June 30, 2013

Basketball Traveller - NBA’s Greg Stolt: “Our purpose in China is to have people go out to play and enjoy basketball!”

This feature was first published in the 109th edition (2013 - No. 12) of SLAM China Magazine. Here is my original English version of the story. 

Things change. From running alongside Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem and Florida, to playing in the sunny seaside of Spain. From feasting on sushi in Japan to hanging with the surfers in Australia. The smell of spicy curries in India and the taste of spicy Hot-Pot in Beijing. Basketball has taken Greg Stolt all across the world. And as NBA China’s Associate Vice President of Basketball Operations, Stolt is now bringing that wealth of experience to help develop the future of hoops in China.

Things change. But throughout the changes, through the different languages, cultures, continents and lifestyles, one thing brought them all together: basketball.

A former college star with the NCAA Division 1 side Florida in his college years, Stolt has played professionally across the world. But now, he is concentrating on a different role. The NBA has had a formal presence in China for several years now: they opened their first office in 1992 and the NBA has been on air on CCTV since 1987. The league has 300 million fans in China and NBA’s social media accounts in Sina and Tencent have 53 million followers. Their relationship with the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) dates back nearly three decades ago. Today, the NBA helps run a state-of-the-art CBA Basketball School in Dongguan which has trained over a 1000 Chinese youth players. Stolt, who is now based in China full-time, has been involved in various different NBA-China activities which includes the school in Dongguan, coaches’ training programmes, and in promoting the NBA’s presence in China with events such as NBA’s preseason ‘China Games’ in the country.

Recently, Stolt – the head of NBA China’s Basketball Operations department – spoke to SLAM discussing his past journeys with basketball, his present involvement with the game in China, and his optimistic outlook about the future of basketball in the Middle Kingdom!

Things change. But the basketball remained the same.

SLAM: How long have you been working in China, and how has your experience been in the country so far?

Stolt: I’ve been here since August 2012. Prior to that, I was working with the NBA in New York for three years, and over those years, I made several visits abroad to places like China and India to work with basketball operations.

China has been fantastic. There have been great opportunities here because basketball is so integral to the culture here. China has good basketball fans and I’ve been able to learn many new things.

SLAM: Talk a little about your role with the NBA in China.

I work with the department of basketball operations with NBA China, and it has a different structure here than in the US. Our product – the NBA – is in the USA. Here, the aim is to support the passionate development of the game. We do that by collaborating with the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) in various parts of the country.

SLAM: How do you feel that your background as a college star and your experience playing internationally helps to work with younger players now in China?

Stolt: Yes, I have had quite a unique background with basketball. I’ve been quite fortunate because I was surrounded by great coaches all my life. My father was a coach and player and he played with many great players himself. I had a great coach in college. I lived and played in Europe, Australia, Japan, and back in the USA with the D-League. The experience helped me truly broaden my horizons and show me a world that was very different to my upbringing.

When it comes to working with young players here, I’ve discovered that, up to a certain stage, kids learning basketball around the world are pretty much the same. They want to play, and they love the game, whether they are in China, India, or in the USA. That is the common denominator. Playing around the world has indeed given me an idea on how things in other countries work or don’t work. I’ve had experiences that you can’t get from books. It has given me great practical opportunities and prepared me to have more insight into the basketball world.

SLAM: You had quite a memorable career with the Florida Gators. How did that team prove to be such a good fit for your talents?

Stolt: I have to give credits to my coaches, who were both able to help my development. In my freshman year (1995-96), we had Coach Lon Kruger at the helm. After that, we had coach Billy Donovan – who is still the team’s Head Coach now. Coach Donovan let it be known that I could really get better and move on to the next level. With him, I saw new opportunities in a new system. The three years I spent with him (1996-99) were great. He was a phenomenal coach. He taught me about how to carry myself on and off the court, about conditioning, nutrition, and that teaching helped me be prepared with the building blocks to eventually play professionally in Europe.

1999 was my most successful season there, when we reached the Sweet 16 stage in the NCAA tournament – the only time I got to play in the tournament. We got some good players in my sophomore year like Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem, and we developed together to our full potential by the time I was a Senior. It was a nice nucleus of players and good teammates. The Coach stressed on improving our conditioning. A lot of us could play multiple positions and we shot a lot of threes – it made difficult for opponents to keep up with us!

SLAM: After College, you were an international basketball journeyman. In which countries have you played professionally?

Stolt: I played in the Dominican Republic, Spain, Belgium, then back in the USA during the first year of the NBA’s D-League, in the old CBA (Continental Basketball Association) in the States, France, Japan, Australia, and I ended my playing career in Japan. Those who play basketball internationally can play in different countries over a 12-month calendar – for example, I was in Australia during their season and back in Japan the same year. 2003-04 was my last playing season.

I didn’t have a chance to play in China, although I would have loved to do so!

SLAM: So what was your most interesting international basketball experience?

Stolt: They are all very unique, and all were phenomenal. And it is only when you leave a country that you realize how great the experience there was! In France, the level of play is phenomenal – they have the best athletes outside of the NBA. I had some great experiences in Japan, which is a country that I never expected to visit otherwise. They have hardworking players there and an interesting culture. Australia is another unique place to play and to live.

The bottom line is that these experiences are all about the people you meet and work with. And in each place, I met some great people.

SLAM: You have a unique vantage point towards basketball, from the perspective of having played or worked with the NCAA, the NBA, in Europe, in Australia, and in Asia. How do they all differ?

Stolt: For me, there was a little bit of a learning curve required after playing in the NCAA system. In the NCAA, a player is very well taken care of, and there, I didn’t have to worry about little things like where to eat, where to do my laundry, etc. On the professional level, you don’t have the same type of support system. Playing internationally, the general theme was to find one other American in every team, where (like China) usually two foreign players are allowed per team. In most cases, the foreign players stick with each other, but I made it a commitment to get to know my local teammates and coaches too. It helped my understanding of the local culture wherever I was and helped me get the most out of my experience.

The on-court learning curve was different, too. In Europe, for example, teams play a lot of preseason games, so there is a lot of opportunity to learn their style of play together. But in Japan, I had to find my place in the offense on the fly.

Foreign players like me had to do whatever the team asked us to do: in most cases, the focus was on getting statistics and scoring as much as possible. And at the same time, I had to ensure that the team was successful. There is more concern internationally than in the USA for foreign players to find a balance between big stats and winning games.

SLAM: From what you have seen here, how does basketball in China differ from your previous experiences?

Stolt: China is right there with the rest of the world in the level of basketball played and coaching. The CBA as made many great initiatives in recent years. Most importantly, people in China can’t get enough of basketball and are passionate about it! The country has the resources, the interest of the community, which is the total equation to help the game develop further here. In whichever country there is a passion in the people to learn and play more, then basketball will surely become better there.

SLAM: What are the NBA’s future plans in continuing to grow the game here?

Stolt: Our number one goal is to grow and develop the game alongside the CBA. The unique thing about China is that it is the only place in the world where we have a basketball academy – in Dongguan. 130 kids were admitted there this year! Our hope is that the players from the academy can play in the CBA one day or even in the USA.

