June 30, 2017

Hoopdarshan Episode 49: Kevin Durant, Every NBA Player to Visit India, and the Draft with Akshay Manwani

There is no offseason. In Episode 49 of Hoopdarshan, hosts Kaushik Lakshman and Karan Madhok anticipate the arrival of Kevin Durant to India as the greatest basketball player to step foot on our soil. Joining us is NBA expert Akshay Manwani, who spoke about KD, the history of every NBA player to ever visit India, his thoughts on the NBA Draft, and more! Listen to the latest episode to also hear our opinions on the exciting news considering new foreign coaches Zoran Visic and Phil Weber in India and India's performances at the BRICS Games.

Here is my comprehensive running list of every NBA player to ever visit India.

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!

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June 26, 2017

India could be a big beneficiary of 3×3 basketball in the Olympics

This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India on June 16, 2017. Click here for the original piece.

I’ve played all formats of basketball: 5-on-5 full-courts, 1-on-1 around a single basket, playground “war”, Knockout, Air-21, or that simple lonesome shoot-around where I pretend to be an NBA star carrying team back from a Finals deficit against invisible defenders.
But the format I’ve played the most, and possibly the format most-actively played among amateur basketball players around the world, is 3-on-3. A good 3-on-3 contest provides with just enough of the beauty of basketball movement between the guard, swingman, and centre players to create a good flow in the game, allows for quick movement, passing, and attacking the basket, and a fast-pace overall game within the confines of the half-court.

In fact, the 3-on-3 format is so popular worldwide that FIBA – the international basketball federation – created official rules of the game under the FIBA 3×3 moniker several years ago. Over the past half-decade, FIBA has held 3×3 World Tours, continental championships, World Cups, and even created a world ranking of the best 3×3 performers. In the United States, a high-profile 3×3 league comprising of several retired NBA players called the BIG3 is set to be launched this summer.

But the biggest bit of news for 3×3 basketball lovers came this past week, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that this “new” format of the game was going to be added to the Olympics starting from the Tokyo Games in 2020. Traditional 5-on-5 basketball has been part of the Summer Olympics as a consistent event for Men and Women since 1936 and currently features twelve teams each in both divisions. Now, the Olympics will add another eight teams each (a total of 64 athletes) to play in the 3×3 Basketball Men and Women’s competitions in 2020.

This is a huge step forward for the sport. While Olympians in other disciplines like Track and Field, Swimming, Wrestling, Gymnastics, etc. have the opportunity to compete for multiple medals in the same year, those in team sports like Basketball compete only for one gold in each gender – which has traditionally been dominated by the USA. 3×3 will add more opportunities for basketball competition at the event and could help infuse more variety of challengers to the throne.

In its early years, Eastern European teams like Serbia, Slovenia, Russia, and Ukraine have been dominant in the 3×3 format, with Poland, the Netherlands, and of course, the United States not far behind. But what has been one of the more curious developments in the early years of international 3×3 is the success of India in the format.

India ranks low internationally in the traditional 5-on-5 format of the game, has never won a medal in a major Asian basketball competition, or qualified for an international FIBA World Cup. In 1980, the result of a number of nations refusing to play in Russia for the Moscow Olympics allowed India’s Men’s basketball squad to make their first and only Olympic experience. The squad, led by Indian hoop legends like Ajmer Singh, Paramjit Singh, Shyam Radhey, and Amarnath Nagarajan, lost all seven of their games by huge margins and finished last among the twelve participating teams. And yet, the experience left an indelible mark on
the game in India, even though we have never been close since to make a return to the Olympic stage.

In recent years at the Olympics, only one Asian team has been guaranteed a spot out of twelve in each gender’s tournaments, while a couple others have had the opportunity to sneak into the competition through pre-Olympic qualifiers. For India to have a chance at legitimacy returning to traditional Olympic basketball, we will first have to beat insurmountable odds to qualify for the FIBA World Cup, and then beat some more odds to finish among the best Asian countries at that event. The task isn’t impossible, but it will take the greatest combination of skill and luck available for either of our national teams.

But while India has lagged against the top nations at the full-form of the game, they have been able to sneak in a lot of recent success in the 3×3 format. The Basketball Federation of India (BFI), relatively early into the official introduction of FIBA 3×3, chose to feature many of the same top players that represent our full national teams to play in the 3×3 squads, too.

India has won the 3×3 basketball gold medal twice (once for men and once for women) at the Asian Beach Games since 2008. In May last year, India’s Women won the FIBA Asia 3×3 gold in Qatar. A week later, India’s under-18 men and women both won silver medals at the U18 FIBA Asia 3×3 championship in Thailand. India dominated the South Asian Beach games, winning double gold for both men and women a few years ago. India’s under-23 men’s team have also won a bronze at the KFC 3×3 international challenge in China. In 2014’s Asian Beach Games in Phuket, India’s men’s side returned with a silver medal.

