It’s a familiar and depressing story; talent falling by the wayside because the youngster had no interest in cricket. But that picture may be about to change in basketball as the pros come in.
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY GOPALAKRISHNAN R
Fifteen-year-old Shiba Maggon had just joined the Sports Authority of India (SAI) hostel in Chandigarh when news of her elder sister’s death reached her. On September 18, 1991, 20-year-old Shelly was travelling with five others when their car lurched out of control and fell into the river Nangal, which crosses their hometown of Karnal in Haryana. At the time of her death, Shelly was a member of the Indian korfball and netball teams. Being six feet tall, she was also trying out for the national basketball side and had been selected to the junior India camp just a year earlier on her very first attempt.
Sporting genes run in the Maggon family. Maggon Senior and two of his brothers played university-level cricket, another played college-level basketball, and the eldest brother was a gold medallist shot putter at the all-India university level. “Since we had a joint family, my cousins and siblings made a large group and we used to play many games. I played basketball for the first time in class 5. My uncle hung one chair on the edge of a tree and we had to put the ball through it. Since we didn’t have a basketball, we used a football.”
It was at her sister Shelly’s insistence that she successfully tried out for SAI Chandigarh’s “talent hunt” programme. But Shiba was unsure if basketball was her real calling. Shelly’s death would change all that.
Fighting back her tears, Shiba had found her life’s purpose: to make her sister’s dream come true and play for India. “I wanted to overcome the void caused by my sister’s death in my parents’ life. For that I was willing to do whatever it takes.”
The training regime at SAI hostel comprised two sessions each day, six days a week. The morning session was 5.30 to 7.30 a.m.; evening practice ran from 5 to 7.15 p.m. To ensure she never lagged behind, Shiba added her own workouts before and after team sessions.
“I used to get up at 3.45 a.m. to be on court at 4 a.m., and when my team at SAI came at 5.30 a.m., I was ready to change my kit and wear a new one to train with them. I trained for hours only on one skill and sometimes it was 10 p.m. till I mastered it. I always observed the best players in the boys section, memorised their skills, took them back home and worked on them till I mastered them.”
The toil paid off. Within a year of joining SAI, in 1992, Shiba was named to the junior India team. A chance to make her late sister’s dream come true seemed imminent. However, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) didn’t send in the entries on time and the team couldn’t participate at the Junior Asian Championship in China. The next year, in 1993, Shiba was named in the selection camp for the senior women’s team. “However, the selection camp in Patiala got cancelled due to floods. We were never called back.”
Two years later, in 1995, another opportunity arose of a possible trip to Japan. “After three months of camp and two days of trials for final selections, the secretary-general of BFI said that Japan is very expensive to buy even a toothbrush. We did not know how to react.”
By now, Shiba had spent four years on the junior and senior national squads but had not worn the India jersey even for a minute. Denied international assignments, she needed fresh motivation to keep training. A disillusioned Shiba graduated with a degree in arts from SAI Chandigarh in 1996, and joined Western Railway as a senior clerk. It was at this ebb that coach Ajmer Singh walked into her life.
On a grainy black-and-white Doordarshan telecast of the Senior National Basketball Championship at her home in Karnal, Haryana in 1989, Shiba had watched in awe as 36-year-old Ajmer Singh destroyed his domestic opposition. “His ‘post moves’ were so smooth that it looked as he if was dancing with the ball.” A rough-and-tumble style player who, like Shiba, was from Karnal, Singh had been a giant of Indian hoops for over a decade.
At 6 feet 5 inches, the broad-shouldered Olympian was a towering presence in the “post”: a ten-foot semi-circular block around the basket where points are scored through physicality rather than finesse.
Singh’s signature move was the turnaround fadeaway jumper, where he used to back down his defender, employ a series of shoulder fakes,and then simply shoot the ball over the defender’s outstretched hands, making it impossible to stop. Singh had learnt this move from the late Khushi Ram, another legend who captained India from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.