Growing our relationship with the CBA also helps us to help develop coaches in China. We have an annual CBA Coaches Programme where we work with numerous CBA coaches. In late October or early November, we host 15 CBA coaches in the USA to provide them a look at how basketball coaching and operations works over there. Many of the top CBA coaches like Cui Wan Jun (Xinjiang), Min Lulei (Beijing), Gong Xiaobin (Shandong), and Qu Shaobin (Guangdong) have been part of our Coaches Programme in the past. We are also bringing eight coaches from the USA to China this summer to conduct clinics and camps. We’ve already done such clinics over the years across the country. We are reaching out to college/high school level coaches in our various grassroots programmes.

We will continue to look at opportunities to team up with local basketball stakeholders. Hopefully more exposure to the Chinese people to the NBA can continue to help grow the game here. The NBA’s purpose in China is to have people go out to play and enjoy basketball.

SLAM: Talk about the training Center in Dongguan and how it is benefiting young Chinese players.

Stolt: The CBA Dongguan Basketball School – An NBA Training Center, opened in 2011. It is very much like a full-fledged High-School for kids aged between 8-17. We have academic staff there to handle 130 children in five different grades. We have split them up by their basketball skill level. The whole curriculum has been brought together by Bruce Palmer, who is the technical director at the school. We have also been able to run numerous clinics for national and international teams over there.

It is a special place. Anyone who enters will feel like picking up a basketball and start playing!

The NBA’ basketball operations work to select kids for this training center with camps all across the country. We have camps in eight Chinese cities last year, and pick kids not only on their potential basketball skills, but also on their academic strengths and personality.

SLAM: And finally: what do you foresee for the future of Chinese Basketball?

Stolt: I think that the sky is the limit for basketball in China. China has enthusiasm and interest in playing the game amongst the fans. I think we will surely see more success stories of Chinese players who eventually make it to the NBA and the WNBA. And back here, we will see more Chinese who will become interested in playing basketball. It won’t be long before more young players from China can take help take the game to the next level.

June 29, 2013

Anthony Bennett leads the way in the most unpredictable NBA Draft night

First there were the boos. NBA Commissioner has been hearing them at damn near every pick in damn near every year of his 30-year tenure as the league's head honcho. And once more, for the last time in his eventful era as Commissioner, Stern heard boos over and over again as he called out names of the NBA's newest professionals. By now, the boos are more a mark of affection than hate. They have been the necessary soundtrack to the beginning of every NBA career in the past three decades.

And those three decades of draft nights came to an end for Stern with one of the most surprising drafts ever. With no clear consensus top pick in what many experts were calling a 'weak' draft, there was some sense of mystery surrounding who the Cleveland Cavaliers would choose to call with their first selection. The slight favourite was Nerlens Noel, but he has been injured since February. Some thought it could be Ben McLemore, but many scouts questioned his maturity issues. Alex Len's stock was rising, but he was slightly unproven. Victor Oladipo became everyone's last minute favourite, and some thought he could be the surprise top choice.

Instead, the Cavs made the unpredictable draft even crazier and chose UNLV's undersized power forward Anthony Bennett as the first pick of 2013. Bennett is a solid player across the board, and despite his recent shoulder surgery, a relatively 'safe' pick. Still, it was a surprise pick and it completely jumbled the best-laid plans of the rest of the teams picking on draft night. For the Cavaliers, Bennett is an interesting pick: will they choose to play him at small forward, which is their weak spot in the starting five at this point? Will they choose to play him at power forward instead of Tristan Thomas. Or will they make a move for either one of them? I guess we'll wait and see.

Victor Oladipo went second to the Orlando Magic, a sound pick for a team that needs help in nearly every department, and chose a hard-working player to build their future around. The Wizards plugged in their small forward hole with Otto Porter Jr., a well-rounded jack of all trades at three. Still, no sign of Noel or McLemore, or Len.

And then, with the fourth pick, the Bobcats make the draft even zanier when they decided to pick Indiana's Cody Zeller, a great college player but with doubts to translate his talent into the pros. Bobcats fans heartily booed this decision. In hindsight, this was a typical pick by the greatest player of all time aka the worst team owner of all time, Mr. Michael Jordan. Jordan has long been a fan of great college winners with unfulfilled pro potential.

The Suns picked Alex Len at five, a good pick for another team that needs help pretty much everywhere.

And finally, after wearing a dejected face for most of the earlier half hour, top prospect Nerlens Noel was picked sixth by the Pelicans. Before he could speak of teaming up with Anthony Davis, he was quickly traded to the 76ers. Before he could team up with Jrue Holiday, Holiday was in the trade coming to New Orleans. Another draft night shocker. The Pelicans added Holiday to a core of Anthony Davis and Greivis Vasquez, effectively signalling the end of the unfulfilled Eric Gordon era. Speaking of unfulfilled eras, the 76ers will effectively say goodbye to Andrew Bynum now that Noel is touted to be their franchise center. Later on in the draft, the 76ers picked athletic, tall point guard Michael Carter-Williams with the 11th pick to replace Holiday and go into full rebuilding mode (otherwise known as the Andrew Wiggins Sweepstakes #LosingForWiggins).

With the 7th pick, the Kings went for the best player available and added talented-but-immature Ben McLemore to a core that includes talented-but-immature Tyreke Evans and talented-but-immature DeMarcus Cousins. Fun times in Sacramento.

The Pistons added dead-eye shooter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with the eighth pick. The Timberwolves picked college player of the year Trey Burke at ninth, but soon, it was revealed that Burke would be traded to Utah for the 14th and 21st picks. These picks translated into Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, respectively. Burke is the perfect fit for the Jazz, who were in desperate need of a decent perimeter player.

And despite the bad news bears, I'm fully in the Shabazz Muhammad camp (#ShabazzBandwagon) and believe that he can be the best player from this class. Shabazz is also the perfect fit in Minnesota, along with Ricky Rubio, Andrei Kirilenko, Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic. If this team can stay healthy, we could see them making some noise in the West. Shabazz college year was topsy-turvy to say the least, but I think he'll be suited for the pro game. Years from now, you can come back here and applaud me for my faith when he becomes a multiple-time All Star, or alternatively, laugh at my face when he translates into Micheal Beasley 2.0.

The Trailblazers made a great pick at 10th with CJ McCollum, who is the perfect back-court component to run along with reigning rookie of the year Damian Lillard. At 12th, the Thunder took New Zealand's big man Steven Adams. The Mavericks traded their 13th pick to the Celtics, and Boston chose Kelly Olynyk.

And so and so forth the draft went, featuring more surprises, crazy hair (Lucas Nogueira), cheers (for Masom Plumpee and Tim Hardaway Jr.), and jeers. The draft represented a lot of foreign-born talent, too, including top pick Bennett (Canada), Len (Ukraine), and Adams (New Zealand), and later, the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Sergey Karasev (Russia), and Dennis Schroeder (Germany) drafted by Bucks, Cavaliers, and Hawks respectively.