In recent years, a 3×3 club squad of Indian-origin players, led by Chandigarh-born superstar Amjyot Singh, has become one of the most successful 3×3 tour teams in the world. After his performances at the 3×3 World Tour Finals in UAE, Amjyot was named the top ranked 3×3 player in the “rest of the world” category.

Of course, even with the recent success and star-power, India is a longshot to make the Olympics in the 3×3 format, too. Once the rest of the world begins to take this format of the game more seriously, India will lose their early advantage. Still, the addition of 3×3 in the Olympics will provide the BFI and Indian basketball another target to aim for and another realistic avenue of the game through which they can recruit young players to basketball.

And anyways, a hoop dreamer can dream, can’t he? You know what would be better than seeing Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Stephen Curry play in the NBA Finals? Seeing Durant, James, and Curry represent Team USA’s 3×3 Basketball team in the Olympics, while India’s own “Big Three” of Amjyot Singh, Amritpal Singh, and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi try to counter them. It might be a complete blowout, but it will be the most inspiring blowout for hoop-heads in India since the Moscow Olympics!

June 21, 2017

Russia wins basketball tournament at BRICS Games 2017 in Guangzhou; India finish 0-3

With convincing wins over South Asian rivals last month, India were able to qualify once again for the FIBA Asia Cup, the most prestigious of Asian basketball tournaments, set to be held in Lebanon in August. In Lebanon, India will face much stiffer competition than the teams we defeated in the SABA Championship, and to be prepared to take on the best in the continent, India desperately needed some match practice at the highest level.

The BRICS Games 2017, held in Guangzhou, China over the past week, turned out to be the best "mini" exposure that Indian basketball could have asked for, even though the results and news did not go entirely India's way. India took part in the four-team basketball tournament between June 18-20, where they sent out almost a full-strength lineup led by stars by Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Amjyot Singh. Against much tougher competition, however, India lost all three of their round-robin games to finish at the bottom of the group. Meanwhile Russia - the 9th ranked team in the world - finished with a perfect 3-0 record to win the championship.

The BRICS Games 2017 is a tournament played among the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) with a view to developing sports exchange and cooperation, and promoting mutual friendship. The host country of the BRICS summit organises the annual BRICS Games annually - this year's BRICS summit will be held in China in September.

India's first matchup was against China, the top-ranked team in Asia and the hosts of the tournament. Despite a promising start and an impressive 26-point outing by star Amjyot Singh, India couldn't keep up with the Chinese in the second half and succumbed to a 97-57 defeat. To add insult to injury, India's star guard Vishesh Bhriguvanshi suffered an ACL injury, keeping him out for the rest of the tournament and likely ruling him out of the FIBA Asia Cup, too.

India were also missing their excellent big man Amritpal Singh, who has recently been called up for a tour in China with the Australian NBL squad Sydney Kings. Without Amritpal and Vishesh, India did not stand much of a chance against eventual winners Russia in their second game, which they lost 88-58.

India, however, will be disappointed about their closing matchup against South Africa, who are a talented squad but ranked much lower than India in the FIBA rankings. Despite a better effort, India couldn't keep up with South Africa's offensive pace and fell to their third straight defeat, 88-75.

Final Rankings - 2017 BRICS Games Men's Basketball
  • 1. Russia
  • 2. China
  • 3. South Africa
  • 4. India
India now has than two months left before the start of the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup. Although our big guys like Amjyot Singh, Amritpal Singh, and perhaps even the returning Satnam Singh could give us a formidable frontcourt, India's concern will be with the backcourt situation - which is already been a weak point in our national system - without the leadership and talent of Bhriguvanshi. Hopefully, there can be some positives taken for head coach Sappaniambalam Baskar from the BRICS Games experience and India can make a better impression at the Asia Cup.

Hoopdarshan Episode 48: Kavita Akula - the first Indian to win NCAA D1 basketball scholarship + NBA Finals

Last month, 21-year-old Kavita Akula made spectacular news by becoming the first Indian basketball player to win a full NCAA Division 1 scholarship, at the Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona. Now, as she prepares for her summer role as a star point guard for India at the 2017 FIBA Asia Women's Cup, Akula joins the Hoopdarshan podcast to talk about her scholarship, her improvements from IMG Academy to college ball in the USA, and India's chances at the Asia Cup in Bengaluru next month.

In addition, co-hosts Kaushik Lakshman and Karan Madhok also review the NBA Finals, Kevin Durant's upcoming visit to India, and India's Men's squad at the 2017 BRICS Games.

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...

June 17, 2017

Serbian Zoran Visic appointed head coach of India's Women's Basketball Team

The biggest date on India's basketball calendar is approaching this year - the FIBA Asia Women's Cup - and this year's tournament is going to be extra special: India will have the privilege and pressure of hosting this prestigious championship on their home soil, in Bengaluru, and this will be the first time that the FIBA Asia Women's Cup will incorporate the top teams from the Oceania region, too. Two years ago, India fell to lower level of this championship after a forgettable performance in Wuhan, China: now, playing on home soil, they will be hoping for extra motivation to rise back up the ranks of Asian basketball.

