April 22, 2017

The thrill of the chase – Following basketball in India

This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India on April 12, 2017. Click here for the original piece.

The opposition has possession of the ball and they’re dribbling down the court. You are on defence. Strict man-to-man, which means that you shouldn’t lose your cover under any circumstance. Your guy is playing off-the-ball. Follow him as he runs from baseline to baseline. Fight through the screens they set for him stick by his side. Keep your eye between him and the basket you are deputised to protect. Block the passing lanes.

Your man is a dangerous offensive talent. Lose him and you have lost the possession. You will sweat and you will lose your breath. You will bump and fall and struggle to keep pace. You will suffer – and you will have a little fun.

True Indian basketball fans are like that hassled defender, who suffer and chase and almost-impossible target, settling for unexpected rewards in small victories. Unlike the IPL in Cricket, the ISL in Football, the Hockey India league, or even the Pro Kabaddi League, there is still no singular answer for where to catch the best of Indian basketball: instead fans must follow an annual wild goose chase from month to month in hopes of finding the best competitions and following in the footsteps of their role models.

I have been covering Indian basketball for nearly eight years, and the two most common questions I have been asked in this period have been a) There’s such a thing as basketball in India? and b) Where do we follow it? The answers are a) yes, of course, and b) it’s complicated.

Without a year-long, full-sized professional league and little mainstream coverage of our national teams, most of the Indian basketball community exists online, whispering and conspiring in silent ascension on Facebook to what has now become, according to the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), the fastest-growing sport in the country.

That growth, however, is not uniform. I don’t need to worry about the tangled knots of electricity wires outside my house as long as I get electricity. But in Indian basketball, the power is in following those wires itself. There go the Senior Nationals, flashing past with the best from all four corners of the country. Whoosh past the UBA League, featuring a mixture of Indian and international basketball stars. Lean far east for the rising national league in Mizoram to see the marriage between grassroots and worldwide hoops.

Take the example of Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, one of the most talented players in the country and a recent representative for India’s national men’s team as they were nominated for Times of India’s Sports Awards team of the year. For Bhriguvanshi, life is spent on the road: in September, he led India to a historically-successful performance at the FIBA Asia Challenge in Iran. In October, he was in an ONGC jersey playing at the FIBA Asia Champions Cup in China. In December, he carried India to a best-ever third-place finish at Hong Kong’s Super Kung Sheung Cup. In January, he helped Uttarakhand win the Senior Nationals gold in Puducherry. In February and March, he played his first season at the UBA Basketball League for the Bengaluru Beast in Chennai and Goa. Back with ONGC, he helped them win a fifth-consecutive gold medal at the Federation Cup as MVP in Coimbatore. Next, he is heading to Mizoram for a short ‘Super League’. Later in the summer, he will join India’s national camp – most-likely at NIS Patiala – for the FIBA Asia Cup in August in Lebanon. And so on and so forth.

Staying on Bhriguvanshi’s toes will be an impossible task even for the most astute fans, especially with limited national broadcast opportunities for basketball in India. The top domestic events in India, like the Senior Nationals or the Federation Cup, are shown sporadically on DD Sports, with programming saved only for the final stages of the tournament (if at all). The arrival of the UBA League in 2015 has been a boon of sorts, providing a few months of daily basketball action live on Ten Sports. India’s international performances – much improved over the past few years – are rarely ever shown on domestic television. The plight is even worse for women’s basketball, who don’t even have the equivalent of the UBA League to broadcast their exploits.

Until Indian basketball finds a more consistent competition and broadcasting opportunities, fans are more likely to flock to the NBA, the best basketball league in the world out of North America. Most Indian fans recognise Stephen Curry and LeBron James over Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Amjyot Singh. Their game is too fleeting to follow, so fans understandably take the easier – and more spectacular – international option.

Fortunately, some positive change is on the way. Later this year, India will be hosting two major FIBA Asia tournaments – for Senior Women and Youth (U16) Women – in Bengaluru and Hyderabad respectively. Both these events will give fans a chance to see India’s top players of the present and the future, and follow the best basketball players in the continent.

