January 30, 2010

Indian basketball team at South Asian Games

The South Asian games, being held at Bangladesh this year, were inaugurated yesterday at their capital city of Dhaka. Along with hosts Bangladesh, the other participating countries are India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bhutan, and Afghanistan.

India is sending a contingent of 331 athletes, and will be taking part in all of the 23 sports, except, funnily, T-20 cricket! They are the overwhelming favourites for the competition.

The basketball team for this tournament is being led by Varanasi boy Vishesh Bhriguvanshi:

Vishesh Bhriguvanshi of the Indian Railways will lead the men’s National basketball team that will take part in the SAF Games that got underway today at Dhaka, Bangladesh.
For the Dhaka meet, the players had been training attending the national coaching camp from January at SAI Bangalore.
According to Basketball Federation of India (BFI) secretary general, Harish Sharma, the team is a blend of youth and experience, and should deliver the goods.

Vishesh Bhriguvanshi (Captain), Yadwinder Singh, Prakash Mishra, Arjun Singh (all Indian Railways), Talwinderjeet Singh, Jagdeep Singh (both Punjab), S Robinson, Hareesh Koroth, Vineeth Revi (all Tamil Nadu), Mihir Pandey, Trideep Rai (both Uttarakhand) and Kiran Pal (Chattisgarh.
Aleksandar Bucan (head coach), Mohit Bhandari (assistant coach)
Suryaveer Singh Shekhwat (manager).

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January 27, 2010

The Giant Bhullars

I'm not a big fan of claiming second (or third, fourth, whatever) generation Indians. I mean, if a Indian couple goes to Canada and has children who then get a Canadian passport, then they're Canadian. End of discussion.

That said, much kudos to the 6 feet 3 and 5 feet 11 Punjabi parents who went to Canada and had two sons, who at the ages of 16 and 14, are 7'4 and 7'2, respectfully. And apparently, they can ball! The Bhullar brothers from Toronto were covered by Stephen Brodzinski on SLAM Online a couple of months ago. I read about Sim and Tanveer Bhullar of the Kiski School in this article by Chris Harlan (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review today. Here is an excerpt:

The brothers from Toronto enrolled at the private Saltsburg academy before this school year, looking for a place where they could develop their basketball skills with hopes of reaching the NBA. Their parents — who are 6-3 and 5-11 — are from India. They stayed behind in Canada.

The Bhullar brothers each average double figures in scoring. Sim Bhullar starts at center with Tanveer as his replacement, though the two are sometimes used together. Both are athletic and skilled, with Tanveer patterning his game after San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan.
"I want to make it to the NBA," Tanveer said. "That's the final goal."

Go India, I guess. There's a billion people waiting to claim the Bhullar brothers success, just like we did Norah Jones, Kal Penn, Russell Peters, and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

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January 26, 2010

The Ricky Rubio Article

One day, Ricky Rubio will be my favourite player in the NBA.

It was about time that I wrote this. See, every thoroughbred basketball fan has that one player that, for some inexplicable reason, he or she supports no matter the circumstances. Whether the player succeeds, fails, or spends his career in the purgatory of the mediocres, the fan will side by him, give him the benefit of the doubt, and write in a vote for him in the all star game.

In April 2007, Lang Whitaker of the SLAM Magazine found a lanky little 16-year-old kid in Spain named Ricky Rubio and exposed him to me and the rest of the world. The title of this article was something close to 'El Prodigio: The best player in the world you've never heard of'.

At his young age, Ricky was being compared to everyone from Pete Maravich to Drazen Petrovich to Steve Nash to Magic Friggin Johnson. He was six days short of his 15th birthday when he became the youngest player to ever play in the Spanish ACB League, probably the most competitive basketball league in the world outside of the NBA. Ricky appeared for the side DKV Joventut for four years.

With Joventut, Ricky was named FIBA Europe Young Player of the Year in 2007 and 2008, was voted the Spanish League's best point guard in 2008, and was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year in the 2008-09 season. In his four years, he won a FIBA EuroCup championship and the ULEB Cup championship with Joventut. Ricky was recognized as Europe's overall best basketball player by being named Mr. Europa in 2008.

He was 17.

The more I followed his game, statistically and on YouTube, the more I liked it. Here was a youngster who overpowered opponents with his basketball IQ more than any other weapon. He seemed to be a intelligent floor leader who did whatever was necessary to win, with a delicate balance of efficiency and spectacular flair to the game that recalled the Maravich/Nash/Magic comparisons. In his fifth year as a pro (all in his teenage years), Ricky has largely dominated the game against talented full-grown adults in his prolific young career.

