath. You will bump and fall and struggle to keep pace. You will suffer – and you will have a little fun.

True Indian basketball fans are like that hassled defender, who suffer and chase and almost-impossible target, settling for unexpected rewards in small victories. Unlike the IPL in Cricket, the ISL in Football, the Hockey India league, or even the Pro Kabaddi League, there is still no singular answer for where to catch the best of Indian basketball: instead fans must follow an annual wild goose chase from month to month in hopes of finding the best competitions and following in the footsteps of their role models.

I have been covering Indian basketball for nearly eight years, and the two most common questions I have been asked in this period have been a) There’s such a thing as basketball in India? and b) Where do we follow it? The answers are a) yes, of course, and b) it’s complicated.

Without a year-long, full-sized professional league and little mainstream coverage of our national teams, most of the Indian basketball community exists online, whispering and conspiring in silent ascension on Facebook to what has now become, according to the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), the fastest-growing sport in the country.

That growth, however, is not uniform. I don’t need to worry about the tangled knots of electricity wires outside my house as long as I get electricity. But in Indian basketball, the power is in following those wires itself. There go the Senior Nationals, flashing past with the best from all four corners of the country. Whoosh past the UBA League, featuring a mixture of Indian and international basketball stars. Lean far east for the rising national league in Mizoram to see the marriage between grassroots and worldwide hoops.

Take the example of Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, one of the most talented players in the country and a recent representative for India’s national men’s team as they were nominated for Times of India’s Sports Awards team of the year. For Bhriguvanshi, life is spent on the road: in September, he led India to a historically-successful performance at the FIBA Asia Challenge in Iran. In October, he was in an ONGC jersey playing at the FIBA Asia Champions Cup in China. In December, he carried India to a best-ever third-place finish at Hong Kong’s Super Kung Sheung Cup. In January, he helped Uttarakhand win the Senior Nationals gold in Puducherry. In February and March, he played his first season at the UBA Basketball League for the Bengaluru Beast in Chennai and Goa. Back with ONGC, he helped them win a fifth-consecutive gold medal at the Federation Cup as MVP in Coimbatore. Next, he is heading to Mizoram for a short ‘Super League’. Later in the summer, he will join India’s national camp – most-likely at NIS Patiala – for the FIBA Asia Cup in August in Lebanon. And so on and so forth.

Staying on Bhriguvanshi’s toes will be an impossible task even for the most astute fans, especially with limited national broadcast opportunities for basketball in India. The top domestic events in India, like the Senior Nationals or the Federation Cup, are shown sporadically on DD Sports, with programming saved only for the final stages of the tournament (if at all). The arrival of the UBA League in 2015 has been a boon of sorts, providing a few months of daily basketball action live on Ten Sports. India’s international performances – much improved over the past few years – are rarely ever shown on domestic television. The plight is even worse for women’s basketball, who don’t even have the equivalent of the UBA League to broadcast their exploits.

Until Indian basketball finds a more consistent competition and broadcasting opportunities, fans are more likely to flock to the NBA, the best basketball league in the world out of North America. Most Indian fans recognise Stephen Curry and LeBron James over Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Amjyot Singh. Their game is too fleeting to follow, so fans understandably take the easier – and more spectacular – international option.

Fortunately, some positive change is on the way. Later this year, India will be hosting two major FIBA Asia tournaments – for Senior Women and Youth (U16) Women – in Bengaluru and Hyderabad respectively. Both these events will give fans a chance to see India’s top players of the present and the future, and follow the best basketball players in the continent.

In the road ahead, fans will also be hoping for the BFI to launch its own professional Indian league where games can be held around the country longer through the calendar year, providing more opportunities for the players to play and for the fans to watch them. India has serious basketball culture in various pockets, from Ludhiana to Kochi and Varanasi to Mumbai. Hopefully, the league will make the chase for elite Indian hoops action a breath easier.

Your opponent has the ball. Don’t be distracted by his eyes or expressions – he could look one away and pass another. Watch the ball, watch his feet. Block a clear view of the shot. Be ready for everything.

You are defending a mysterious and unpredictable opponent. Basketball in India doesn’t yet have a streamlined pro league (like the IPL) or international exposure (like Team India’s other national sides). Keep your guard up; for now, half the fun is in the thrill of the chase!

April 19, 2017

The unlikeliest duo - Aamir Khan and Stephon Marbury - promoted their movies in China together

I lived in Beijing for three years and, in my time, played a lot of pick-up basketball with the locals. There was a clear language gap with the guys I played with, since they spoke limited English (and no Hindi) and my Mandarin was almost nonexistent. In the universal language of basketball, however, we managed. I will never forget the one time when I was taking part in a 3x3 game, and a Chinese teammate discovered, in his broken English, that I am from India.