To help complete that complicated task, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) officially announced the appointment of seasoned Serbian Coach Zoran Visic as the new Head Coach of the Indian women's national team. Visic took over Team India at the national camp from June 1 and will serve his contract until the end of July. The FIBA Asia Women's Cup is scheduled in Bengaluru from July 23-29, 2017. Before the big tournament, Visic and the squad will get a chance to play in preparatory games as they will also participate in the William Jones Cup in Taiwan from July 5-9. The BFI says that Visic's term may be extended after the end of July if mutually agreed by both parties.

Although he had already been working with the national team for two weeks, the BFI only made the announcement of Visic's appointment in a press conference at Bengaluru on Friday, June 16. BFI's President K Govindraj, Secretary-General Chander Mukhi Sharma, assistant coach Shiba Maggon, and senior-most player Anitha Paul Durai were present for Visic's official introduction.

"India has done a lot to improve in both the women’s and men’s sides [in the last few years]," Visic said at the press conference. "We are now in Division B. So for sure our target is to be once again in Division A. This is a new age for Indian basketball and I believe the girls have the confidence and pride necessary to deliver a good result."

India have been drawn in Division B's Group A at the tournament, along with Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan - the fourth team in their group, American Samoa, has backed out of the championship. India's aim will be to top the entire division make it back up to the hither Division A for the next iteration of this championship.

Visic will be the first foreign coach with the national team since the departure of Spaniard Francisco Garcia in 2015. Although incorporating his leadership skills and experience with Indian coaches like Paramdeep Singh and Shiba Maggon should definitely assist the national team, it is still a pity that the BFI waited so late - less than two months before the championship - to bring in a new coach. Every coach has a different philosophy and system, and to truly make a change in the basketball programme, needs to understand the structure of the sport, recruiting, facilities, and other options thoroughly. Visic, unfortunately, will not have the time to pick his own preferred team for his preferred system, and will instead have to make do with the probables available.

Which is, of course, not to say that the available probables aren't top notch. India will feature a great mix of youth and experience at the championship this year, including the aforementioned Paul Durai, star player Jeena Scaria, Shireen Limaye, Poojamol Kochuparambu, Poonam Chaturvedi, Kavita Akula, Barkha Sonkar, and more. Unlike 2015, India will also get a chance to prepare for the big tournament at the William Jones Cup this year, and hopefully, the team is able to find some chemistry in this short period of time before the FIBA Asia Women tips off.

Visic (61) has been the head coach of Yugoslavia's Women's national team, Serbian junior national team, and has coached professionally in Serbia, Russia, and most-recently, in Romania, over the past 22 years. If he does a good job in India, I hope for some continuity at the top and for him to spend a longer time in developing the national basketball programme here.

June 16, 2017

12 Indian youngsters selected for NBA Asia-Pacific Elite camp in China

Over the past few years, the NBA has opened elite basketball academies in Australia, China, and most-recently, India, to tap into the youth basketball potential in these regions. Now, the NBA plans to bring together the cream of the crop of the selected few players for a short, special training camp.

The NBA will hold an fourth Asia-Pacific elite basketball training camp in Hangzhou, China, from June 18-21 this year. The camp will feature 73 young boys and girls from China, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, and India, too. 12 players from the NBA Academy India in Greater Noida will be heading to Hangzhou for this camp for the first time.

The 12 Indian players have been shortlisted from the 21 resident players currently at the NBA Academy India. The Academy only opened earlier this year and the first crop of players selected are all male.

The Selected Indian players for the Asia-Pacific Training Camp are: Robin Banerjee, Vivek Chauhan, Jagshaanbir Jhawar, Sejin Mathew, Shanmugam Murugan, Riyanshu Negi, Suraj Pathak, Preshit Pawar, Prashant Rawat, Parth Sunil Kumar Sharma, Princepal Singh and Manoj Singh Sisodiya.

Further details via The Times of India:

In the advance training camp that is held once in two years since 2011, seasoned NBA players and coaches will lead the campers through a variety of activities on and off the court, including movement efficiency, positional skill development, shooting and skills competitions, 5-on-5 games and daily life skills seminars focusing on health, leadership and communication.

"Competitions and playing in a competitive environment are a critical element in the development of young athletes. These trips to China and Australia will not only challenge the athletes of NBA Academy India competitively, but also provide them vital international exposure, contributing to their all-round growth as individuals," NBA-India's managing director Yannick Colaco told TOI.
Current NBA players Malik Beasley of Denver Nuggets, Andrew Nicholson from the Brooklyn Nets and Garrett Temple of Sacramento Kings will guide the campers. They will join former WNBA player Zheng Haixia, NBA assistant coaches Ryan Bowen, Charles Klask, Bob Thornton and FIBA coach Ronald Cass to train the campers. At the conclusion of the camp one boy and a girl will be named as Asia Pacific Team Camp MVPs.

The camp will also include a variety of NBA cares community outreach efforts with youth in Hangzhou in partnership with local community organizations.
 Hopefully an Indian player can return home next week with the MVP award!