2008 was the same year that Ricky was selected in the Spanish senior national team for the Beijing Olympics. The team was one of the favourites of the tournament, and Ricky stood amongst experienced NBA-known names such as Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez, Raul Lopez, Jorge Garbajosa, and Juan Carlos Navarro. This was the first time that I got to watch Ricky play outside of grainy YouTube videos, and he impressed me tremendously. At 17, he was playing point guard maturely for essentially the second-best team in the world. He started in the final against Team USA, and showed incredible offensive and defensive vision in a losing effort. Ricky was later part of the Spain team that won the EuroBasket 2009.

At 18, after declaring for the NBA draft, and promptly taken by the Timberwolves as their 5th pick, Ricky decided not to go to the NBA, or rather the Timberwolves, and his contract was bought from Joventut by FC Barcelona, with whom he announced that he will stay for at least another two years before crossing the Atlantic.

His Barcelona squad are now the best team in Europe, and Ricky is probably the best point guard in the entire continent.

Still only 19, Rubio is sure to be one of the most exciting players to watch in the future. My Knicks have always had an interested eye on him, and tried several times after the draft to snag him away from the Timberwolves.

It now seems that they're trying again, says the NY Post:

Ricky Rubio, whom the Wolves drafted sixth, is playing in Spain this season, switching teams to FC Barcelona. That actually turned out well for the Knicks, who are still marking his progress.
Knicks international scout Kevin Wilson, who's responsible for their pick of Danilo Gallinari, lives in Barcelona and the Regal Barcelona team is his hometown club. It has been well-documented Wilson is friends with the Rubio family and Ricky's parents would love to see the Timberwolves deal him to New York.
Wilson is in town this week as the Knicks have their scouting meetings as a prelude to the Feb. 19 trading deadline and discussing available point guards will be a priority.
Knicks president Donnie Walsh told The Post the last time he spoke to Wolves president David Kahn, his former assistant in Indiana, he was told Minnesota wasn't accepting trade offers now. Rubio is averaging 5.6 assists for Barcelona and showing marked improvement, but he's still leery about spending his career in Minnesota.
"David has told me he wants to bring Ricky over for next season," Walsh told The Post.
Beyond signing a maximum free agent, the Knicks will be in the market for a point guard this offseason since Chris Duhon and Nate Robinson will become free agents and aren't likely to be re-signed.

Come on, Donnie, bring down the future best PG in the league to the MSG. LeBron/Wade/Bosh could use his help. Hell, if the dream offseason turns out to be a nightmare, at least Lee, Gallinari, Chandler, etc. will be assured that someone decent is bringing the ball upcourt every possession instead of useless Chris Duhon. D'Antoni could use Ricky's style well, too...

See for yourself, non-believers:

Whether he joins the Knicks, or the Timberwolves, or anyone else; and whether he comes to the league this offseason or in 2011, I know that I will be voting for him in the All-Star team, senselessly defending his slumps, and buying my nephew his signature shoes for years to come...

Update: A representative for Rubio's agency in Spain believes that the Knicks don't have much of a chance of getting Rubio. Oh, well...

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January 23, 2010

Breaking News: The Knicks have a second fan in India

I may not be alone. During the Lakers-Knicks game last night (this morning in India), popular Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor was found by Desi Hits, chillin courtside at the Garden. Ranbir had this to say:

"I did a lot of basketball when I was in school back in India, but I never really got to see a game. I followed the Knicks when I was in school out here but that was seven years back so I'm a bit out of touch with the new players and stuff, but now I'm on the floor at Madison Square Garden and it's great."
But if Ranbir used to watch the Knicks back in the days, he is now a Lakers fan and his favorite player is Kobe Bryant: "I am a big New York Yankees fan but I think I will root for the Lakers today."

Wow. Another Laker/Kobe fan. Shocking.

You need to officially return to your Knick roots, Ranbir. Until then, I will always have your photo with Nate Robinson to console me.

This isn't the first time Bollywood invaded the NBA. Dino Morea and Lara Dutta were found courtside at the Staples a couple of years ago. In a strange coincidence, they too, supported the Lakers.

Hell, if Bollywood doesn't get Indians to watch the NBA, nothing will. Except for Sachin, maybe.

