December 25, 2011

Punjab Men & Indian Railways Women are India's Senior National Basketball Champions

The waves of change have come: After three years, India finally had a new champion in the Men's division at the 62nd National Basketball Championship for Men and Women in Chennai, India's premier basketball championship which was held from December 16-24th. Punjab defeated Tamil Nadu in an exciting finale to the tournament at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on December 24th to win the Nationals and lift their 8th title in the tournament's 62-year history. Meanwhile, there was no stopping the Indian Railways Women who kept rolling in full steam ahead to win their 9th consecutive National title after defeating Chhattisgarh in the final on Saturday.

Punjab were a team on a mission. Powered by four players who were part of India's senior national team - Jagdeep Singh, TJ Sahi, Amrit Pal Singh, and Amjyot Singh - Punjab faced a close fought battle from home team Tamil Nadu in the final, who didn't give up until the very end. Punjab were led by young big man Amrit Pal Singh's 21 points and some great two-way play by their star point guard Talwinderjit Singh 'TJ' Sahi (17). Jagdeep Singh also added 17 points for Punjab. Tamil Nadu were led by Rikin Pethani, who had a valiant effort in the final with 24 points and 17 rebounds.

In the Women's final, Indian Railways continued their domination over Women's hoops in India with yet another victory, but this time, it was a different opponent in the final. After facing Delhi in the final for the past 9 years, it was Chhattisgarh who made history in Chennai by making the final of the Senior Nationals for the first time since the birth of the state. And the Chhattisgarh girls were by no means start struck of the occasion, giving Railways a close fight in the first half. Led by their experienced core of Geethu Anna Jose (31 points) and Anitha Paul Durai (19), Railways got back in their groove in the second period and slowly extended their lead to win the game, 94-70, and capture their 9th consecutive championship. The high scorers for Chhattisgarh were L. Deepa (20), Seema Singh (17) and Kavita (17).

The big shocks of the tournament were the semi-final losses to Indian Railways and Services Men and Delhi Women, teams who have been regular features in the final of the championship. Railways and Services, who played in the National final last year in Delhi, were both defeated in the Semi-Final games against Punjab and Tamil Nadu respectively on Friday.

Meanwhile, Delhi, one of the top Woman's teams in the competition, were defeated by a motivated Chhattisgarh team in the Semi-Final in a close match, 59-56. Indian Railways Woman had cruised into the final with an earlier win over Tamil Nadu 76-41.

Before the Finals on Saturday, Indian Railways Men & Tamil Nadu Women won their third-place match-ups against Services and Delhi respectively.

Final Scores

  • Men: Punjab (Amritpal Singh 21, TJ Sahi 17, Jagdeep Singh Bains 17) bt. Tamil Nadu (Rikin Pethani 24, Vinodh Kumar 9, Saravana Rajan 5) 70-62 (24-15, 13-17, 19-13, 14-17)
  • Women: Indian Railways (Geethu Anna Jose 31, Anitha Paul Durai 19, Anju Lakra 14, Smruthi Raohakrishn 11) bt. Chhattishgarh ( L.Deepa 20, Seema Singh 17, Kavita 17) 94-70 (23-22, 22-19, 22-20, 27-9)

    3rd/4th Place Games

  • Men: Indian Railways (Gagan Deep Singh 37, Jasjot Singh 14, Prakash Mishra 14) bt. Services (Narender Grewal 37, Gopal Ram 14, Joginder Singh 12) 89-81 (14-19, 25-21, 23-16, 27-25)
  • Women: Tamil Nadu (N Shyamala Suguna 20, Apoorva Murlinath 15, Nenna Hareendran 13, Sunitha Suren 10) bt. Delhi (Sonika Ohlyan 14, Asha Hegde 11) 68-45 (14-11, 21-12, 14-18, 19-4)

    Final Standings


  • Punjab
  • Tamil Nadu
  • Indian Railways
  • Services
  • Kerala
  • Haryana
  • Uttarakhand
  • Delhi
  • Karnataka
  • Andhra Pradesh


  • Indian Railways
  • Chhattishgarh
  • Tamil Nadu
  • Delhi
  • Kerala
  • Karnataka
  • Maharashtra
  • Uttar Pradesh
  • Punjab
  • Andhra Pradesh

    Punjab's Amrit Pal Singh was a real breakthrough performer at the tournament and finished as the best scorer for the winning side along with TJ Sahi. Uttarakhand's Trideep Rai also play exceptionally well throughout the tournament, having scoring bursts against Karnataka (44), Services (39), and Chhattisgarh (34). India's best female player Geethu Anna Jose of Indian Railways continued her domination over the rivals with some great performances against Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra. For the runners-up Chhattisgarh, versatile big player Seema Singh and Kavita had memorable performances throughout the competition in Chennai.

    India's three American basketball coaches - Senior Men's Coach Kenny Natt (former NBA coach), Senior Women's coach Pete Gaudet (former NCAA coach), and Strength & Conditioning coach Zak Penwell - held coaching clinics and seminars for the attending coaches and players that had gathered from all round India to the National in Chennai from December 16-18th. The clinics helped the coaches to reach out to some of India's best basketball coaching and playing talent and help build a stronger basketball coaching network in India.
  • December 23, 2011

    Vishesh Bhrighuvanshi & Yadwinder Singh barred from playing in Senior Nationals

    When Indian sent their top 12 basketball players to the FIBA Asia Championship for Men in China earlier this year - which is the highest level of basketball competition that India usually participate in - the starting line-up of the squad boasted of TJ Sahi, Hareesh Koroth, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Yadwinder Singh, and Jagdeep Singh, with Trideep Rai also getting a chance to start in several games.

    These five or six players being the best international talents in the country, it is then expected to see the same stars light it up for their respective state/club teams at India's biggest and most important domestic basketball event - the 62nd Senior National Basketball Championship for Men & Women - which is being held in Chennai right now. And apart from an injury-plagued Koroth, the rest of the players have traveled down south to participate.

    But unfortunately, Indian bureaucracy has once again played spoilsport: two of India's best players - Uttarakhand/ONGC's Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Yadwinder Singh have been barred from played in the Nationals. The two stars, who led Indian Railways to the last three successive National titles and have been a mainstay in India's international starting five for around the same period of time, are watching the competition from the sidelines.

    After spending several years working with Western Railways and representing Indian Railways in the National tournament, Bhriguvanshi and Yadwinder switched jobs to join Dehradun's ONGC earlier this year. This made them a part of the Uttarakhand team for the Nationals, bolstering a strong-looking squad already stacked with experienced stars such as Trideep Rai, Murali Krishna, Mohit Bhandari, and Anoop M.

    But despite completing this move, Railways, who became a slimmer squad after losing their two India internationals, have delayed releasing the NOC (non-objection certificate) for the two players: this means that, starting from their cancelled opening game Delhi, the Uttarakhand Men's team haven't been able to field Bhrighuvanshi and Yadwinder in their side.

    Interviewed by the Deccan Chronicle yesterday, Bhrighuvanshi was obviously devastated about missing the chance to shine at Indian basketball's highest stage. "They [Railways] are intentionally delaying [the NOC] to stop me from playing for Uttarakhand at the nationals," he said.

    The result of this? Bhrighuvanshi's hometown pal Trideep Rai took the majority of the scoring role for Uttarakhand, with high scores like 34 points versus Chhattisgarh, 39 versus Services, and a massive 44 point game versus Karnataka.

    But Uttarakhand, an older team, could really have used the infusion of youth brought by Bhrighuvanshi and Yadwinder in the tournament's Quarter-Final last night against a more athletic Tamil Nadu side. After holding on to a delicate lead for most of the defensive game, TN had the fresher legs as the game reached it's last minutes and took the lead to win 56-54 to enter the Semi-Finals and eliminate Uttarakhand.