June 15, 2017

India Men's basketball team heads to China for the 2017 BRICS Games

In two months, India will once again step out to compete in the most prestigious basketball event they take part in, the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon. Despite being a rising basketball force in the continent, India has only recently begun to climb up the ladder in Asian championships. Last year, at the FIBA Asia Challenge, India finished at 7th place after their best international performance in 27-years. India now has the star-power, the hunger for success, and ample preparation for this year's big FIBA event.

But practice is practice, and as the great Allen Iverson would say, it's "not a game". India needs true in-game experience to be in the best shape and form possible. A few weeks ago, India completed a historic 5-peat at the South Asian Basketball Championship to qualify for the FIBA Asia Cup. Now, with greater competition in the horizon, India has an exciting new opportunity for high-level competition before heading to Lebanon.

From June 17-21, India's Senior Men's Basketball team will be heading to the metropolis of Guangzhou in South China to take part in the 2017 BRICS Games. The "Young Cagers", along with the country's U20 Women's Volleyball Team and the Men and Women's Wushu teams will form the Indian contingent participating in the Games.

The BRICS Games 2017 is a tournament played among the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) with a view to developing sports exchange and cooperation, and promoting mutual friendship. The host country of the BRICS summit organises the annual BRICS Games annually - this year's BRICS summit will be held in China in September. The choices of the games at the event differs each year. The basketball championship this year will be held in Round Robin format, with the best record declared the winner - India's match schedule will be announced soon. The potential to play high-ranking international teams like Russia, China, and Brazil should give India much-needed basketball exposure against elite talent.

India will be heading to Guangzhou with a strong squad coached by Sappaniambalam Baskar and headlined by Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amjyot Singh (who will return to the team after missing the SABA Championship), Yadwinder Singh, Akilan Pari, Rikin Pethani, and more. The big name missing this lineup is centre Amritpal Singh, who was a big part of India's SABA Championship victory but is unavailable since he has been invited to Australia to take part in the rookie camp for the Sydney Kings.

Team India roster for the 2017 BRICS Games
  • Akilan Pari
  • Muin Bek Hafeez
  • Prasanna Venkatesh Sivakumar
  • Anil Kumar Gowda
  • Arjun Singh
  • Vishesh Bhriguvanshi
  • Amjyot Singh
  • Arshpreet Singh Bhullar
  • Ravi Bhardwaj
  • Jeevanatham Pandi
  • Yadwinder Singh
  • Rikin Pethani
  • Head Coach: Sappaniambalam Baskar
  • Assistant Coach: Sebastian Padipurakkal Joseph

June 13, 2017

Basketball and ‘Half Girlfriend’: An unnecessarily in-depth analysis

I watched Bollywood hit ‘Half Girlfriend’ so you won’t have to

This article was first published in my column for Ekalavyas.com on May 31, 2017. Read the original piece here.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Less than half an hour into the Mohit Suri directed film Half Girlfriend – based on popular novel by Chetan Bhagat – the two lead characters Madhav Jha (Arjun Kapoor) and Riya Somani (Shraddha Kapoor) take on the court in a semi-flirtatious one-on-one basketball game at an elite university in New Delhi. As Madhav dribbles the ball from the top of the key, threatening to create separation for a jump-shot, Riya marvels at his slow, plodding dribbles.

“Kevin Durant?” she asks.

“LeBron James,” answers Jha.

Riya commentates on the moment just like an NBA commentator would while also attempting to guard him. Swish. Madhav makes his shot. A few seconds later, he dribbles it out to the three-point line. “Steph Curry!” Riya announces. Swish. Madhav scores again, and turns around confidently before the ball goes through the basket, true to the Mr Curry’s most disrespectfully-brilliant moments on the NBA court.

Half Girlfriend is primarily a story of class and language barriers. Riya comes from a rich Delhi family, is fluent in both English and Hindi, but chooses to ignore the latter even if it makes her sound painfully pretentious. Madhav is from a respected family lineage from the small (fictional) village of Simraon in Bihar, speaks beautiful Hindi, but struggles in English.

He is attracted to her but scared to talk to her at first; on the basketball court, however, all of their barriers dissipate. Madhav and Riya both know the language of hoops. While he half-fawns over Riya and half-plays the game, his inner monologue tells us that the NBA – not the Narmada Bachao Andolan but the National Basketball Association – has been his obsession since childhood. Now, that obsession has helped him start a friendship with the girl of his dreams.

Basketball facilitating Bollywood romance? Stop me if you’ve heard a similar story before. Nearly twenty years ago, Rahul (Shah Rukh Khan) and Anjali (Kajol) in one of Bollywood’s greatest romances – Kuch Kuch Hota Hai – rekindled their former friendship into romance through one of the most iconic/ridiculous scenes ever. It was an unconventional move for a culture that rarely had any mainstream basketball visibility, and yet it worked to create a classic moment.