In other news, this was a very Laker-filled weekend for NBA fans in India, with ESPN deciding to show back-to-back Laker games on Friday and Saturday mornings, against the Cavaliers and the Knicks respectively. The Cavs and LeBron were too good in the clutch for the Lakers.

On Saturday, ESPN showed what would be the 2nd and last Knick game on Indian TV this season (unless, of course, they make the playoffs). Ranbir was in attendance but ESPN didn't care.

Knicks have been going through a tough stretch ever since I jinxed them two weeks ago. Kobe and Gasol took over in the 4th against the Knicks to get an undeserved victory. Despite soon to be all star David Lee's awesome 31 and 17 night and a career high 28 by Wilson Chandler, one of the Knicks best efforts this season went to waste.

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January 21, 2010

Australia planning 'IPL' of basketball

So get this: impressed by the media frenzy and commercial success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) of Twenty-20 cricket in India, the Australians are planning a similarly-themed basketball tournament to boost the games popularity in their own country.

From the Brisbane Times:

A radical $250,000 basketball tournament, being billed as the Indian Premier League of hoops, is being planned to help revitalise the sport in Australia.
The week-long tournament, to be held in Adelaide in April, will feature eight privately-owned teams competing for a cash prize and playing under amended rules to encourage high scores and entertaining play.

Teams would earn money according to how far they progress in the tournament, in the same way tennis players do.
The rule restructures are being kept under wraps but may involve cricket-style power plays, where a team is reduced by a player for a period of time, or extra incentive to score points at various stages of the game.

Some of the biggest names in Australian basketball are likely to take part, while owners also have the option of securing the services of overseas stars if deals can be reached.

Now, I've been discussing a possibility of an NBA-inspired basketball league in India for while. In my interview with Indian basketball starlet Divya Singh, Divya said that she believed "... a league will increase the competition level, provide regular games and exposure for players, and will be attractive to the fans.”

Australia already has an NBA-style National Basketball League (NBL), but now they are looking forward to emulating the success of the IPL. I think the intentions are good: more exciting basketball, marketed the right way, will increase fan interest. But this is a dangerous model for us in India should get too romanticized by. I mean, the ideas of 'powerplay' of playing five on four on the court, or points counting more at certain times of the games just make me cringe. These silly rules only end up leading real basketball towards silly exhibitionist stuff, like a Harlem Globetrotter-esque show, or worse Slamball.

An exciting thought, and I would be excited to see if, over the course of time, the BFI create something similar in their footsteps in terms of marketing and increased TV coverage, but please let's not lose the fundamentals.

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Divya Singh: Good Girl Gone Basketball

A ‘good Indian girl’ isn’t supposed to be this way. A ‘good Indian girl’ is supposed to listen to her parents, stay publicly inhibited and grounded, and in these slowly changing times in modern India, is allowed to study diligently to achieve an attractive degree.

Because from Day One, a ‘good Indian girl’ is nurtured for eventual her matrimonial advertisement in the supplement copy of the Wednesday newspaper. She is taught how to cook the right Indian meals to keep her future husband happy, she is expected to build a home, churn out descendents (preferably boys) at regular intervals, and sacrifice her own ambitions to satisfy the expectations of both her and her husband’s family.

It is because a woman in India rarely exists for herself: she lives for her parents, and her siblings, and her prying aunties, and her husband, and her children, and so on and on… That’s why the story of a female athlete in India, or a female architect, a writer, a filmmaker, or anyone from a male-centric traditional background, who instead decided to live her life the way she wanted to, will never be an ordinary story.

Divya Singh, the former captain of the Indian women’s national basketball team, is one such story. At 27, Divya has already turned the stifling ‘good Indian girl’ stereotypes on its head, and instead trailblazed a career for herself in what she loved most: basketball.

Like former men’s captain Trideep Rai, who I interviewed for an article last month, Divya is also from my hometown Varanasi, which has had a reputation of being uniquely illustrious in churning out national-level basketball talents. Her early inspiration to get into the game as an adolescent was her older sister Priyanka, who received notable basketball success herself when she got a chance to play for her state team. “I used to watch my sister play, and hang around her, just dribbling,” Divya says, “That is how it all began.”

In two years, Divya’s casual dribbling drills morphed into serious interest in the game, and at 14, she got her first call-up to the Varanasi District Junior Team. Two years later, she was called up to play for the seniors. She was in her senior year at high school when she got her call-up to represent her state Uttar Pradesh (UP) in the senior nationals.