    Meanwhile, Railways, who may have lost a bit of sheen after losing two of their best players, survived an overtime scare against Delhi last night to enter the Semi-Finals. They may have been weakened by the loss of Bhriguvanshi and Yadwinder, but so far, they are still on course to win a fourth straight title.

    December 21, 2011

    NBA's TV schedule for India released: Here are the must-watch games

    Yes, yes, my fellow NBA fans in Hindustan - or as I like to dub them, my fellow 'Hoopistanis'! - the NBA has finally released the live TV broadcast schedule for games in India. Rarely do early mornings excite me so, but it's time to get ready for a shortened season full of rising before the sun and NBA breakfasts!

    Like last season, live games in India will once again be shown on Ten Sports & Sony PIX this year, as well as one game being streamed live per week on Bookmark this page for the full broadcast schedule of NBA games in India this season.

    At this point, the NBA will be showing four live games on TV every week in India and an additional game streamed live on the NBA-India website. After the opening night blitz, PIX is scheduled to show live games on Thursday and Saturday morning, while Ten Sports will show games on Friday and Sunday morning. I'm optimistic that the game frequency will increase as the regular season progresses: by the end of last season, I remember that the TV channels in India were showing six live NBA games per week!

    As you may already know by now, the NBA season starts with an absolute BANG on Christmas Day to help make up for the Lockout Dark Ages this offseason. Five games are scheduled on the NBA calender on December 25th, two of which will be shown in India. The first game of the year? Boston Celtics vs. my beloved New York Knicks on Ten Sports, live from the world's most famous arena, the Madison Square Garden, on Christmas Night. Yes, the last time I received a Christmas present so awesome was when my mother/Santa got me He-Man's Castle Grayskull toy in 1989. A few hours later, in the wee hours of the morning of December 26th, PIX will be showing two of the most historically popular franchises open their season against each other: Bulls @ Lakers!

    If you're like me, you're probably going to try and watch as many live games as possible this year. But if you can't, here is my list of can't-miss NBA regular season games to be shown on PIX and Ten Sports live this year:

    December 25th 10:30 PM: Celtics @ Knicks (Ten Sports) - Can it get any better for me as a Knicks and an NBA fan? The first game this season features my favourite team, freshly rebooted with the addition NBA champion Center Tyson Chandler from the Mavs, taking on one of the NBA's most stories franchises, the Celtics. There are enough Celtic fans in India to enjoy this matchup: Rondo, Ray, KG and Pierce versus Melo, Amare, and Chandler. But this game is more than an exciting start to the season: with the Knicks getting stronger and the Celtics getting older, this could be a big statement to determine who becomes the best team in the Atlantic Division. Remember, it was Boston who swept the Knicks in the first round of last season's playoffs. Will the Knicks beat their most immediate division rivals and announce their place amongst the contenders? Or will the Celtics show the world that they haven't grown too old just yet?

    December 26th 3:30 AM: Bulls @ Lakers (PIX) - One team on the rise, is the other on the fall? The league's reigning MVP Derrick Rose takes his squad to the Staples Center to take on the Kobe and the Lakers. All eyes will be on how Lakers will respond to their strange off-season, where they lost the legendary coach Phil Jackson, didn't get Chris Paul, traded away an unhappy Lamar Odom, and are still mulling about sending out Andrew Bynum in exchange for Dwight Howard. Bynum won't play this game - suspended for his JJ Barea clothesline from last season - but it will be a chance for Kobe and Gasol to show they have enough in their tank. Plus, it will be the regular season debut of a man named Metta World Peace or formerly, Ron Artest. Chicago were the league's best regular season team last year. Can D-Rose set a positive tone for this season with a win on opening night?

    December 30th 6:30 AM: Mavericks @ Thunder (Ten Sports) - A rematch of last year's conference finals and your first look at the reigning NBA champions Mavericks and the Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki. We'll get to see how the Mavs carry themselves with the target of being champions, especially now that they're without Chandler and Barea, but reloaded with Lamar Odom and Vince Carter. On the other side, you have OKC Thunder, everyone's favourite young team who is now a year older and a year wiser. To rise to become the best in the west, the Thunder has to go through the Mavs - are they up to it yet?

    December 31st 9 AM: Bulls @ Clippers (PIX) - Your first look at the new look Clippers, plus an excellent battle between the NBA's two best point guards, Derrick Rose vs. Chris Paul. This game is sure to be a firecracker, and what a way to say goodbye to 2011!

    January 20th 6:30 AM: Lakers @ Heat (Ten Sports) - Kobe vs. LeBron. Did I say Kobe vs. LeBron? I don't think any further selling points are needed. But if you need another, then there's Dwyane Wade, too.

    January 26th 9 AM: Clippers @ Lakers (PIX) - The New Battle of Los Angeles. For the first time in like, ever, both LA teams are strong. Are Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and the Clippers good enough to defeat the bigger brothers? Expect real fireworks and the start of a great rivalry of two exciting teams who share the same home court. Plus, remember that Chris Paul was nearly a Laker. This is gonna be epic.

    January 27th 6:30 AM Celtics @ Magic (Ten Sports) - Will Dwight Howard still be a Magic player by this game? (what do you call a Magic player, anyways? A magician?) How will the old Celtics be dealing with a packed, grueling schedule this time of the year? I have many questions - this game will answer some.

    February 23rd 7:30 AM: Warriors @ Suns (PIX) - Don't bother waking up for this if you like defense.

    March 30th 5:30 AM: Mavericks @ Heat (Ten Sports) - After opening night, this will be the second match-up of the season between the last 2 NBA finalists. What is interesting is that this game falls so late in the season, and thus, a lot will be at stake. Depending on how the regular seasons are proceeding for the two teams, this game could even determine home court advantage if the two teams are to meet in the Finals again. I'll have my eye on how LeBron responds to his awful performances versus the Mavs in the Finals. Will Dirk/Terry/Marion etc still hold the psychological advantage over him?

    April 21st 7:30 AM: Thunder @ Kings (PIX) - This could be a battle between two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum in the Western conference, but it will also be a battle between two very exciting young teams. Thunder you know all about, but I'm excited for the Kings for this upcoming year: between Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, and the newly-added rookie Jimmer Fredette, the Kings will at least entertain (even when they lose).

    I am also happy to announce that I will be back as a feature writer for this season, and will be reviewing a lot of the games that I watch live here. What games are you most looking forward to watching this year?

    December 18, 2011

    The New Battle of Los Angeles

    Chris Paul should have been a Laker.

    Now, let me get this straight: Beyond wishing well for Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, I am by no means a Lakers fan. I am not biased towards or against the Hornets or the Clippers, and although Paul may arguable the best pure point guard in the game today, I'm a bigger fan of Derrick Rose and Deron Williams in the PG department.

    This is more than a plea of ordinary fandom and more than a mere bitter reaction. This is a matter of principal.

    With the players and owners agreeing to the new agreement, the NBA Lockout - the worst summer for an NBA fan - was officially over. On the same afternoon, the Lakers finalised a three-team trade where they would lose Pau Gasol to the Rockets, Lamar Odom to the Hornets and gain Chris Paul from the Hornets. The Rockets would also send underrated but solid starters Kevin Martin and Luis Scola to New Orleans, as well as sending Goran Dragic the Hornets way. All three teams were happy: the Lakers got their star point guard, the Rockets got a solid big man in Gasol to build around, and the Hornets, destined to lose Chris Paul for nothing anyways, get three solid starters to build upon.

    That same afternoon - in one of the rare turn of events in NBA history - Commissioner David Stern and the NBA Office called the trade off, citing the vaguest of all excuses, "basketball reasons".