In the road ahead, fans will also be hoping for the BFI to launch its own professional Indian league where games can be held around the country longer through the calendar year, providing more opportunities for the players to play and for the fans to watch them. India has serious basketball culture in various pockets, from Ludhiana to Kochi and Varanasi to Mumbai. Hopefully, the league will make the chase for elite Indian hoops action a breath easier.

Your opponent has the ball. Don’t be distracted by his eyes or expressions – he could look one away and pass another. Watch the ball, watch his feet. Block a clear view of the shot. Be ready for everything.

You are defending a mysterious and unpredictable opponent. Basketball in India doesn’t yet have a streamlined pro league (like the IPL) or international exposure (like Team India’s other national sides). Keep your guard up; for now, half the fun is in the thrill of the chase!

April 19, 2017

The unlikeliest duo - Aamir Khan and Stephon Marbury - promoted their movies in China together

I lived in Beijing for three years and, in my time, played a lot of pick-up basketball with the locals. There was a clear language gap with the guys I played with, since they spoke limited English (and no Hindi) and my Mandarin was almost nonexistent. In the universal language of basketball, however, we managed. I will never forget the one time when I was taking part in a 3x3 game, and a Chinese teammate discovered, in his broken English, that I am from India.

"India?" he asked. "Okay, so you be Raju. I will be Rancho, and he," he pointed at our third teammate, "is Farhan."

I was confused. "What do you mean?"

"You know, like the 3 Idiots! You are from India, right?"

I laughed out loud - his first reference to India was 3 Idiots, Aamir Khan's iconic film about the struggles of college life in India (and a perfect 3x3 basketball team team). I discovered that the film had been a cult-favourite in China, too.

Well, here's an even stranger story. Earlier this week, Aamir Khan was back in China to promote his new movie, and this time, his paths crossed with one of the most iconic basketball players of our generation: Stephon Marbury.

Aamir Khan is an Indian cinema legend, who has acted, directed, or produced some of the most memorable and successful Indian films, including several of my personal favourites. Stephon Marbury is a star American basketball player, whose career made him an icon in the NBA and a celebrity in China. The point guard is one of my favourite All Time players - his Knicks' jersey is the first I ever owned!

A few days ago, this unlikely duo shared the stage to meet with distributors for their respective sports films, and in the process, completely blow my mind.

Khan was in China this week to promote his film Dangal, which he produced and played a starring role in, based on the true story of the Phogat family's success in Indian wrestling. Dangal was released in India in December. Marbury, meanwhile, starred as himself in a Chinese biographical basketball documentary about his own life, My Other Home. It was the distributors of both these sports films that brought Khan and Marbury together in Beijing to promote their respective releases in China.

Marbury reserved some heavy praise for Khan on two posts on his Instagram page:

Chilling with #bollywood LEGEND #aamirkhan As we tease the movie screen distributors with his movie and my movie. Never in my life would I have thought up until now my path would lead towards acting and being paired with a living legend in another profession. I'm deeply humbled and completely thankful for all that God has done for my family and I in this life. #starburymovement #starbury #LoveisLove

BBALL by me and Wrestling by #aamirkhan #bollywood Legend Two sport movies coming soon. The anticipation is getting closer #myotherhome

Khan, whose films have broken box office records around the world, is also the most popular Bollywood star in China due to movies like 3 Idiots, Dhoom 3, and PK. To promote Dangal he attended events in three major Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu.

Marbury, of course, is no stranger to transnational popularity. He was once considered the biggest basketball star out of New York, became an iconic NBA player for the Timberwolves, Nets, Suns, Knicks, and Celtics, before contentiously ending his NBA career. Marbury has since played in China for Shanxi, Foshan, and eventually, in Beijing, where he found career nirvana: he won three CBA titles with the Beijing Ducks, saw a statue of himself erected outside the MasterCard Center in Beijing, has stamps bearing his image in China, has starred in a musical play about himself, and been awarded a Chinese green card. His film My Other Home will be about his basketball journey in the US and China.

A few years ago, I interviewed Marbury in depth while in Beijing about finding home in China for SLAM Magazine.

