March 2, 2014

How a professional basketball league could revolutionize hoops in India

This article was first published in my column on Ekalavyas on February 18th, 2014. You can find the original post here.

A scene from the Kerala Senior State Championship 2013 held at the Sree Kerala Verma College, Thrissur. In the absence of a national league, this is just one of India’s many autonomous tournaments. Copyright: Ekalavyas

Sure, there’s some power to positive thinking. If you say something enough times, it can come true, or at least, you’d start to believe that it’s true. But until the day scientists refine our genes to give all of us psychokinetic powers, no amount of thinking or talking will equate to any physical results, till something is actually, physically, done.

For years now, I’ve closely followed the developments and talk behind the launch of India’s first professional basketball league. When the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and IMG Reliance signed a 30-year partnership agreement in 2010, one of the highlights of their agreement was the development of this pro league as a long-term plan. A couple of years later, it was reported that the NBA’s commissioner David Stern had held talks with IMG executives about establishing such a league. In May 2012, BFI’s CEO Roopam Sharma updated that the Federation was definitely ‘planning a league’.

But nearly two more years have passed since without any clear further development. Every year, we seem to be nearly there, only to discover that there is at least another year to go. The best-case scenario as we stand is that the league has taken some theoretic steps into existence behind closed-door meetings between IMG Reliance, BFI, and with the NBA chiming in. But without any official work of the progress, we still might as well be stuck on square one.

Those invested in the progress of basketball in India have many dreams. They dream of seeing an Indian play in the NBA. They dream of watching the Indian national team rise up the ranks in international competitions. They hope that the sport can catch the imagination of the nation’s mainstream which otherwise sleeps, eats, and dreams cricket. And they envision a day when a profession in basketball in India – as a player, a coach, a referee, a technician, consultant, scout, physiotherapist, journalist, and countless more – will reap real rewards.

All of these dreams are connected, and none of them can be possible without the professional league. For years, India’s best players, from Geethu Anna Jose to Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, have stressed the importance of such a league, of how it could change their lives and the lives of future players around the country. But as their careers cross their peak and new names replace them, there is still no sign of their vision coming to reality.

That reality – when it finally comes – will change everything. No, the pro league won’t become the new IPL and have millions of fans investing their lives around it. No, India won’t suddenly become a basketball-first country with every hoop star getting celebrity status like our cricketers do. We won’t be finding NBA talent or shooting up FIBA Asia rankings overnight.

But what we will see is a goal, a bulls-eye, for every young ball player around the country, to realistically aim at.

At this point, India’s most talented players are still semi-professionals, working in banks, railways, or state government, and taking part in small basketball tournaments either organized by the BFI itself or by local sponsors around the country. Their basketball ‘income’ is usually the measly sum they earn and divide after participation or a first, second, and third place result at any of these tournaments. The travelling basketball circus goes from Chennai to Mumbai to Delhi to Punjab with the same teams playing the same opponents. Without the professional incentive or discipline, many players cruise on their talent instead of striving to get better.

The best amongst them are invited to national camps, receive decent training from high-profile coaches, and are selected for the Indian national teams before major FIBA tournaments. The results at the international level have been more or less the same for the past few decades. India dominates against South Asian opponents (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, etc.) to qualify for FIBA Asia’s top competitions, but are rarely able to compete with super-powers are China, Iran, Japan, Korea, etc. Even the international circuit and expectations become ‘routine’ until things become static, unchanging.

Every once in a while, a player breaks cycle and aims higher. Geethu Anna Jose – the finest Indian player (of any gender) of this generation – has played professionally in Australia and Thailand (her Southern Railway teammate Anitha Paul Durai joined her in Thailand, too) and was even invited for trials with three WNBA teams. But Jose’s successes have only been an anomaly to that static energy around basketball in India.

Our top players need that extra push, that incentive to break out of their cruising altitudes and aim higher. This is where a league would revolutionize things.

Let’s say that the theoretical professional basketball follows the format of the IPL: held for around two months annually between 8-12 teams. For several years already, the BFI and IMG Reliance has been holding school and college leagues in various cities which have laid the groundwork amongst the youth. The same eight cities – Mumbai, Delhi, Ludhiana, Chennai, Bangalore, Indore, Hyderabad, and Kolkata – can serve as the flagship franchises of the basketball league, too. Each team can feature top local talent with a ‘draft’ (or IPL-like auction) for the top players. It would be difficult to attract foreign players to this league in the beginning, but if the money is decent, there are more than enough basketball vagabonds around the world looking for a two-month gig.

With the motivation to play in a league that offers a steady, assured contract, India’s top players can start thinking about becoming full-time professionals with focus on basketball alone. There will be greater competition once foreign talents start trickling in, raising the overall skill-level. And most importantly, young Indians seriously considering basketball as a career will have a goal to shoot at. Thousands (if not more) quality players are lost every year because they quit basketball for (what the typical Indian parent would call) “real life”. With a league, basketball can become the “real life”.

The league will eventually give rise to more jobs to coaches, referees, scouts, trainers, broadcast personnel, and more. Once things are privatized and taken out of the government’s hands, the competitiveness between teams and competition for jobs will raise everyone’s aptitude. More importantly, now with real repercussions for success and failure, everyone from the players to the trainers to the scouts will work harder in the training rooms. Young players will be groomed from an earlier age. The right training and right diet will start becoming a factor.

In the US, the biggest professional league (the NBA) wouldn’t be where it is if it wasn’t for the most-organized High School and College athletics programme in the world. That is why it is important to continue developing the structure at those levels in India, too. The BFI-IMG Reliance leagues have been a positive start.

Infrastructure in India is a big stumbling block and will need major upgrades. In recent years, new stadia have been built or upgraded in various major cities in the country. We are not looking for NBA-quality arenas; just something to start things off. At this point, every basketball event in India is free, and it will be a challenge to fill the seats in the arenas for a lesser-known game. But if the product is packaged and promoted right, I’m sure people will eventually start to pay a small fee to cheer on their hometown squads.

None of this would be possible without the right broadcast partnership. The league would be meaningless without decent Television viewership, which will also require at least half-decent productive value (unlike the basketball tournaments shown on DD Sports in the past). Neo Prime took an important step forward last year when they became the first to broadcast Indian basketball on cable TV in India. Sony SIX already broadcast tonnes of hoops – from NBA to Europe and NBA India events – and could be interested too. Counting all the channels associated with Star Sports, Ten Sports, Neo, and Sony, there are a lot of potential partners for such a league in the future.

Let’s be honest here: Indian sports fans are generally an impatient bunch. That is why T-20 cricket catches all the eyeballs while Test and (increasingly) One-Day Cricket falls behind. Basketball is a fast-paced, all action, and energetic game. It’s simple to understand for the newcomer and is relatively-short, perfectly suiting the modern viewership mentalities. Vivek Ranadive, the Indian-born owner of the Sacramento Kings, has often stated that he believes basketball can be sold to India easily because it is fast, simple, and accessible. Apart from creating better opportunities and organization in the basketball world, a pro league would give birth to a whole new set of fans looking for an exciting new sport to follow.

India is a complicated country, and nothing that works elsewhere can work here the same way. Sports are a dark alley beyond cricket. But in recent years, the development of other pro leagues has been a positive sign. Joining the popular IPL, India now has leagues in Football, Hockey, Badminton, and even in American Football.

Creating a basketball league would obviously not just be a quick fix that makes Indians into NBA stars and Asia champions. But it would be the most important project yet to improving the game in India, and could open doors to many other projects in the future. Basketball is one of the biggest sports in the world which Indians are familiar with; a pro league here should be the next logical step.

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