Both Khushi Ram and Ajmer Singh are Arjuna awardees who dominated at the Asian level. But not a lot is known about them, especially among today’s generation. They played in an era without digital cameras, videos and social media. Khushi Ram, who passed away last December, had once remarked in an interview, “I was mistaken by a youngster for a player’s grandfather. I don’t really blame him, how was he to know about us?”
Ironically, Khushi Ram and Ajmer Singh are two of the more visible stars in a galaxy of forgotten legends. “While media rarely focuses on Indian basketball news, when they do, they never move beyond names like Khushi Ram and Ajmer Singh. There are numerous other players who, despite being non-Arjuna awardees, have contributed tremendously to the game over the years,” says Reginald Rajan, a former India captain from Karnataka.
Most Indian basketball players are employed on sports quotas with government agencies like the Railways, armed forces, public sector companies like ONGC and BSNL, or nationalised banks such as Indian Overseas Bank and Vijaya Bank. On retirement from playing, they integrate into the regular nine-to-five workforce. Some employers like the Railways and MTNL permit their retired players to stay associated with the game as coaches. Ex-India women’s captain Prasanna Jayasankar, when not coaching her Southern Railway women’s side, also doubles up as a junior national selector. Dhyan Chand awardee Ram Kumar is the head coach of the men’s team of the Indian Railway.
A few enterprising stars switch to alternate professions or businesses. Maharashtra’s Rajesh Shrivastav—who is a rare combination of academic and sporting brilliance—works in a software company. Former international Sandeep Raj Bhola owns a business manufacturing and selling equipment in basketball and other sports under the popular brand of Rido. Some succeed in the administrative side. BFI’s former CEO, the late Harish Sharma, was a point guard on the Indian national team in the Seventies. “There are also those who have settled abroad and lost touch with Indian basketball after the end of their playing careers,” says Rajan.
Jayasankar Menon was slightly different from the above crop of Indian basketball stars. While the majority of players, past or present, do not raise their voice against their sporting federations, Menon stood out because he always did. He began his playing career at the Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur. A standout athlete, he quickly rose through the ranks to become a mainstay on the senior national team. In 1996, he was the first Indian to be named an Asian All-Star—a select group of Asia’s finest talent—and captained the senior national team in 1997. He also played test matches (practice or exposure matches) in the United States. Controversy has never been far from him.
“I was overlooked for the Arjuna Award. I have never understood why people have to apply for it. Why can’t the Sports Ministry do its own research?” he says. In 2004, while representing his employer Indian Bank, Chennai, as a player in his twilight years, he was banned by the Tamil Nadu Basketball Association (TNBA) for a brawl on court. “Although six players were disqualified from the match, only I was suspended.” Frustrated, he quit playing altogether and has shunned contact with the BFI and the TNBA events, preferring instead to promote basketball through personal initiatives.
“Through the Professional Basketball Academy (PBA) started by international players—C. V. Sunny, my wife Prasanna Jayasankar and myself in 2001—we have organised three all-India tournaments and two Tamil Nadu state tournaments, apart from other initiatives and coaching camps. I’m not the sort who gets bogged down by obstacles. I just move away and do my own thing.”
Menon is not alone. The powers-that-be in Indian basketball seem to have issues in satisfying the unavoidable demands of exceptional talent. In the mid-1990s, Menon’s international teammate Shahid Qureshi from Mumbai, was equally vocal about the many ills plaguing basketball in India and has now moved permanently to the US. Unlike Menon, who restricted his ire only to the administration, Qureshi also questioned the mindset of Indians participating in international tournaments. “All they want is to go abroad and feel nice about it,” he was quoted as saying in an interview with The Indian Express published on June 5, 1997.
Being one of the earliest Indians to have played in European leagues, Qureshi was critical of the lack of intensity of players in India. “In the US or Europe, you can’t dribble the ball twice without a defensive player jumping down your throat. Even though I’m unfit I can dominate in India.”
