January 2, 2018

Indian hoop dreaming-From makeshift school courts to a Jr. NBA World Championship

This article was first published in my 'Hoopistani' column for The Times of India Sports on December 23, 2017. Click here to read the original version.

I was ten or eleven years old when I first began to play basketball. There was only a small concrete ground available in those days for junior-school kids in my boarding school in Mussoorie. There were no clear demarcation lines, and the estimated length from basket to basket was about two-thirds the size of a regulation court. On one side was a regulation-height rim on a pole with a wooden backboard. On the other side, instead of a pole, there was an old deodar tree, where someone had nailed a backboard against the trunk. We were sure that this rim was a lower than ten feet.

So many of my earliest memories of the game are tied to this makeshift “court”. The high Himalayan altitude, the cold winter air, and sometimes, even homework couldn’t hold us back. My friends and I took part in intense half-court and full-court games, intra-dorm tournaments, and other challenges like “Knockout” or “Air-21”.

Often, a dozen of us would just stand around the basket after dinner for random shootarounds where the rules were simple: you only get the ball if you can rebound it over everyone else, and you can keep the ball as long as you keep scoring. The hunger to have possession of the ball gave me a keen sense of rebounding and forced me to work on my mid-range game. We had to be careful not to throw or pass the ball too hard: on one end, we had offices and dorm-rooms; on the other, there was only a twenty-feet tall fence that separated us from the khud of jungle in the mountain-drop. If the ball bounced down the mountain, well, sorry brother, day or night, you have to go get it.

I fell in the love with basketball, of course, and as time passed, I played on better courts at a higher level, and I stayed addicted to the game as a grew older. I had dreams of greater hoops glory, of course: dreams of playing for my school, or for the Indian national team, or counting down “3…2…1…” and hitting the buzzer-beating game-winner in the NBA Finals.

But I realised very early that these fantasies would remain fantastical. I knew that, despite the opportunities I got, it was already too little, too late.

Fortunately, a new generation of young Indian players can bring their fantasies closer to reality than my peers and I ever could. For this new generation of young hoop dreamers, the NBA is coming closer to India.

Partnering with the Reliance Foundation, the NBA made their most serious advance into grassroots basketball development in India in 2013, launching the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme, with plans to instruct over 100,000 school-kids. Fast-forward four years, and the 2017-18 season of the programme is aiming to engage more than 45 lakh youth from 34 cities nationwide. NBA-affiliated coaches are helping shape physical education curricula in schools and training coaches how to coach the right way. A new generation of kids, who would worry about the ball bouncing down the khud, could now have more opportunities to leap forward in the game than ever before.

In 2018, the best of these young talents will go international. Earlier this week, the NBA announced the inaugural Jr. NBA World Championship, a first-of-its-kind competition that will feature the top boys and girls teams ages 14-and-under from the United States and around the world.

The championship will tip off in spring 2018 around the world, featuring boys and girls divisions, each comprising 16 regional champions (eight US and eight international teams). The winning boys and girls teams from eight newly-created USA regional tournaments (Central, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Northeast, Northwest, South, Southeast and West), plus teams representing eight international regions (Africa & Middle East, Asia Pacific, Canada, China, Europe, India, Mexico and South America), will compete in the culminating event at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Osceola County, Florida, from August 7-12, 2018.

India will send two teams to the competition: one boys’, one girls’. The top performers in the 5-on-5 competitions from the Reliance Foundation Jr NBA Program will make for a city All-Star Team. One boys’ and one girls’ team from each of the eight participating cities will be selected to compete in a National Final. The winners of the National Final will then represent India at the Jr NBA World Championship.

The NBA has appointed Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dwyane Wade and Los Angeles Sparks forward Candace Parker as the lead global ambassadors for the World Championship. The championship could be basketball’s answer to the baseball’s popular international “Little League”.

This is fantastic news not just for young Indian players, but for youth basketball around the world. True, it is only a miniscule fraction of players that will actually get to play in the final event, but the dream of playing in a major junior international tournament should trickle down and inspire young players around the country.

Whether you’re a kid like I was--shooting baskets at a tree-trunk—or an elite young athlete suiting up for India’s youth teams, this is an exciting new development. The opportunity to compete for the best junior teams in India should propel the competitive spirit of more young players, and reward the best ones with an opportunity to showcase their skills at a global stage.

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