Although naturally gifted, her journey in basketball wasn’t without its share of hurdles. First and foremost, it was from her own father, a bank manager who was against his daughter’s interest in athletics. “He still feels like I should’ve tried to find a job in something related to administration,” Divya said, “He didn’t understand that I could have a future in sports.” Her mother, Divya admits, fully supported her dreams, and despite the differing worldviews in her family, Divya continued to develop her game towards stardom.

Divya received her first call-up to the Indian national team in 2000. For seven years thereafter, the young Banarasi was a force in women’s basketball in the country. The highlights of her international career included a silver medal in the 20th Asian Basketball Confederation Championship in 2005, gold in the First Phuket International Invitational Basketball Championship in Thailand in 2006, leading the Indian team as captain in the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne (Australia), and finishing at 5th place (India’s highest finish in decades) at the FIBA Asia Championship for Women at Incheon (South Korea) in 2007.

Meanwhile, she continued a stellar career domestically too. After representing UP for a few years, she moved on to play for Delhi from 2002-2007, with whom she won gold in the Senior National Basketball Championships at Hyderabad in 2003 and three silver medals from 2005-2007. While she played for Delhi, she “worked” for the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) as a Telecom Office Assistant. I emphasize on “worked” because, as I had written in my article on Trideep, a lot of successful Indian basketball professionals are signed on to represent a government service with a mock job placement and title, whereas in reality they are expected to focus mostly on basketball. Divya agrees that her placement has been no different.

Divya’s success led the way to her three younger sisters following her path. Prashanti, Akanksha, and Pratima Singh have all represented the Indian national team, making Varanasi Singh family a unique foursome that began to dominate women’s basketball in India. It was to help her sister’s that Divya indulged in her first stint in coaching. She has been coach of St. Stephen’s College (Delhi) and Jesus and Mary College (JMC) Delhi, as well as Manager-Coach for Delhi University.

“My sister used to play in these teams,” she said, “I coached a few tournaments whenever I had the free time to try and help them out.” This early exposure for the youngster was to shape her interest in basketball coaching in the future.

After years of success in her career, she had reached a standstill: Divya stopped and asked herself, “Now what?” 27 is a mighty young age to be having a crisis of purpose; but as Trideep (26) had mentioned earlier, after a certain point, basketball in India leaves their players disillusioned with nothing to offer any more. “I played for the national team and had success in the national tournaments,” Divya says, “But players like us soon realize that there is nowhere else to go from here.” Divya was offered contract with a club in Chile, but the deal broke early, and she didn’t wish to pursue it any further.

It was later in 2007 that another unique opportunity came knocking Divya’s way: from one of the seminars conducted from the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders (BWB) programme, Divya and fellow player Yuvika Sharma were selected by the University of Delaware’s Sports Management Department for its Higher Education Administration Graduate Programme. The programme is a collaboration between the University of Delaware and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), and Divya, who is getting a Master’s in Educational Leadership and Sports Management there, will return to help the BFI at the end of her course in mid-2010.

“I’m learning stuff like international sports marketing and sports finance here,” she says, “I have plans to come back to India and work for the BFI, helping to promote basketball in India through the right kind of marketing and campaigning.” Aside from her degree, Divya also serves as the assistant coach to the head coach Tina Martin for the University’s senior team, which is in the D1 and is having a good season.

Unfortunately for Divya, she can’t actually play for Martin’s squad, because D1 rules imply that no player who has been paid as a professional can represent a D1 squad. It is not all disappointment for her, since working under the tutelage of Martin has helped Divya hone her own basketball knowledge, which she later wants to share with youth back in India.

“The level of players here is extremely high compared to back home,” Divya adds, “Players are physically tougher, and a lot more skillful. They train in a systematic manner, and have excellent facilities which are at least six or seven times than the facilities that we have back in our camps in India.”

Divya’s playing career seems to have been halted abruptly, a fact that she is resentful about, but realizes that with her knowledge now she could go back and help many more youngsters in India develop their basketball talent. “I didn’t want to leave sports. I love playing the game, but now I feel the right thing to do is to go back and help BFI in making basketball bigger in India.”

One of her dream projects is to be part of the system that ushers in a basketball league in India, similar to the popular Indian Premier League (IPL) for cricket. “In India, sport fans generally focus more on international games than domestic leagues – we need to help and chance that attitude,” she says, “The IPL has been very successful and we need to do something like that for basketball. Such a league will increase the competition level, provide regular games and exposure for players, and will be attractive to the fans.”

