February 17, 2017

Home-Court Advantage

As India readies to host two international tournaments this year, I look back at every major FIBA Asia event we’ve ever hosted.

This article was first published in my column for Ekalavyas.com on February 2, 2017. Read the original piece here.

India's Senior Women's Team 2015. Photo Courtesy: Ekalavyas.com

In 2016, Yao Ming would be elected into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, inducted the same night as basketball greats Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson. In 2011, he would retire from basketball as a five-time NBA All Teamer and one of the greatest international basketball players ever. In 2002, he would be selected first into the NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets.

But before he achieved any of that, before he became a lynchpin for the Chinese Basketball Team, for the Rockets, or even the Shanghai Sharks back in the CBA, he was an 18-year-old basketball phenom about to announce his breakthrough moment to the rest of the world.

And he did it, of all places, in Kolkata.

Back in 1998, the Netaji Indoor Stadium in Kolkata hosted the 15th FIBA Asia U18 Basketball Championship. Top teams from all over the continent, including India, of course, took part. China, the reigning champions, went on to defend their title with a victory in the final against Qatar. A young seven-footer by the name of Yao Ming was named the tournament’s MVP.

Yao, the only Asian-born player to be in the Basketball Hall of Fame, is perhaps the greatest player to play competitive basketball in Indian soil. But there have been so many more. Over the years, the likes of Yuta Tabuse (Japan), Chen Nan (China), Jaber Rouzbahani (Iran), Bian Lan (China), Li Meng (China), and many more have played in major FIBA Asia tournaments in India. India’s opportunities to host such tournaments over the years – considering India’s past struggles with infrastructure and organisation – have been rare occurrences, but each major ABC or other international basketball event has ultimately boosted the game’s growth at home.

Fortunately, there’s good news for Indian basketball fanatics in the near-horizon. FIBA Asia – the game’s ruling body in the continent – announced India as hosts of two major continental tournaments in 2017: the 1st FIBA Asia Women’s Cup (a revamped version of the 27th FIBA Asia Championship for Women) and the 5th FIBA Asia U16 Championship for Women. The FIBA Asia Women’s Cup will be held in Bengaluru from July 23 to 29, while the U16 FIBA Asia ABC will be from October 22-28 in a soon-to-be-decided host city (apparently a toss up between Chennai and Hyderabad).

This will be the first time in seven years that India will be a host to a full-scale international basketball tournament. While India has regularly hosted tournaments at the South Asian stage and limited events like the 2014 Lusofonia Games, the last time that we had a major FIBA Asia Championship on home soil was 2009, when Chennai and Pune hosted the FIBA Women’s ABC and FIBA U16 Women’s ABC respectively.

Just years into becoming an independent nation, India was introduced to basketball. The country’s own basketball federation – the BFI – was formed in 1950, and less than a year later, at New Delhi’s National Stadium, independent India’s first national team strolled out as hosts to our first major tournament. India was hosting the first Asian Games in 1951 and five teams – Philippines, Japan, Iran, Burma, and India – participated in the event’s basketball competition. Led by captain Ranbir Chopra, India took just one victory from the tournament – a 50-47 triumph over Burma – and finished at fifth place; Philippines took the gold medal.

Unfortunately, we would have to wait three more decades to feature a major international basketball tournament in India. A year after a series of unexpected events landed India into their first (and only) Olympics basketball slot at Moscow 1980, FIBA Asia rewarded India by allowing the country to host the 11th FIBA ABC in 1981 in Kolkata. India’s men’s squad were near the peak of their basketball prowess in those days, having finished 4th in Asia in 1975 and 5th in 1979. Back in Kolkata, India made it to the championship round (top six) and finished at fifth place. Some of our greatest-ever players like Ajmer Singh, Paramjit Singh, Shyam Radhey, and more were a part of this talented era of Indian basketball.

A year later, India’s continued ‘Golden Generation’ would have another chance to defend their home court. After thirty years, the Asian Games returned to India, to New Delhi, where India took part in the thirteen-team basketball fray at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. In a championship rematch from 1978, South Korea defeated China in the final to win their 2nd Asian Games basketball title. India qualified from the Preliminary Round but lost all seven of their Championship Round games to finish at 8th place.

Since the early 80s, India is yet to host a major international tournament featuring Senior Men’s teams, either in the form of a FIBA ABC or the Asian Games. In 1998, however, India did get a glimpse of Asia’s dominant future at the U18 ABC: this was the tournament where Yao Ming won the MVP award and carried China to another title. This is the tournament that also featured Japan’s legendary point guard Yuta Tabuse, who went on to become the first Japanese player to play in the NBA.