    So Chris Paul was a Laker and then not a Laker. Dell Demps, the GM of the Hornets, had put a peaceful end to any Paul-related melodrama before it even began, and then the drama REALLY began.

    All of a sudden, we were in unprecedented space. To give you a little perspective on 'how the hell did they just do this?', you must know that, until a suitable buyer is found, the Hornets are the only team in the league currently owned by the NBA itself. This is where the contradiction lies: when does the NBA perform an action for the Hornets' interest and when does it perform one for the interest of the NBA? As time passed, rumours trickled through the day confirming what many already believed: that the trade wasn't nixed for simple 'basketball reasons' alone; it was nixed because small-market owners in the league opposed it, because they were tired of seeing NBA stars like LeBron and Carmelo dictate their own future about where and when and how they want to play. A letter from Dan Gilbert, Cavs' owner, calling this proposed trade a travesty sprung up. Small markets rejoiced and big markets - especially the Lakers - grumbled. Perhaps the NBA had had enough of the Lakers' dominance: after all, their proposed trade allowed them to retain Andrew Bynum, who could've later become a valuable asset in bringing Dwight Howard to LA. Kobe-CP3-Dwight in the Lakers may make haters squirm, but if they did it the right way, they deserve it.

    The NBA wasn't going to let Chris Paul become another superstar leaving a 'small market' for a big one. They weren't going to let the Lakers - who pretty much robbed Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies in 2008 - get away with a fair trade for Paul.

    And yes, all said and done, it was a fair trade. Hornets receiving Odom, Scola, Martin, and Dragic in return for Chris Paul was more than fair.

    But - lo and behold - what happens about five days later? After briefly flirting on-and-off with them, the NBA agrees (not Demps, the NBA) to send Chris Paul to the Clippers in return for young star Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a 2012 1st round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Hornets get less reliable star-power, but more potential for the future. Better trade? That's depends, especially on how good the draft pick next year - one of the deepest drafts in history - could turn out to be.

    But what is not debatable is the farce of now seeing Chris Paul in a Clippers jersey. Yes, the same Clippers who play in a big market city of Los Angeles, where the Lakers play. The Clippers who share the same arena - the Staples Center - as the Lakers.

    Fans of competitive balance will be delighted with this deal, excited to see Chris Paul and Blake Griffin emerge as strong new competition for the Lakers, the Celtics, the Bulls, Mavs, Heat, and Knicks. But take a step back and you will see that the NBA and it's bitter small market owners have managed to achieve exactly what they didn't wish for: Chris Paul, a MVP caliber star, went from being the flagship and hero of a small town basketball team, the New Orleans Hornets, to just another star getting his wish to play for more fame and higher stakes in the big city of Los Angeles. What more, he got sent to a team known for making historically awful decisions, the kind of decisions that sent leagues into lockouts. And in the middle of all this the Lakers and the Rockets got screwed over.

    Yes - get this right - despite their lack of success over the last three decades or so, the Clippers play in every bit of a 'big market' city. With the right players on their roster, they will get as much hype as the Lakers will. And when the league's best passer starts to throw lob passes for alley-oops to the league's best dunker, rest assured that the Clippers will become the most exciting team in the league.

    It still feels strange to say that. Since their inception in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves, they are the oldest NBA team in NBA history to not appear in the Finals. They are also amongst three teams (which include the Memphis Grizzlies, formed in 1995) and the Charlotte Bobcats (formed in 2004) to have never won an NBA, Conference, or Division championship. In their 40 year history, where they went from the Buffalo Braves (1970-78), San Diego Clippers (1978-84), to the Los Angeles Clippers (1984-present), they have made the playoffs just seven times. Since they came to Los Angeles, they have gone past the first round of the playoffs only one time (back in 2006). No wonder then, that through our news archives, we discovered that Sports Illustrated magazine named the Clippers as the worst ever franchise in any of the major American sports.

    And you know how they managed to remain being so awful? It wasn't because of a small-market disadvantage - just like Miami was to LeBron and New York was to Carmelo, the Clippers have long played in a city which attracts the same kind of lifestyle a star might wish for that the Lakers attract. No, it was because of management disadvantage, and the 'Clipper curse' that had haunted the franchise for decades. The Clippers have long had one of the worst owners in NBA history and an even worse string of luck. The Clippers brewed a distasteful cocktail of bad lottery picks, awful contracts, and an injury hex that refused to go away. Even Blake Griffin, their 2009 #1 pick, didn't play a second of NBA basketball due to injury in his first season.

    But, just like the tide turns for every team in the NBA (small market or large), it turned for the Clippers last year. Blake Griffin was healthy, exciting, and efficient enough to win Rookie of the Year. Eric Gordon became a star and a valuable trade asset. And last week, one of the NBA's best point guards joined them.

    The ups and downs of a franchise, the good and the bad luck, the good management and the bad, happen ALL THE TIME in NBA, a league still designed because of the draft and the salary cap for competitive balance. This is why the Spurs, with some draft luck and excellent management, were the most consistent team of the last decade. This is why the Seattle Sonics couldn't survive because of economical issues in Seattle, became the Thunder in another small market, build smartly around their superstars, and now are an elite squad. This is why, despite being basketball's biggest market for the last 70 years, the Knicks have only won two championships and haven't been to the Finals in 12 years. For the Thunder and the Spurs, good management made them strong even in a small market, for the Clippers and the Knicks, even a big market has been unable to undo the failures of bad team owners.

    But the Clippers may have finally won some luck at the expense of their next-door neighbours. When the NBA Office pulled against the Lakers-Paul deal, they set up a dangerous precedent: who would want Chris Paul now? Which team wants to deal with what the Lakers and the Rockets dealt with? Will the Hornets be the biggest losers of this, left without anything in return? It was in response to these questions that a Chris Paul trade was crucial, and the Clippers, an unsuccessful team in a big city, came calling.

    As it stands now, both the LA teams are looking fearsome. The Lakers still have the nucleus of Kobe-Gasol-Bynum-Metta, while the Clippers now feature Paul-Griffin-Butler-Billups. Both have a good supporting cast around their star players, but the Lakers' role players are obviously more experienced. The new battle of Los Angeles is set to begin: it's rare, but this season, both teams playing home games at the Staples Center will be feared. If LA is a big city like Milan, and the Staples Center is the San Siro, the Lakers and the Clippers have become basketball's Inter & AC Milan. The Clipper-side of LA doesn't have the history or the heritage to be compared with the champion sides, but what they will soon have are bandwagons of fans excited to adorn their red and blue colours.

    Exciting stuff, indeed, but somewhere within me, no amount of Paul-to-Griffin alley-oops will erase that uneasy feeling of the whole situation, as if the natural course of history has been ruthlessly averted. Chris Paul should've joined the Los Angeles Lakers: they made a fair deal for him, they made it first, and it was accepted by the Hornets.

    Instead, history was revised forcefully and although Chris Paul found himself in LA, he was wearing a red-and-blue jersey instead of a purple-and-yellow one. This revised history is now the real world, and in the real world, the Battle of LA is set to begin...

    December 14, 2011

    India's Best Descent to Chennai: National Basketball Championship Preview!

    It's back! After a year filled with basketball tournaments around India - from the sponsored club championships to the National junior-level competitions - it is finally time for the most prestigious trophy of them all. India's finest Men and Women Senior teams from states and units all across the country are set to battle for the 62nd Senior National Basketball Championship for Men & Women, set to be held in Chennai (Tamil Nadu) from December 16th-24th, 2011.

    The tournament will be held at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai, the same courts that hosted the 2009 FIBA Asia Championship for Women. A total of 26 Men's teams and 23 Women's teams have confirmed participation in the event, organised by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) in association with the Tamil Nadu Basketball Association (TNBA).