Basketball and Bollywood have been a rare combination. Several years after Rahul and Anjali’s hoops flirtations, Hrithik Roshan played in a basketball game as ‘Rohit’ in the film Koi Mil Gaya, which turned out to be a weird mix of E.T., Space Jam, and A Beautiful Mind. A few years later, Roshan was balling (awkwardly) again in Dhoom 2, one-on-one against Aishwarya Rai in the rain, talking about basketball thinly-veiled as international espionage thinly-veiled as romance.

With a plot closely-revolving around basketball, assistance from the NBA in India, and deliberate attempts to promote the movie via its hoops connections, Half Girlfriend has joined the rare club of Indian films with basketball mentioned above.

But first, a disclaimer: I have not read the Chetan Bhagat novel that this film was based on and I don’t plan to, because Chetan Bhagat’s prose is equal to a double Achilles injury to the brain. The novel’s Wikipedia page tells me that the basketball subplot existed in Bhagat’s writing too. Otherwise, I treated the film as its own independent entity.

Here’s a brief summary of Half Girlfriend, and if you plan to watch this film and hate spoilers, shoo away. Madhav Jha joins “St. Steven’s College” (not St. Stephen’s) in New Delhi on a sports quota. He falls for Riya Somani based on both her looks and shooting ability and the two begin a friendship of one-on-one, half-court basketball games. But, even though they are both from respected families in different extremes of India, there is a clear class difference between the couple, and Riya can only be Madhav’s “Half Girlfriend” (whatever the hell that means). Madhav tries to take the relationship further physically but she resists. A couple of days later, she has a shaadi-invitation for him. Her shaadi. To an English speaking NRI guy in London. She’s 19.

Then, the film goes completely off the rails. Their paths cross again in Patna, Bihar, and Riya has by now gotten a divorce. Now, they use learning English as an excuse to flirt instead of basketball. A lot more happens. Riya finds it laughingly easy to sneak into the top of the India Gate and dreams of being a New York based live-music performer. There is a horrible-CGI appearance by Bill Gates in Bihar and drunken pub crawls in New York City. Frequent flashes of rainfall to let viewers know which moments are more dramatic than others.

But our concerns here are not with the film itself; it’s with the film’s specific basketball moments and references. While Half Girlfriend was being filmed, production information revealed that the two Kapoor leads (unrelated) were honing their basketball skills for the movie in New Delhi. The two appeared to have taken their immersion into becoming star college basketball players seriously, and worked out with NBA coaches in India in preparation for their roles. This level of involvement in the sport and with the NBA in a movie was unprecedented in Indian cinema. The hoops promotion continued up to the movie’s release and the Kapoors kept appearing on my Sony SIX TV screens while I peacefully tried to watch the Golden State Warriors sweep the Western Conference. With some serious doubts of my sanity, I decided that it would be irresponsible as an Indian basketball journalist for me not to watch this movie.

In the film, Madhav’s love-at-first-sight, or at least lust-at-first-sight, moment happens when he sees Riya on the basketball court. She’s wearing a white tank-top, hot pants, and tightly-braided hair to look as basketball-y as possible. This seems like a girls’ team tryout at Steven’s and her side is losing. She is missing shots and not paying attention on defence. When she tries to quit the game, Madhav, on the bench, decides to tell her something inspirational in his broken English about “defeating defeats” (“Har ko haraana” is a running theme). Riya returns to the game, hits an outside jumper, drives in for a behind-the-back assist, and then drives in again for a tough lay-up in three consecutive possessions. Her team wins. She glances a happy look at Madhav and he throws up two dorky thumbs back.

Minutes later, it’s his turn to take the court for the boys’ team trials. Madhav strips into his jersey (muscle-shot mandatory) and starts off by knocking the ball off the backboard for a Tracy McGrady style pass to himself and then finishing with an unbelievably fake windmill slam. Seconds later, he does it again, but this time the finish is a between-the-legs dunk. We are not shown here if he has other skills (shooting, passing, defence, court-awareness, rebounding, etc.). He can dunk like Vince Carter at the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest, so he must be good at basketball.

Eventually, basketball brings them closer together and bridges cultural gaps. Madhav sees Riya give her teammates fist-bumps in celebration, and the rest of the movie has an unnecessarily large number of awkward, slow-motion fist-bumps between the two lovers/not-lovers. They role-play moves by their favourite NBA players on court. Both of the actors move slowly and dribble carefully, but their skills are mostly passable given the rough history of Bollywood actors playing the game.

To prove how much of a true basketball fan he is, Madhav’s dorm-room at Steven’s is swagged out with all sorts of NBA memorabilia: posters, small flags, bobbleheads and mugs with logos of the Warriors and Cavaliers mostly (he’s not really loyal to a particular team/player), a surprising Patrick Ewing photograph, a Bulls’ collage featuring Jimmy Butler, and a large Steph Curry poster.

Curry’s specific skills would’ve specifically helped Madhav’s romantic intentions in the next scene. He wants to take Riya out on a movie date – turn friendship into something more – but she will only agree if he can make a half-court shot. Madhav, who happens to be a sniper from the three-point line range, is suddenly helpless. He forgets all form and simply begins to chuck the ball in wild abandon. Somehow, Riya is impressed by his failed efforts and agrees to the date anyways. For future reference, Madhav, here is a compilation of Steph Curry’s half-court shots.