Boosted by the success of the Men’s U18 ABC, FIBA awarded India the Women’s edition of the same tournament two years later. The 15th FIBA U18 Women’s ABC was held in New Delhi in December 2000. India won one game against Sri Lanka in the Preliminary Round and one more in the classification stage against Hong Kong to finish at 9th place. China, led by a young Chen Nan on her way to greater glories, won the tournament, their eighth title in this competition.

In 2004, the Men’s U18 ABC was held in India again, and this time, Bengaluru was chosen as the host city. Held at the Rajiv Gandhi Sports Complex, this tournament proved crucial in a shift in the balance of power of Asian basketball. After decades of East Asian dominance over the title, Iran enjoyed their coming out party with their own golden generation, featuring tournament’s MVP Jaber Rouzbahani. This was Iran’s first title in this tournament, which they secured with a close win over South Korea in the final and finished a perfect 8-0. This Iran team went on to dominate many senior men’s ABCs and are still among the top teams in Asia. India did well in the Preliminary Round in front of their home fans but finished at the bottom of the Second Round group. Nevertheless, they ended the tournament at 7th place, which still stands as their best finish since 1972.

In 2009, for the first time, FIBA’s flagship tournament for Senior Women – the Women’s ABC – was held in India, at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai. Representing her home team Southern Railways, India’s superstar Geethu Anna Jose led the entire tournament in scoring (22 ppg) and was fifth in rebounds (8.7 rpg). Once again, however, it was China who shone brightest, going perfect to win their tenth title in this event, led by MVP Bian Lan.

Later that same year, FIBA Asia launched its youngest event, the U16 FIBA ABC, and rewarded India the honour of being the host nation. At the Shree Shiv Chhatrapatri Sports Complex in Pune, India fielded a young squad of talented players, including Sneha Rajguru, Kavita Akula, Jeena Scaria, Navaneetha PS, and local girl Shireen Limaye. India finished third in Group A and had to finally settle for 5th place in the tournament. China debuted at this tournament by winning the gold, defeating Japan in the final.

New Delhi brought the Commonwealth Games to India for the first time in 2010. Basketball was introduced to this tournament in 2006 in Australia, but because of scheduling difficulties with other major international events, the Games’ basketball tournament was scrapped in 2010.

Many of the young talents from India’s 2009 U16 team have now become a part of our national team rotation, and as FIBA chooses India as the host for the Senior ABC again in 2017, it will be a chance for fans at home to see how they have developed into team leaders over the years. India’s national women’s squad has a promising mix of youth and leadership, featuring Scaria, Poojamol Subhashmon, Bhandavya Mahesha, Anitha Pauldurai, Limaye, and more. Two years ago, India had a disappointing outing at the FIBA Women’s ABC, losing all their Level 1 games and getting relegated to the lower Level II. Playing at home, this will be India’s chance to bounce back up to the higher stage.

This year, for the first time, the senior-level FIBA Asia Championships are transforming into the FIBA Asia Cup, a tournament that will feature the top teams from Oceania like Australia and New Zealand. The 2017 FIBA Asia Women’s Cup will be the qualifying tournament for FIBA Asia at the 2018 FIBA World Championship for Women in Spain. International stars like Ramu Tokashiki and Asami Yoshida (Japan), Danbi Kim (Korea), Shao Ting and Sun Mengran (China), Liz Cambage (Australia) and more could feature on court in Bengaluru this year.

India’s top performers from the domestic youth (U16) and sub-junior (U14) tournaments will comprise of our national U16 women’s team at the FIBA U16 ABC. Two years ago, India failed to win any games at the 2015 FIBA U16 ABC in Medan (Indonesia), while China secured the title with a win over Japan in the final.

It is rumoured that the tournament will be held either in Chennai or Hyderabad. It will be the qualifying tournament for FIBA Asia at the 2018 FIBA Under-17 World Championship for Women.

Hosting these two major tournaments will give our domestic players and fans a closer look at some of the best in the continent. Hopefully, the preparation leading up to the two tournaments in Bengaluru and the second city will force authorities to upgrade our facilities at home to handle events of this stature. Most importantly, fans will be hoping that the home-court advantage will lift up India’s own performances and help us bounce back to a better finish.

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