“Fans wake up at 4 in the morning to watch NBA games, and nobody knows about our own national championships.”

The league system, unlike the current service-tournament system in India, may not provide lifetime job security, but Divya believes that for the overall growth of the games as well as talent in India, it is better.

“I don’t like cricket very much,” Divya admits, “But I admire the way that it is managed. It’s possible for basketball to grow in India. There is a court in most of the schools in India, and kids play the game regularly at a young age. Their talent needs to be channelized in the right way.”

Her exposure in Delaware has shown Divya what facilities are lacking back home, like proper weight rooms, weight-trainers, dieticians, or scouts to cultivate young talent the right way. “Some of our players have had the natural talent and would’ve been able to make it into American leagues if they were nurtured properly from a young age.”

And it is with these dreams that Divya plans to return to India. “I am undecided on whether I will return to a playing career,” she says, “But I love the game, and I’ve found my calling with administrative work for the BFI in helping promote it the right way, whether through the media or through more camps across Indian schools.”

I don’t know if Divya’s step into administrative duties for the country’s basketball body was a planned career move, but they mark a strange compromise between her own dreams and her father’s. “When my sisters and I began playing the game, it was a passion, not a career,” she says, “We went against our father’s wishes and followed our hearts. That kind of passion needs to be brought back into youngsters playing basketball here.”

For Divya, it was always more than a career… Until it became one! Her story is exemplary to other young girls with dreams that conflict with their family, society, or the potential matrimonial ad. And it is girls like her who follow their dreams and positively redefine the 'good Indian girl'.

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January 19, 2010

Starbury's China Adventure

Should I be shocked? Stephon Marbury has been signed by Chinese Basketball League (CBA) squad Shanxi Zhongyu.

This is from the New York Post:

Marbury, who failed to sign with an NBA team during free agency and claimed he would sit out the season, has agreed to play in China, according to the team Web site of Shanxi Club.
The Chinese club is ranked 15th of 17 teams. The boss, Wang Xingjiang said on the team Web site: "The aim of signing Marbury is to pay back our fans and try to win more games the rest of the season."

Stephon Marbury has a knack for the unexpected. Once my favourite basketball player (it's true, it's true) when racking up a constant 20 and 8 in those years with Timberwolves, Nets, and Suns, 'Starbury' has gone from "brilliant, but slightly erratic" to "He's loony, let's find a straitjacket".

He pulled the unexpected when he called him the best basketball player in the league while with the Knicks, only to have the world witness him following that statement with the worst statistical seasons of his career. He shocked the world with his legendary, possibly stoned appearance in an NBC interview. He surprised everyone (in a good way) when he released $15 dollar Starbury shoes. He had feuds with all his Knick coaches: Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas, and even Mike D'Antoni. And Jah only knows what he was on when he decided to broadcast his life live on uStream, where he cried, ate Vaseline, talked smack about other NBA players, and danced along to 'Barbie Girl'.

Here is 'The Young Turks' analysing the classic Mike'd Up video on YouTube:

A comeback with the Celtics showed some effort by Marbury to accept a smaller, unselfish role, but it wasn't enough to get him any guaranteed contracts a season later.

And then, this news hits my Starbury-jarred consciousness today: Marbury has reportedly accepted a relatively meagre $25,000 contract with Shanxi Zhongyu, currently ranked an illustrious 15th (of 17) in the CBA. It is nothing but a promotional move, both for the team as well as for Marbury's shoe-line, but hey, at least they're openly admitting it!

(Shanxi is the same team that signed Bonzi Wells a season ago, and while Bonzi dominated, the team decided to stop playing him once their CBA playoff hopes diminished.

I've been a Starbury apologist for too many years, which reached its peak when the Knicks brought him in as their (false) saviour. His career averages (after 13 NBA seasons), are still respectable, at 18.3 points and 7.6 assists a game. But there is no denying his 'Virus' tag: even when he has performed well, his team's were mostly below par. There is little space for him to make Shanxi any worse, unless of course, he's got bigger plans for destruction. Be a total dick in China, blame it all on America, and uStream his feelings about the Third World War soon after it breaks out.

Please come back to sanity, Stephon, the world will be better for it (although admittedly, far less interesting).

