December 15, 2009 (!!)

More news for NBA and basketball fans in India... I guess the NBA wasn't satisfied with just sending Deke here: Late last night, the NBA launched, a website catered towards the Indian audience. According to an article released on The Times of India website last night, the website "... will offer a comprehensive fan experience including live games, video highlights, select Hindi content, player blogs and original columns from two India-based NBA journalists".

So, what does this mean? Initially, a bit of hoopla, some excitement, etc. But all that real NBA fans are really interested in are more live games broadcasted here. Two a week doesn't even start to whet our appetites...
I like to compare the "coming of the NBA" to the outrageously over-the-top coming of the English Premier League (EPL - football to the uninitiated, soccer to the American) to India: not only do ESPN/STAR Sports show five or six EPL games a week, they also have several talk shows, magazine shows, and highlight shows talking about the EPL matches in great depth. These shows are regularly directed at the Asian/Indian audience which make them even more fun to watch for the football fan here. The EPL was always on its way here - teams are Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea easily have large audiences in India, and players like the (now departed) Christiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Cesc Fabregas, etc, etc, etc, give our audiences icons to look up to.
But its not like the NBA has a lack of potential icons - as a matter of fact, it is literally TEEMING with it. You could play like LeBron or Kobe, like Wade or Dwight, or Chris Paul or Kevin Garnett or Duncan if you're old school. There are flashy dunks, no-look passes, game winners, and if you're yet older school, there's Iverson or Shaq (I cringe and feel pre-historic as I say that: Shaq and AI are OLD SCHOOL?) opens with a welcome message from our friendly neighbourhood NBA commissioner David Stern telling India fans how awesome the website is/how awesome us Indian fans are. Great. We are told about all the coolness the website will pack, but what really interests me are the Live Online Game Webcasts every Thursday, starting with Wizards @ Kings day after tommorow. At this point, I mentally shouted out a little "Hibachi" to myself.
Here is Mr. Stern's welcoming welcome:

Another feature will be the Point-Counterpoint Blog, kept by two of my favourite NBA PG's, Steve 'Stee' Nash and Baron 'I'll forever make Andrei Kirilenko's descendents shiver' Davis. I know, information overload, isn't it?
The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) had this to say (source: Techwhack): “There is a great appetite for basketball across India and the sites will offer Indian fans the opportunity to learn more about the NBA and basketball in India. Basketball is one of the fastest-growing sports in India.”
That it is, and in typical style, we can expect a lot of fluffy, everything-about-the-NBA-is-awesome reporting from the India site, but hey, it's a start. The NBA has appointed two featured India bloggers: Experienced DNA sports journalist Ayam Memon and Hindustan Times correspondent Sahil Sharma. Here's to hoping that their efforts help the game blossom here.
Additionally, the NBA has also launched a mobile site for India: which will also have news, scores, standings, etc...

What do you feel about the NBA India? Share your thoughts here...

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December 14, 2009

Trideep Rai: A discourse in disillusion

For a former captain of the Indian Basketball Team with nearly a decade of international experience, Trideep Rai (26) comes of as humble and brashly honest. But perhaps the humbleness shouldn’t surprise me – Indian basketball ‘stars’ have always seemed down to earth, since most of these stars get their shine dimmed early and often in their professional careers. They have no choice but to be ‘down to earth’, because a career in basketball in India has never given them an opportunity to aim too much higher.

But it is his honesty that does surprise – disillusioned by what they believe to be incomprehensible decision-making by the higher authorities, most pro players silently accept the system for the fear of banishment from the national camps. On a self-imposed exile from the Young Cagers, Trideep spoke to me about his career, the pros and cons of the Indian professional system, and the potentially troubled future of the national team.

I have a personal connection with him, too – Trideep happens to be one of the many great players to have grown out of my hometown, Varanasi. He first played the game at the UP College in the city, and my older brother has played pick-up games with him on several occasions.

Trideep started playing basketball at age 13 at the UP College basketball court, but only at age 17 when he was called up for India’s Under-19 camp did he begin to consider the sport as a possible career option. At age 19, he began to play for the Western Railways, where he was for three years. He then moved on to play for the Indian Overseas Bank for a years, and for the past three years, he has been a part of the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC).

He has been involved with the Young Cagers from 2000 onwards, last playing in a tournament in Indonesia earlier this year. The highlights of his national career have included captaining the team during the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, and in the same year, winning the distinction of Most Valuable Player and leading scorer in the Prince Crown Invitational Cup in Thailand, where India finished a respectable third place.

He is a high-scoring ‘forward’ (or more specifically, shooting guard, for the NBA-oriented reader). He is a good long-distance shooter and is known to regularly attack the lane.

On his career… “I consider myself to be luckier than most other players,” Trideep says, “In all of my postings (Railways, Indian Overseas Bank, ONGC) I’ve never had to do any actual work – I was recruited as a basketball player and was only expected to play basketball.”