Now, thanks to the magic of cinema, Bollywood and Basketball have again crossed paths in a surprising way. I'm wishing the best to both these legends in their ventures ahead. Now that Marbury has gotten some acting experience, perhaps Khan can find a place to cast him in his next blockbuster. Considering that they have the pulse of the audience in two of the world's most populous countries, I'm expecting this fictional future Star/Khan venture to break every record conceivable.

April 16, 2017

Four Indian basketball superstars invited to Australian NBL Draft Combine in Melbourne

Four of India's top basketball players from the national Men's team - Amjyot Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amritpal Singh, and Yadwinder Singh - aim to make history this week. All four stars will be heading be heading to Melbourne to take part in Australia's National Basketball League's (NBL) Draft Combine on April 17-18. This is the first time that Indian players have been invited to participate in this event. If they can prove their mettle, one (or all!) of the four players will aim to become the first Indians to play in the NBL, one of the top basketball leagues in the world outside of the USA, in the 2017-18 season.

The Draft Combine will be taking place at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre. According to a press release from Ekalavyas Media, a total of 80 players are expected to participate in the combine. These will include returning US college players, South East Australian Basketball League (SEABL) players, Australian state league players, and members of Australia’s national U18 and U20’s teams. It is an opportunity for coaches and scouts of different NBL teams to gauge the talent at hand and sign the players they believe could help their team.

As standard practice, players participating in the NBL Draft Combine must pay an entry fee of AUD $250. However, this fee has been waived off for all the invited Indian players. The waiver of fees for the Indian contingent by the NBL is just another sign that the NBL has serious intentions to enter the Indian market: Last year, the NBL signed a historic deal with VEQTA to stream NBL games live in India.

NBL teams are usually allowed only three spots for foreign players, but under the new rules, players belonging to the countries of the FIBA Asia zone will be given an additional separate spot. This could really encourage one of the NBL's eight teams to sign Amjyot, Bhriguvanshi, Amritpal, or Yadwinder's to that additional 'Asian' player spot for the upcoming season.

Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh are no stranger to foreign league attention. Both Punjabi big men have played professionally in Japan's BJ Summer League and their Development League, winning the Japanese D-League title as teammates in the latter for the Tokyo Excellence. Last year, Amjyot and Amritpal also declared for the NBA's D-League draft but were not picked. Bhriguvanshi is one of India's most experienced and talented players and is recognised as one of the best shooting guards in Asia. Yadwinder has been a veteran presence for the Indian national team for nearly a decade and has been part of India's recent successful campaigns - led by the 'Big Three' of Amjyot, Amritpal, and Bhriguvanshi - at the FIBA Asia Challenge and other international competitions.

No Indian national has yet played in the NBL. Arjuna Award winner and perhaps India's greatest-ever women's basketball player Geethu Anna Jose played professionally in Australia WNBL and the BIG V Division almost a decade ago. India's first NBA draft pick Satnam Singh plays for the NBA D-League squad Texas Legends. Another Indian, Palpreet Singh, was drafted into the NBA D-League by the Long Island Nets last year but didn't make their roster.

The NBL, founded in 1979, consists of seven Australian and one New Zealand team. It is considered generally as one of the most-competitive basketball leagues in the world outside of the NBA. The most recent season of the league concluded in March with the Perth Wildcats beating the Illawara Hawks for the championship. The next season will begin in October.

The Indian players’ participation in the NBL Draft Combine was made possible by Pursuit India and its Australian partner Danny Kordahi. Pursuit, which had previously worked with Kordahi and arranged the visit of Australian coach Damian Cotter to the national men’s camp, has been working behind-the-scenes for months to identify suitable playing opportunities across the globe.

"It’s the biggest platform our players have had so far to showcase their talent," said Vishnu Ravi Shankar, head of Pursuit India. "The NBL is a highly competitive international league and it’s a fantastic opportunity for our top Indian players to gauge their skill levels. Whatever the outcome, they will benefit a great deal from the experience itself."