"India?" he asked. "Okay, so you be Raju. I will be Rancho, and he," he pointed at our third teammate, "is Farhan."

I was confused. "What do you mean?"

"You know, like the 3 Idiots! You are from India, right?"

I laughed out loud - his first reference to India was 3 Idiots, Aamir Khan's iconic film about the struggles of college life in India (and a perfect 3x3 basketball team team). I discovered that the film had been a cult-favourite in China, too.

Well, here's an even stranger story. Earlier this week, Aamir Khan was back in China to promote his new movie, and this time, his paths crossed with one of the most iconic basketball players of our generation: Stephon Marbury.

Aamir Khan is an Indian cinema legend, who has acted, directed, or produced some of the most memorable and successful Indian films, including several of my personal favourites. Stephon Marbury is a star American basketball player, whose career made him an icon in the NBA and a celebrity in China. The point guard is one of my favourite All Time players - his Knicks' jersey is the first I ever owned!

A few days ago, this unlikely duo shared the stage to meet with distributors for their respective sports films, and in the process, completely blow my mind.

Khan was in China this week to promote his film Dangal, which he produced and played a starring role in, based on the true story of the Phogat family's success in Indian wrestling. Dangal was released in India in December. Marbury, meanwhile, starred as himself in a Chinese biographical basketball documentary about his own life, My Other Home. It was the distributors of both these sports films that brought Khan and Marbury together in Beijing to promote their respective releases in China.

Marbury reserved some heavy praise for Khan on two posts on his Instagram page:

Chilling with #bollywood LEGEND #aamirkhan As we tease the movie screen distributors with his movie and my movie. Never in my life would I have thought up until now my path would lead towards acting and being paired with a living legend in another profession. I'm deeply humbled and completely thankful for all that God has done for my family and I in this life. #starburymovement #starbury #LoveisLove

BBALL by me and Wrestling by #aamirkhan #bollywood Legend Two sport movies coming soon. The anticipation is getting closer #myotherhome

Khan, whose films have broken box office records around the world, is also the most popular Bollywood star in China due to movies like 3 Idiots, Dhoom 3, and PK. To promote Dangal he attended events in three major Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu.

Marbury, of course, is no stranger to transnational popularity. He was once considered the biggest basketball star out of New York, became an iconic NBA player for the Timberwolves, Nets, Suns, Knicks, and Celtics, before contentiously ending his NBA career. Marbury has since played in China for Shanxi, Foshan, and eventually, in Beijing, where he found career nirvana: he won three CBA titles with the Beijing Ducks, saw a statue of himself erected outside the MasterCard Center in Beijing, has stamps bearing his image in China, has starred in a musical play about himself, and been awarded a Chinese green card. His film My Other Home will be about his basketball journey in the US and China.

A few years ago, I interviewed Marbury in depth while in Beijing about finding home in China for SLAM Magazine.

Now, thanks to the magic of cinema, Bollywood and Basketball have again crossed paths in a surprising way. I'm wishing the best to both these legends in their ventures ahead. Now that Marbury has gotten some acting experience, perhaps Khan can find a place to cast him in his next blockbuster. Considering that they have the pulse of the audience in two of the world's most populous countries, I'm expecting this fictional future Star/Khan venture to break every record conceivable.

April 16, 2017

Four Indian basketball superstars invited to Australian NBL Draft Combine in Melbourne

Four of India's top basketball players from the national Men's team - Amjyot Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amritpal Singh, and Yadwinder Singh - aim to make history this week. All four stars will be heading be heading to Melbourne to take part in Australia's National Basketball League's (NBL) Draft Combine on April 17-18. This is the first time that Indian players have been invited to participate in this event. If they can prove their mettle, one (or all!) of the four players will aim to become the first Indians to play in the NBL, one of the top basketball leagues in the world outside of the USA, in the 2017-18 season.

The Draft Combine will be taking place at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre. According to a press release from Ekalavyas Media, a total of 80 players are expected to participate in the combine. These will include returning US college players, South East Australian Basketball League (SEABL) players, Australian state league players, and members of Australia’s national U18 and U20’s teams. It is an opportunity for coaches and scouts of different NBL teams to gauge the talent at hand and sign the players they believe could help their team.

As standard practice, players participating in the NBL Draft Combine must pay an entry fee of AUD $250. However, this fee has been waived off for all the invited Indian players. The waiver of fees for the Indian contingent by the NBL is just another sign that the NBL has serious intentions to enter the Indian market: Last year, the NBL signed a historic deal with VEQTA to stream NBL games live in India.

NBL teams are usually allowed only three spots for foreign players, but under the new rules, players belonging to the countries of the FIBA Asia zone will be given an additional separate spot. This could really encourage one of the NBL's eight teams to sign Amjyot, Bhriguvanshi, Amritpal, or Yadwinder's to that additional 'Asian' player spot for the upcoming season.

Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh are no stranger to foreign league attention. Both Punjabi big men have played professionally in Japan's BJ Summer League and their Development League, winning the Japanese D-League title as teammates in the latter for the Tokyo Excellence. Last year, Amjyot and Amritpal also declared for the NBA's D-League draft but were not picked. Bhriguvanshi is one of India's most experienced and talented players and is recognised as one of the best shooting guards in Asia. Yadwinder has been a veteran presence for the Indian national team for nearly a decade and has been part of India's recent successful campaigns - led by the 'Big Three' of Amjyot, Amritpal, and Bhriguvanshi - at the FIBA Asia Challenge and other international competitions.

No Indian national has yet played in the NBL. Arjuna Award winner and perhaps India's greatest-ever women's basketball player Geethu Anna Jose played professionally in Australia WNBL and the BIG V Division almost a decade ago. India's first NBA draft pick Satnam Singh plays for the NBA D-League squad Texas Legends. Another Indian, Palpreet Singh, was drafted into the NBA D-League by the Long Island Nets last year but didn't make their roster.

The NBL, founded in 1979, consists of seven Australian and one New Zealand team. It is considered generally as one of the most-competitive basketball leagues in the world outside of the NBA. The most recent season of the league concluded in March with the Perth Wildcats beating the Illawara Hawks for the championship. The next season will begin in October.

The Indian players’ participation in the NBL Draft Combine was made possible by Pursuit India and its Australian partner Danny Kordahi. Pursuit, which had previously worked with Kordahi and arranged the visit of Australian coach Damian Cotter to the national men’s camp, has been working behind-the-scenes for months to identify suitable playing opportunities across the globe.

"It’s the biggest platform our players have had so far to showcase their talent," said Vishnu Ravi Shankar, head of Pursuit India. "The NBL is a highly competitive international league and it’s a fantastic opportunity for our top Indian players to gauge their skill levels. Whatever the outcome, they will benefit a great deal from the experience itself."

It's no secret that Amjyot, Amritpal, and Bhriguvanshi are three of the best players in Asia in their respective positions. Yadwinder is a fantastic role player and an experienced presence for India The only reason that none of them have found more pro league options abroad have been the import player limits on each country. Since most countries only allow two or three foreign players per team, the teams usually swing for the fences and spend big money on talented North American players who can guarantee them immediate success. But with the new tweak in the rules at the NBL, hopefully the four Indian stars get a chance to shine and showcase their talents in this competitive environment. Their experience will be beneficial to their own improvement and hopefully extend the glow among the improving talent pool of basketball in India.

I'm now blogging for The Times of India Sports, too

My first job out of college was with The Times of India's Varanasi edition, where, without any previous academic experience in the subject, I learned the tenants of small-town journalism on the field. There were only four of us writers in the city and we got just about a couple of pages of work every day. I had to cover almost all corners and catch almost every beat. It was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. I still remember the thrill of seeing my name in print, domestically and nationally, playing a very, very small role in the nation's most-read English newspaper.

Almost a decade later, the journey took a bunch of tangents, and has now come full circle.

With their intentions to provide more mainstream media attention to alternative (non-cricket) sports in India, The Times of India Sports has given me a platform - named, aptly, 'Hoopistani' - to blog about Indian basketball. It will be another chance to follow my work for updates and opinions on the sport.

My first post was published earlier this week, where I wrote about the elusive thrill of the chase of following Indian basketball as a fan.

Thanks for following!

April 14, 2017

Most Valuables

Harden? Westbrook? Kawhi? Who deserves to win the impossibly-close MVP race this season?

This article was first published in my column for on April 4, 2017. Read the original feature here.

The first definition of ‘value’ on my Dictionary app tells me that the word means ‘relative worth, merit, or importance’. Notice ‘relative’ as the operative word: there is no singular answer to “What, or Who, is Valuable?” For me, an afternoon chomping down on a dozen mutton fried momos is probably of higher value than it’s to you. It’s all relative.

There are a lot of individual awards given by the NBA every year, but the one that truly matters is the MVP. The Most Valuable Player. Basketball is a team sport and, rightfully so, the most-celebrated achievement every season is the NBA Championship. Nevertheless, the MVP award is a celebration of the individual who truly stamped his greatness on to the season, and did it better than his competition. Relative to the rest of the great players, he was the greatest.

I’ve long been intrigued, concerned, amused, and even sometimes angered by the definitions of MVP. The intrigue is added by the fact that each one of us can have our own definitions. My plate of momos might be your masala-dosa. They can all be right answers depending on the angle we choose to define them. Is the most valuable player the one with the best statistics? Is he the best player on the best team? Is he the player who best defined the narrative of how the season unfolded? Is he, as per the ‘eye-test’, simply the most-talented player, no matter what his team or individual numbers might say?