“There are many other players I know – legends of the game in India whom I look up to – who have had to toil through years of a schedule of basketball practice in the morning, working at a railway platform in the afternoon, and then practice again in the evening.”

The system, Trideep admits, has its pros and cons: Indian “professionals” are actually only semi-pro players who are given a post in a government service. The post, as in Trideep’s case, can often be nothing more than a formality – at the Indian Overseas Bank, where he was a probationary officer, Trideep says that he only had to check in his name every morning and his job was done. At the ONGC he has been ceremoniously named an ‘Assistant HR Executive’; he admits that he isn’t expected to actually report to work, and instead, only focus on basketball practice and games come tournament time.

The lack of a league system definitely hinders the players’ exposure and being tied up by other jobs means that they can’t fully dedicate their lives to the game like professionals in other countries. “But it has its advantages,” says Trideep, “A league system in Indian basketball will never be very rich, and even the best players will only earn a contract of around 1-2 lakh (100,000-200,000) rupees per year. With a government job we have a guaranteed salary and job post-basketball – if I get injured or decide to retire from the game, I can at least be sure that there will be something for me to fall back on.”

“It’s the same reason why most players don’t accept offers to go into leagues in other countries,” he says, “The potential for growth and exposure is exciting, but we don’t want to give up the job security we have here.”

It is a very different system to that from the United States, and had indubitably affected the state of international level talent produced in India today – but I’ll leave that debate for a future story.

On improving the standard of basketball in India… Trideep’s suggests that first and foremost, it is the infrastructure in India that needs an overhaul. “We play on outdoor courts and with rubber balls most of the time, and are expected to get used to indoor wooden courts and leather balls in a short period before any international tournament,” he says, “Every city in India needs at least a good indoor court.”

He speaks about the tension between the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and its players, too. “The players blame the federation, and the federation blames the players, but the fault needs to be shared: the players don’t work as hard as they should at the most competitive level, and the federation doesn’t provide us with the right facilities.”

“There needs to be more transparency in the system,” he adds, “The federation often makes perplexing personnel decisions which leave a lot of its players angry and dissatisfied.”

Trideep speaks of several talented basketball players who’ve quit a career in the game or have been seriously hindered by the federation or the service that employs them. There is widespread depression amongst many professionals who just don’t believe that they’ll have the support that they will need, even as pro athletes.

Another major push is needed in the early development of youngsters. “We don’t usually learn the basics here in India till we’re a bit older,” feels Trideep, and this feeds into a later comment he makes on “pro players getting disillusioned and disinterested in the game after a certain level.” Basketball, even for those who are in love with the game, remains just that – a game. If a love and the basics for the game are instilled at an earlier age, the older players would go out and enjoy it without losing their focus, no matter the level or the competition.

And picking up from that point, Trideep adds that there is definitely need for more incentive for the players to continue playing. “After a certain point, when players make it to the highest service/semi-pro level (which many believe to be at the ONGC), players run out of further ambition. They need to think higher…”

On Transparency… “The international team’s successes need to be advertised more, but it isn’t done so because then our failures, which are much more frequent, would be advertised, too. This is okay – as long as we can build an interest amongst the media.”

On Physical Competency… “It is true that the physical level of Indian players isn’t naturally at par with those in America or Europe, but this is no excuse. Countries like Kazakhstan, who we used to thrash, have brought in the right facilities to improve physically, and now they are able to beat us. We have all the right skills but are just missing out on the physical standard.”

“We need to prepare a lot to get to the level of other Asian teams,” he adds, “We have no physical trainer, no dietician – it is no surprise that we keep lagging behind!”

On the future… “The future isn’t looking too good,” he says frankly, “Our position has fallen down amongst Asian nations over the last few years. I must commend the Federation for trying to give us more exposure, but the team performance hasn’t improved and morale is low.”

Trideep has voluntarily pulled out of the team in recent competitions, and low on confidence, he ponders if he will return to the squad in time for the Commonwealth Games next year, which will be held in New Delhi. There are many others like him, disenchanted by the sport and disinterested in ambition after the never-ending whispers of corruption, short-cuts, and unfair advantages in the entire system.

At 26, he may not even have hit his prime yet, and is already been slowed down and dogged by the same things he warns others to beware of.

Low on confidence and ambition, his story is a cautionary tale for youngsters hoping to make it into the game here: it is very possible to lose faith in the system, but the love for basketball should rise above the external crises.

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The answer to Knick problems...

No, not The Real Answer - my beloved Knicks already let him re-sign with the Sixers. Hidden amongst the scores of headlines this morning was this bit of news:

The New York Knicks have signed free agent Jonathan Bender, marking the oft-injured forward’s return to the NBA after a three-year absence.

Knicks president Donnie Walsh announced the move in a statement Sunday.

The 7-foot Bender enjoyed his best season in 2001-02, when he averaged career highs of 7.4 points and 3.1 rebounds in 78 games.