It's no secret that Amjyot, Amritpal, and Bhriguvanshi are three of the best players in Asia in their respective positions. Yadwinder is a fantastic role player and an experienced presence for India The only reason that none of them have found more pro league options abroad have been the import player limits on each country. Since most countries only allow two or three foreign players per team, the teams usually swing for the fences and spend big money on talented North American players who can guarantee them immediate success. But with the new tweak in the rules at the NBL, hopefully the four Indian stars get a chance to shine and showcase their talents in this competitive environment. Their experience will be beneficial to their own improvement and hopefully extend the glow among the improving talent pool of basketball in India.

I'm now blogging for The Times of India Sports, too

My first job out of college was with The Times of India's Varanasi edition, where, without any previous academic experience in the subject, I learned the tenants of small-town journalism on the field. There were only four of us writers in the city and we got just about a couple of pages of work every day. I had to cover almost all corners and catch almost every beat. It was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. I still remember the thrill of seeing my name in print, domestically and nationally, playing a very, very small role in the nation's most-read English newspaper.

Almost a decade later, the journey took a bunch of tangents, and has now come full circle.

With their intentions to provide more mainstream media attention to alternative (non-cricket) sports in India, The Times of India Sports has given me a platform - named, aptly, 'Hoopistani' - to blog about Indian basketball. It will be another chance to follow my work for updates and opinions on the sport.

My first post was published earlier this week, where I wrote about the elusive thrill of the chase of following Indian basketball as a fan.

Thanks for following!

April 14, 2017

Most Valuables

Harden? Westbrook? Kawhi? Who deserves to win the impossibly-close MVP race this season?

This article was first published in my column for Ekalavyas.com on April 4, 2017. Read the original feature here.

The first definition of ‘value’ on my Dictionary app tells me that the word means ‘relative worth, merit, or importance’. Notice ‘relative’ as the operative word: there is no singular answer to “What, or Who, is Valuable?” For me, an afternoon chomping down on a dozen mutton fried momos is probably of higher value than it’s to you. It’s all relative.

There are a lot of individual awards given by the NBA every year, but the one that truly matters is the MVP. The Most Valuable Player. Basketball is a team sport and, rightfully so, the most-celebrated achievement every season is the NBA Championship. Nevertheless, the MVP award is a celebration of the individual who truly stamped his greatness on to the season, and did it better than his competition. Relative to the rest of the great players, he was the greatest.

I’ve long been intrigued, concerned, amused, and even sometimes angered by the definitions of MVP. The intrigue is added by the fact that each one of us can have our own definitions. My plate of momos might be your masala-dosa. They can all be right answers depending on the angle we choose to define them. Is the most valuable player the one with the best statistics? Is he the best player on the best team? Is he the player who best defined the narrative of how the season unfolded? Is he, as per the ‘eye-test’, simply the most-talented player, no matter what his team or individual numbers might say?

Here is my definition: the ‘Most Valuable Player’ is the one player whose absence would make the biggest difference in the final standings of the league. This player isn’t just the best stats guy or the best player in the best team: he is a combination of all factors that affects both his team and the rest of the league more than any other player.

In recent years, at the end of the regular season, the hazy race has usually become clearer and the favourite for the award stood out over his worthy challengers. In 2012 and 2013, the Miami Heat finished back-to-back in top two of their conference and had the game’s best talent LeBron James getting the best stats, leading to consecutive MVP awards. In 2014, MVP Kevin Durant led the league in scoring while carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to second place in the Western Conference while his superstar teammate was injured. In 2015, Stephen Curry edged out James Harden to win MVP as the best player in the best team (67 wins!). In 2016, Curry doubled down, leading the league in scoring and in all the advanced metrics to make the Warriors the best team again, breaking the All Time wins record (73), and becoming the game’s only-ever unanimous MVP. There was no argument in Curry’s case: from every definition of ‘value’, he was the most valuable.

12 months later, things couldn’t be more different. With only a few weeks left before the end of the regular season, we are amidst an MVP race for the ages, forcing us to employ all of our relative intelligence, reasoning, definitions, and experience. A number of truly-deserving candidates stand out, and a win for any singular one will automatically signal a major snub for the losers. Let’s take a closer look, in last-name alphabetic order, at the top contenders.