Even in the last decade, international stars like 33-year-old S. Robinson, India’s second Asian All-Star, and the mercurial Punjabi point guard T. J. Sahi, have voiced their displeasure at the poor facilities and coaching given to Indian players. As a result of their dissent, both players faced the ire of the administration. Robinson was banned for two years by the TNBA on the pretext of missing a state selection camp in December 2006. He finally cooled down enough to make a comeback for his employers, Indian Overseas Bank in Chennai. On his part, Sahi, still only 27, has chosen to stay away from international assignments and is busy trying his luck with Punjabi pop music videos.
The frustration of these players who have struggled in the face of administrative apathy is understandable. Even today, numerous senior invitational tournaments are played on hard, outdoor cement courts as against the international standard of indoor maple-wood courts. Shockingly, there seems to be zero statistical data available on past players and teams. So while this generation may hear stories of Ajmer Singh being the most feared centre in India, they wouldn’t know even something as basic as the number of points he averaged in his career.
One of the many ways of building a sport’s fanbase is to make the key statistics available to the public which will automatically fan out, leading to enduring discussions of rivalries between teams and players. Without numbers, there are no lasting legacies to develop.
What adds insult to the players’ injuries is that for a large part of their careers, nobody seems to have watched them play. Even at tournament venues, many spectators are actually players from teams which have been knocked out in earlier rounds. “Basketball matches are rarely televised in India. Even if they are, the telecast is deferred. Also, since private operators are not interested in purchasing television rights, it falls onto the shoulders of good old DD Sports to act as the knight in shining armour,” says Vinod Muthukumar, one of the organisers of the Ramu Memorial Basketball Tournament and Savio Cup, two of India’s most prestigious private tournaments for senior professionals.
Even with DD, questions are raised on the quality of the telecasts. There are frequent interruptions (at times in the middle of a live match, the telecast switches abruptly to other sports) and the quality of commentary is generally poor. In many instances, live broadcast is promised and paid for by the BFI, but the match is not shown, much to the chagrin of spectators who switch on the TV only to find reruns of the 2012 London Olympics.
Despite numerous sports being played in the country, print and television seem preoccupied with highlighting cricket matches—whether Ranji, IPL, ODIs or tests. Players from other sports naturally feel resentment towards the gentleman’s game.
“Whatever channel you turn on, it’s cricket, cricket, cricket. The kind of facilities cricketers enjoy is unbelievable. If you come and watch our training sessions and see the amount of work we do, you will say ‘aapko to sazaa ho gayi hai’ (you have been punished),” laments Ranbir Singh Virdi in an earlier interview given to this writer for sportskeeda.com. Virdi, 22, is a charismatic young guard from Punjab who has played on the Indian senior national team.
Practitioners of alternate sports like Virdi are conscious that cricketers aren’t the ones to blame. He is quick to clarify. “I’m not saying cricketers don’t work hard or that they don’t deserve the attention. But the point is that since all television and media broadcasts are dominated by the faces of M. S. Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar, parents see only cricketers and insist that their children take up only cricket. There are other sports as well, you know.”
To be fair, over the last few years, the media has also made household names out of Saina Nehwal and P. V. Sindhu (badminton), Vijender Singh (boxing), and Sushil Kumar (wrestling) because of their world-beating performances. On the contrary, Indian basketball has perennially underachieved at the international level. Our men’s team is currently ranked 61st in the world. The women fare better at 40.
So it can be argued that poor media coverage of Indian basketball is a natural outcome of middling performances and limited fan following compared to other sports. But all said and done, it’s a frustrating chicken and egg situation: do you give media publicity in order to popularise a sport, or do you first wait for Indian sportspersons to succeed internationally before bombarding television and print media with their news?
As Virdi pointed out, more media attention to a sport means that parents are inclined to send their children to a coaching camp for that sport, thinking that it will be a profitable investment in the future. And only with the best talent can India compete internationally.
This impact of the media in popularising the sport is starkly evident in badminton: once Saina Nehwal became the poster girl of Indian badminton, there was a flurry of requests by parents to have their children accepted by the Pullela Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad. A few years prior, when Sania Mirza became the “it girl”, tennis became the sport every girl had to play.