Interestingly, Shanxi are currently coached by none other than Bob Weiss who is last remembered for being fired by the Seattle Supersonics in 2006.

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January 12, 2010

NBA.com comes to India: But is India ready?

Here is an article of mine that was recently published on SLAMOnline.com. It is an extended of my earlier post NBA.com/India(!!)

While researching for any recent news concerning the NBA’s growing interest in India, I discovered a short video on YouTube, where a bumbling journalist for NDTV (one of India’s best-known news channels) finds Shaq in Phoenix, and asks him a thing or two about NBA in India. Shaq stoically answered superficial questions about promoting the game in India, adding sometime along the lines of India and the NBA needing each other… “We need to come out there and have a couple of games…”

Soon after, the interviewer dropped a gem of a question, which started off with, “Now, you know in India, you’re known as much for Space Jam as you are for your slam dunks…”. And a few seconds later, adds, “Now again, you have a lot of rap fans, a lot of fans in India. Do you want to do a little rap for your fans?" Shaq’s ‘rap’ went something like this: “I just wanna say I love you / See you / Peace.”

I laughed for a few long minutes after this, took a deep breath, and then laughed some more. This is the knowledge of NBA in India, through one of the countries ‘best-informed’ media houses: Shaq was in Space Jam (apparently, nobody else but me tuned in during that July afternoon back in 2006 when HBO-India showed Kazaam. But what the hell, even I tuned out when Shaq started to rap in that Aladdin costume.

I may be picking cynically over one or two simple mistakes by that journalist, but the general mainstream awareness in the Indian media about the NBA isn’t too far from this. Except for the fringe population of basketball nerds, most NBA fans in India don’t know the Chris Bosh from the Chris Paul, the Baron from the Ricky, and wonder why the NBA sent a 65 million year old Triceratops named Mutombo to inaugurate basketball courts here.

Despite the ignorance and disinterest of the Indian audiences, it would be fair to say that, so far, the NBA’s efforts in India haven’t been commendable, especially in the last two years. It all really got into gear in July 2008, when Dominique Wilkins, Sam Perkins, Kyle Korver, Ronny Turiaf, Linton Johnson and Pat Garrity toured India as part of a Basketball Without Borders program to promote basketball and oversee an Asian youth camp that was held in New Delhi. Wait, did I say Dominique Wilkins? Dominique Fr*ggin Wilkins came to India, and yes, Dominic Fr*ggin Wilkins left after nothing but a minor whimper of fanfare. I guess we were too busy watching Shaq dunk over Bugs Bunny, huh?

There was an even bigger star that visited the Indian shores in recent years… Back in the summer of 2006, an adidas sponsored event landed none other than Kevin Garnett here, as part of KG’s promotional visit to India and China. His whirlwind tour touched several parts of the country, and I was lucky to crash his visit to a school in New Delhi and ask KG (then unsettled at the Timberwolves) to join the Knicks. He laughed.

In April this year things started to heat up – the NBA started to webcast live playoff games in India by offering free previews and specialized subscription packages. Around the same time, world famous virgin and three-time NBA champion AC Green was sent to India by the NBA to feature in court dedications in Mumbai. When interviewed, Green called for a professional league in India.

Things looking up? The NBA began looking to open an office in India, and a blink of an eye later, December 2009 falls upon us, and here comes Deke! Mount Mutombo, in all his prehistoric glory, was next, inaugurating basketball courts in Mumbai and Chennai a couple of weeks ago.

But the biggest news followed just a few days later: The NBA formally launched its India website: NBA.com/India, and all of a sudden, I was watching the NBA Commish greeting Indian basketball fans, expressing joy, hope, delight, etc…

The website is a humble, low-maintenance version of the NBA’s official website: its designed to target new or emerging basketball fans, with features such as video highlights, basic NBA rules, and Basketball 101 about things that most fans may find obvious: How to shoot the perfect free throw? What the hell is a ‘Sixth Man’? Court Dimensions? Etc, etc… The website even has some material in Hindi, although there have been complaints about inaccuracies with their usage of the Devanagiri script.

Another feature will be the Point-Counterpoint Blog, kept by two of my favorite NBA PGs, Steve Nash and Baron ‘I’ll forever make Andrei Kirilenko’s descendants shiver’ Davis. I know, information overload, isn’t it?