The first round of the draft ended with yet another surprise. The first pick that David Stern ever made in 1984 - a young Nigerian then known as 'Akeem' Olajowon - returned to the stage (in the same-style tuxedo!) to surprise Stern and provide a fitting end to his draft era. Adam Silver took over the Second Round, and will be taking over the First Round from next year onwards. 30 years later, Stern will soon step off after a distinguished tenure as the Commish. And he ended his last draft night with excitement, unpredictable moments, and a whole lotta boos!

But the biggest news of the draft night wasn't connected to the 2013 draft at all. To add to the crazy, the Boston Celtics traded Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry to Brooklyn for Gerald Wallace, other players, and many future first round picks. It signaled another major shake-up in the Eastern Conference. And considering how the 2013 draft has panned out, don't be surprised if there are a lot more trades involving the effected teams between now and the start of the new season.

Congrats to the big winner of the night: Anthony Bennett. He couldn't have wished for a more memorable and entertaining night to join the big leagues.

You only have to hold your breath for one more year, as some of the NBA's worst teams join the #LosingForWiggins race and hope to make another Canadian the top pick in 2014.

June 27, 2013

Klay Thompson: The Language of Swish

This feature was first published in the 109th edition (2013 - No. 12) of SLAM China Magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.

Klay Thompson moved his elbow up to a shooting position, making an ‘L’ shape with his hands, and then let his wrists throw the imaginary ball into an imaginary hoop. “Just like that,” he instructed the rows of eager teens seated ahead of him, “Let your hand form this motion. My father taught me: your shooting hand should look like you’re reaching high for the cookie jar.”

There was a brief moment of silence, and then his translator picked up those words and began to convert them in Chinese for the audience. Thompson turned to his side while the translator talked and showed the shooting form again. A perfect ‘L’. And the wrist dropping into the cookie jar.

Thompson couldn’t speak a word of Chinese. And the basketball-loving teenagers at the ‘Klay Thompson Fan Day’ in Beijing struggled with their English. And yet, they didn’t have to wait for the translator to understand. With a simple gesture of the hands and a flick of the wrist, he had gotten his point across.

This is how you shoot a perfect jump-shot. And it sounds like a “swish” in every language.

Thompson’s been accustomed to that sound now. The 23-year-old exploded to the scene in his second season in the NBA as one of the most dangerous shooters in the league. After just starting 29 games in his rookie year, Thompson was in Golden State’s starting five for all 82 contests in 2012-13 and averaged 16.6 points per contest. And then, he became part of a magical playoffs run for the Warriors as the lower-seeded team upset the Denver Nuggets and battled the heavily-favoured Spurs to Game 6. It was in this series that one of Golden State’s two wins came courtesy of Thompson’s career-best night, when he scored a career-high 34 points on 8-9 shooting from beyond the three-point arc, and added a career-high 14 rebounds.

About a month and a half after his heroics – and the Warriors’ subsequent playoff loss – Thompson found himself breaking a sweat on the basketball court for the first time since he played the Spurs. The competition and the stage were distinctly different, of course. He was playing a casual one-on-one game with a Chinese media personality in a quiet hall on the East side of Beijing.

But within moments, every court in every city and every opponent in the world morphed into the same thing. Because the sound of the “swish” was still the same.

Understandably, it was Thompson’s potent jump-shot that was the center of attraction at this shooting clinic at Beijing. And Thompson obliged the young learners with tips on how to perfect that jumper, both through the body and the mind.

“Physically, you have to practice hard to improve the shot, and make sure to spend enough hours in the gym,” he instructed, “But you have to have mental confidence too. You have to have ultimate belief in yourself that you are the best shooter, that even if you’ve missed 10 in a row, you will be able to make the next 20.”

Thompson’s range has come into even extra scrutiny because of the changing circumstances around the league and the increasing reliance on three-point shot for success. In the NBA Finals, Danny Green made waves by breaking the record for most threes made in a Finals. The Miami Heat – with Ray Allen, Norris Cole, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, and more – became a dangerous crew from beyond the arc as well. The New York Knicks enjoyed a wealth of success this season because of their three-point accuracy. And how can we forget Thompson’s own teammate Stephen Curry, who is well on his way to becoming one of the greatest three-point shooters of all time. (“He’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen,” Thompson says of Curry.)

“The three-point shot shows the evolution of the game,” Thompson spoke to the assembled kids at the clinic, “It has become huge in the NBA, and we see how great three-point shooters are spacing the floor. “I think three-point shooting has become a real weapon and is the future of the league.”

In that case, Klay Thompson is the future of the league, too.

Thompson visited China in mid June, travelling to Xian, Beijing, and Chengdu, to promote the NBA Global Games 2013. He will be back in Beijing and Shanghai in October, along with Curry and the rest of his Warriors’ teammates, to take part in ‘China Games’, two pre-season NBA games held in China against the world famous Los Angeles Lakers. Even though they are technically just ‘exhibition’ games, Thompson believes that he will be ready to response to the playoff-type atmosphere at these contests.

“Whenever the crowd is like that, you wanna give them a show. Both of our teams are really competitive. It’s fun to play in front of fans who are rowdy and who love the game, and that’s what we’ll see in these two exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. I’m really excited for them, and my teammates will be too.”

Looking ahead, Thompson also feels that he and his team will be motivated to come back stronger after their memorable run this season.

“If we don’t go past the second round next season I feel it will be a disappointment,” he said, “We have a bright future. As long as we keep our core together and keep working hard, I think we can win championships in the near future.”

Speaking on his own goals for next season, Thompson added: “I wanna be a better pick and roll player and better at finishing around the rim. And keep working on the defensive end as well – people forget that the game is 50 percent defense. I think I can be an All Defensive player in this league. It’s gonna take a lot of work, but I think that I can get there. I took big strides in that area last summer. I don’t wanna be known for just my shooting. I wanna be known as a good defender, a good passer, and hopefully I can add one new element to my game every year. Hopefully next year I can also be a better play-maker than I was this last year.”

His angst for improvement is understandable. No man wants to be pigeon-holed into one box. Klay Thompson has an arsenal of different, improving talents, and he’s making it clear that he wants to make considerable improvements in all of them.

Shooting is still his calling card though, and it was still the major reason why fans gasp when they see him catch fire and when youngsters listen when he teaches them how to emulate his form. It is that shooting form that breaks barriers of language and culture and gets the point across. From the perfect release to the perfect “swish.”

June 25, 2013

Shots in the Dark: My 2013 NBA Mock Draft

Even with less than three days to go until the 2013 NBA Draft, I remain clueless. 2013 is being called a fairly weak year in the draft, and with no sure-shot answers to the problems plaguing the lottery teams, there is no way to expertly predict the sequence at which young players will accept their team hats on Thursday night. As a matter of fact, I probably feel more confident of predicting next year’s draft class than the one three days from now.

Still, a draft is to be conducted, and so, in my annual tradition, a draft is to be mocked. So, with utter lack of confidence in my predictions, but full faith to defend them the moment they are published, here is my 2013 NBA Mock Draft of the lottery (1-14) picks.