Unfortunately, as their romantic problems get more serious, basketball takes a backseat. When Riya and Madhav have a fight, Madhav struggles in an inter-college game against “Rajhans” (and definitely not Ramjas University). This is the only time we actually see him in competitive action and he’s terrible. Maybe we shouldn’t judge a book by its slam-dunking abilities.

(As an aside, Arjun Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor – definitely not related – are 31 and 30 years old respectively, playing 18 to 19-year-olds in the beginning of the film. And it shows).

The movie, predictably, takes a more sombre turn after the intermission and both Madhav and Riya move on to different professions – Madhav returns to his village to help facilitate girls’ toilets in his mother’s school and Riya joins PR for Close-Up toothpaste.

Eventually, the film ends up in New York, with Madhav moping around the city in yet another addition to the never-ending genre of movies about Indians being depressed abroad. In a shocking turn of events, our basketball-loving protagonist has ended up in the ‘mecca’ of hoops and never plays basketball or acknowledges of existence of the Knicks or the Nets. One time, while he is walking around in depression (there is a lot of this), he crosses a streetball game and the ball bounces out to him. He’s too sad to take a shot and gives the ball back. Sigh.

The ending, however, offers a silver lining. Madhav and Riya are reunited and living in Simaon in Bihar. They are training young boys and girls dressed in Warriors, Cavaliers, and Thunder gear how to play basketball. The makeshift backboard in this tiny village court has a small NBA logo. Their daughter takes and makes a jump-shot. The film ends on the emotion of basketball making people in India happy.

But even this end doesn’t solve my larger qualm with the film’s use of basketball. Earlier in this movie, viewers are led to believe that Madhav and Riya are two of the best basketball players for their college teams, and thus, some of the most exciting prospects in New Delhi. Madhav was six feet tall and still putting NBA dunk contests to shame – and their decision to “mature” away from the game was a massive waste of talent. Did they not wish to play for state or national tournaments? Were they not invited for India camps?

I understand that for both of them, basketball didn’t really need to be a priority: Riya’s family is rich enough for her to not need a basketball career to make a living, and later, she is able to earn an independent and presumably high-paying job for herself. Madhav’s priorities are duty towards his village and his community, and basketball for both of them becomes only a thing of the past.

Even as the young village players are playing the game in the end, there is no real talk of it as a feasible potential career, or of how Indian basketball can change lives. Instead of having a CGI Bill Gates in the movie, the producers should have invested in inviting cameos from Indian basketball stars like the Singh Sisters, all of whom are from a small-town Varanasi (where much of the film was shot, pretending to be Patna) and made it to the national team. Sure, it is great to idolise LeBron and Curry, but what about Amjyot Singh or Amritpal Singh, who made it from small cities or villages to become international professional players?

Of course, the other issue is the viewers’ suspension-of-disbelief. Most of the basketball scenes are believable, but Madhav’s ridiculous athleticism is simply too far-fetched. The action coordinators for those scenes should’ve toned down on those McGrady/Carter dunks a little bit. There are no signs of basketball facilities in Simraon except for the court Madhav built himself. It was hard to believe how he became that good: even Satnam Singh – India’s first NBA draftee from a small Punjabi village Ballo Ke – had to be recruited and trained at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy at age 10. I’m not saying that the Madhav backstory isn’t possible; I just feel that the writers missed an opportunity in telling us that story altogether. Hey, if he’s that good, what the hell is he doing playing for Steven’s? Why isn’t he getting a call-up from India? NCAA? The D-League?

All minor issues aside, I’m glad that a movie so invested in basketball and NBA got made in India – even if the rest of the film was pretty much an airball. Beyond the basketball-as-a-vehicle-for-romance storyline in Half Girlfriend most fans won’t be seeing any more similarities between this film and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Arjun Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor – I have to report – are not captivating stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, even though their basketball skills are far more advanced.

Basketball is new to Bollywood, but guess what: every Bollywood film to incorporate basketball – Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Koi Mil Gaya, and Dhoom 2 – has been a superhit. The game is a lucky charm to Indian cinema. Half Girlfriend, despite being the film version of James Harden’s defence, has enjoyed positive box office collection since its release. Will basketball help it have an impact like its predecessors? 

June 12, 2017

Tamil Nadu (Girls) and Punjab (Boys) win 2017 Junior National Basketball Championship

In the outskirts of the national capital New Delhi, hundreds of the best junior basketball players from all over India converged to take part in a major national tournament that would forever be linked to their legacies. A number of these young talents will go on to play major roles for India's senior basketball teams in the near future. In Greater Noida this past week, the two finest squads - Tamil Nadu Girls and Punjab Boys - rose above the rest and claimed gold at the 68th Junior National Basketball Championship.

