August 13, 2017

Durant, Yao, and FIBA Asia Success – It was an auspicious week for basketball in India

This article was originally published in my blog for the Times of India Sports on August 2, 2017. Read the original piece here.

A ‘muhurat’ is an auspicious date, or series of dates, which bring good fortune to any venture. Hindu shaadis, for example, have been sticking rigorously to wedding muhurat days for centuries, ensuring that all the holy matrimonial unions are tied in the same two-week stretch in December when every citizen gains an extra six kilos on the laddoo overdose and bombastic brass bands become the soundtrack to every traffic jam.

There are muhurats for naming your child, muhurats for entering your new house, muhurats for that first haircut, and muhurats for buying a new car. Recently, however, it seemed that the basketball pundits finally shone their grace on the game: with major victories, star power, and record-breaking events, this past week ended up being one of the most auspicious weeks for basketball in India.

We should probably begin this propitious week down in Bengaluru, where India played host to the top women’s basketball teams from Asia and Oceania in the prestigious FIBA Women’s Asia Cup 2017. This was the first time that India was hosting a tournament of this magnitude since the same event was held in Chennai in 2009. India weren’t in the top tier at this championship and could only contend against lower pool teams in Division B. However, fans in attendance got to see several of the top players from the region hooped on Indian soil, including the Australian-American Kelsey Griffin (eventually the tournament’s MVP), China’s Li Yueru, Manami Fujioka and Moeko Nagaoka of Japan’s title-winning team, Korea’s Lim Yung-Hui and Danbi Kim, and more.

Team India, however, made the most of their circumstance in Division B and went on to top their group. Stars like Anitha Paul Durai, Jeena Scaria, Grima Merlin Varghese, and more all looked in top form with the hope to win the knockout stage and earn promotion to Division A.

By the time the knockout stage arrived, the tournament got ready to face a certain big distraction. Seven-foot-six-inches big, to be exact. In what turned out to be a pleasant surprise, Chinese basketball legend and Basketball Hall of Famer Yao Ming arrived on India to watch the Cup in Bengaluru. Yao, 36, indisputably the most successful Asian basketball player in history, retired from the game in 2011 and is currently the president of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). Without much fanfare, Yao sat in his corner at the Sree Kantaveera Stadium, took in some high-level basketball action, and briefly donned a turban and shawl in a traditional Indian welcome from the Basketball Federation of India (BFI).

Less than 24-hours later, the basketball excitement in India was about to tuned up to a fever pitch. Kevin Durant of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors-the reigning NBA champion, Finals MVP, former MVP, four-time scoring champions, and definitely the greatest player to set foot on Indian soil-landed in New Delhi. The 28-year-old’s mission was to help the development of the sport in India, and from raising public awareness to helping out in the grassroots, and he did all of that in a couple of short days.

Durant was greeted with a happy set of fans when he landed in Delhi, and the fandom got considerably more star-studded at a reception with some of India’s biggest sports and entertainment celebrities on his first night. The next morning: Durant got to work. His foundation donated two basketball courts to the Ramjas School in New Delhi and he interacted with young schoolkids at the courts’ inauguration. Later, Durant headed to the NBA’s state of the art elite India Academy in Greater Noida, where he trained several of India’s top teenage basketball prospects. Durant’s time at the Academy ended up as he was joined by hundreds of more young players from the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme, as well has a few thousand who checked in via a live-stream from around the country, to create a Guinness World Record for “largest basketball lesson” (3,459 attendees).

While Durant was taking cheesy photographs at one of the seven wonders of the world in Agra, the basketball action was heating up down in Bengaluru. India had defeated Lebanon to reach the Division B final, and needed one more victory-against Kazakhstan-to ensure promotion. After falling to a 14-point deficit, India made a brave comeback to ensure that the game came down to one final shot. That shot was delivered by Pune-girl Shireen Limaye, who hit a clutch game-winner as time expired to give India a 73-71 victory and send the fans home more jubilant than a successful shaadi cocktail/sangeet party.

In the midst of all this, the BFI-Indian basketball’s governing body-were finally granted recognition among India’s National Sports Federations after spending a year outside this list by the government’s Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. Two years ago, a drama between two parties competing for the BFI’s executive committee role had split the federation and caused the committee leading Indian basketball to lose support of several national bodies. Last month, the Indian Olympic Association finally granted affiliation to this “new” BFI, and the Sports Ministry decision last week was a cherry on the cake of the successful FIBA Asia Cup.

All in all, yes, it’s been a great few days to be a basketball fan in India. But like every married person know, a successful shaadi is not made by the date of its muhurat; it’s about all the hard work that follows. Indian basketball has enjoyed a fantastic week: now, it’s time to build about this awareness and positive energy and help the game reach the potential it deserves.

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