February 28, 2017

The Biggest Season Yet


India's top international basketball superstars join UBA Basketball Season 4 rosters

This article was first published in my column for Ekalavyas on February 18, 2017.


The most important basketball decision in India this season didn’t take place on the court. It wasn’t a coaching decision, a new defensive scheme, a right pass, or a clutch three-point shot. That decision, instead, was taken in some far less dramatic settings: in sterile meeting rooms, ears plugged into cold mobile-phone screens, pens scribbling signatures over warm sheets of printed paper.

That decision was taken between the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), the governing body of basketball in India, and UBA India, the international company who have launched three seasons of short professional league basketball in the country. That decision could usher in a brand-new direction for Indian basketball.

The folks over at UBA India expanded and experimented in almost every possible direction to bring greater visibility and legitimacy to their league. They held three quick seasons of high-quality basketball in the space of one year in India. They showcased their league live on cable TV (Ten Sports) and produced high-level off-court material. They featured an experienced and highly-professional broadcast team. They found the help of Indian celebrities to celebrate and promote their product, expanded to a handful of cities in India, employed several high-calibre players and coaches, and took their top stars to the US for special pro training camps. In the announcement of Season 4 of the UBA Basketball League - set to tip off in Chennai on Thursday - they even brought ten international professional players to spike up the talent pool of the competition.

And yet, the league missed the most important of factors: the presence of India's best basketball players. A rift between BFI and UBA India had kept the best players in the national/international fray away from UBA participation. The secondary players in the UBA League were of course stars in their own right, but the names mentioned in absence were more notable than those who were marked 'present'.

That is, until now. On the eve of Season 4, the UBA Basketball League announced the rosters of all eight teams, where the biggest news here is that, in addition to the returning UBA stars of the past and the first-time international players from the pro camp in the USA, this season of UBA will feature India's top international basketball superstars. Some of India's best current players, including Amjyot Singh, Amrit Pal Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Palpreet Singh Brar, Yadwinder Singh, Prasanna Venkatesh, Rikin Pethani, and more have joined UBA rosters.

“The UBA has always been about raising the game of basketball in India,” said Paul Crane, the VP of broadcasting for the UBA Basketball League, “Not just from providing more opportunities to compete, but to teach more fundamentals, training and conditioning.”

“Having more of the top players from India joining new international players from the United States and others countries such as Australia, the level of play and competition continues to rise,” Crane added. “One of the many ‘big picture’ hopes and dreams of the UBA is to one day see Indian basketball be more competitive on the world stage.”

The new names will bolster the already-stacked UBA rosters and help make this into the most exciting professional competition Indian basketball has yet witnessed. The league stage of Season 4 will be held in Chennai's Satyabhama University from February 16 to March 1, before moving to Goa for the championship round (semi-finals and finals) from March 10-16.

Here is a more detailed breakdown of all the eight UBA teams.

Bengaluru Beast: Bengaluru have instantly become one of the must-watch teams for the league this season. Their roster includes Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, India's most talented guard and one of the best shooting guards in Asia, and Palpreet Singh Brar, the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA D-League last year. Current and former India internationals of various age levels Pratham Singh, Kaif Zia, Loveneet Singh, and Khushmeet Singh are also in this team. Indian-American player Chris Solomon, who played college ball in Florida at Northwood University, will be the foreign import for Bengaluru.

Chennai Slam: For the first three seasons, Chennai have been the model of excellence in the UBA. They have reached all three UBA Finals and won the title two times, including the most recent championship in July last year. Former Indian player Prasanna Jayasankar coaches this team, who’s strength is in their depth. Nigerian star Agu Chukwunanu (who scored a UBA record 50 points on opening night) will lead a squad of UBA veterans including Cammy Carmel, Jairam Jat, and Gopal Ram. This year, they will be boosted with the presence of national team big man Rikin Pethani and former University of Minnesota Duluth player Brendon Pineda from the USA. Home court advantage in the group stage and a winning habit makes Chennai one of the top threats once again.

Delhi Capitals: Delhi know how to win, too: they are Season 2 champions and feature former MVP Vinay Kaushik. Now, they have added the player who is perhaps the country’s most electric talent, Amjyot Singh. Amjyot has played professionally in Japan’s Development League, taken part in the NBA D-League draft, has been India’s top player in several big international wins, and is one of the top ranked 3x3 basketball players in the world. Delhi have surrounded these two stars with Ajay Pratap Singh, Sunil Rathee, and the American Ronald March.

Haryana Gold: Haryana’s big addition is Indian basketball’s seasoned Punjabi veteran Yadwinder Singh, who will join a squad consisting of explosive Indo-Australian guard Eban Hyams, Akashdeep Hazra, Prakash Mishra, and American player De’Sean Mattox.

Hyderabad Sky: The Sky have an interesting mixture of new and old, and foreign and domestic on their roster. Watch out for former India international point guard Joginder Singh, Indo-Australian swingman Mahesh Padmanabhan, Tamil Nadu’s veteran Gnanasekaran Sivabalan, and American additions Mak Boskailo and Tevin Kelly.

Mumbai Challengers: Mumbai have the potential to be one of the few teams with an embarrassment of riches at the league. Led by Jora Singh Gulia – who has coached India’s national squad in the past – this team will feature the up-and-coming talent Prudhvi Reddy from Hyderabad, veteran former international Jagdeep Singh Bains, Gagandeep Singh, and current international Prasanna Venkatesh. In addition, they also feature three high-calibre foreign players in Alex Scales (who has played in 11 countries internationally, including one game for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs in 2005), Inderbir Gill (Indo-American former Canada NCAA Player of the Year) and Jimmy Scroggins (USA).

Pune Peshwas: Silver-medallists in Season 1 of the league, it’s going to be hard to deny Pune this season. Their head coach is India’s legendary basketball star and coach Ram Kumar, and he will marshal a team that features the league’s most recent MVP Narender Grewal and superstar new addition and captain of India’s senior men’s team Amrit Pal Singh. Filling the gap between this irresistible post-and-perimeter combination will be talented players like Siddhant Shinde, Ajinkya Mehta, Gaurav Ohlan, Arshpreet Bhullar, and the American addition Pierre Newton from the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Punjab Steelers: Punjab will definitely be feeling the push of positive momentum after they surprised better-favoured teams to reach the Season 3 Finals last season and pushed Chennai to the brink. Their roster features Season 1 MVP Ravi Bhardwaj, popular rising young star Gurvinder Singh ‘Gary’ Gill, international point guard Akilan Pari, and American Dermaine Crockrell, a product of Bemidji State.

There seems to be a fairly even distribution of talent this season, which will make it all the more difficult to predict which four teams will qualify for the championship round in Goa, and which one will eventually be the last squad standing with the Season 4 championship trophy. In particular, I expect Chennai, Delhi, and Pune to be among the top contenders for the title. But the favourites just might be Bengaluru, who have the right explosive mix of experience and youth and could separate themselves from the pack for the Finals in mid-March.

All games are televised live on Ten Networks from February 16 to March 16 in Chennai and Goa from 4:30 PM to 7:00 PM each gameday.

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