December 2, 2009

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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