This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India Sports on September 14, 2017. Click here to read the original piece.
Talwinderjit Singh “TJ” Sahi and Satnam Singh both started on the bench for the Indian national team in summer, as the squad played—and failed—at the prestigious FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon. India lost all three of their preliminary round games and returned home disappointed. An injury to one of India’s most important players—Vishesh Bhriguvanshi—forced Sahi to play a slightly larger role than expected; Satnam, however, played less than ten minutes per game and his contributions were almost insignificant.
Sahi (33) and Satnam (21), two of India’s most-popular basketball players, are on opposing stages of their respective careers. Sahi, an uber-athletic 6-foot-1 point guard from Punjab, has been in and out of India’s national system for a decade. Over a colourful career, he has had serious clashes with basketball and government authority in his state and the country, found himself embroiled in multiple controversies, and faced expulsion from the national squad because of those controversial stands. Nevertheless, his offensive talent and India’s shortage of star perimeter players ensured his return to national colours over the past few years.
Satnam, meanwhile, is Indian basketball’s golden boy. At 9, he was a farmer’s son in a small Punjabi village. By 14, he was recruited into the world-class IMG Academy in the United States to hone his basketball skills. By 19, he made history by becoming the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA. This summer, after spending the last two years playing for the NBA G-League squad Texas Legends, Satnam returned to the Indian national team for the first time since 2013.
“After I was selected for the NBA league, I was given an amount of Rs 11,000 by former Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal,” said Satnam. “The central government did not give me anything.”
Sahi said: “I have been playing since the age of 10. I have given more than 20 years of my life to basketball. But I have got nothing in return. In the past eight years, I have met Badal at least 20 times at his residence to request him for a job but to no avail.”
On motivating the youth, Sahi added: “How can we motivate young players towards a game, which we know has no future in India? So I tell students to study hard, go abroad and fulfil their dreams.”
Based on the early reactions to their comments, a number of young Indian players have begun to share this sentiment. Basketball in India, frankly, has been a mess for decades and even big moments of success and development have come as patronising consolation prizes for a country that has potential for so much more. India has the world’s largest youth population with a theoretically sound structure in sports, from the Ministry of Youth and Sport Affairs, the Sport Authority of India, the Indian Olympic Association, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), and the smaller federations in each state to oversee the game’s growth. But these systems rarely perform their function like they are supposed to, and the mismanagement of the authorities often leave players facing an uphill struggle.
There is no full-time professional basketball league in India and most of the top players have to rely on jobs in various service units like ONGC or Punjab Police and play the game as semi-pros. Veterans, like Sahi, are right to complain that work opportunities begin to dry up for some retired or close-to-retirement players.
Younger players face a different problem: cases like Satnam—where a player is given scholarship to learn the game abroad—are rare. There are many other younger players in the country whose potential is being wasted because of lack of youth coaching and scouting facilities.
The BFI crisis seems to have resolved somewhat this year, but its sour aftertaste remains, and in individual cases like Sahi and Satnam, a reminder that there are many more battles to be win. From Jayasankar Menon to Sozhasingarayer Robinson, there are dozens of precursors to Sahi to have clashed with authority and seen their career stumble. Last month, Prashanti Singh joined the rare club of basketball players to win an Arjuna Award, yet her nomination wasn’t filed through the federation and the BFI has yet to acknowledge her remarkable feat.
In Indian basketball, most of the success has come due to individual breakout talents rather than the system, and like Sahi suggested, has often happened abroad. This year, Punjab’s Amritpal Singh and Varanasi’s Vishesh Bhriguvanshi took a major leap by signing contracts in Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL). Amjyot and Amritpal both played professionally in Japan in the past. Palpreet Singh Brar won the ACG-NBA Jump programme and was drafted by the NBA G-League last year. And of course, there’s Satnam, whose IMG Academy training led him to the NBA Draft.
But, despite there being some truth to their statements, Sahi and Satnam weren’t completely accurate in their assessment. Only the smallest percentage of players will have the fortune of winning a once-in-a-lifetime scholarship like the IMG Academy, or get recruited into the NBA’s own elite basketball academy (launched in Greater Noida earlier this year). For the rest, climbing the rungs of the Indian basketball ladder is often the best option.
Take India’s best three players—Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh—for example. If it wasn’t for their performances at the Indian national team, neither would have been considered by scouts abroad. Bhriguvanshi, Amjyot, and Amritpal have faced struggles because of the system’s ineptitude too, but they worked hard nevertheless, became star players for the country, and their reward is the opportunities they are now getting abroad.
The ‘system’ should be blamed for its inadequacies when appropriate, but it can’t be the scapegoat for every failure. In the interview, Sahi and Satnam blamed the federation selectors and inexperienced younger players for India’s poor performances in Lebanon. “The young players lacked experience,” they said, while Sahi later added India’s loss to Jordan was partially the fault of “selection of team by the Federation.”
But in the run-up to the tournament, team selection was the least of India’s problems. Featuring the best available players and a necessary mix of veterans and youth, many believed the Asia Cup squad to be one of the strongest Indian rosters ever assembled. Plus, team selection doesn’t answer for Sahi and Satnam’s limited roles. Many younger players were in better shape at camp and more eager to be a better fit for the national side. A share of the blame lies with the two players themselves.
If there are any real excuses for India’s poor performance, it came from the head coach Phil Weber, whom I interviewed for Scroll last month: health and lack-of-preparation. Several of our top players (including Satnam) were unavailable in the early few weeks of the camp, and many others (like Sahi) were still hampered by injury. The most damaging of these injuries was the one to Bhriguvanshi, without whom India had no organiser in the backcourt when the going got tough.
The problems that Sahi and Satnam have shed light on will continue to persist, however, until a full-time basketball league allows players to become exclusively basketball professionals and continue to have employment opportunities in the game once they retire. On the other end of the spectrum, better coaching and infrastructure is needed at the grassroots level to properly nurture and support young players.
As for the current debate between staying in India or going abroad, it all boils down to the priority of the individual player—whether it is focusing on one’s own career or hoping to improve the larger system—and there is no wrong answer. Players with ambition have every right to make the most of outside opportunities—if they are lucky enough to have such opportunities available—to make a name for themselves. But if they really want to bring change and “hope” into Indian basketball, they can make the most of their expertise and influence to aid the development of youth basketball back home.