Click here to read full feature.

June 22, 2013

3-day Train the Trainers basketball clinic with Troy Justice in Kochi

The Kerala Basketball Association (KBA) along with Regional Sports Center (RSC) will host Kerala's second phase of the Train the Trainers Coaching Clinic in the state over three days from June 24-26 at the Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium in Kadavanthara, Kochi. The clinic will be laed by Troy Justice, the NBA's Senior Director of International Basketball Relations. Phase 1 of the programme back in 2011 attracted over a 100 coaches.

Along with coaches, selected players of the NBA's Generation adidas programme will also attend the clinic to be trained with Justice. Additionally, Justice will also work with the Kerala State Junior Girls basketball team.

The three-day event will include introduction to NBA/FIBA resources to coaches, clinics about different type of defensive coaching options, drills for team offense, NBA/FIBA offensive sets and plays, focused drills on player development, and Q&A sessions with Justice.

The RSC has imported 25 lakh rupees worth of basketball equipment from Germany, including tempered glass backboards, international quality rings, nets, electronic score boards and other electronic material. Justice will unveil the equipment along with PI Sheik Pareeth, the Distric Collector of Ernakulum on June 24.

June 21, 2013

Heat Repeat: Epic 2012-13 Finals end with another championship for Miami Heat

After eight months of competitive basketball with 30 teams contending for the same goal, the fate of the 2012-13 NBA Championship came down to 39 seconds and two points. Moments and match-ups like these make the NBA such a joy to experience. Only the Miami Heat were rewarded a championship today, but basketball fans everywhere were rewarded with the joy of a Finals series for the ages.

Click here to read full feature!

June 16, 2013

2030: An Indian Basketball Odyssey

This is a work of fiction.

Game 6 of the 2030 IBA Finals had already been etched in Indian Basketball lore. Two overtimes, the loudest basketball arena in the country at fever pitch, the biggest stars of the game battling against each other at the biggest stage, and a game-winning shot. "I've been in this 15 years," Kochi's veteran guard Om Rajendran was quoted in the The Hindu the following morning, "I've won an MVP award and a championship, but I've never been part of a game like the one tonight. Decades from now, Indian Basketball fans will still talk about Azam's shot."

The shot itself was nothing spectacular. Kaif Azam, the undisputed best player in the country, was an all-business, no-flash monster in the post. In the second overtime, he had decided that it was time to finally end the long night, and with less than three-seconds left in the game-clock, he flushed in his patented hook shot over the outstretched arms of Debanshu Chaudhary to seal the game. A simple shot, one he hit at least eight or nine times every game and practiced a hundred times every day. But it proved to be the difference between Ludhiana raising the banner for their record eighth IBA championship and Kochi forcing a Game 7 back to their home court.

If Azam had missed, Rajendran's career would've been over. The 37-year-old legend had announced his retirement before the Finals began and was ready to walk away from the game after a successful IBA and short NBA career. Instead, he would have one last professional basketball game in Kochi colours and one more chance to win his second IBA championship.

On the flight back to Kochi, Rajendran thanked Azam, who was now the face of the league, for giving him one more chance for glory. He settled back into his seat and smiled to himself. 15 years ago, as a rookie in a young Indian Basketball Association, Rajendran had done his share of 42-hour train journeys and dicey station samosas. He had played in two different teams in both the Northern and Southern conferences and seen the league evolve from being a messy upstart into a well-oiled machine that it was today. There were only eight teams back in 2015, but rapid expansion over the last decade had doubled the challengers for the title. Shoddy outdoor courts had been converted into state-of-the-art sports complexes.

Yet, despite the new generation of names, faces, changing arenas, technology, increased salaries and professionalism into the sport in India, the title challengers were still the same in 2030 as they had been 15 years ago: The Ludhiana Sikandars. Rajendran hated them for all those years he had suffered defeat at their hands in his younger years. He thirsted for revenge.


History matters.

Sitting in the locker room pre-game before one of the biggest games of his life, Jaipal Harsh Singh tried to forget about the past. Forget about the fact that, the jersey that hung in front of him represented the most successful franchise in the 15-year history of the Indian Basketball Association (IBA). Forget that, when he represented the Ludhiana Sikandars, he wasn't just representing himself and his 11 teammates, but representing the greats who had dominated the past decade in the league. For years, he had enjoyed success playing besides Bipin Singh Raj, the most successful player in IBA history. But ever since Raj's retirement, the Sikandars had suffered from a minor identity crisis. They had added a couple of nice new players, sure, but the onus was on him to lead the team now. It was on him to mobilize his troops and lead them to the Promised Land again, to start a fresh, new dynasty. They had done pretty well so far this season. They had defeated prodigious individual talents and well-honed experienced teams. They had found themselves back in the IBA Finals for the first time since Raj's retirement.

Singh knew what he represented. He knew what he had to do.

But he couldn't worry about the past. He couldn't worry about Raj and all those glories of Ludhiana's basketball history, all those times when the fervent fans had rushed the famous Guru Nanak Stadium floor, hoisting him in their arms and dancing to bhangra all night to celebrate championship after championship. He had made the mistake of envisioning that scene even before it had happened. Holding on to a 3-2 lead, he had envisioned that his team would close out the series in Game 6 on their home court, that he would dance with the fans again, that he would celebrate by driving down with his teammates to the old city and feasting on Butter Chicken.

Unfortunately, his opponents - or more specifically - one of his opponents, had different plans. History had to wait. There would be no bhangra and Butter Chicken celebration for the Sikandars and Singh after Game 6. There would be heartbreak and sullen faces. There would be a return to Kochi for one final game. There would be a Game 7.


"My mother said that the whole of Kerala had been praying for me, like it was Onam in December!"

Kaif Azam wasn't a big speaker. His third IBA MVP acceptance speech sounded a carbon copy of his past two. When he became the sixth Indian player to be drafted into the NBA, he responded with a calm nod and smile, thanking the Milwaukee Bucks franchise and the past countrymen that had paved the way for Indian Basketball, but not much else. On the court, he was all business. He didn't show much emotion, didn't smile, didn't frown, didn't laugh and didn't fight. But it was still hard to ignore the 7-footed giant, who had stormed into the IBA to win a championship for the Kochi Kayals as a rookie, became the first Indian to play in the NBA All Star game, and now, four years later, found himself a game away from his second IBA trophy. Azam's arrival had changed Kochi's fortunes completely. They had finished with the best record in the regular season and the Mumbai-born silent assassin had once again been the center of attention for the entire league.

But it was only after that Game 6 performance - particularly after that incredible hook shot that instantly entered into Indian basketball lore - that Azam showed the first sign of any emotion. His face was all over the country's national news channels the next day, which replayed videos of his historic shot followed by his post-game interview where he thanked his mother and the wishes of his adopted home state. The notoriously fervent Ludhiana crowd had been silenced. With the score now tied at 3-3, one of the most memorable series in recent times would reach it's fitting conclusion.