But injuries forced Bender to miss 172 games over the next three seasons before chronic knee pain sidelined him indefinitely in February 2006.

Awesome. Just what we need. Jonathan Friggin Bender. I bet LeBron is salivating to come to New York now. Choots.

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December 10, 2009

Mount Mutombo Visits India

So, the NBA really seems to be serious about expanding its presence in India: The nothing-less-than-legendary Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo, or simply Dikembe Mutombo, that of 18 years of shot-blocking, finger-wagging, and asking pro-basketball's most titilating question, "Who wants to sex Mutombo?" is in India this week to unveil lead basketball court dedications in Mumbai and Chennai.

Two courts and an e-learning center will be unveiled on Dec. 9 at St. Dominic Savio High School and Boys Home in Mumbai. More than 1,500 children will benefit from the resurfaced courts and new basketball equipment. HP, TCS, and the NBA have provided St. Dominic Savio with resources to create a new e-learning center, which will be outfitted with networking and HP computers to provide the faculty new tools to improve teaching methods for its students.

The new courts in Mumbai will also host the Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA Hoop School Tournament of Mumbai on Dec. 12 and 13, featuring 25 local schools that were part of the program, which launched in November 2008.

On Dec. 11, a ground-breaking ceremony will be held at the YMCA College of Physical Education in Chennai. The new court and equipment will greatly enhance the training of the nearly 450 students studying to be physical education teachers at the YMCA. In addition, the computer lab at the school will be outfitted with networking and HP computers to provide the students the means to take their education beyond the classroom.

This is awesome news for all concerned. Mutombo, the Congoles-American who retired in April this year after 18 years in the NBA, in six differet teams (last for the Houstan Rockets), and was the oldest player in the NBA (42) prior to his retirement. He is the NBA's second-highest shot-blocker of all time, behind the great Hakeem Olajuwan. He is a global ambassador for the NBA and also a known humanitarian.

Thanks Deke, NBA, for making this happen - Basketball in India needs such efforts more than ever. Click here for the News recap on the Mumbai unveiling.

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December 9, 2009

He's BACK!!

One of my all time favourites returned to the NBA Hardwood two nights ago... Welcome Back, AI.
He has unretired (nobody honestly believed the psuedo-retirement anyways) and is back in his good ol' philly jerseys - the answer is 3 again. Let's welcome back 30 unneccesarily jacked shots a game, a whole lotta free throws, lightning quick crossovers, game winners, and just cold, brutal scoring. Nobody changed the game the way AI did...

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December 4, 2009

The Hoopistani Is...

So, welcome... Or welcome again to those who have already read my work before... Thisisme: Karan Madhok, and this is the new blog I'm starting, 'The Hoopistani', in an effort to get some of my passions and experiences together in one page. The blog, as its subtitle states above, will feature "Basketball, India, Philsosophy, everything else in between..."
I'm a die-hard NBA junkie and a die-harder confused Desi. If you like your hoops and Indian flavour presented on a meaninglessly absurd dish, then this blog is for you.
A few of my articles have already been featured on SLAM website, which happens to also be my favourite magazine since I first started reading it nearly 10 years ago. I've added the three articles below on this blog, too, and their original versions can be found on the SLAM website.
Additionally, this blog will also be featured on up and coming Indian basketball website India Basket, and I'll be collaborating to help them in their mission to help basketball evolve in India. Apart from spreading news and awareness about basketball in India, India Basket also manage players and coaches.
I'm currently a Communications Volunteer at the Woodstock School in Mussoorie, and formerly a Correspondent for the Times of India newspaper in Varanasi.

Here are links to the articles I've done for so far:

Temple of Bounce: A look at the state of basketball in India
In India, routine is religion. Every stone is a temple, and everything is God.
The clings of the temple bells, marigold garlands around stone idols, squeaky marble floors dirtied by muddy bare feet. A devout of the Ganga River takes dips in the river everyday, bowing respectfully to his deity. Followers of Lord Ganesha will visit his temple, touching the floor as a mark of respect before they step in and fold their hands together…

Peace, Freedom, and Basketball: A pick-up game in the Tibet-influenced city of Mcleodganj
Dhondup is wrapped inside a thin orange robe, much too thin to provide adequate cover from the chilly November temperatures of his Himalayan abode, but he is well acclimatized to the weather up here. He is short, stout Tibetan, with a shiny bald head and a shinier smile pasted across his face. Around his neck is a prayer mala, a garland of beads, which he tucks inside his robe. The robe barely reaches up to…

Breaking Old Habits: JD Walsh's Basketball Movement in India
Amongst our several unique nuances, we Indians have a particular slogan, which is repeated multiple times daily by tens of millions, like a mantra across the country’s wide, three million square kilometer area:
“Chalta hai.”
Translated literally from Hindi, it means ‘it goes.’ The Dictionary of Indian English emphasizes it further as ‘it will do,’ or ‘anything will do.’ It describes the fatalist philosophy of most of the country’s population, that everything happens because it…

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December 3, 2009

Breaking Old Habits: JD Walsh’s basketball movement in India

Amongst our several unique nuances, we Indians have a particular slogan, which is repeated multiple times daily by tens of millions, like a mantra across the country’s wide, three million square kilometer area:

“Chalta hai.”