What really interests me is the feature of Thursday Live Game Webcasts, which began with the Wizards playing the Kings (my friend’s supposedly ‘excellent’ broadband connection couldn’t pick it up though, so instead I followed Live Box Scores on Yahoo! Sports. Sad, yes, I know.) If this venture is eventually successful, real NBA fans here will be able to watch an additional live game every week, adding to the measly two we get Friday and Saturday mornings.

The potential is great… But will the Indian media and fans embrace it? Why should they embrace a game where non-Indian cities take on other non-Indian cities with non-Indian players, anyways?

Well, because, firstly, China did it. And secondly, there’s the English Premier League…

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 makes them even more fun to watch for the football fan here.

The EPL was always on its way here — teams like Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea easily have large audiences in India, and players like the (now departed) Cristiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard, Cesc Fabregas, etc., etc., etc., give our audiences icons to look up to. The excitement has spilled out including fan-followings of the star-studded Real Madrid and Barcelona teams in the Spanish Primera Liga.

But it’s 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. There are flashy dunks, no-look passes, game winners, and old-school entertainers/favorites like Iverson or Shaq (I cringe and feel archaic as I say that: Shaq and AI are OLD SCHOOL?)

But the final goal, at least the way I see it, shouldn’t be just commercialization of the NBA, but popularization of basketball as a whole in the country. I recently contacted JD Walsh, the founder of the JDBasketball movement who has spent the last three years in India as a coach, talent scout, and a promoter of basketball in India. “I do hope that the NBA [site] will provide a new introspective to cultivate NBA fans in India,” JD said, “I do think the internet in India will need to grow some before its really significant — which it will. A good litmus of the trajectory of increasing basketball popularity in India will be not only be seen on NBA blogs but on the sites of others writing about the grassroots play of India–and more kids playing the game.”

The website will have to become a stalwart to accelerate the slow integration of basketball in Indian culture. 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 NBA.com 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 Ayaz Memon and Hindustan Times correspondent Sahil Sharma. Here’s to hoping that their efforts help the awareness of the game blossom here.

*First published on SLAMOnline.com on January 7, 2010.

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January 10, 2010

Players for National Training Camp Announced

From India Basket:

The Basketball Federation of India has released a list of 14 players for National training camp at Bengaluru from 9th January. Twelve from these would represent the National team at the South Asian Games, being held in Dhaka (Bangladesh) from 29th January to 8th February.

Players List:

1. Prakash Mishra (Indian Railways)
2. Vishesh Briguvanshi (Indian Railways)
3. Arjun Singh (Indian Railways)
4. Harpal Singh (Indian Railways)
5. Yadwinder Singh (Indian Railways)
6.Trideep Rai (Uttrakand)
7. Mihir Pandey (Tamil Nadu)
8. S. Robinson (Tamil Nadu)
9. C.V. Dinesh (Tamil Nadu)
10. Hareesh Koroth (Tamil Nadu)
11. Vineet Ravi Mathew (Tamil Nadu)
12. Talwinder Singh (Punjab)
13. Jagdeep Singh (Punjab)
14. Kiran Pal Singh (Chhattisgarh)

Nice to see my hometown representative Trideep Rai getting a call-up.

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January 8, 2010

Knix Jinx

Two months ago, I was in New Delhi, and I had lunch with coach and talent scout JD Walsh, a New Yorker. While talking about several topics, I professed by undying love for the Knicks, started off back when I first followed a full NBA season in 1998-99 (ironic, yes, because that was the shortened NBA Lockout year!), and the Knickerbockers made the NBA finals improbably behind the efforts of Houstan, Sprewell, Camby, LJ, etc, only to go down 4-1 to the Twin Tower-ed Spurs. Ever since, I've suffered stubbornly through all the bullshit - through the Allan Houstan contract and the Larry Brown, Donnie Walsh, Stephon Marbury, Jerome James, Eddy Curry, and the losses, and Isiah and etcetra, etcetra, etcetra...

I told JD that I might be the only Knick fan in India. He joked that, and that given time, I might be the only one in the World!
That was then... Knicks started this season with a franchise-worst 1-9 record, and I had grown cold and disillusioned to checking the box-score and seeing a loss every morning.
But how things change! The Knicks have since gone 14-10, winning 11 of their last 16 games, and growing tremendously in confidence in the process. I've been tempted to write about their improving form (and playoff hopes - goddamn!!) for a while, but I was worried that I might jinx it. But screw all that - the Knicks are playing well and I'm gonna celebrate (with words)!