The Junior Nationals were held at Greater Noida's Shiv Nadar University from June 4-11, featuring 25 men's teams and 24 women's teams from the U18 age group from around India. The finals of this competitive tournament were held on Sunday, June 11.

In the girls' final, last year's silver-medalists Tamil Nadu faced off against an upstart Uttar Pradesh team, who had reached this stage for the first time in their history. UP weren't satisfied with just a seat at the table: they started the final with purpose to upset TN and take the gold, and build a 34-26 lead at halftime. UP's Vaishnavi Yadav, one of the best young stars of the tournament, scored a game-high 41 in the finale. After the break, however, TN finally pushed their offense into higher gear, breaking into a 20-9 third-quarter run that changed the fortune of the game. TN's center S. Pushpa dominated the post for 25 points and helped her team win the gold 69-63.

In the boys final, Punjab faced Kerala, the latter who were hoping to turn around their final lost from last year in Puducherry. These were the two strongest teams in the tournament and featured some fantastic matchups. On the backs of Mandeep Singh (33) and Gurvinder Singh (27), Punjab were just more motivated as the game tipped off, racing off to a 22-12 first quarter lead. Kerala had numerous contributors from their talented roster, including Md Shiraj (22), Joshua George (20), and Amal Reghu (16) but they couldn't stop Punjab's athleticism and energy, particularly in the second half. Punjab won the game 100-82.

The third place playoffs were also held on Sunday among the teams that lost in the semi-final stage a day earlier. In the men's game, Rajasthan broke a tightly-contested matchup after halftime to defeat Tamil Nadu 75-68, led by 36 points by Rajeev Kumar. Sheldin Rashan (18) and Arvind Kumar M (16) were the leaders for TN. Kerala's starlet Sreekala R scored 42 points to help her side win third-place over Karnataka in a 68-52 win.

The winners received Rs 1,00,000/-, first runners up received Rs 75,000/- while the second runners up got Rs 50,000/-. Guests present at the finals included Archana Ramasundaram, DG of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), Chander Mukhi Sharma, Secretary General of the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), Seema Sharma, President, UP Basketball Association (UPBA), Alok Sharma, Additional Director General, Sashastra Seema Bal and patron of the UPBA, and Bhupendra Shahi, Hon. Secretary, UPBA.

Final Scores
  • Girls: Tamil Nadu (S Pushpa 25, M Nishanthi 15) bt Uttar Pradesh (Vaishnavi Yadav 41) 69-63 (16-20, 10-14, 20-9, 23-20).
  • Boys: Punjab (Mandeep Singh 33, Gurwinder Singh 27) bt Kerala (Md Shiraj 22, Joshua George 20, Amal Reghu 16, Sejin Mathew 14) 100-82 (22-12, 20-23, 29-21, 29-26).

Third Place Playoffs
  • Girls: Kerala (Sreekala R 42) bt Karnataka 68-52 (10-9, 22-18, 21-18, 15-17).
  • Boys: Rajasthan (Rajeev Kumar 36, Ashish Trivedi 15) bt Tamil Nadu (Sheldin Rashan 18, Arvind Kumar M 16, Shanmugam M 13) 75-68 (18-18, 11, 24, 20-12, 26-14).

Final Standings

  • 1. Tamil Nadu
  • 2. Uttar Pradesh
  • 3. Kerala
  • 4. Karnataka
  • 5. Chhattisgarh

  • 1. Punjab
  • 2. Kerala
  • 3. Rajasthan
  • 4. Tamil Nadu
  • 5. Haryana

June 5, 2017

Summer Slam – India prepares for an important season of international basketball

This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India on May 25, 2017. Click here for the original piece.

For most of us who have lived across the sweltering saunas of northern and central Indian plains, summer is the worst possible season for basketball. Temperatures in various Indian cities across the map – from Chhattisgarh and Odisha up to Delhi and Rajasthan – begin to rise ruthlessly, 40, 45 degrees, and even higher, leaving thermometers crying mercury tears of mercy. For the next few months, the safest place in the country is indoors.

This doesn’t bode well for the basketball community. Most of the basketball facilities across India are outdoors, in courts that get so hot under the direct heat of the summer sun that cracks flare up on the cement surfaces and the metal poles on either side turn into heat radiators. Basketballs get deflated quicker, water turns into sweat in a matter of seconds, and worst of all, there is the danger of strokes for the energy-drained players huffing back and forth in the heat. Most players radically change their practice schedules for outdoor courts in the summertime, showing up to play either in the earliest hours of the morning or well-after the sun has begun its descent at night.

This year, however, India will be gearing up for a big summer of basketball. With our national men and women’s teams both involved in the most-prestigious Asian basketball events, the hottest action this season will be performed by star players on court.

First up on the calendar is going to be the 2017 FIBA Asia Women’s Cup, the top women’s basketball championship for teams from the Asia and Oceania region and an initial qualifying tournament for the 2018 FIBA Asia Women’s Basketball World Cup in Spain. This tournament will be of added importance for India: scheduled from July 23-29, it will be held at Bengaluru’s Sree Kanteerava stadium (indoor and safe from the boiling temperatures outside!). It will be the first time since 2009 that India will host a major senior Asian basketball championship.