Translated literally from Hindi, it means ‘it goes.’ The Dictionary of Indian English emphasizes it further as ‘it will do,’ or ‘anything will do.’ It describes the fatalist philosophy of most of the country’s population, that everything happens because it is meant to happen, and since we can’t change it, we should learn to live with it. The typical Indian attitude, careless, passive – we admit it as one of our character blemishes, but at times, it’s something that most of us are sheepishly proud of. The sugar isn’t right in your tea? It’s OK, Chalta hai. There are no motorable roads into your village? Theek hai, Chalta hai. Did the minister refuse your requests because you didn’t bribe him? Chalta hai – we’re like this only…

And so it comes as no surprise that the same attitude is followed in sports. For decades, sport in India has suffered, poisoned by our own lack of active commitment toward betterment. We all want improvement, but at the end of the day, most of us have remained unmoved by the lack of it. “We are like this only,” we say, and when things don’t work, it’s OK, because “It’s India – chalta hai!”

But then there are a few who oppose this passive laziness, this lack of commitment that ails our culture. These individuals have thrived by capitalizing on that which others ignored. So then there is a reason why a country where around 30 percent of the people are below poverty line is the same which has produced some of the richest people in the world. A reason why, the country which doesn’t seem to have the funds for several basic sporting facilities is also the same which has one of the richest sporting leagues in the world (the Indian Premier League for cricket).

Three years ago, American basketball coach John David “JD” Walsh drifted into this India. And soon, defying the standards of inefficiency, JD went through a series of events, camps, interviews and drills, and became one of the prime coaches and talent scouts across the country.

He tells me that he’s heard it all. As he travels around India, he’s heard it spewed out the mouth of non-believing journalists, disgruntled coaches, and discouraged players.

“[Basketball] is not being encouraged here.”

“Wait, again. You’re a basketball coach, in India. What are you really doing here?”

“We need a little bit more exposure… we need a lot of body game, and ours is not very physical.”

“There’s a lot of politics.”

“Do you play cricket?”

“… It stinks.”

JD Walsh, the New York born basketball coach and founder of the JDBASKETBALL School has been around the world, and for the past three years, he has held hundreds of camps all over India. He looks out his hotel lobby at the New Delhi skyline, a city which he now looks at as his own, and he repeats that he’s heard it all. He’s heard that there is no future in Indian basketball. He’s heard that there is no money in the game. That Indian basketball is 40 years behind China. That the system is too corrupt to improve things. That the players are just not strong enough, not athletic enough…

“I know how things are,” Walsh says, “I know it’s challenging, but it’s a challenge that I’m looking forward to face.”

I believe him, too, because at the end of the day, it’s about basketball – and for years, the game has been flowing through his veins.

JD is one of the most well-known figures in global basketball schooling today. He was a scholarship basketball player for The University of Maryland, and later on for St. Vincent’s in Dublin (Ireland) before an injury halted his playing career. In 1998, he started the JDBASKETBALL School in Great Neck, NY, to teach basketball fundamentals to local kids in the New York metropolitan area. Fast-forward 11 years, and JDBASKETBALL has evolved into a global enterprise. Walsh, who considers himself a “global soul,” has held camps and toured countries around the world, including China, Dominican Republic, Italy, Qatar, Taiwan, Israel, and his most recent stop, India. The JDBASKETALL School has now reached over 15,000 children worldwide.

From 1999-2005, JD had a stint as a varsity basketball coach in New York. He has coached and trained with several professional and collegiate all-stars, including Smush Parker, Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy Jr and Speedy Claxton. His guest speakers in the camps have included Claxton, Murphy, as well as Allan Houstan and Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams.

From 2002-2006, JD trained and worked with several teams in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) as well as with the Chinese National Team. In 2002, he was the head coach of the U.S. Elite All-Stars when they went on tour in China against the China National Jr. Team.

“There was a time, after China, five or six years ago, when I was tired with this life,” JD remembers, “I wanted something more than just basketball. But it all changed when I came to India – I fell in love with this country, and it completely reinvigorated me.”

“They say that India isn’t interested in basketball — that this country is all about cricket. But I don’t see any reason why people from other parts of the world can’t have similar interests. China didn’t have the interest they have in basketball today a decade ago. India is still a long way away, but given the right set of circumstances and direction, the consumer interest is still possible.”

Considering the similarities in their location, populations, size and rising economy, it is impossible not to constantly draw comparisons between China and India. As recently as 2002, when Yao Ming came into international consciousness, China was only waking up to the world of hoops. Things have, of course, changed drastically for them: China has become a notably strong basketball team internationally and its fans (or “consumers”) have embraced basketball and NBA in a big way.