The reason that this is specifically the best time for me to comment on them is actually extremely simple. ESPN/Star Sports in India, my only outlet to NBA games here, is showing a grateful handful of TWO Knick games this season. The first of them happened to be Friday morning (Thursday night in America). It also happened to be the only game on the NBA calender that day, so ESPN/Star Sports had no choice but to deviate from their Laker/Celtic/Cavs/Magic worship and to (alas!) show us the Charlotte Bobcats play the New York Knicks.
I was up, 6 in the morning, eager to catch a rare chance to watch my team, and the first half left me extremely impressed. Coach D'Antoni has the Knicks running and gunning: They were coming off of a near-record 132-99 win over the Pacers four days ago and another one over the Hawks on Friday night.
Gallinari has developed nicely - hitting clutch 3's and oh, he's got a hell of a killer pump fake, which fooled the D every single time.

David Lee is my favourite Knick and our best chance to All-Star-Dom (it's not happening, I know, but I can wish, can't I?) He's not just a hustle-rebounder guy anymore - Lee is looking like a potent scorer, and at several times, played PG in half-court set-ups, creating shots for his teammates and himself.
Speaking of PG, Duhon is okay, but I'm cringe to think that he's my team's starting Point Guard. Seriously. He played well but come on, seriously? Chris Duhon?
Which brings us to his "back-up": Nate 'The Great' Robinson: brilliant, but occasionally retarded. Nate has the ability to romanticize you with his big plays and minutes later, leave you contemplating suicide with consecutive dumbass turnovers.
Wilson Chandler is developing nicely, and I see him being one to really shake things up in the future. He had a career high 27 in the game, adding seven rebounds and six assists.

I'm not ready to eat up my words about the Jonathan Bender signing yet, but he isn't playing badly...
... And Jared Jefferies... ya, he defends well, sometimes. And he wears Allan Houstan's # 20. And ya...
The Knicks played the Bobcats without their second leading scorer, Al Harrington, and were mostly in control the game. Bobcats took a lead in the 3rd, but a Nate-led run in the 4th quarter, capped by clutch 3-pointers by Duhon and Gallinari took us home safe to a 97-93 win. D'antoni is doing his thing - offence - to full effect, but I read in the Yahoo! Sports recap of this game that the Knicks have now held their opponents below 100 points for the 13th time in the last 15th games. Not bad for a team which was atrociously awful defensively last season.
The Knicks are now half a game behind the 8th playoff seed in the East (which belongs to who else, the Bobcats!) This win brings them closer to that spot, and helps them improve their head-to-head advantage against the Bobcats too. And yes, I know that the very possibility that the Bobcats are a playoff team doesn't exactly flatter the Eastern Conference.
But the Knicks ARE improving and looking hungry right now. They are starting to look (with low expectations, relatively) more like a team that some people might want to play for - someone whose names starts with a LeB and ends with a Ron. Or a Dwyane Wade, or a Chris Bosh. Are you guys listening? There is actually a basketball team in New York.
I may be one of the only Knick fans in India, but I'm hoping that this season will be able to convert a few more before a lot more join the bandwagon next season if we sign a James or a Wade. If you believe in jinxes, and the Knicks crash and burn and fail to make the playoffs, and Gallo breaks both his legs and David Lee snubs the team demanding a trade and Nate Robinson starts to worship Stephon Marbury, and our starting lineup next season features Larry Hughes instead of LeBron James, then this is the article to blame.
Until then, I'm gonna stay hopeful.

P.S.: I'm biased, but I still think that the Knicks should have signed Iverson.

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January 6, 2010

Indian Railways take over National Basketball Championships

The 60th National Basketball Championships concluded in Ludhiana earlier this week, and Indian Railways won gold in both the Men's and Women's divisions:

It was a double delight for Indian Railways as they successfully defended their title in the men's and women's section, defeating hosts Punjab and Delhi respectively in the finals of the 60th National Basketball Championship at Guru Nanak Stadium here today.

In an exciting contest, Railways men defeated Punjab 75-74 by a whisker to retain the men's trophy, while women's team brushed aside last year's losing finalist Delhi 84-62 to emerge victorious.

Railways have incredibly doubled their double feat - the men and women divisions were both won by the team in last year's national championship in Surat, too.

The women's team this year was led with 28 points by Geethu Anna Jose, who is the captain of the Indian Women's team and was also one of the team's few star performers in country's otherwise dismal showing at the FIBA Asia Women Championship at Chennai in September.

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