The season couldn't finish soon enough for the giant superstar. Within a week, he would be on a flight to America to join the Bucks in the middle of their NBA season. But first, he had unfinished business first back in his home country.


Before the inception of the IBA - India's first professional basketball league - the best players in the country were semi-professionals working in various government units or representing their various states. They played for the Railways, for ONGC, for the Police, or for their states, representing Kerala, Chhattsigarh, or Maharashtra. The state-level national championships still existed, but they were now mostly an outlet for the second tier stars of the country, the ones who weren't good enough to get on to an IBA roster. The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) organized tournaments for juniors served as the perfect feeder championship for the country's best clubs to scout young players and sign them at the pre-season auctions. It was through these auctions that greats like Bipin Singh Raj, W. Arundas, and Jubraj Yadav were first discovered. The trio became the first three Indian players to also be drafted into the NBA, and later opened the doors for the likes of Om Rajendran and Jaipal Singh. By the time young Kaif Azam was bought by Kochi, professional basketball was thriving in India and even the fringe players on each roster were earning comfortably and didn't need to take part in smaller tournaments across the country. But since the IBA shut down from January-July, many of these players showed up for historically popular championships like Mastan or Ramu Memorial anyways.

Azam wasn't one of them. The Kochi star spent his IBA offseason in America and his NBA offseason in India. He was a decent NBA player because of his size, speed, and finishing around the post, but back in India, he was simply unstoppable against inferior talent. He was also lucky to have an NBA/IBA veteran like Rajendran as his teammate, and the older guard served as a mentor for the youngster to juggle his two lifestyles.

Azam and Rajendran had been teammates in Kochi for the last four years, and Azam knew that, with Rajendran's pending retirement, this would be their last run together. He vowed that he would help the veteran go out in style after lifting their second IBA championship. So far, the season had gone to plan. Kochi finished the regular season with a 23-9 record to lead the Southern Conference and also win home court advantage through the playoffs. Azam was also named IBA MVP for the third time in his young career. The Kayals played against the aging Chennai side in the First Round, and dismissed them fairly easily with a 4-1 victory, thus putting an end to the careers of former superstars W. Arundas and Jubraj Yadav. In the Conference Finals, they came up against a strong Bangalore Leapers squad, known for their gritty defense and unselfish play on the offensive end. While the two sides seemed evenly matched before the series, Kochi relied on a magnificent performance by their MVP Azam - who averaged 28 points and 13 rebounds in the series - to sweep Bangalore 4-0.

While Kochi celebrated, Kayals' coach D. Bhavithira had cause for concern. The team relied too much on Azam, and while the big man had delivered so far, he knew that a bruising battle against the Northern Conference bigs would serve as a problem in the Final. He was particularly concerned about Ludhiana's Debanshu Chaudhary, an undersized but powerful Center who had given Azam problems in the past during the regular season. As Bhavithira waited, he secretly rooted for the smaller, older Delhi team to make a return into the IBA Finals and present Kochi with a more favourable matchup.


Delhi Dashers were the reigning IBA champions, featuring a team of several experienced stars and led by the league's most respected Coach Ravi Anand. The Dashers played a brand of exciting, selfless basketball, sharing the ball perfectly to create fast-paced offense. Delhi also formed one of the core Television markets for the IBA, and were amongst three other teams - Mumbai, Chennai, and Ludhiana - to have the highest national viewership whenever their games were broadcast live on ESPN/Star. Thanks to Azam, the small-market Kochi were creeping up the ratings too, but even he wasn't enough to disturb the hardcore followers of the traditionally successful teams. Unfortunately for Delhi, the 2029 championship had seemed like the last hurrah, and although their aging side was still a contender in 2030, it seemed unlikely that they would have enough gas to repeat.

Plus, this was the year that Ludhiana's post-Raj rebuilding project seemed to be nearly completed. While the Kayals were wreaking havoc down south with their superstar, the Sikandars had built a deeper team with less quality but more quantity. Singh was the leader and, at the small forward position, perhaps the most complete all-round player in the league. Chaudhary was a strong post player and rebounder. And in JJ Mehta, they had the best sharp-shooter in the country. The Sikandars won 22 games in the regular season and finished at the top of their conference. They also had the best home record in the league and vowed to protect their bastion at the Guru Nanak Stadium through the post-season.

But the Northern Conference playoffs turned out to be more difficult than expected. Bottom-seeded Varanasi featured the league's leading scorer Balram Mardi. Mardi was an assassin from the mid-range, and exploded his scoring average to over 31 points per game in the First Round of the playoffs against Ludhiana. It took the best efforts of Singh on the defensive, but Varanasi was still able to stretch the series to six games before Ludhiana progressed. The Sikandars next faced old foes Delhi in the Conference Finals, but this time, they made short work of their older competitors. Ludhiana won the series 4-1 and were in the Finals again.


It was no surprise when, despite the ongoing India-Bangladesh Test Cricket series, the first segment on news on SportsCenter India was a preview of 2030 IBA Finals. Most sports fans in the country had lost interest in long-winded Test tournament, saving most of their passion and fervour for the IPL or major One-Day internationals. With the arrival and popularity of football, hockey, and basketball leagues in India, the annual calendar could now be devoted to domestic professional sports. And as more of the mainstream public was exposed to the game of basketball, the more the national media realized that the game's fast pace and exciting end-to-end action could catch on like wildfire across the country.

"It's a classic matchup of 'The Player' versus 'The Team'," the ESPN anchor announced on the eve of Game 1, "On one side we have Kaif Azam, perhaps the greatest Indian player of our time, maybe of All Time. On the other, we have the superpower from Ludhiana, who have ruled the Indian basketball landscape and boast of a more balanced team. Who do you think will have the edge here, Varun?"

"Well, I will correct you first Ashok," the other anchor replied, "Azam is great, sure, but we can't yet compare him to the likes of Bipin Singh Raj and W. Arundas. Remember, Raj won seven IBA championships! And Arundas was perhaps the most unstoppable player of his time. How can we ever forget his amazing 85 point game against Delhi six years ago? Azam may well be on his way to greatness, but he has to start here first by defeating the evergreen Sikandars!"


While the world focused on Azam's growing legacy, Singh and the Sikandars sneaked right under their noses and stole Game 1 of the Finals in Kochi. The Sikandars played strong defense to hand the Kayals only their second loss in the postseason. The series became a back-and-forth battle from their on forth, with Kochi winning Game 2 and the team's alternating wins back in Ludhiana too. Home advantage became away advantage when Ludhiana won Game 5 in Kochi and Kochi survived game 6 with Azam's amazing game-winner in Ludhiana.

With averages of 33 points and 13 rebounds a game, Azam continued his great form from the previous series. But his opponent Chaudhary didn't back down and averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds against the MVP. On the wing, Singh wrecked havoc, posting two triple-doubles in the first five games and leading the Sikandars in both points and assists.


The Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Sports Complex was buzzing with anticipation. The 6,000-seater arena was full to the brim, and an extra 1000 had crept up to find space in the standing rafters high above. Fans from all over Kerala were here for Game 7 to watch their team try and win their second franchise title. But this time, the emotions were even stronger because of their opponents. Due to their constant success, the Ludhiana Sikandars had become into one of the most polarizing squads in the country. Fans either loved them or hated them. On this December night at the end of the 2030 calendar for Game 7 in Kochi, the stadium was filled with defeaning boos directed at the away side as Jaipal Singh, Chaudhary, Mehta and the rest of the team strutted out for their pre-game warm-up. But on one corner of the packed arena, a handful of a few hundred fans from Punjab had made their way down to Kerala, travelling with their favourite team. Even being heavily outnumbered didn't dampen their spirits: and they cheered and hooted for their basketball idols until their throats went dry.

The home side - Kayals - were still in the locker room, when Rajendran began to hear the chants.

"Azam! Azam! Azam! Azam!"

The veteran turned to the young Center and winked. "They're calling for you brother. It's your time now."

Azam barely flinched, refusing to give anyone - even his own teammates - a glimpse into his own emotion. While his heart was beating - no, thumping! - rapidly under his chest, his eyes stared blankly ahead.

"Let's go and get them," he announced.

The team huddled together and put their arms over each others' shoulders. Balu Phillip didn't get to play much, but he was the team's glue guy in the locker-room, the loudest voice on the bench, and the hyper motivator that brought them all together. "Let's say it together!" he instructed, "Onnu! Randu! Mooonu... Vijayam!"

"Vijayam!" the team shouted with him, and to the continued chants of their fans, they headed out to the arena.

"Azam! Azam! Azam!"

The Sikandars heard the cheers too. And they heard the boos. Neither bothered them. This was a team that had been through it all, heard everything in every arena in the country, and come out victorious. Singh brought his team together - all 12 members of them - and gave them one last pep talk. This was no time to focus on one or two stars, this was the time for all 12 to join hands and play as a team. This was the time for Singh to bring back a championship for the Sikandars.


For six games, the Sikandars had been playing man-to-man defense on Azam, forcing Debanshu Chaudhary to stick by the big man alone. Chaudhary had done an adequate job, but Azam had still had his way with the Sikandar big and tired him in the process. Before Game 7, Ludhiana's Coach Satluj Singh decided that he had one last trump card up his sleeve.

"Double-team him," the Coach instructed his team, "Triple-team him, if neccessary. Stop Azam any way you can."

And they did. From the get go, Chaudhary and power forward Pankaj Sahi surrounded Azam every time he touched the ball, and a third teammate would join him if Azam dribbled it inside. The Sikandars were daring the Kayals to rely on their outside shooters to beat them. When Azam passed out to them, many of them were left open, but the shots weren't falling. The tactic worked in the first half and Azam was forced to still do the bulk of the scoring himself. On the other end, now rejuvenated with energy, Chaudhary had the best offensive game of his series and scored 20 points to help the Sikandars take a 8 point halftime lead.

The lead began to expand further in the second half. Quietly, Singh was orchestrating the offense and keeping Kochi's perimeter players - including Rajendran - in check. Time and time again, Azam found a teammate for an open shot, and time and time again, his teammates missed.

By the last five minutes, the game was already decided. Azam had still ended with 25 points, but got little help from his supporting cast. Chaudhary and Singh led a balanced scoring output for Ludhiana, and when Coach Satluj finally substituted his two biggest names in the game's dying minutes, it was the small contingent of Ludhiana supporters whose dholak drums now drowned out all the other sounds in the arena. It wasn't traditional for fans of the opposing side to storm the court, but this was a special game and a special occasion. By the time the final buzzer went, Singh and his teammates were already dancing on the bench. The fans were standing high in the stands with them.

The final score was 85-70, and the Sikandars had won their 8th IBA championship.

Jaipal Singh was named the best player of the Finals. He lifted the trophy with his teammates. One of the Ludhiana fans who rushed the court has asked for his jersey, and Singh obliged. As he watched the fan rush away with the famous navy-and-white Sikandar colours, Singh smiled to himself. He had once again been a part in bringing those colours back to the top of Indian Basketball.

History does matter, he told himself.


Game 7 was also the last game of Om Rajendran's career. As the Kayals solemnly walked back into their locker room, their manager and coaching staff greeted Rajendran with a handshake and a hug. This was no day for celebration, but his had indeed been a career worth celebrating.

Azam came in last and hugged the veteran. "Sorry I couldn't win it for you, Bhaiya," he apologized.

"Don't say sorry, brother" Rajendran smiled, "Just being a part of this time has been a winning experience. You need to look ahead at your career now, young man. Go back to the NBA, learn from the best, and then bring it back home."

"Indeed," Azam nodded.

Rajendran refused to take part in the post-game conference. Instead, he rode back home alone, unsettled with the thoughts of the loss all night, thinking about what he would do better the next time.

But there would be no 'next time', he reminded himself. This was it. This was his career. And it was over.

By the following morning, he had finally settled down and was at peace with himself. A journalist from The Hindu had been calling him all evening and Rajendran and been ignoring the call. He decided to call back and calmly answer the journalist's questions.

A morning later, fans of Kochi and Ludhiana both picked up the newspaper and smiled. Fans of Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Varanasi, Lucknow, and Bangalore smiled too. League legends like Bipin Singh Raj and W. Arundas saw the paper too, and a tear dropped down their eye. Azam, Rajendran's Kochi teammate, was happy to read the headline. And the Ludhiana players, who were still in a celebratory mood after their championship win, beamed with pride, too. Singh held the paper up to his family and friends and read the headline of Rajendran's interview out aloud.

"Retiring IBA legend : 'I leave Indian basketball in better hands than when I found it.'"


12-year-old Vatsav Sharma was watching the game recap on NDTV when his mother called out to him.

"Turn the TV off Vatsav. Have you done your homework?"

"Yes, Mummy."

"Then stop wasting time inside! Go out and play!"

Vatsav smiled and spun the basketball between his hands. "Yes, Mummy," he replied. He wore a Mumbai jersey on his back as he dribbled the ball to the park outside.

Back inside, the IBA Finals coverage on NDTV continued. It was Om Rajendran's voice, streaming out to all the ears across the country.

"I leave Indian basketball in better hands than when I found it."

June 14, 2013

India will be blessed with the presence of Sir Christopher Bosh next month

We're 2-2 into the 2013 NBA Finals, and within a week from now, Chris Bosh could become NBA Champion for the second consecutive time in his career. But even if he doesn't, the resume of the 'third' of Miami's Big Three will be looking pretty good this summer. A championship (or two?), three consecutive Finals' appearances, eight All-Star appearances, one Olympic gold medal, career averages of 16.1 points and 8 rebounds per game, and getting to play with some of the best players of our generation on the nightly basis. Plus he's perhaps the most GIF-able player of our time and an interstellar prince in a different multiverse.

And if you're a fan of any or all of the above, you'll be more than excited to hear that the NBA will be bringing Christopher Wesson Bosh to India for the first time in July. The league hasn't released any more specific details, but a press release today announced that Bosh will be in Mumbai a few weeks after the NBA Finals to conduct a series of events to grow the game of basketball and the league’s fanbase in India.