With mainstream media turning the other way, inevitably the online world of blogs and Facebook pages has stepped up to fill the information void on Indian basketball, with news, results, player profiles, and more.
Varanasi native Karan Madhok started the Hoopistani blog in 2009, which is the first-stop shop for everything on Indian basketball. The blog has drawn over 6,00,000 visitors since its inception. It has been cross-referred in established magazines and websites such as The International Herald Tribune, Tehelka, Yahoo! Sports, and Sports Illustrated India. Its popularity is a clear sign of the constructive role media can play in promoting a sport in its formative years.
Explaining the rationale behind his blog, Madhok says, “I was always a big basketball fan and had a background working as a correspondent for The Times of India. So I took my two passions—writing and basketball—and decided to start blogging about everything I liked, from hoops in India to the NBA.”
Madhok is a pioneer of sorts for Indian writers hoping to make a career out of basketball journalism. Apart from the Hoopistani blog (which he updates for free), Madhok writes for international basketball magazines SLAM and CourtSide, and is a featured blogger for NBA.com/India. He is now based out of Beijing, China, a nation where basketball is surprisingly the most popular sport.
“There was no basketball media in India in 2009, just me and a few other mainstream journalists who occasionally wrote about basketball. One exception has been Amit Sampat of The Times of India, who has written a lot about basketball in the last few years, but is still mainly a mainstream correspondent.”
Conventional journalists like Sampat try to cover as many basketball stories as possible within the framework of being a general sports correspondent.
However, often only a shorter version of the story appears in print and the full interview or feature is usually uploaded online.
Shiba’s stint with Western Railway couldn’t have begun on a worse footing. At her first inter-Railways game at Chennai, she played terribly and was full of self-doubt. “The great Ajmer Singh, who was coaching the men’s side, came over to me and gave me a hug, telling me that he trusts me and made me feel at home when I was not playing well.” Coach Ajmer also encouraged her to train with the men’s team which added crucial toughness and physicality to her game.
The tide would turn and by 1997, Shiba finally donned the national colours during the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Asia Championship held in Bangkok, Thailand. “Honestly, the first thing I remember was the smile in my mom’s eyes and my father being proud of me. It wasn’t about personal achievement, but for my sister and my family.”
The floodgates had opened. The next 12 years, from 1997 to 2009, marked the rise of Shiba Maggon, the player. She would travel the world playing test matches in New Zealand, invitational tournaments in Thailand and Malaysia, and even one year of college basketball at Southwestern Oklahoma University in the US. She would play five FIBA Asian Championships and the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, and oversee the next generation of Indian women ballers led by Geethu Anna Jose and Anitha Pauldurai. On the domestic front, she would transfer from Western Railway to MTNL Delhi and lead Delhi to a historic win over the previously unbeatable Indian Railway in the Senior National Championship in 2002.
Indian Railway has been a perennial domestic powerhouse. Prior to 2002, it had won 14 straight titles at the Senior National Championship. At the mention of this enviable record, one would automatically attribute its success to excellent coaching systems coupled with top-class infrastructure. But Indian Railway is no Manchester United, Real Madrid, or Barcelona. Its dominance is rooted in unfortunate circumstances.
The demographic of Indian basketball players has always been contrary to the notion of basketball being a “cool sport” played by the upper or upper-middle classes of society. In India, a majority of players on various semi-professional and national teams belong to the middle or lower middle economic strata. The idea of basketball as an “urban” sport played by the elite may be partly true until the level of schools or colleges, but once these richer kids graduate from college, the lack of monetary benefits and limited employment avenues provided by the sport mean that they quit playing altogether. For many well-off Indian kids, basketball may be their calling, but they convince themselves that it is merely a “means” to an “end”.
Kaif Zia and Yashas Gowda are two promising 20-year-old basketballers currently studying at Jain University, Bangalore. The Jain University team is full of promising talent, who—with the right training—can make a credible attempt to play basketball professionally at the senior level. In January this year, Jain University finished in fourth place in the hugely competitive All-India University Men’s Championship, which features the top 20 university teams from across the nation that qualify after a gruelling series of zonal matches.