James Harden

The case for: The Rockets lost Dwight Howard and restructured their squad with Harden as the point guard and shooters to complement his style. The result has been an epic success: after finishing at the 8th seed last year, Houston has improved to third this season with a .689 winning record. Harden has been magnificent, leading the league in assists and scoring the second-most points per game in the NBA to make the Rockets the league’s highest-scoring team. Harden has had 20 triple-doubles this season and numerous 50-point games. Unlike the teams with a better record than them, Houston are the only one being carried by a single elite player.

The case against: We have to nit-pick to find weaknesses in Harden’s MVP candidacy. Such as the fact that he is in ‘only’ the third-best team this season, and that, despite his own gaudy averages, Russell Westbrook is putting up even better individual stats (more on that later). And of course, there’s the defence; as great as Harden has been offensively, he’s a sieve on the defensive end and the Rockets as a whole are a below-average defensive team.

LeBron James

The case for: LeBron fans, after his superhuman performance over the unanimous MVP in last year’s Finals, can only point to what they believe to be the given truth: ignore the distractions and crown the most-talented player as the most-valuable one. This season, James has evolved his game to become an even more-rounded player, averaging a career-high 8.8 assists to go with 8.4 rebounds and 26 points. Despite their recent dip, the Cavaliers are still one of the best teams in their conference; they are terrible when he is off the court.

The case against: This is not a legacy award, it’s an award for a player’s performances in this season, and LeBron’s “potential” to be better than his competitors shouldn’t count unless he is “actually” better. And as good as he has been, he has simply not matched the statistical output of some of the other contenders. His team has underachieved (“only” 0.644, despite being stacked with the talent they have) and he has missed six games so far. Head to head, he has been outplayed by many of the contenders listed below.

Kawhi Leonard

The case for: Just a couple of games behind Golden State Warriors for the league’s best record, the Spurs are a true title contender, and Kawhi Leonard has been chiefly responsible for their success. Leonard is his team’s best offensive player and one of the top 10 scorers in the league. He also happens to be the best perimeter defender in the NBA. There is no better two-way player in the world. Leonard’s MVP campaign rests on being the best player in almost the best team.

The case against: He is almost there, but not quiet. His team is second-best, his statistics are good, but in comparison to others in this list, not great. And he relies on the NBA’s most-efficient system to blossom. The Spurs might not have been a great team without Leonard, but they would still be pretty damn good.

Russell Westbrook

The case for: This dude is averaging a friggin triple-double while simultaneously leading the league in scoring!!! Westbrook could be the first since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double all season and beat Robertson’s single season record (he’s already on 40). No single player carries a heavier burden on his shoulders every night. His efforts have carried a Durant-less Thunder to an impressive playoff spot, battling for fifth or sixth in the West.

The case against: At the current rate, the Thunder are heading for a sixth-place finish in the West with about 48 wins. This is simply not good enough: my belief is that the MVP of every season needs to come from a true title contender, and Westbrook has been a great player in an average team. His maximalist style of play and high usage rate has made the Thunder a one-man team to a fault.

The verdict

This is an impossible race and can’t be truly determined until the very last day of the season. All of the contenders have played at an unimaginably high level, and the shortlist didn’t even mention players like Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and John Wall, all of whom have turned heads with their stellar play.

My answer might change day to day, or even hour to hour, but on this moment in time, I sniff gingerly towards James Harden. Ask me if I’ve changed my mind tomorrow.

Hoopdarshan Episode 45: Super Playoff Preview with Ball Don't Stop's Ekam Nagra

After a season of individual historics, we are finally on the cusp of the playoffs. To preview the post-season, Hoopdarshan's hosts Kaushik Lakhsman and Karan Madhok bring on board Ekam Nagra, the CEO and Founder of popular international media outlet 'Ball Don't Stop'. Nagra speaks to us about the most-intriguing storylines ahead, the impossible MVP race, and being awestruck with Allen Iverson.