JD knows it could take decades for basketball in India to get to where it is in China today, but things are improving. There is undeniable talent in the country, and the potential for the promotion of the game to India’s large population has already been recognized by the NBA, which is looking to capitalize on the game’s fast growing popularity here. “I’ve seen talent all around the world, and I’m confident that I can find and foster talent here in India to take to the U.S.,” JD says, “The ability amongst the players is there – the only question is when?”

In his years here, JD has conducted clinics for players and coaches in Mumbai, Chennai, Pune, Kolkata, Bangalore, Midnapore, New Delhi, Srinagar, and in the states of Punjab and Kerala, too. He’s worked with the state basketball associations in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, Maharashtra, with educational institutions in various cities, and with several non-profit and non-government organizations. He fondly remembers one of his most extraordinary basketball experiences in India, when he worked with young Muslim women in Chennai who ended up playing veiled behind burkhas.

JD’s efforts to blend basketball with social causes have been well-documented, from the ‘Hoops for Health’ program with an orphanage in Srinagar (Kashmir) to conducting events in Mumbai that will assist in building outdoor basketball courts in the city’s slums. But these are really only just the tip of the iceberg – from Israel, the US, to India, JD’s focus has always been in accommodating social/charity events with basketball.

I met him in Delhi, during his most recent tour of India. He had already held camps in Chennai, during which he also sat by the sidelines to watch the Indian Women’s team battle it out in the FIBA Asia Women’s Championship held in the city (which, predictably, was won in a clean sweep by Asia’s superpower, China). He has also held training camps in New Delhi and Mumbai over the past few days.

One of the most exciting recent developments has been the awarding of a Sports Initiative Grant to JD (with co-partner George Mason University [GMU]) from the U.S. Department of State, that will allow for a coaches training and cultural exchange programs between India and GMU.

JD was considerably excited about this grant. “Around July next year, we’re planning to take 10 coaches from India and train them at GMU,” he says, “And in November as well as in March we will be working with Indian state basketball associations to train coaches in three to five Indian cities.” He adds that he has been able to rope in the expertise of Craig Esherick (assistant professor of sports management at GMU, former head coach of the Georgetown University men’s team, and head coach and scout for the 1998 US men’s Olympic team) for this project.

JD’s active involvement and initiative to make a difference in remarkable, especially in trying to survive and thrive in a country that even its own countrymen struggle to fully understand. A few months ago, he blogged about what he believes are ways in which basketball in India can become competitive with the rest of the world. JD lists infrastructure, corporate and government financing, incentive, hi-level training for youth under-12, and a whole dose of patience for this to be possible.

Unfortunately, like every Indian knows, idealistic ideas for the future rarely transform into reality, and even if they do, they are rarely done in time. If things are in bad condition, then they’re supposed to be that way; we’re like this only, no? The delay in preparation for next year’s Commonwealth Games in New Delhi is just one glaring example of his inefficiency.

Take the recent case of India’s ‘queen of track and field’, PT Usha, who is one of the greatest athletes the country has ever produced, winning medals, awards, and admiration in a career that began three decades ago. On Monday, October 5, Usha reportedly broke down into tears, because sport authorities that welcomed her for an Open Athletics Meet shuffled her around for three hours in confusion and without accommodation, as she waited cluelessly under the pouring rain. She later told reporters that “I have won medals for the nation. And see how I am being treated. If this is the deal I get, you can well imagine what the struggling sportsmen go through.”

Indeed, imagine that. India is a country of contradictions and frustrations, of the beautiful and the ugly in the same image, of restlessness and passivity. JD himself once wrote, “I’ve said out loud, I hate India, I love India, over 20 times a day on multiple occasions.” It is a country where ‘everything goes’ because, somehow, we believe that it’s supposed to.

JD shows me the photographs from his camps, his experiences, and talks about his past, and the future. Towards the end of our conversation he turns reflective, taking a step back to view the bigger picture, of what he has been through, and what he is now becoming. “I don’t want to just come to India and take something away,” he says, “I want to grow and assimilate talent here, and in the process, hopefully grow as a person myself.”

I go away feeling that basketball in India needs JD Walsh as much as JD Walsh needs India. He is far from the lone savior of the game here – for decades Indian coaches, players, and event managers have rebelled against the system and dedicated their lives in making a difference to the future of the game here. In a country where every reality, good or bad, is accepted with a chuckle and a fatalist “Chalta Hai,” it is heartening to see such specks of hope toward a positive change.

*First published on SLAMONLINE.COM on October 9, 2009.

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December 2, 2009

Peace, Freedom, and Basketball: A pick-up game in the Tibet-influenced city of Mcleodganj

Dhondup is wrapped inside a thin orange robe, much too thin to provide adequate cover from the chilly November temperatures of his Himalayan abode, but he is well acclimatized to the weather up here. He is short, stout Tibetan, with a shiny bald head and a shinier smile pasted across his face. Around his neck is a prayer mala, a garland of beads, which he tucks inside his robe. The robe barely reaches up to his ankles.