    The participating teams are:

    Men (26): Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Chandigarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Pondicherry, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Services, Indian Railways.

    Women (23): Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Chandigarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Pondicherry, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Indian Railways.

    It wasn't even a year ago when, in the capital city of Delhi, India's most powerful basketball forces added another feather in their caps and another stripe on their basketballs. On January 4th, 2011, Indian Railways completed a three-peat double of National Basketball Championship victories: it was the third consecutive year that both the Men's and the Women's team from Indian Railways won their respective divisions. It was the third consecutive victory for the Men, and an incredible eight consecutive chance to hoist the trophy for the women. Railways have become an unstoppable force, completely dominating Senior Basketball in India.

    In the Women's division in the last championship, Indian Railways faced Delhi for the ninth consecutive time in the Final, and had no trouble cruising to a huge 99-55 victory behind a big game by legendary Center Geethu Anna Jose (29) and Anju Lakra (23). In the Men's division, Indian Railways were given a stiffer challenge by Services, but a 27-point outburst by point guard Arjun Singh in the final gave his side a 74-62 win. Tamil Nadu (Women) and Punjab (Men) finished at third place in their respective divisions.

    For the National Championship in Chennai, it seems that Indian Railways' Women's squad will once again be the favourites: some of their biggest stars - including Geethu Anna Jose and Anitha Paul Durai - play for the local Southern Railways side, and will feel the home advantage in this championship. After her trial with the WNBA, expect Geethu to be stronger this time around, and expect big contributions by Chhattisgarh's sharp-shooter Anju Lakra and Anitha. Delhi, powered by the 'Singh Sisters' - Prashanti, Pratima, Akanksha - and growing star Raspreet Sidhu, will once again pose the biggest threat to the holding champions. But one of the most improved teams in the Women's side will be Kerala, who will be able to feature several of their superstars that have been making waves in the Junior and Youth divisions and haven't yet been scooped up by Railways.

    Indian Railways Men may lose a little bit of their shine, however: two of their biggest stars and starters for India's international squad Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Yadwinder Singh have transferred to ONGC, immediately tipping the power scales further up north to Uttarakhand. The Men's division is wide open now, as Services and Punjab will come to Chennai believing that they could walk away with the gold.

    Another major feature at the Chennai Senior Nationals will be that India's three world-class national coaches - the Americans Kenny Natt, Pete Gaudet, and Zak Penwell - are all planning to hosts clinics for other Indian coaches as well as players gathered in Chennai for the Nationals.

    Team managers will be reporting at the venue in Chennai on December 15h, and a Referees Clinic is slotted to be held the same day, on the eve of the tournament's opening tip.

    Basketball fans from Chennai and nearby (and even those not so near!): This is your golden opportunity to watch the best basketball that India has to offer. Games will be held all day (usually from 8 AM - 8 PM) at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, and entry is free! All of India's biggest superstars, including Jagdeep Singh, Yadwinder Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Hareesh Koroth, Trideep Rai, TJ Sahi, Geethu Anna Jose, Prashanti Singh, Anitha Paul Durai, Akanksha Singh, Raspreet Sidhu, Kokila Subramani and MANY more will be taking part.

    Who do you think will be the last team standing?

    December 13, 2011

    Sub-Junior (U14) Boys & Girls Coaching Camp being held in New Delhi

    The best Sub-Junior (under-14) basketball players in India – in both the boys’ and the girls’ divisions – have been invited for a special coaching camp at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in New Delhi from December 12th-30th, 2011. This camp will help prepare the sub-juniors for international exposure matches in the future.

    The sub-juniors are the youngest crop of competitive basketball players under the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and have been picked for this camp from all over the country on the basis of their performance at the 38th Sub-Junior National Basketball Championship in Lucknow in September.

    Practice sessions are being held with coaches Kenny Natt and Pete Gaudet for the boys’ and the girls’ respectively. Natt is the head coach of India’s Senior Men’s Basketball Team, while Gaudet holds the corresponding post for India’s Senior Women. Sports Authority of India (SAI) coaches will be assisting Natt and Gaudet, along with Matt Hivner, a special volunteer assistant for the BFI.

    The BFI have given an open invitation to all interested basketball coaches to attend the practice sessions if they so desire.

    Here is a list of players invited for this camp.

    December 12, 2011

    Japan win U16 Women's ABC; determined India finish 5th

    As far as women's basketball in Asia is considered, there is a clear batch of elite top four teams, which, at nearly every level (U16, U18, Senior), and every championship, are the last four teams standing. Asian Women's Basketball tournaments are usually decided between China, Korea, Japan, and Chinese Taipei, with China taking home the honours in most cases. The rest of the participants - Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, etc, usually share the spoils beyond the top four.

    But if the most recent Asian championship - the 2nd U16 FIBA Asia Championship for Women in Jinan (China) - is any indication, then an improving basketball programme could see India become Asia's clear fifth-best side, and a side that could be a year or two away from surprising the powerhouses in the top four.

    The 'Big 4' were in the Semi-Finals again at Jinan: in a tournament that lasted from Dec 4-11, 2011, Japan, China, Korea, and Chinese Taipei were once again the last four teams standing. But it was Japan, and not China, who emerged as the best of the group this time around. Japan's U16 Women went through the tournament undefeated to lift the trophy.

    India finished 5th in the tournament, with a gusty and improved performance, but also showing that a lot more work needs to be done before we can start competing with the top four sides.

    Japan were incredible throughout, finishing the tournament with a perfect 7-0 sweep, including a dominating performance in the Final over Korea. Japan had finished runners-up in this competition two years ago, after losing to China in the final: this time around, they beat all comers, including China. Led by Evelyn Mawuli's 19 points, Japan won the final 102-56 over Korea. Mawuli led a total of six Japanese players who reached double figures.

    Previous champs China would be disappointed with their performance this year: China lost to Japan in the group stage, and then lost to Korea by 1 point in the pulsating semi-final clash. China did manage to defeat Chinese Taipei in the 3/4th place playoff to win the bronze medal.

    The Big 4, along with India & Philippines, were placed in 'Level 1' at the start of this tournament. The six Level I teams played against each other to determine the final four, while teams who finished at 5th and 6th place in Level 1 were to play teams who finished at 2nd and 1st place in Level 2 to determine the Level 1 entrants in the next U16 Women's ABC.

    India had an enthusiastic start to the tournament in their first game vs. Korea, but the Koreans were just too precise for India to keep up. To prepare for later games, India played several players in heavy rotation against Korea. At the end of the game, it was the difference in shooting percentages of the two teams that told the story: Korea (48%) bt. India (14%) 85-57. Kim Sion of Korea scored 15 points and Yang Inyoung added 14. India's star Poojamol KS didn't start the game but came off the bench to lead the way with 17 points and make the final scoreline a little less embarrassing after her 4th quarter outburst.

    Eventual champs Japan were up next for India, and they made quick work to get past us. With Mawuli leading with 15 points, Japan started the game on a 12-2 run and never looked back. Four other players scored in double digits for Japan, who won 94-45. India were led by Barkha Sonkar, who had 15 points.

    India were up against China next, and the tall Chinese teams gave India their toughest defeat of the tournament, 125-49. China's offense was unstoppable: Gong Li led the onslaught with 26 points while Yang Hengyu added 23 points and 11 rebounds. Sharanjeet Kaur (17) was the only double digit scorer for India.