As far as college basketball goes, Kaif and Yashas are among the nation’s finest. But ask these two about taking up basketball as a profession, and they will scoff at you. “Vijaya Bank, Bangalore, is Karnataka’s main recruiter of employees on sports quota. But it is difficult for us to think of working there because the starting salary is just Rs.10,000 to Rs.15,000. After college, we’ll quit playing professionally and take up IT jobs in Bangalore,” they say.
It can be contested that if these players are truly passionate about basketball then they should find a way to keep their playing dreams alive and not give excuses. But the issue here is not a player’s passion for his or her craft, but rather the absence of a system or structure that allows for players from middle or upper classes to choose professional basketball without having to make substantial economic sacrifices that currently seem non-negotiable.
In other words, if a youngster from an average middle class family has “choices” before him—i.e., if he can communicate in English reasonably well and has graduated from a recognised university—he will nearly always be compelled to opt for a stable nine-to-five job that maintains his current economic status, rather than pursue the very risky professional sports career.
As of today, the highest that can be earned from playing professional basketball in India is approximately Rs.40,000 to Rs.50,000 a month. This can only happen if the player is both on the ONGC club team (which is the highest paying club in India at around Rs.30,000 per month) as well as on the Indian national team (a one-time annual bonus of Rs.60,000: Rs.30,000 to Rs.35,000 for making it to the national selection camp probables list, plus Rs.30,000 for actually representing India in international tournaments).
In the absence of a professional league in India, Indian basketball players just out of school or college who have taken that hard decision to earn a livelihood from the sport, enter into a tense battle for employment opportunities on sports quota with the Railways and its various divisional branches, central banks (such as Indian Overseas Bank and Vijaya Bank), public telecom companies (such as BSNL and MTNL), state police departments (Punjab Police, Kerala Police, etc.), internal security forces (BSF or CRPF), or in various departments of the armed services (Indian Air Force, Army, and Navy). The job openings are limited and the number of such openings varies each year.
In the case of women, the opportunities are far fewer. For example, while men can get employed on sports quota at all of the above places (the services, public telecom, banks, police departments, and Railways), the women really have nowhere to go but the Railways.
However, the new generation of women basketball players are a hopeful lot. “I can get recruited by Indian Railway or MTNL, as they are the only corporates to offer employment to women basketball players. I wish other companies like ONGC and Indian Overseas Bank would start women’s teams as well (as of now they only have men’s teams). Thankfully, private companies like Honeywell and Mahindra have also started recruiting sportspersons,” says 17-year-old Sruthi Menon, a Maharashtra baller who, despite still being only in class 12, seems well aware of her career options.
So when the Indian Railway boasts of a virtually unbeaten run in the last 20 years at the Senior National Championship, it is simply because it is one of the few establishments that hires women! No advanced coaching programmes or facilities are needed for them to win year after year. Desperate for a job, and coming from families with limited means, the players give it their all every time they step on the floor.
“All that the Indian Railway team has to do is reach the venue and the trophy is pretty much theirs for the taking. I would go to the extent of saying that the Railways should not be included in the nationals. They should just play the champions once it is completed,” says Vinod Muthukumar, the basketball tournament organiser and promoter.
India’s biggest superstars, Kerala’s Geethu Anna Jose and Tamil Nadu’s Anitha Pauldurai, among others, can actually be found in the off-season at the Chennai Central railway station working as ticket inspectors. This is akin to travelling in a train and finding that Harbhajan Singh or Virat Kohli have come to check your ticket.
The 2002 Indian Railway team featured a star-studded team that included national team players Ivy Cherian, Anju Lakra, Seema Singh, Manisha Dange, and Sofi Sam, among others. Earlier, in a rare recruitment drive, MTNL Delhi snapped up Rajalakshmi, Asha Hegde, and Divya Singh, apart from Shiba Maggon. These two best sides, MTNL and Indian Railway, coasted through to the finals of the 2002 Senior National Championship.