I watch from the sideline as he crouches down to one knee and laces up his kicks, an old pair of Nike Air Max Somethings. Around him stand a few others dressed just like him, in orange robes and sneakers, and other Tibetan youngsters in t-shirts and shorts, including one in an old Lakers No. 8.

I point over to Dhondup, “Can I join in?” I asked.

“Yes, yes, come now,” he replied in broken, yet confident English, “We have 12 now,” he announces to the rest. “Six on six.”

I nodded, took off my beanie and my jacket, shivered and jogged up to the huddle below the basket. Everyone introduces themselves to everyone else. And so began the single most surreal pick-up game of my life.

The place is Mcleodganj, a popular village tucked up 6,800 feet above sea level and amongst the clouds in the Himalayan range in North India. Apart from being a small, scenic hill-station, Mcleodganj is really only famous for one thing—it is the town in which the Dalai Lama chose to set up his permanent home and monastery, ever since he went into exile from Tibet 50 years ago.

He was then followed by many more Tibetans, so many so that Mcleodganj and its neighboring town of Dharamshala (in the Kangra district) resemble entirely Tibetan towns. The monasteries, the multi-colored prayer-flags, the monks and the Tibetan food and culture have earned Mcleodganj the nickname ‘Little LhasaĆ­,’ after the capital of the region of Tibet.

The ‘region,’ not the ‘country’—it is hardly possible to walk a few meters across the village without coming across Pro-Tibet posters, flyers or activists. The old hold prayers and peaceful demonstrations for Tibet’s freedom from mainland China, while the young passionately participate in public-awareness rallies and forums to fight for their fellow Tibetans back home in Tibet. The Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) is one of the main committees set up at Mcleodganj, and Tibetan Government-in-Exile is based in Dharamshala nearby.

It is this mixture of peaceful Buddhist culture, a serene and scenic mountainous environment, and political fervor that attracts hordes of Buddhist pilgrims as well as foreign travelers and activists every year from all over the world. People from the USA, Great Britain, France, Canada, Italy, Australia, Belgium, Israel, and many other countries come together in this strange global village, where the days are spent hiking to the snow peaks of the Himalayas and the nights at rooftop cafes, singing along to Bob Marley tracks.

There is one other non-Tibetan face on the court that day—a tall American who I met a day earlier—and he is among the 12 of us who stand out on the cold cement court. I am anxious to shake off the cold winter chills and get started. When the teams are made, I am placed opposite Dhondup, a few other monks, and the American. The monks, all in their mid-30s, are the oldest of the lot. My team mostly comprised of the other Tibetan youngsters, most of who seemed to be in their early-20s.

Basketball? Rewind back a day: I was strolling through the local market-area and I came across a small store down a steep slope, lost amongst shops selling local handlooms, books and Buddhist prayer material. It was here that, among a slow, lost world, I came across an Iverson poster—back-in-the-day Iverson, sporting corn-rows and a white Sixers No. 3 and mean mug—and it was here that I suddenly believed that there are absolutely no limits to globalization. I stepped inside the shop which had Jordan posters, Kobe posters, T-Mac, Kobe and Shaq smiling together (like the old SLAM cover), Duncan, and KG, and GP and Shawn Kemp, and basketball stickers, and old cards, and fake Laker and Bulls hats, and lots, lots more! This was India, these were the Himalayas, this was Little Lhasa!

I called up my older brother straight away, half in humorous disbelief, half in genuine excitement. “Do they have a LeBron?” was his very first question, and we shared a laugh over the unlikelihood of it all. I was later to discover that this shop wasn’t alone—Mcleodganj had another small store a few minutes away that sold basketball sneakers, team-logo inspired sweat-shirts, and a few replica jerseys. The entire experience would’ve made the organizing staff of Basketball Without Borders gush.

I ran into the tall American later that day, and between asking him where he was from (Boston) and him wondering what NBA team I supported (tragically, the Knicks), we began talking about the basketball culture in Mcleodganj, and he told me that he found a court where the monks came to play.


“Yeah, monks,” he said, “They live in the monastery, but they play at the court nearby every evening. They’re not bad!”

So the following evening I walked downhill from my guesthouse until I saw it. Perched above on a short hilltop and partly hidden behind tall trees, there stood the cement basketball court. I smiled and approached it, and that is where our story began.

“We play ball every day, in school, when we did our higher courses, after work,” says Jigme, one of the players on my team. His English is much better, courtesy of the interaction he has with foreign visitors in his little community. “It will be impossible to complete our day without a game—basketball and soccer are the most popular sports up here.”