Drafted fourth by Toronto in the loaded 2003 draft (which also included Miami teammates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, as well as Carmelo Anthony), Bosh played for the Raptors for the first seven years of his career before moving to the Heat as a free agent to create the 'Big Three' in 2010. He has been the third wheel for the Heat ever since as they have made three consecutive visits to the NBA Finals.

Bosh's trip to India is the highest-profile NBA visit since the league sent Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol (separately) in India back in the summer of 2010. Gasol even showed up with the Larry O'Brien trophy after he helped the Lakers win the championship that summer.

Bosh’s activities in Mumbai will include (via SportsKeeda):

Elite Development Clinic: Bosh will conduct a clinic for the top basketball players in India, including members of India's National Basketball Team!

Magic Bus NBA Cares Event: Bosh will participate in an NBA Cares event and basketball clinic as part of our overarching NBA Cares partnership with Magic Bus, a local NGO. The partnership, announced during NBA Commissioner David Stern’s trip to Mumbai in April, uses sport to impact underserved youth across India.

Sony Television Shoot: Bosh will be integrated into various Sony SIX TV programs.

Social Media Promotion/Fan meet and greet: Bosh will interact with lucky fans who will win the opportunity to meet him through various digital and social media promotions. He will also help launch NBA India’s first-ever Instagram account with photos from his trip.

Attend local events and tour Mumbai: Bosh will attend high-profile local sports and cultural events and take a city tour which will be captured by SONY and NBA Entertainment.

We will surely get more information in a few weeks, including the exact dates of his visit and the places where he will visit in Mumbai. We are sure to hear from 'The Boshasaurus' himself of course, but will have to wait until he deals with some more pressing issues (like the San Antonio Spurs) confronting him at this point.

Until then, whet your Bosh-appetite (or Boshetite) with this:

June 10, 2013

Indiana Pacers, or the Poor Man’s Guide to Building a Winning Team

The Pacers came within just one game of making the NBA Finals. Although the star-studded Heat defeated them, here is a team that threatened the defending champs with a roster built of a collection of underrated, unappreciated, or forgotten stars who came together to make their way back in to relevance. Indiana constructed this team in the old-fashioned way: drafting smartly, even in low picks, and spending money wisely on their few marquee free agents.

As we look ahead, the future is incredibly bright for this young squad.

Click here to read my full feature.

June 6, 2013

Evolving Points: Say hello to the Point Guards of the Future

This feature was first published in the 108th edition (2013 - No. 11) of SLAM China Magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.

The rule was to get Big Men. From Russell to Wilt to Kareem to Hakeem to Shaq and a dozen more in the middle. Get a big man, get success.

And then the smaller guys started to take over. Magic and Bird were bigger guys who could do it small. Jordan made it a perimeter game and Kobe and LeBron took it from there. By the mid-2000s, Steve Nash had won back to back MVP awards. And so we knew that there were some exceptions to every rule.

By 2011, three of the previous four number one draft picks had been point guards (Derrick Rose, John Wall, Kyrie Irving). Six of the last eight Rookie of the Years were guards (Chris Paul, Brandon Roy, Rose, Tyreke Evans, Irving, Damian Lillard). Nearly every team in the NBA had a decent guard manning the point. And big men began to get mostly limited as defensive, shot-altering presences, existing mostly to make life easier for the smaller guys.

The exception became the rule.

While the absolute best players in the NBA currently rove around the Small Forward position – LeBron, Durant, and Carmelo – there is no doubt now that the NBA is morphing towards becoming a point guard’s league. But these aren’t your point guards of the past, the fundamental-first, slow-but-steady floor generals like Stockton, Kidd, or Cousy, who make the right pass at the right time to more explosive finishers. The Point Guard of today is the right passer and the explosive finisher, all rolled into one. He does everything required of him and then some. He can outrun opponents like Ty Lawson. Out-pass them like Rajon Rondo. Out-jump them like Russell Westbrook. Out-craft them like Ricky Rubio. And out-shoot them like Stephen Curry.

He has to be whatever his team needs him to be. And he has to win.

Following the evolution of the point guard position through changing times in the NBA’s history can be an intriguing, eye-opening journey. When the league was first established back in 1947, success depended almost exclusively on big men. The man who led the way was Center George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers, helping his team win five titles in six years. Every team hoped to stop Mikan, and so everyone wanted a Mikan. There was no set ‘point guard’ position, as two or three perimeter players played fluidly as shot-creators or outside shooters to help open up space for the big man inside. Great guards of the 50s like Bob Cousy, Paul Arizin, and Bill Sharman were high scorers but rarely settled into a strict ‘point’ position.

In came Oscar Robertson to blur the lines even further. Robertson was the definition of a complete basketball player, messing about and getting triple doubles and easing between any of the three perimeter position. He was a pass-first point guard when needed, a shoot-first shooting guard when the situation changed, and attacked the basket like a forward. Over in LA, Jerry West was the complete scoring guard. In New York, Walt Fraizer began to morph the lines between the guard positions clearer, becoming an unstoppable two-way threat for the Knicks.

Still, it was a league of bigs. After a decade of Russell and Chamberlain fighting for supremacy, in came Lew Alcindor – soon to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – to make dominant bigs even bigger. Between 1965-1980, a post-player won the MVP award every season, including Russell, Chamberlain, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed, Abdul-Jabbar, Bob McAdoo, Bill Walton, and Moses Malone.

And then came Magic, and just like Oscar Robertson did nearly two decades ago, he made it essential to start paying attention to the floor-general again.

Magic Johnson – at 6’9” – was a wonder. A genius with the size of a post-player and the vision of a point guard. It was in Magic’s domination of the 80s that we finally understood the qualities that we wish to see in a true offensive point guard. A player who is single-handedly responsible for running the team’s offense and creating scoring opportunities – for himself or for others – as required. While Magic worked his magic, the decade also spawned two more of the greatest point guards of All Time. One was John Stockon, the consummate team player who always saw pass first. And the other was Isiah Thomas, who formed a tough backcourt in Detroit with his ability to be a scoring sparkplug and the blueprint for a generation of young small high-scoring players ahead, from Allen Iverson to Derrick Rose.

By now, the Michael Jordan phenomenon had struck pro basketball, and along with Magic and Larry Bird, Jordan had given more power than ever to the perimeter player. Jordan was a swingman, and although the offense ran through him, he rarely played the role of a traditional PG. In Jordan, we had seen the perimeter player win scoring titles, MVPs, and championships. But in all those years with the Bulls, the point guards were usually an afterthought, kept merely as spot-up shooters to support Jordan and Pippen. Still, there were many other great point guards that manned the position in the 90s, including Stockton, Gary Payton, Penny Hardaway and Kevin Johnson.

Near the end of Jordan’s tenure with the Bulls, Allen Iverson entered the league as an explosive and unapologetic shoot-first point guard. But it wasn’t until Iverson was played in the 2-guard position next to a more stable point man did his explosive abilities result into consistent success. The likes of Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis made high-scoring an art form for the small player.