This is a biennial championship which was last held in Wuhan, China, in 2015. Japan’s Women’s squad have been on a hot streak in recent years, winning the last two iterations of this tournament. India have had a rollercoaster experience in the same span of time: in 2013, India gave their best-ever performance to finish at 5th place in Asia for the first time in history. In 2015, however, India lost all of their game and were relegated down to the lower division.

This is the first year that teams like Australia and New Zealand from Oceania will join Asian powerhouses like Japan, China, Korea, and Chinese Taipei to contend for the trophy. At the official draw for the event in Bengaluru last week, India were placed in the lower Division B, Group A, along with Sri Lanka, American Samoa, and their possible-toughest opponent in the Preliminary Round, Uzbekistan. India should be able to top their group, and if they can go on to win their division, they will qualify for the higher Division A in the next iteration of the championship.

Led by coach Paramdeep Singh, India will be hoping to qualify for the top tier with good performances in their homeland. The preparatory camp for the tournament began early this year and an exciting mix of veteran and youth talent – including Jeena Scaria, Anitha Pauldurai, Bhandavya Mahesha, Poojamol Subhashmon, Kavita Akula, Barkha Sonkar, Shireen Limaye, and Poonam Chaturvedi – will hope to have the team firing on all cylinders by July.

Meanwhile, India’s national men’s team will play in their corresponding event – the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup – from August 8 to 20 in Lebanon. This tournament, also including Oceania teams from the first time, will serve as an initial qualifier for the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.

Like the Women’s tournament, the Men’s FIBA Asia Cup is also a biennial event. China, the host nation at the previous FIBA Asia Championship, are the reigning champions and have won gold for 16 of the 28 iterations of the event. Iran are the next best team in Asia and will enter this year’s tournament among the other favourites. Other top teams to watch will be Australia, Philippines, and Jordan.

With a fifth-consecutive victory at the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) basketball championship in Male, Maldives earlier this week, India’s Men’s team secured their place at the FIBA Asia Cup. India have made steady improvements at the international stage and played in the tournament’s Quarter-Finals in 2015, where they finished at their highest position (8th) in twelve years.

Expectations are high for India this time around. Last year, the ‘Young Cagers’ made a splash at the FIBA Asia Challenge (a secondary international event) by defeating China, Philippines, and Chinese Taipei to post their best international performance in 27 years and finish at 7th place. Led by Coach Sappaniambalam Baskar, India could boast of a deep roster of talent, featuring Amritpal Singh, Amjyot Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Yadwinder Singh, Palpreet Singh Brar, Akilan Pari, and potentially, India’s first NBA draftee Satnam Singh. Anything less than another quarter-final appearance would be considered a disappointment.

There is more international basketball for India’s youth squads later in the year as seasons change. Both India’s U16 Men and Women’s teams will be taking part in FIBA Asia U16 Championships. Bengaluru will again play host to the U16 Women’s tournament in October.

For now, the summer beckons, and no matter how difficult the season gets, there will be cool cocoons of basketball around the country, in early mornings, at late nights, and for some, in indoor courts. As India locks in for the massive international events, it could surely become a season to remember.

June 4, 2017

2017 Junior National Basketball Championship tip off in Greater Noida

If you want to catch the future of Indian basketball, head over this week to Greater Noida for the best under-18 players that the nation has to offer. The 68th Junior National Basketball Championship for Boys and Girls is set to be held at the Shiv Nadar University from June 4-11, 2017. The Championship will feature 25 men’s teams and 24 women’s teams in the U18 age group, from various Indian States and Union territories.

Tamil Nadu boys and Karnataka girls are the defending champions from the previous edition held in Puducherry in May 2016.

The fixtures and groupings of the 2017 Junior Nationals were announced on Saturday at a press conference at Shiv Nadar University, presided over by Chander Mukhi Sharma, Secretary General, BFI; Seema Sharma, President, UP Basketball Association (UPBA); Bhupendra Shahi, Hon. Secretary, UPBA and Alok Sharma, Additional Director General, Sashastra Seema Bal.

Participating Teams

  • Group A: Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh.
  • Group B: Kerala, Delhi, Chandigarh, Maharashtra, Telangana.
  • Group C: Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir.
  • Group D: Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, West Bengal.
  • Group E: Uttarakhand, Bihar, Karnataka, Tripura.
  • Group E: Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Puducherry.

  • Group A: Karanataka, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Delhi, Gujarat.
  • Group B: Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan.
  • Group C: Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand.
  • Group D: Uttar Pradesh, Chandigarh, Odisha.
  • Group E: Goa, Bihar, Telangana, West Bengal.
  • Group E: Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, Uttarakhand.

Tamil Nadu, with one of India's best youth basketball development structures, will be a threat in both the boys' and girls' divisions again this year. Kerala and Delhi Boys will be hoping for another return to the medal rounds. In the girls' division, reigning champions Karnataka and Maharashtra will be some of the top teams to watch.