    It was their 4th game of the championship - Chinese Taipei - that India were most prepared for. Coaches Vinod Vachani and Shiba Maggon knew that this was a winnable game for India, and would be the crucial match-up to determined whether or not India fulfill their dream of playing in a semi-final at this tournament. India played great basketball in the first half against Taipei, and led by one point at the halfway mark. But India began to wither as the game progressed, and Taipei grew stronger in the second period. Chen Y-hsuan of Taipei scored 16 of her 30 points in the second half to lead her team to a comfortable-looking 99-67 win. Poojamol KS had a strong first half and finished with 23 points for India.

    With their semi-final dream shattered, India had a chance to improve on last year's 6th place finish in their final Level-1 game against the Philippines. Like India, Philippines had also lost all of their previous games. Vachani's girls wasted no time in grasping their opportunity to create some distinction between themselves and their competition: Shireen Limaye, who has been one of Asia's best rebounders in the U16 level, had a good night with 20 points and 11 rebounds. India went ahead in the first quarter and never looked back. Elizabeth Hilarious added 14 points and 11 rebounds for India. The Philippines attempted a fourth quarter comeback but the damage was done: India won 87-66 and secured fifth place in the tournament.

    India's final game at Jinan 2011 was against Hong Kong, who had finished at 2nd place in Level II. It was important for India to win and remain in Level I for the next U16 Women's ABC - India took charge to notch their second win in the tournament, 81-51. Shireen Limaye was once again the star for India, with 15 points and 18 rebounds. Sharanjeet Kaur (15) and Sangeeta Kaur (13) adding to the scoring punch for India. After the game, India's coach Vinod Vachani admitted that he had hoped for a top four finish, but was satisfied to retain the Level I status for India.

    Despite her good performances in the two wins, India would've expected more from Limaye, who was the most experienced player in this squad, and the only one to have represented India at the senior level. Nursing an injury, Limaye was limited against the stronger teams and only showed her true colours when the competition eased up. Chhattisgarh's Sharanjeet Kaur was the most consistent scorer for India.

    Limaye finished the tournament as the second leading rebounder in Asia (12.2 rpg). Point Guard Kavita Akula had 3 assists per game, good enough for 4th place amongst all players in the tournament. Sharanjeet Kaur shot 68% from the free throw line, which was 5th highest at Jinan.

    The winners and the runners-up - Japan and Korea - have qualified for the 2012 U17 FIBA World Championship for Women.

    India came into this competition with a strong, experienced team and a lot of confidence. In terms of talent, it is hard to imagine if the squad in 2013 could improve on the 2011 line-up. But India will be hoping that, with improved levels of training and coaching, they can finally achieve their semi-final dream two years from now and break the Big 4 monopoly in Asia.

    December 7, 2011

    Countdown: NBA is Back! Top 10 things I'm looking forward to this season!

    The NBA is (pretty much) back, baby!

    After it was all said and done, the 'nuclear winter' of the NBA came to an end before the real winter began. The NBA Lockout unofficially lasted nearly 149 days, 149 days of despair, destitute, cluelessness, and existential crises. 149 days of NBA players going international, going ballistic in charity games, or going plain crazy. 149 days of the average NBA fan (yours truly included) nearly losing his NBA religion and thankfully, finding it again.

    But it's back, yes it's back. NBA players still have to vote for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, but this remains as a mere formality. I was tentative to celebrate at first, but the signs around me were encouraging. finally replaced photographs of Billy Hunter in a suit with those of LeBron James in a jersey. December 25th - Christmas Day - was chosen as the 'return of the NBA', with five games slotted for opening night. And soon-after, entire schedules for a shortened, 66-game season, were released for all the NBA teams. Even before teams and players were allowed to talk to each other, we were already hearing trade rumours and free-agency news.

    So what if there remain some questionable red flags about this whole ordeal. The lockout came to an end, but not before one of the worst series of official debates and negotiations in sports history. Plus, as Dave Zirin wrote in his excellent SLAM article,, the NBA players got 'played' by the new deal.

    Another issue is going to be with the new-look schedule: teams will play 66 games in about 120 days, means, there will be several back-to-back-to-back games, and several teams will be playing five or six games a week.

    But that said, it truly is a Christmas miracle for hopeless NBA fans that there will indeed be a 2011-12 season, and that it is going to begin in about 18 days (!!!). Gifted with sudden optimism after months of the 'dark ages', we now have tonnes of basketball-related (and not money/negotiation related) things to discuss, watch, appreciate, criticise, and experience again.

    So without further ado, here is my Top 10 Countdown of the Things I'm Most Looking Forward For the 2011/12 NBA Season:

    10. Where will the Free Agents end up?

    Free Agency is usually the first order of events during any NBA off-season. This year, with the official 'off-season' lasting just about two weeks, the free-agency period is expected to be crazier than usual. The 2011 Free Agents do not have the star power of 2010 (LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Amar'e, Joe Johnson, Boozer) or the star power of 2012 (Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Deron Williams), but what it does have - in buckets - is the NBA's most precious commodity: size. With solid post players becoming rarer and rarer in the NBA, I'm expecting the current crop of free agents to be rated highly and paid generously.
    Amongst the bigs, the free agents include Nene, Marc Gasol (restricted), David West, Tyson Chandler, Glen Davis, DeAndre Jordan, Samuel Dalembert, and Carl Landry. Other free agents of note are Jason Richardson, Jamal Crawford, Thaddeus Young, Grant Hill, Tayshuan Prince, Jeff Green, Caron Butler, and JJ Barea. Oh, and by the way, there are the guys in China - Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler, JR Smith, and Aaron Brooks - who may or may not be able to return to the NBA before March.
    I love it when a team comes together, especially when the starting five fits neatly, and each player is capable enough for his position and a good fit for the team as a whole. This current crop of free agents may not have guys who could revolutionise a team's system, but there are several who can 'complete' a starting line-up. With salary caps and trade scenarios, it's hard to predict who will end up where, but over the next few days, I can't wait to witness the shifting around.

    9. John Wall

    There is one player every year who breaks out and improves more than we expected him to improve. This season, I'm predicting that the player will be John Wall. The Wizard's PG will come into his second year with his role clearly defined, with the keys to his team's offense clearly in his hands, and with the sky as the limit! In a shortened season with games crammed in close together, expect the younger, fitter guys to perform better: Wall, with his speed and athleticism, is going to outrace almost everyone else on the basketball court. I'm expecting him to clearly be have an All Star season and for the Wizards to become one of the most exciting (but still relatively unsuccessful) teams in the league.

    8. Watching early morning live games in India

    Last season was a golden period for the NBA fan in India. Thanks to the Ten Sports and Sony PIX deals, four live games were shown weekly here, and by the latter part of the season, the number was increased to six a week. Live in India means tip off usually between 5:30-8:30 AM - for a geek like me, this meant that I was up at the crack of dawn six days a week out of seven. The lazy boy in me complained at first, but the NBA lover in me soon shrugged off the complaints and got accustomed to a cup of hot chai, a comfortable couch, and early morning NBA action. I can't wait to become a morning person again.

    7. The 2012 Draft-Class Tank Off

    You know what the lockout did? It forced several up-and-coming basketball stars who would've been top picks in the 2011 draft to stay in college for another year. 2012 was supposed to be a big year regardless, but now, it seems that it could be one of the best draft classes ever (probably the best since the LeBron-Wade-Melo-Bosh class of 2003). If the 2011 rookie class turns out to be a little underwhelming, have no fear, because 2012 is on it's way. Between the likes of Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones, Bradley Beal, Jeremy Lamb, James McAdoo, Michael Gilchrist, and Austin Rivers, there is enough talent here for NBA teams to build around for their future.
    Which brings us to the upcoming NBA season: a lot of non-playoff teams will clearly have an eye on the draft, especially in bagging someone from the big three of Davis, Drummond, or Barnes. While the draft lottery is supposedly a fair system that should prevent NBA teams from 'tanking' (losing games on purpose to get a higher probability of a top draft pick), a lot of teams may sneakily do it anyways. So, as the season gets to it's last 10 or so games, watch for some of the worst teams in the league (Raptors, Cavs, Pistons, Bobcats, etc) to enter the 2012 Draft Sweepstakes a little early.