Finally, after years of lopsided domination by Indian Railway, the women’s championship would see two even sides battle it out in the summit clash. A seasoned Shiba, now 26, would explode for 38 points to take her side to a historic 14 point win. Unknown to her, a 15-year-old youngster by the name of Akanksha Singh was high up in the stands that night, watching her every move and dreaming of the day when she would be ready to do the same.
Pedalling furiously through the narrow bylanes of the holy city of Varanasi, six-year-old Akanksha Singh desperately wanted to get to the Udai Pratap College grounds before the final whistle. Her elder sisters Divya and Prashanti were stars of the pre-university college basketball team. Akanksha would have made it in time for the opening tip had she not tried to round up her other young friends to come with her as well. She cursed under her breath, which she could only take in short bursts.
Entering the school gates, she could already hear the deafening roar of the crowds. Divya and Prashanti had taken UP College to another impressive victory. Grinning from ear to ear and trembling with excitement, Akanksha joined the swarming crowds onto the court. While her sisters were being patted on their back by school coach Amardeep Singh, Akanksha—like most of the other youngsters present—gleefully began slapping the ball ferociously all around the court. Coach Singh gave her a toffee and asked her to return the next day for proper training.
At that stage, nobody could anticipate that one of India’s most unique basketball dynasties was being formed. Popularly known as the fab four of Indian basketball, four of the five Singh sisters—Divya (30), Prashanti (28), Akanksha (24), and Pratima (23)—have played on the Indian senior national team. It is not just all women in the Singh family: youngest brother Vikrant Solanki played basketball for Uttar Pradesh at the under-16 level and has just joined Delhi University (DU). Eldest sister Priyanka Singh led the way by picking up the sport at UP College and went as far as playing for the Uttar Pradesh team in the Nineties before getting married and settling in Thailand as a physical education instructor in an international school. Sister number two, Divya Singh, went one step further, playing for India. “No doubt Priyanka and Divya made things easier for us. They showed us the way,” says Akanksha.
Akanksha Singh—also known as bachhi or “little one” because of her relatively small (by basketball standards) 5 feet 6 inches frame—first made it to the under-13 Uttar Pradesh team and then progressed through the age groups, playing on the under-14 and under-16 teams. At her sister Divya’s advice, she moved to Delhi and joined St. Stephens College on sports quota in 2006.
In 2007, while still studying at St. Stephens, Akanksha was named in the senior Indian team for the FIBA Asia Tournament in Korea. It was a moment to cherish for the Singh household: three sisters—Divya, Prashanti, and now Akanksha—playing together on the Indian team.
While at St. Stephen’s, she organised a college basketball league in 2008 for the various sister colleges that fall under the DU umbrella. The initiative was an interesting experiment and Akanksha claims that it was one of India’s first basketball leagues of its kind at the college level. Akanksha was advised to begin this league on a trial basis by none other than the BFI’s late CEO, Harish Sharma, as a means to iron out the logistics for a much more comprehensive nation-wide league for schools and colleges.
Matches were held at four venues (St. Stephens, Ramjas College, Jesus and Mary College and Sri Venkateswara College) across 10 days, and eight DU teams participated. Akanksha knew the heads of departments of most of these colleges and this helped her in getting permission to play music during these matches (“otherwise all colleges are very strict about discipline”, she says). Akanksha also managed to rope in sponsorship money from companies like ONGC and Cosco, so much so that the BFI didn’t have to spend a single rupee. “Even normal students who didn’t know a lot about basketball came and cheered their respective teams.”
The league was a huge success and Akanksha even contemplated quitting playing altogether to join BFI on a full-time basis. “Harish sir said he was preparing me for the bigger picture. Since I’ve played internationally, I know the players’ interests and would have loved to work on the administrative side.”
The benefits of a league at any level of play are immense: year-round playing opportunities as opposed to unstructured tournaments organised at the drop of a hat; and better scheduling and predictability in matches. This allows for not only better preparation by players and teams, but also gives confidence to investors who can then advertise or even purchase teams and players.
