August 14, 2010

Dwight Howard in India: “Basketball brings people together.”

When asked what India can do to help the growth of basketball, Dwight Howard, Centre for the Orlando Magic, had very simple advice:

“Just pick up a ball and play. Basketball is such a fun sport – the more people play it, the more they will realise how great it is.”

Over the last few days, Howard has been bringing his message of the joys of basketball to India, visiting Bangalore and New Delhi in his tour. India is a country that sorely lacks modern sport infrastructure and facilities, but Howard believes that this shouldn’t deter young players from working on improving their athletic ability.

“I started playing this game when I was just three years old,” Howard said, “Growing up, I didn’t have the best conditions and facilities around me. And I wasn’t always this tall – I worked at this game every single day to get to this level.”

He added: “Inevitably, the game is more about heart and mental strength.”

The player nicknamed ‘Superman’ due to his Slam Dunk competition theatrics said that the most important thing for Indian players hoping to make the NBA is to keep training all the time. “Train in the off-season, train when you don’t have any games, just keep working every single day to improve. That is the best way to stay in shape.”

Upon his arrival in India at Bangalore on August 10th, Howard soon headed to the Sri Kanteerava Stadium where he turned coach, working with several members of the Indian Senior Men’s team. Players such as Sambhaji Kadam, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Prakash Mishra, Jayaram, Harpal Veghala, Hirendra Singh, and Somvir Chahal got an opportunity to get some tips from Howard.

The Indian team, also known as the ‘Young Cagers’, are currently preparing for the Asian Games, set to be held in China in November. He worked with the team on several drills, screen-and-rolls, and post-up plays. But Howard’s focus remained of defence, as he stressed on the important of defensive positioning to the players.

Howard should know – he is the NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, having won the award for the second year in a row. His broad shoulders carry with him several accolades, including four all All-Star, three time All-NBA first team, and most entertainingly, the 2008 NBA Slam Dunk Champion.

But there are two moments that he cherishes over all else – the gold medal that he won in the Beijing Olympics while representing the US basketball team, and his appearance in the NBA Finals last year, where the Magic lost 4-1 to the Lakers. “We lost, but people should know how difficult it is to get to the NBA Finals. That accomplishment showed the togetherness and the strong self believe that we all had.”

Howard worked with the Indian team for another day, and also taught some drills to young players taking part in the NBA-Mahindra Challenge in Bangalore. He then came to New Delhi to tip off NBA’s travelling interactive fan event, the NBA Jam, at the Ambience Mall in Gurgaon on August 13th.

A horde of fans followed Howard to the mall to catch a glimpse of their favourite star, and he didn’t disappoint. The mall was covered with fans in Orlando Magic jerseys and ‘Superman’ T-Shirts. A makeshift basketball court was installed in the ground floor of the mall, surrounded by many other hoops, NBA merchandise stalls, video games, and other interactive goodies to present a gala NBA event in India like never before.

Finally, to rousing cheers of ‘Superman’, Howard made his way out to greet the eager crowd. “It was my dream to visit India, and I’m very happy that it has been accomplished,” he said. Howard, whose hometown is Atlanta in the US, says that he felt extremely privileged to go to places such as China and India and continue spreading the message of basketball to people. “I have come a long way, thanks to hard work and the blessing of God,” he said.

“Basketball is a very lively sport – it is my sanctuary – I love to put a smile on people’s faces through the game. I encourage people in India to pick it up too because it has the power of bringing people together.”

Along with the Troy Justice, the NBA’s Director of Basketball Operations in India, Howard took the court where he taught shooting and defensive drills to a crowd of eager youngsters. Chants of “We want dunks!” quickly began to raise, and Howard finally obliged them by slamming one down the basket.

Howard has raised fan interest for the NBA Jam event, which is set to be held in Delhi, Chennai, and Mumbai over the next month.

Additionally, this event also marks nearly four years of the relationship between NBA and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI). Harish Sharma, the Secretary-General of the BFI, was all praises for Howard. "He's 'Superman' both in his game, but also in his heart," Sharma said, "I hope his visit here encourages NBA to continue investing in their work in India and help us in making basketball the second biggest sport in the country."

Howard’s journey will continue in India for one more day, as he continues to take part in the NBA Jam activities on Saturday. He is slated to make one more visit to China before returning to Orlando for another season of NBA basketball that is slated to begin in the end of October. “We have to continue improving as a team, because every other team in the NBA has become stronger.” He further added that his own personal improvement will be more to do with his mental game. “As I get older and more experienced, I need my game to reflect that experience.”

Until then, he can leave India satisfied, discovering not only that he has eager fans thousands of miles away from home, but that he has been able to get through his simple yet important message across to them: Go out and play!

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