    6. Ricky Rubio

    Few players have gone from underrated to overrated to loved to hated to just ignored all before their 21st birthday, all before a second of NBA experience. Former Spanish teenage Phenom was the world's best teenage player at 15, gathered up success, accolades, and incredible YouTube highlights before he turned 18, had memorable Olympic performances, got drafted into the NBA, never showed up to the NBA, and then buckled under the pressure of his young fame to perform at a high level. But he's finally here: Rubio will start the new NBA season finally with the Minnesota Timberwolves. At 21 years and 2 months old, he already has wealth of international and professional basketball experience. But can he run with the best of the world night in and night out in the NBA.
    I've always had a soft spot for Rubio, and despite his recent failings, I predict him for NBA stardom in the future. Like most international players, it will take him a few years before getting into his stride, but when he does, this intelligent and exciting point guard is headed for big things. Currently, he will start as the motor that runs a young Timberwolves squad, who will surely be most fans' favourite-bad-team. Rubio, Kevin Love, rookie Derrick Williams, and Michael Beasley (if he stays) will make a strong nucleas for this team. I can't wait to watch them run!

    5. A full season with Melo & Amar'e in New York

    If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'd know that I haven't exactly kept my Knick-fandom a secret. The Knicks have been my favourite team since the dawn of my interest in the NBA, and for the first time in over a decade, they actually have a squad that could challenge the NBA's best contenders.
    Carmelo Anthony was brought to New York a little too late last season, and didn't really get a chance to gel with the Knicks' other All Star, Amar'e Stoudemire. They both had their moments of brilliance, though, and left us fans excited for much more. Melo may not be in the elite class of superstars like LeBron, Durant, or Wade, but he is an unquestionable offensive talent. This season could be his perfect year: if he can get his act together, become a better leader, and play a little more defense, he could be looking at a career year. I'm hoping that Amar'e provides consistent support from the post, Chauncey Billups keeps the team running, and the role players step up, and all added together, the Knicks could be a force to reckon with.
    If Carmelo Anthony was ever going to have an MVP-caliber season, it's now.

    4. The extended Dwight/CP3/Deron melodrama

    Unless you're a fan of the Magic, Hornets, or the Nets, this point will rank high on your list, too. Three superstar players - Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams - are all set to become free agents next season. Now, free-agents-to-be can take three routes of dealing with a situation where they don't want to remain with their current teams:
    1. Openly refuse the contract extension before they become a free agent.
    2. Do the Carmelo thing, which means, make it clear to their team that they won't resign, so that the team can then sign and trade them somewhere else and get back some value for them. Carmelo Anthony wanted to leave the Nuggets, but he got them a lot of good value (Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton) in return from New York.
    3. Do the LeBron thing, which means, not give the team any clues to his future all season, and when free agency comes, surprise the team by leaving them and getting them nothing in return. LeBron did this with a spectacular fail otherwise known as 'The Decision'.
    The drama is about to start for Dwight/CP3/Deron: will they stay, will they go, where will they go, who will they be traded for, who will be heart-broken????? Even before the players' CBA agreement was to be signed, we already heard of several rumours, including Chris Paul wanting to play for the Knicks, the Celtics offering New Orleans Rajon Rondo in exchange for Paul, Deron Williams turning down the extension offer from the Nets, the Mavericks targeting Williams for next summer, the Bulls considering a trade package to team up Dwight Howard with Derrick Rose, and the Lakers offering everyone in their team not named Kobe Bryant to acquire both Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.
    The rumours are going to get crazier and crazier. YES!!

    3. Young squads - Bulls & Thunder - take the next big step

    Led by two of the best young players in the league in Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, the Chicago Bulls and the OKC Thunder are similar teams since they have been both on 'the come up' over the past year. Both teams arrived till their respective conference finals before losing out to more experienced squads. This season could be very different. A couple of shrewd trades or free agent pick ups will make the supporting roles around Rose and Durant stronger. A shorter but more dense season will help squads with young legs. With experience on their side now, we could be looking at the future of the league in these two teams. Rose and Durant are also both humble, hard-working players, who have strong organisational support behind them to help them in their success. Could one of these teams make the NBA Finals. With Miami in the East, Chicago's way to the promised land looks much tougher. But this may be the Thunder's year to finally breakthrough to the NBA Finals, especially in an ageing Western Conference (and especially if the Lakers don't pick up Chris Paul and/or Dwight Howard).

    2. Metta World Peace

    I'm sure - no, I'm convinced - that I'm not ranking this too high.
    A few months ago, a player named Ronald William Artest, Jr. who is a Small Forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, a tenacious defender, an occasional big-shot hitter, a part-time rapper, and a part-time nutcase, decided to legally change his name to Metta World Peace.
    Why does this matter so much to me? Because I'm already imagining the flurry of changes we can expect from this historical move. 'Lakers - World Peace' jerseys will be flying off the shelves, commentators in NBA games will have to blame World Peace for taking bad shots, the name 'M. World Peace' will be on NBA programmes, World Peace will make a rap album, World Peace will stop a potential altercation, and World Peace will be called for technical fouls.
    And, if my ultimate dream comes true, some genius somewhere will use his or her powers of persuasion to make sure that Metta World Peace is picked as the designated defensive stopper for USA's Olympic Basketball team at the 2012 London Olympics. The jersey will say USA in the front and 'World Peace' in the back. If that isn't diplomacy, then I don't know what is.

    1. Christmas Day (Or, because of the time difference, the morning after Christmas)

    I'm by no means a person who gets into the 'holiday spirit': Christmas hasn't necessarily been anything more special than another day off school (in my childhood) or work. But Christmas 2011 is looking to become my favourite once, since, well, ever. That is the night that, 54 days later than expected, the NBA season will begin.
    Five games are already scheduled for Christmas night, or for us in Asia, the morning after Christmas: Celtics @ Knicks, Heat @ Mavericks, Bulls @ Lakers, Magic @ Thunder, Clippers @ Warriors.
    Boom! That means that, after an extended lockout, we get to see Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e, LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Nowitzki, Rose, Kobe, Gasol, World Peace, Dwight Howard, Durant, Westbrook and Blake Griffin all on the first night! We've been presented with a rematch of the NBA finals, an exciting match-up between the Celtics and the Knicks at the Madison Square Garden, a face-off between powerhouses Bulls and Lakers, and Blake Griffin vs. an awful defensive team so that we see as many incredible dunks as possible.
    The NBA's past, present, and future are all there together on opening night.

    The lockout - an ugly period where green bank notes threatened to kill the soul of the beautiful, orange, bouncy, basketball - is over. There will be no nuclear winter this year. Time to get hyped again. The NBA is back!

    December 6, 2011

    India's Junior Men's Basketball First & Second Teams Announced

    After a successful BFI Junior Basketball Expo at the SRCC Court in New Delhi last week, India's National Head Coach Kenny Natt has released the names of the 10 best under-18 players in India in Junior First and Second Teams. According to Natt, the players have been selected on the basis of their performance and hard work ethics during both the Junior National Camp in Delhi during the entire month of November and the All Star event at the Junior Basketball Expo on November 29th.

    A total of 26 Junior players from the National Camp took part in the basketball competitions and the All Star Game at the expo last week.