It’s been in the turn of the century that the point guard position has revved up to a higher gear, and now offers the deepest pool of talent in the league. And in large numbers there comes great variety. Jason Kidd and Steve Nash dominated most of the large decade; Kidd as a complete triple-double threat floor general and Nash as the ultimate offensive weapon who led the league in assists multiple times and was one of the league’s deadliest shooters. Tony Parker weaved his way to multiple championships with the Spurs. Chris Paul and Deron Williams arrived midway through the last decade to further solidify the position; both of them evolving as ‘complete’ point guards in their different ways, and both become great leaders on both ends of the court.

The change of the hand-check rules further emancipated the point guards, who were free to attack the basket at breakneck pace and help result in high-energy, exciting basketball. In 2008, Derrick Rose became the first pure guard since Allen Iverson to go number one in the draft. An army of point men in the same mold – from John Wall to Russell Westbrook – soon followed.

Now, depending on the team’s needs, there is a point guard for each system, for each mentality, and to mesh with each type of teammate. Parker is there to beat screens and attack the basket, playing in perfect harmony with the bigs in his team. Paul and Williams are there to make plays and improve their squad, and take over in games whenever needed. Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard may be following in their footsteps too. Rose, Westbrook, Wall, and Ty Lawson are the type of high-scoring point guards who are athletic monsters, unstoppable in a race down the court and unstoppable when they lift off the floor. Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio are of a similar design; two pass first creators who can fill up the stat-sheet and affect the game from every angle. Stephen Curry has elite range and ball-handling skills to match. Jrue Holiday, Brandon Jennings, Kemba Walker, Luo Williams, Mike Conley, and George Hill are all great talents capable of putting points on the board and be the right type of offensive mastermind as their team requires. And don’t forget Jeremy Lin, who lit up the world with his explosive point play in New York last year and is now bringing more consistency into his attack-mode style.

With the rise of all these point guards, what we have started to see is that big players – formerly the anchors around whom every team was centered – now have their roles redefined. It is now the point guard who dictates the way ahead, and the big player who has to adjust to cater for the explosive PG.

The evolution of point guards has reached its apex where there is no more single answer for a point guard, but multiple, excellent choices.

And now, the revolution begins.

June 5, 2013

India qualify for 2013 FIBA Asia Championship by winning SABA Zone Qualifiers

India started off as favourites to emerge as victors from the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) Zone Qualifiers against Nepal and Afghanistan this week, and anything less than victory would've been crushing dissapointment. Still, basketball games are not won on expectations alone, and the 'Young Cagers' - under the tutelage of new Head Coach Scott Flemming - still had to go out and get the job done. They did that all right, winning both their games in comfortable fashion at the Thyagraj Stadium in New Delhi from June 2-4. Thus, they sealed their qualification for the 2013 FIBA Asia Basketball Championship for Men and will be headed to Manila (Phillipines) for Asia's biggest basketball tournament in August.

Flemming, who was cautiously optimistic of India's chances, must be glad to see that he has had a successful start to his coaching campaign. After several months at camp, Flemming chose a 12-man roster that featured a healthy mix of experience and youth, and a whole lotta size, going into these qualifiers. Size hasn't always exactly been India's strength in international basketball fixtures, but with a flux of talented young bigs coming into the system, it seems that the future is a little brighter (and bigger).

India kicked off the three-team qualifying tournament against Nepal on June 2nd, in what turned out to be a stroll in the park. Without the size to match India's big men and the skill to keep up with their offense, Nepal fell behind after a close start and were never in the game again. At 13-8, it seemed Nepal may stick around in the contest, but India ended any chance of an upset as they scored 24 consecutive points. They held on to a mammoth 61-13 lead at halftime before pulling the breaks on their offense a little in the second period. Still, it was no mercy for the northern neighbours as India were able to give meaningful minutes to all 12 players and finish the evening with a 109-26 victory. Six Indians scored in double digits to showcase a balanced offense, with Punjabi big man Amrit Pal Singh leading the way with 17.

Nepal couldn't catch a break against Afghanistan the very next day, either. The Afghanis used their immense height and athleticism advantage to again break out a big lead and cruise to a 78-20 win.

This set up the expected do-or-die matchup between India and Afghanistan on June 4th, with the winner earning the right to represent the SABA Zone in the 27th FIBA Asia Championship from August 1-11, 2013. Although India were favoured, a victory was by no means guaranteed. Three years ago, Afghanistan famously defeated India in the South Asia Games basketball final, and India avenged the loss with a close but ugly victory later in that year at the Asian Games. Flemming had spoken earlier about the threat that Afghanistan possessed, and didn't want India to take them lightly.

Photo Credit: Gopalakrishnan R.
They didn't: India took an 18-9 lead in the first quarter and maintained a double digit advantage throughout. Although they couldn't score too easily against Afghanistan's bigs, they were still able to dominate the run of play. Flemming had been working hard in improving India's team defense, and the results of the hard work were on full display as they did a good job in disrupting Afghanistan's offensive flow. India had a comfortable 16 point lead at halftime and ended up winning the game 64-46. Going to their young bigs - Amrit Pal Singh and Amjyot Singh - proved fruitful to India. Point guard Joginder Singh also had a nice game and team captain Vishesh Bhriguvanshi had his usual all round performance despite a struggle shooting on the floor.

14 of total 16 teams have now punched in their tickets for Philippines and now await the tournament draw. The tournament was initially slated to be held in Lebanon, but the venue was changed due to security concerns from the Syrian civil war and the Middle East in general. India finished a disappointing 14th place in the 2011 FIBA ABC in Wuhan (China). With a better-looking talent pool and more concentrated efforts to improve, the Men have to aim for much greater heights. China will be defending their title, while Jordan, Korea, Iran, and hosts Philippines will hope to upset Asia's strongest side.

For now, let's celebrate India's qualification. The road ahead is only going to get tougher for Flemming and his team: we hope that they can build upon this start to give Asia's finest squads a shock or too in Manila.

A special shoutout to Gopalakrishnan R., a basketball writer with admirable passion for Indian hoops, who was on scene throughout the tournament and provided a comprehensive breakdown of all the games. Gopal did excellent live play-by-play commentary of the games and is also to be credited for the photograph above!

June 4, 2013

Legacy Watch: Previewing the Heat-Spurs 2013 NBA Finals

Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs. The 2013 NBA Finals. Is this what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Technically, as the Pacers stretched them to the limit, we saw that his Heat squad isn’t exactly unstoppable. And for all their failures in the playoffs over the recent years, we witnessed that the Spurs haven’t been immovable either. But what we are about to witness is going to be one of the closest Finals matchups in recent memory, between two incredibly talented teams. They have reached here in different ways, been built like opposites, and play in a contrasting fashion, but they have been the NBA’s best teams in the post-season, and rightfully so, they will face off in the epic Finals encounter to adjudge who will lay hands on the 2013 NBA trophy.

Click here for my preview and my predictions for the Finals.