Here is my definition: the ‘Most Valuable Player’ is the one player whose absence would make the biggest difference in the final standings of the league. This player isn’t just the best stats guy or the best player in the best team: he is a combination of all factors that affects both his team and the rest of the league more than any other player.

In recent years, at the end of the regular season, the hazy race has usually become clearer and the favourite for the award stood out over his worthy challengers. In 2012 and 2013, the Miami Heat finished back-to-back in top two of their conference and had the game’s best talent LeBron James getting the best stats, leading to consecutive MVP awards. In 2014, MVP Kevin Durant led the league in scoring while carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to second place in the Western Conference while his superstar teammate was injured. In 2015, Stephen Curry edged out James Harden to win MVP as the best player in the best team (67 wins!). In 2016, Curry doubled down, leading the league in scoring and in all the advanced metrics to make the Warriors the best team again, breaking the All Time wins record (73), and becoming the game’s only-ever unanimous MVP. There was no argument in Curry’s case: from every definition of ‘value’, he was the most valuable.

12 months later, things couldn’t be more different. With only a few weeks left before the end of the regular season, we are amidst an MVP race for the ages, forcing us to employ all of our relative intelligence, reasoning, definitions, and experience. A number of truly-deserving candidates stand out, and a win for any singular one will automatically signal a major snub for the losers. Let’s take a closer look, in last-name alphabetic order, at the top contenders.

James Harden

The case for: The Rockets lost Dwight Howard and restructured their squad with Harden as the point guard and shooters to complement his style. The result has been an epic success: after finishing at the 8th seed last year, Houston has improved to third this season with a .689 winning record. Harden has been magnificent, leading the league in assists and scoring the second-most points per game in the NBA to make the Rockets the league’s highest-scoring team. Harden has had 20 triple-doubles this season and numerous 50-point games. Unlike the teams with a better record than them, Houston are the only one being carried by a single elite player.

The case against: We have to nit-pick to find weaknesses in Harden’s MVP candidacy. Such as the fact that he is in ‘only’ the third-best team this season, and that, despite his own gaudy averages, Russell Westbrook is putting up even better individual stats (more on that later). And of course, there’s the defence; as great as Harden has been offensively, he’s a sieve on the defensive end and the Rockets as a whole are a below-average defensive team.

LeBron James

The case for: LeBron fans, after his superhuman performance over the unanimous MVP in last year’s Finals, can only point to what they believe to be the given truth: ignore the distractions and crown the most-talented player as the most-valuable one. This season, James has evolved his game to become an even more-rounded player, averaging a career-high 8.8 assists to go with 8.4 rebounds and 26 points. Despite their recent dip, the Cavaliers are still one of the best teams in their conference; they are terrible when he is off the court.

The case against: This is not a legacy award, it’s an award for a player’s performances in this season, and LeBron’s “potential” to be better than his competitors shouldn’t count unless he is “actually” better. And as good as he has been, he has simply not matched the statistical output of some of the other contenders. His team has underachieved (“only” 0.644, despite being stacked with the talent they have) and he has missed six games so far. Head to head, he has been outplayed by many of the contenders listed below.

Kawhi Leonard

The case for: Just a couple of games behind Golden State Warriors for the league’s best record, the Spurs are a true title contender, and Kawhi Leonard has been chiefly responsible for their success. Leonard is his team’s best offensive player and one of the top 10 scorers in the league. He also happens to be the best perimeter defender in the NBA. There is no better two-way player in the world. Leonard’s MVP campaign rests on being the best player in almost the best team.

The case against: He is almost there, but not quiet. His team is second-best, his statistics are good, but in comparison to others in this list, not great. And he relies on the NBA’s most-efficient system to blossom. The Spurs might not have been a great team without Leonard, but they would still be pretty damn good.

Russell Westbrook

The case for: This dude is averaging a friggin triple-double while simultaneously leading the league in scoring!!! Westbrook could be the first since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double all season and beat Robertson’s single season record (he’s already on 40). No single player carries a heavier burden on his shoulders every night. His efforts have carried a Durant-less Thunder to an impressive playoff spot, battling for fifth or sixth in the West.

The case against: At the current rate, the Thunder are heading for a sixth-place finish in the West with about 48 wins. This is simply not good enough: my belief is that the MVP of every season needs to come from a true title contender, and Westbrook has been a great player in an average team. His maximalist style of play and high usage rate has made the Thunder a one-man team to a fault.

The verdict

This is an impossible race and can’t be truly determined until the very last day of the season. All of the contenders have played at an unimaginably high level, and the shortlist didn’t even mention players like Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and John Wall, all of whom have turned heads with their stellar play.

My answer might change day to day, or even hour to hour, but on this moment in time, I sniff gingerly towards James Harden. Ask me if I’ve changed my mind tomorrow.