    India's Under-18 First Team All Stars

  • Loveneet Singh (Punjab)
  • Kasirajan Muruthan (Tamil Nadu)
  • Ajay Pratap Singh (Chhattisgarh)
  • Akhil M Sunny (Kerala)
  • Aravind A. (Tamil Nadu)

    India's Under-18 Second Team All Stars

  • Nitin Chopade (Maharashtra)
  • Siddharth Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh)
  • G Sivabalan (Tamil Nadu)
  • Suresh Kumar Bijamiyua (Rajasthan)
  • Manpreet Singh (Punjab)
  • December 5, 2011

    Ajay Pratap Singh: The Future is here, now

    On this basketball court, even when he is surrounded by other players of his age and his talent level, Chhattisgarh's 17-year-old phenom Ajay Pratap Singh - or 'APS' as his friends call him - manages to stand out. Even those in the audience unfamiliar with his young, yet experienced career, can tell that he is primed for big things. More than anyone else, Ajay moves like a basketball player.

    The court was the indoor facility at the Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in New Delhi. The event was the BFI's Junior Basketball Expo, a showcase of the best under-18 basketball players in the country. In the audience were over a 100 Delhi high-schoolers and aspiring basketball players watching every move of Ajay and his fellow compatriots. The ringmaster is Kenny Natt, a former NBA Head Coach and now the Head Coach of India's Senior Men's team, who has organised this showcase to scout for the next generation of Indian stars who will take the mantle in the national team.

    Each of the 26 players on the court and on the bench of the U18 All Star Game have made a name for themselves as junior basketball stars. Still, the crowd, and especially those who know of Ajay's capabilities, keep waiting for him to stand out, to do things that separate him from the rest, that make him special. But for the majority of the All Star Game, Ajay keeps us waiting.

    But let's rewind this story back to the very beginning. How does the son of a Billai Steel Plant employee in Chhattisgarh, who hadn't picked up a basketball until he was 11-years-old, become one of India's most prodigious young talents six years later?

    I'll let Ajay explain it himself: "It all started with a summer camp," he says, "I was 11-years-old and a friend of my father was a basketball coach, who encouraged me to try out basketball at the camp. Normally, players who are new to the game are encouraged only because of their height, but back then, I was no taller than the average kid of my age. At first, basketball was just 'time pass' for me at the camp, but when I returned, I realised that I had actually become very interested in the game, and so I continued playing."

    Ajay says that is first coach was RS Gour in Billai, who was always backing the youngster to keep playing and keep improving his skills. Luckily for the youngster, his love for the game developed parallel to the golden period in Chhattisgarh's basketball history - a period that is continuing full-fledged even today - where good management and better coaching helped mould numerous stars to make a mark in the national and international level from the state. Ajay had no shortage of role models.

    "I looked up to a lot of senior players from my area," said Ajay, "I saw what they did on court, I saw what they achieved, and I wanted tot he same. There was a senior at that time, Pratam Singh, who had been a star for Chhattisgarh and had even represented India. I wanted to follow in his footsteps."

    A few years later, and it seems that Ajay has done well in following the course set by his idols, and then some more. For he didn't just follow the footsteps, he glided over some of them: at the SRCC court during the Junior Expo, Ajay gives a few glimpses of his amazing athleticism, all during practice time before the All Star Game. While other players touched the ball off the glass for neat basket during the lay-up lines, Ajay is one of the few who is intent to punish the rim with an electrifying dunk at each opportunity. I have seen this all before: he is one of the few junior players in India with both the audacity and the actual talent to ignite the crowds with regular in-game dunks. The crowd at SRCC move closer to the edges of their seats when the All Star Game begins, expecting fireworks from this athletic youngster. But Ajay keeps them all at bay...

    Back to our story, though, and we find a 13-year-old about to make his first breakthrough at a national-level competition. Ajay played in his first Sub-Junior National Basketball Championship in his hometown of Billai back in 2007. His team had to settle for a third-place finish, but Ajay remembers this as the first time in his career when he began to develop real confidence in his abilities.

    "I was a little scared at first at such a big occasion," he says, "But I was given ample chance to play, even though I was younger than most in the squad."

    "Back then, I played more of the guard position, because I was a little shorter," Ajay adds, "This helped me improved my ball-handling, and now that I've grown taller, I can be a mismatch at the guard position because of my height."

    Like many before him to have made the breakthrough in Indian Basketball, the accolades, success, and higher levels of competition began to follow thick and fast. Ajay kept playing, kept performing, until the day he first wore an 'India' jersey: his big break came with India's Youth (U16) team that was sent to the U16 FIBA Asia Championship in Malaysia in 2009.

    "It felt very good to be playing for your country," he remembers, "Despite our final finish (13th place), we played very well. It was the first time that a Youth Asia championship for being held, so it was a new experience for us all."

    In October 2011, Ajay would head out for the U16 FIBA Asia Championship again - this one in Nha Trang City in Vietnam - and it would be his most recent performance for India that would help further distinguish him from the rest.

    The All Star Game begins at the Junior Expo. Ajay has been placed in a far better team of the U18s: he is part of 'Team Red', which include other rising players like Loveneet Singh, G Sivabalan, and Aravind A. Known for his prolific scoring ability, Ajay instead takes a back-seat to his talented teammates, choosing instead to focus on his other strong-point: play-making. With Ajay and Loveneet running the motor of this squad and Aravind finishing any and everything around the basket, Team Red take a 13 point lead over 'Team White' with less than four minutes left in the game. For Ajay, it seeded to be a routine, if relaxed, victory on the cards.

    He has played the play-maker role brilliantly before, of course, but what makes him special is his ability to switch seamlessly became shot creator and shot finisher. In the most recent Junior National Championship in New Delhi, Ajay was perhaps the top individual player in the Men's section. He laid out his full arsenal for Chhattisgarh, which includes an above-average three-point range, blinding quickness with the dribble, an ability (and the will) to regularly attack the basket, a long wingspan to disrupt the other team's offense on the defensive end, and crystal clear floor vision to always keep an eye on other teammates.

    Ajay carried this momentum with him to the 2nd U16 FIBA Asia Championship in Vietnam. In a talented team with other gifted players such as Satnam Singh Bhamara, Loveneet Singh, Rakesh Sangwan, and Karthickeyen Saminathan, Ajay was the crucial cog in the middle, running the team as its most experienced and consistent player. India surprised a few traditional heavyweights with Ajay contributing with scoring and assists. He had 17 points in a win over Malaysia and 25 big ones in India's surprise victory over Chinese Taipei. India didn't do too well in the Second Round of the tournament, but Ajay had another 20 point game against hosts Vietnam in a classification match. India finished the tournament at 10th place.

    Ajay ended the tournament as India's second leading scorer (13.1 ppg) behind Satnam Singh, but he also made a name for himself in the assists department, averaging the highest numbers of assists per game (4.0 apg) of all players in the tournament!

    "I'm very proud of what we accomplished in Vietnam," Ajay said after the tournament, "We were a very well-coached team, and were well prepared this time. The federation gave us good support to work hard and practice for months for this championship in Delhi before we headed out there."

    "We made a few mistakes in the Second Round against Korea and Iraq, two close losses that prevented us from qualifying for the Quarter-Finals," Ajay added, "We really could have won those games: our team was very united, and it felt good to play together in such a strong system."

    Ajay named his big performance in the group stage against Chinese Taipei as the high-point for him individually as well as team-wise (India won the game by 21 points), but he took heart even in India's losses against Korea and Iraq. "We worked hard on our team defense for those games. Our coaches were always defensive minded. For whatever I achieved on the offensive end, I feel I did more on defense, since I had more experience than the other players there."

    Back in SRCC, and it seems that Ajay's defensive intensity from the FIBA championship could be sorely needed. 'Team Red' start to get careless in the game's last few minutes, and 'Team White' begin to script an epic comeback. Careless turnovers by the Reds and determined play by the Whites suddenly turns this into a six point, then a four point, and then a two point game. Team White go on a dramatic 17-2 run, and with only seven seconds left in the game now, find themselves ahead, 54-52. The game's momentum has been abruptly shifted, and Team Red have only one last chance for an answer.