Appearances can be deceptive. Dhondup, in his somber orange robe and priestly bald cut is the last person I expect to throw full-court bounce passes in a fast-paced game. Jigme, with his punk-spiked hair and oversized shorts turned out to be one of the most active members of the ‘Free Tibet’ public-awareness initiative. Mcleodganj, a sleepy, spiritual little village, is a boiling point of politics, global social interaction and basketball.

The game itself is jerky, stop-start, chaotic affair, as 12 of us try to fit in into a court three-fourths of regulation size. The monks, older, and definitely wiser, are the Stocktons on court—calculative, efficient and selfless. Dhondup racks up the assists and remains fundamentally sound. The younger players are much more ‘AND 1’ about things, throwing flashy no-look passes, adding extra pumps before each lay-up, and trying to Iverson-dribble their way through traffic.

When the game finished, we shook hands, exchanged laughs, and were away into our own separate realities. Dhondup and the monks returned to their monastery, and Jigme and some of the others returned to their lives, and the worries of Tibet and the Tibetan youth movement. The two groups symbolize the two-fold approach for freedom of the Tibetan people—the spiritual approach is peaceful, loving and revered, and the political one which is actively involved in global relations.

That day was in November 2008, barely three months since the end of the Beijing Olympics, and despite the human rights protests of the Tibetan people, the Chinese managed to host one of the most glamorous events known to man. The events reach their high point for all those in the basketball world when DWade, Kobe, LeBron and the others bring back the gold for the Americans.

But another, relatively economical event took place at Mcleodganj/Dharamshala earlier that year—the Tibetan Olympics 2008 were held on a small scale in the month of May. Dubbed as ‘The Other Olympics,’ the events included archery, long distance running, swimming and several track and field events. Although basketball wasn’t a scheduled event, the Tibetan’s Woman’s Association organized a basketball tournament on Mother’s Day (May 11) a few weeks prior to the Tibetan Olympics. The tournament was a success, highlighting the freedom to play for Tibetan woman as much as the game of basketball itself.

Jigme pulls me aside after the game. “You can see how this game gets all people together?” he asks. “Monks, tourists, activists, journalists—the game is like that. It brings us on one common platform.”

It is a game like that—playmakers, scorers, defenders, rebounders—and whether the platform is an undersized concrete court or a worldwide political movement, basketball is just one wheel that helps to run community relations up here in ‘Little Lhasa.’

*First published on SLAMONLINE.COM on August 6, 2009.

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Temple Of Bounce: A look at the state of basketball in India

In India, routine is religion. Every stone is a temple, and everything is God.

The clings of the temple bells, marigold garlands around stone idols, squeaky marble floors dirtied by muddy bare feet. A devout of the Ganga River takes dips in the river everyday, bowing respectfully to his deity. Followers of Lord Ganesha will visit his temple, touching the floor as a mark of respect before they step in and fold their hands together in front of Ganesha's idol. Even a textbook commands a lion’s share of spirituality. When an Indian student drops a book, he then touches it to his forehead as a means of asking for forgiveness from the Goddess of Knowledge.

And then there are the other temples. The temples where the idols are wooden backboards and round rings. Where the cling of temple bells are replaced by the constantly comforting thuds of bouncing balls. Where the bare feet of the devotees are packed inside way worn pairs of Reeboks. Where, like the temples of the Gods, the disciples touch the floor on the sidelines and then touch their forehead as a mark of respect before they step on to the auspicious court of their one religion, basketball.

India, the second-most populous nation in the world, boasts a claustrophobic census of around 1.15 billion people, and all that the millions from around this large, varied country have been able to sum up to in the basketball world is a 46th place in the FIBA rankings for men, and 44th place for women.

The NBA has recently announced that, following their success in China, they wish to invest in popularizing the sport in India. But it isn’t the game’s popularity that’s holding basketball back. A plethora of young talent passes through school and college every year, shining on the court early in their careers, before quitting the game early in exchange for a less risky, more comfortable career.

Aleksander Bucan, the current head coach of the Senior Men’s team, confirms the game’s popularity. “Basketball is a hugely popular game in India, and this is not accidental,” he says. “It is an interesting game that seems to have captured the imaginations of the youth of the country.”

Bucan, a Serbian, has been leading the Indian team for the past two years, following 14 years of experience with coaching positions in national and professional squads in Serbia and Yugoslavia. He believes that although the youth of the nation show ample interest in the NBA and basketball, there are a host of other problems hampering the game’s growth.

“I don’t want to say much about the deficiencies in the conditions, because there is nothing really that I can do about it,” Bucan says. “It could be up to another 15-20 more years before we can say that the facilities are up to the desired standard. But there are others countries which have been able to produce great global teams and stars without world-class infrastructure, and we should be able to do the same.”

The troubles, as anyone affiliated with any sport in India will tell you, are with the system itself. Unlike other countries, India does not have a league system for most sports. Most of the top-level basketball players in India have other full-time jobs or work with services for the government, such as Railways or the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation. Due to this, even the brightest stars of the national team are but semi-professionals. These players only play in sporadically scheduled cups and tournaments, and their lack of day-in, day-out basketball experience then exposes their talent level when the team faces better-prepared international rivals.

