This article was first published in my 'Hoopistani' column for The Times of India Sports on June 10, 2018. Click here to read the original feature.
Last month, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) banned all players hoping to participate in an upstart 3x3 basketball league—the 3BL—from participating in full, five-on-five basketball activities at the domestic or international stage. A few months before that, India’s best players Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh were removed from the national team-list because of “trust” issues. Two years ago, the BFI slapped a ban on 122 players, coaches, and staff taking part in the UBA professional basketball league in the country.
In 2010, the BFI attempted to bar the country’s best player Geethu Anna Jose from playing pro in Australia. Ten years ago, the ban was on India’s best point guard TJ Sahi for alleged indiscipline. In 2006, it was India’s best player at the time—Sozhasingarayer Robinson—banned for missing a training camp. In 2005, one of India’s greatest basketball players Jayasankar Menon was handed a “life ban” for participating in an on-court fight between players.
And earlier this week, the BFI banned Amjyot Singh and Palpreet Singh Brar (both former NBA G-League draftees) for one year for “indisciplinary activities”.
We’ve seen this movie before, and its ending is easy to predict: losses all around for everyone involved in Indian basketball—the players, the federation, the fans, and the sport in itself.
In a stunning decision on Monday, the BFI handed Amjyot (26) and Brar (24)—Punjabi players who have been lynchpins of the national team—one-year bans for alleged indiscipline before and during the Commonwealth Games in Australia in April. Brar’s ban was handed because he abused the national team while drinking on social media. Amjyot—the most-talented player in India—was banned for allegedly striking a teammate and causing division among players in the team.
The federation revealed that both the players’ objectionable actions had rendered them unfit to represent the national side and even be a part of the national team.
“A national basketball player flaunts a picture on social media application Snapchat, abusing the nation after consumption of hard liquor. Is he really fit to be the part of the national squad?” Chander Mukhi Sharma, the secretary-general of BFI, said while sharing the information about suspension of two players from national side.
“Just before the match at the Commonwealth Games, Amjyot had also slapped his teammate and compatriot Arshpreet Bhullar. Moreover, there had been complaints against Amjyot of misbehaviour with the national coach. They did not report to the camp for three days. They were causing trouble at the camp, indulging in groupism. A disciplinary panel was constituted which decided the punishment,” said Mukhi.
…Amjyot was part of the team that went to Gold Coast. Amjyot again tried to break up the team into factions in Gold Coast. As a result, it cost us all the matches in Gold Coast,” he added.
The decision to ban the two players was taken by the BFI’s disciplinary committee, which included India’s interim men’s head coach Rajinder Singh. that Amjyot and Brar reported late to the national camp in Bengaluru and “disrupted the atmosphere”.
This is a surprising set of allegations, particularly on Amjyot. Sharma is essentially blaming India’s losses at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast on him. Furthermore, even if the allegations on Amjyot are true, Sharma and the federation have announced an unnecessarily severe punishment—one year—for relatively minor issues like rifts between the team and Snapchat insults.
But then again, Sharma, the current federation, and even the BFI of the past have a history of overreacting to errors made by athletes, the same athletes who are the backbone of India’s national team structure and are the only reason that India were even considered a rising power in Asian basketball.
I used the past tense above—“were considered”—deliberately. By continuously shooting themselves in the foot, the BFI are becoming Indian basketball’s worst enemy, stunting the growth of the sport with the intention of ensuring that they have absolute power over all players and other entities in Indian basketball. They punished Amjyot and Amritpal over a baseless “trust” issue in the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers, tried to hurt competing leagues like 3BL and UBA by disallowing players to take part in both events, and unofficially blackballed star players like former women’s captain Prashanti Singh for being absent for a few days. They have had issues with Geethu, with TJ, with Robinson, with Menon.
And with countless more to chose to remain silent in fear that angering the federation would rob them of their only opportunity to make a living through basketball.
Amjyot is among the “Big Three” of Indian basketball and has been the country’s top scorer in every international tournament he has participated in over the past five years. Brar was also a major contributor to the national squad until recently. In 2016, Brar became the first Indian to be drafted directly into the NBA’s G-League by the Long Island Nets, although he was cut before the final roster. Amjyot, who played professionally in Japan in 2016, was drafted into the G-League by the OKC Blue in 2017 and appeared in 30 games.
The exploits of Amjyot and Brar, plus of other important players like Amritpal Singh who played in Australia’s NBL last season, are an exciting, new phenomenon for Indian basketball. The BFI have seemingly been unprepared to have an appropriate reaction to these athletes having their own professional independence. Until recently, nearly every Indian basketball player had to rely on India’s national teams and domestic events for basketball opportunities. But changing times have offered new avenues, and the BFI have responded negatively to this independence. The of Amjyot and Amritpal summoned to India for February’s FIBA World Cup Qualifiers only to find their names off the team list showcased the federation’s troubling attitude towards its top players.
For Amjyot and Brar, the bans might be about a bigger issue than the alleged misconduct. Both players were involved in the build-up of the upcoming 3BL, a first-of-its-kind 3x3 basketball league in India. But on the same day that the 3BL was announced, the BFI released a memo to all secretaries of India’s affiliated basketball units, giving an update on their own 3x3 event and banning all players hoping to participate in opposing 3x3 leagues from 5x5 basketball in/for India (and vice versa). Amjyot has since been back in the US with hopes to train for a call-up to the G-League again, while Brar——committed to the 3BL.
The 3BL launched on Saturday, June 9 in New Delhi. The BFI’s latest ban on these two players came earlier in the same week.
On Friday, Amjyot released a statement while in Philadelphia in regards to the BFI ban. “I am disappointed with this action from the BFI,” he said, and added that the altercation between him and Bhullar at the Commonwealth Games occurred in the “normal course of practice”.
“I am the last person to indulge in any alleged violence and my reaction was only in self-defence… I feel that my actions do not even remotely warrant a one-year ban as imposed by the BFI.”
Amjyot also denied Sharma’s allegations that he was trying to break the team up in factions. “I strive to be selfless and a complete team player both on and off the court and I am confident that majority of the players who have interacted or played with me will tell you the same.”
“This one-year ban has taken away the opportunity to represent my country at the international level… I am always ready to play for my country and will be privileged to do so if called upon by the BFI in the future.”
On the same day as Amjyot’s statement, his father in Chandigarh told TOI that if his ban is not lifted by the federation.
Regardless of how this messy situation untangles, one thing is for sure: the years of over-reaction has proven that the BFI has to mature and react appropriately to competition—like the 3BL—and small infractions. But for now, the federation’s ban will hurt the team’s immediate future and push young players and outside investors from losing faith in the system.
For years, those outside the Indian basketball world have wondered how a country with such a large population has never reached its potential in basketball (and many other sports). Part of the reason for this failure has been on display in this saga. The federation needs to realise that basketball growth will not be a simple lay-up; it will be messy and unpredictable, it will be full of hiccups, and it will sometimes happen without their permission. Sometimes outside competition will spur on this growth, and sometimes our star players will find new opportunities for themselves that might clash with the federation’s path. For basketball’s sake in India, the BFI has to get used to this unpredictability instead of trying to control or suppress it.
If Amjyot and Palpreet truly deserve to be discipline, then they should definitely be handed a reasonable punishment. The players need to keep the federation happy, and the federation needs to do the same for the players.
A reaction like this, however—a groaning repeat of history—is only going to suppress the sport. The sport is bigger than the federation, and all sides must get over their infighting and work together to help India reach its hoops potential.