    My eyes were on Team Red, and on the young boy from Chhattisgarh. I had the unfair advantage of knowing enough about him that I was convinced that he would deliver. A few weeks ago, Chhattisgarh Basketball's secretary and legendary coach Rajesh Patel had marveled about the youngsters abilities, especially in crunch situations.

    Here was Patel's scouting report: "Ajay plays well in big games. He's left-handed, but can finish with the right, tall, and has a very accomplished all-round game. He has good ball control, good three-point range, and good driving and rebounding ability. Ajay is a prolific scorer, but more than that, he is confident and mature for his age."

    And Ajay himself had shown little doubt about his abilities, in the present or the future. He may have been in an All Star Game in Delhi, but a part of his mind may have already been plotting ahead to Chennai, where next month, the Senior National Basketball Championship is set to be held. It will be Ajay's third Senior tournament, and he will be amongst a talented group of Chhattigarh players like Ankit Panigrahi and Kiran Pal Singh as they attempt to improve on last year's seventh place finish.

    And maybe a part of his mind is looking even beyond, at India's Senior National team, which will is coached by the experienced and influential Kenny Natt. "I dream of playing for India at the Senior level," Ajay says, "I was called for the Senior camp earlier this year before the FIBA Asia Senior Championship in China but I wasn't selected then. But I have a chance to make it in the future team, though, I know Coach Natt needs a shooting guard. I'll be working hard to prepare myself for this role."

    Coach Natt is of course in attendance at the SRCC All Star Game, and has seen Team Red just give up their double digit lead in a matter of minutes. With seven seconds left in the game and his team trailing by two points, the ball is inbounded to Ajay Pratap Singh.

    Seven seconds can be a long time in basketball, and an even longer time when, in a matter of seconds, hundreds of different elements of the same story come together. In the seven seconds, Ajay used his quick dribble and strength, honed from his childhood days, to attack the opposing team's basket. In those seven seconds, he uses his years of experience at the international and national level to catch his defender off guard. In those seconds, the player who had been passive all game suddenly moves like an aggressive scorer towards the basket. He dribbles with his left, but elevates with the ball in his right hand. He's fouled on his way up to the rim, and in the same movement he finishes the tough lay-up. Game tied at 54. One second to go. The foul gets Ajay to the free-throw line for one last shot.

    Patel's prediction proves right. With a relaxed head on his shoulders, Ajay calmly sinks the free-throw. 55-54. The last second wasn't enough for Team White to get a good shot off. Game over. Team Red win.

    The crowd erupts and the teammates from the bench rush the court to celebrate with Ajay. It's a brief, relatively minor successful moment in a young career of many other successes. But Ajay Pratap Singh is not defined by what he has done already: he will be defined by what he will do in the future. And he isn't looking too far ahead to stake his claim and show that he belongs amongst the best players in the country: for Ajay Pratap Singh, is future is already here, now.

    December 4, 2011

    India's Youth Girls team are ready to take on Asia's best in China

    After months of hard work and practice, India's U16 Girls' side will finally get a chance to show the fruits of their labour as they are set to play their first game of the 2nd FIBA Asia U16 Championship for Women in Jinan (China) on Sunday.

    The championship will be held from December 4th-11th in Jinan - initially, it was slated for the city of Urumqi in early October, but in August it was announced that the tournament would be postponed and moved to a different city.

    The Youth Girls will represent the youngest age of Indian basketball players in official FIBA competitive action. But what they lack in age, the India's U16 Girls have definitely made up for in confidence. This comes in the back of a good performance in the previous U16 FIBA Asia Championship, in 2009, and of the improving level of junior-level women players in India. The 2009 Championship was the first ever U16 FIBA Asia event, and it was held in our own backyard - in Pune! As hosts, India played well in the group stage and finished at sixth place in the tournament (out of 12), ending the championship with a 3-3 record.

    That 6th place finish means that India have the blessing (or the curse?) to be drawn in 'Level I' of the championship this time around: the six best teams in Asia are placed in Level I, and they have a clearer road towards qualifying for the next stage of the tournament. Level II teams compete amongst each other to determine who qualifies for Level I in the next championship.

    So the Indian eves now find themselves amongst Asia's elite in Level I, whom they will play in the Preliminary Stage: China, Japan, Chinese Taipei, Korea, and Philippines. China and Japan are the 2009 finalists, and in 2011, hosts China come into this tournament as reigning champions. India will have a difficult time against both these squads, as they will against a strong Korea side. But for India to get something out of this tournament, the girls will have to save their best for the games against Philippines and Chinese Taipei. Indian coaches believe that the Philippines are a beatable side, whereas with an inspired performance, we could potentially pick up another win against the Taipei side.

    Level II consists of Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, Macau, and Malaysia.

    This time around, India is sending an arguably stronger and more experienced squad than the previous championship. The most experienced name will be of Maharashtra's Shireen Limaye - Shireen was 14 when she took part in the Pune championship in her home town two years ago, and despite her young age, she managed to finish as the top rebounder in Asia. She has started to realise her immense potential in the last two years, and 2011 has been a big year for the now 16-year-old: Shireen got her break with India's Senior Women's squad that took part in the FIBA Asia Championship in Omura (Japan) and she was part of India's 3x3 team that played in the FIBA 3x3 World Championship in Rimini (Italy).

    There are a few other game-changers on our side. UP's young star Barkha Sonkar and Chhattisgarh's Kavita Akula have both been mentioned several times on these pages before: that is because both these young guards were chosen by the IMG in mid 2010 for a scholarship as student-athletes in their basketball academy in Florida, USA. Barkha and Kavita are going to be the motors behind India's offense as well as our most tenacious defenders, and they too bring competitive experience beyond their years to this squad.

    This championship will also be the international debut of Poonam Chaturvedi, who at 16 is already India's tallest women's basketball player. Six months ago, I called this girl (who plays for Chhattisgarh) India's next NEXT big thing. Back then, she was still relatively new to basketball and hadn't shown the confidence or the skill-set required for an Asia level tournament. But Poonam has been on a fast-track to improvement since the summer in the Youth Camp in Delhi, and I won't be surprised if the 6 foot 6 giant can show some flashes of brilliance in China. Her coaches and teammates will have to work to keep her confident, and if she is to be a future star for the Indian senior side, her baptism to international competition begins now.

    There are a lot more names in this team who could be crucial contributers, like Ishwari Pingle and Sangeeta Kaur, but I will be expecting fireworks from Kerala's Poojamol KS, who I believe to be the finest youth player in India today. Poojamol is a do-it-all forward who has been dominating the junior and youth competitions in India for the past two years: she has been an integral part of Kerala's Junior and Youth team which have won both the Junior and Youth national championships for the last two years. Pooja was amongst the best players in all four of these tournaments, and she should be a force against international competition in Jinan, too.

    Here is India's Preliminary Round schedule at the 2nd U16 FIBA Asia Championship (All timings IST)

  • December 4th, 12:30 PM: India vs. Korea

  • December 5th, 12:30 PM: India vs. Japan

  • December 6th, 2:30 PM: India vs. China

  • December 7th, 12:30 PM: India vs. Chinese Taipei

  • December 8th, 12:30 PM: India vs. Philippines

  • India need to win two games to enter the second round of the final four teams. If they finish at 5th or 6th place in their Level, they will play against the 1st or 2nd ranked team from Level II to determine who gets entry into Level I in the 2013 championship.

    The final of the 2nd U16 FIBA Asia Championship will be held on December 11, 2011.