And unlike other countries, any sport not named “cricket” isn’t exactly a lucrative career choice for young Indians. The Indian system lacks the honest interest that its neighbor and competitor China has shown in developing a world-class sports faculty. Most of those who take sport seriously past their school days are either rich enough to take such a risk or poor enough to not have any other option. The middle class is more likely to become doctors or businessmen or software engineers or take up other “safer” careers.

India’s individual sport success stories are mostly self-made, independent of the system’s unhelpful hand. They are always the ones who rebel against the otherwise medieval-esque, bureaucratic way that the government handles things, where nothing ever gets done on-time and the full funds never reach the right pockets.

The rules are, of course, different for cricket. Cricket is the darling of the Indian people—an Indian who hasn’t played cricket is a traitor—and anyone who doesn’t believe that Sachin Tendulkar is a God is committing blasphemy. Even the NBA, in their desire to invest in India, admitted that they will strive to make basketball the second-favorite sport in the country.

But cricket, too, isn’t a rich or successful sport because the government specifically chose it to be so—it is the game’s sponsors and media hype that not only keeps it alive—it has made it into an unbelievable lucrative cash-cow.

Perhaps it is then only right that basketball too, should follow the roadmap that cricket has blazed. For two years now, the privately owned Indian Premier League (IPL) of cricket has brought international attention, interest, and most importantly, recession-defying money into the game. Sports such as hockey and football (soccer), too, got their own professional leagues, and in the case of football in particular, there has been a dramatic improvement in the standard of play now that the money is better.

“Basketball isn’t really a job for our players,” Bucan says. “It holds second-place in their minds, behind whatever else they are doing. We need professional basketball clubs in India, but even if we have them, who will play for them?”

“It is like building a house,” he adds, “We need to first build a good basement, a ground floor, a first floor, and then the roof. Similarly, basketball needs to be strengthened at the lower, grass-root levels, and then encouraged in lower division leagues, before a good roof, which would ideally be a pro basketball league in India.”

Bucan and his players believe the creation of such a league are not too far off—the discussion and conceptualizations are already in progress amongst the sports authorities and the basketball federation of India. It is just a matter of time before the league is prepared.

Where they succeeded, though, was in the creation of an energetic, young squad of basketball players on the national levels who are enthusiastic in their religious love for the game and in representing their country. The men’s team, called the Young Cagers, has made relative improvement over the past few years. “Unfortunately, we haven’t had any star players for the past decade,” Bucan says, “But I’m very happy with the team I have, because they are a young generation of players who are very promising and have a good future.”

One such young player is Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, the 19-year-old who won the MVP of the Basketball Without Borders camp last year. “We’re starting to bring some medals home now,” Bhriguvanshi, who plays shooting guard, says of the Young Cagers, “But unless there is better media coverage of our progress, we will continue to get left behind.”

Media momentum will only follow success stories and talent, something which the Young Cagers or the promised league would have to first deliver. Some of the great players of the current generation have included the brilliant but controversial Sozhasingarayer Robinson (Wally Szczerbiak has nothing on names!), who has been an unstoppable offensive force for the country in the past, but was banned for one-and-a-half years from representing state and country, during which he even announced retirement from the sport. (Ever since his ban period ended, Robinson has returned to the game.) Talents such as 23-year-old point guard Talwinderjit Singh “TJ” Sahi, who used to play in a San Jose, CA league, earned the moniker of “Air India,” and showcased his talents in leagues in other countries such as the Philippines, Iran, and Maldives, too. Former captain Trideep Rai is another regular of the team.

The Young Cagers, as well as other basketball enthusiasts in the country may be thousands of miles away from America, but they are able to get their regular fix of the NBA through televised matches and the internet boom. A few years ago, Kevin Garnett visited the country on an adidas promotional tour, and was greeted with frenzied appreciation wherever he stepped his large feet. Similarly, NBA legend Robert Parish came to India late last year as part of an NBA/WNBA hoop school program, and he left behind a lasting impression in the minds of young fans. Since June 2007, the JDBASKETBALL movement, heralded by Coach JD Walsh made its way into India. They have since conducted 75 clinics in nine Indian cities for around 5,000 youngsters.

But all this would be waste without the right exposure at the top level. To keep talented young stars enthusiastic about a career in basketball, the sport needs the finances and the glamor that accompanies cricket, and to achieve this, there is no better solution than the proposed Indian basketball league.

“I want my players to think basketball 365 days a year,” Bucan reiterates. His dream is not far off. There are several players and coaches who are spiritually and romantically attached to the game; people for whom walking on to a court is a religious experience and the thuds of a dribbling ball and the swishes of the net will resonate louder than temple bells. All that is left is to catch them and mold them up to their potential before it’s too late.

*First published on SLAMONLINE.COM on July 21, 2009.

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