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!

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