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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