Ball Don't Stop is one of the fastest-growing basketball media outlets in the world. They cover NBA, High School, Pro AM basketball, and have a performance training branch too. They have over 300,000 fans worldwide. Nagra is from Vancouver Canada, where he organised the 'Battle at the Border' basketball event in Vancouver featuring Jamal Crawford and India's own Satnam Singh.

Hoopdarshan is the truest voice of Indian basketball, and since we're such hopeless fans of the game, it will become the voice of everything basketball related we love, from the NBA to international hoops, too. On every episode of Hoopdarshan, we will be inviting a special guest to interview or chat to about a variety of topics. With expert insight from some of the brightest and most-involved people in the world of Indian basketball, we hope to bring this conversation to a many more interested fans, players, and followers of the game.

Make sure to follow Hoopdarshan on Soundcloud or search for 'Hoopdarshan' on the iTunes Store! Auto-sync Hoopdarshan to your preferred podcast app NOW!

Hoopdarshan can be found on...

April 7, 2017

NBA launches its first Basketball School - in Mumbai

When I was young, the NBA was what we did when we were trying to avoid school. Getting late for class because of the live early morning NBA games. Reading SLAM Magazine instead of English Literature. Hoisting up jumpers on the court late into the night instead of catching up on homework or sleep.

Ah, how things have changed. Now, for a select fortunate few, the NBA could be school itself.

The NBA announced on Friday the launch of the NBA Basketball School, a network of tuition-based basketball development programmes around the world open to international male and female players ages 6-18. For Indian basketball fans, the news is especially closer to home: the first of these groundbreaking schools was launched by the NBA in Mumbai on Friday.

According to NBA India, the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai was launched as part of a multiyear agreement announced with India On Track (IOT), one of India’s leading sports management, marketing and development companies. Additional NBA Basketball Schools will be launched in India and around the world in the coming months. The school will be located at the Jamnabai Narsee School in Vile Parle West.

Registration to attend the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai is now open at indiaontrack.nba.com.

"Our goal is to inspire more young male and female players to learn the game under the guidance of established coaches with proven training techniques,” said NBA Vice President, International Basketball Operations & Head of Elite Basketball, Brooks Meek. "The NBA Basketball School builds an additional track between the Jr. NBA and NBA Academies with the goal of increasing the pool of players who have the talent to attend our academies around the world."

The Jr. NBA, the league’s global youth basketball participation program for boys and girls, will help identify young players who have the talent to attend NBA Basketball Schools. From there, the top players at each NBA Basketball School will have the opportunity to be selected to attend NBA Academies, the league’s network of elite basketball training centers around the world to develop top international male and female prospects. The NBA's first Academy in India was announced in the Delhi-NCR region recently.

Each NBA Basketball School will feature year-long, tuition-based programs open to international male and female players ages 6-18. The NBA Basketball School curriculum covers on-court training, strength and conditioning, and basketball education for young players ages 6-18 and will be implemented by local coaches working directly with the NBA’s International Basketball Operations staff around the world.

"There has never been a more exciting time for the growth of basketball in India," said NBA India Managing Director Yannick Colaco. "Between NBA Academy India welcoming 24 elite prospects and the launch of NBA Basketball Schools with our partner India On Track, we are investing more than ever in identifying and training India’s aspiring young players."

"We are now at the cusp of a new phase in India’s sporting journey, and to ensure its continued growth we need to lay down strong foundations for basketball," said IOT Founder and CEO Vivek Sethia. "This initiative jointly executed by the NBA and India On Track will help to create a platform to identify and engage the untapped basketball potential in India thereby creating a larger talent pool for academies to choose from."

According to their programme overview, the NBA Basketball School will take input from NBA coaches, former NBA players, and player development experts to develop a comprehensive basketball curriculum approved by the National Basketball Coaches Association that will be introduced in partnership with school coaches. The program will be led by teams of foreign and local coaches with NBA regional heads overseeing all training operations. In-depth information about their basketball curriculum is provided on the NBA Basketball School's official website.

Australian Ryan Burns, an experienced international basketball coach, will be the school's technical director.

This is a great opportunity for young players in the city. Hopefully more NBA schools pop up in other cities to tap into India's wealth of potential basketball talent around the country.