Prospective leagues will also lead to opening up of ancillary job opportunities in blue (building new stadia and refurbishments of existing structures) and white (marketing, player and event management) collar sectors. As teams compete and gain recognition, there will be healthy competition and inevitable rivalries that will develop over time. The management of each of these teams (in case of school and college teams, the school or college board) will begin to earmark dates and finances to build sports facilities; they will also slowly realise that sports achievements are also an effective way to increase their popularity and brand. In the US, college and school leagues are extremely well-organised and act as a natural feeder for future players to be propelled into the big league.
The loss of Harish Sharma, Akanksha’s mentor and guide, led to a renewed focus in her performance. She forged ahead into the senior side and got significant playing minutes under then head coach Tamika Raymond. However, the last two years have seen Akanksha battling persistent knee injuries and she has been going for regular rehab and strength work so as to mount a comeback. She has had to bear all these expenses without support from the BFI.
She says, “Before all this talk of a national league, we need training academies first. In Dongguan, China, inside a single basketball academy there is a gym, two rehab centres and eight basketball courts across two floors. Why can’t we have an academy like that in India which will be open to all our players?”
After passing the playing baton to Jose, Pauldurai and the Singh sisters, Shiba finally retired from playing in December 2010. Immediately, at the behest of Harish Sharma, she turned her attention towards coaching, which by her own admission was more demanding than playing.
“A player has to worry only about making himself better, but a coach is responsible for the fate of her players as individuals and as a collective,” explains Shiba on her Facebook page. Shiba is one of the earliest basketball coaches in India to harness the huge advantages of social media in reaching out to talented youngsters in different parts of the country. She has over 6,000 followers combined for her Facebook and Twitter accounts.
In March 2011, she was appointed as coach of the under-18 junior Indian women’s team. Out of the 12 young girls in the squad, one player literally stood out at 6 feet 9 inches: Poonam Chaturvedi. Chaturvedi would have never been noticed had it not been for pathbreaking coach Rajesh Patel and his game-changing basketball academy in the unassuming industrial city of Bhilai, Chhattisgarh.
On November 2000, when Chhattisgarh was carved out of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, along with the copious amounts of steel, what was also transferred to Chhattisgarh was a portly moustached man with a law degree. Rajesh Patel is perhaps the shrewdest basketball coach and strategist in India. In 2001, from the time he accepted the post of manager (sports) at the Bhilai Steel Plant, he has been steadily and systematically building one of India’s finest grassroots basketball programmes.
Patel’s method is simple. He identifies the state’s most talented youngsters, many of whom come from deprived conditions, and brings them to the fully residential Bhilai Steel Plant Academy.
The residential academy houses about 20 girls and 10 boys who train together all year round. All expenses—such as tuition fees, playing kits, school books, and boarding and lodging—are paid for. Most of these players, upon graduating from school, get employed at the Bhilai Steel Plant itself, a fantastic opportunity for securing a livelihood for players from very disadvantageous economic conditions. In return, Patel asks them to give it their all on the basketball court.
The incalculable advantages of players on a team spending every minute of every day with your teammates throughout the year is starkly evident in the case of Chhattisgarh. Patel’s record speaks for itself. As chief coach of the sub-junior, youth, junior and senior women teams of Madhya Pradesh (1995-2001) and Chhattisgarh (2001 till date), he has won a combined 53 gold medals, 12 silver medals, and 17 bronze medals. Thirty-five of his players have gone on to play internationally, and 1,200 of his players have got scholarships at various levels. Four out of the eight youngsters chosen for the prestigious BFI-IMG Reliance Scholarship at the world-class IMG Academy in Florida are from Chhattisgarh. Patel has trained a staggering 15,000 players in all, after 42 tireless years of coaching.
The Chhattisgarh story is a striking example of how clean, efficient and passionate administration of a sport from the grassroots can produce the nation’s best results year after year. “Why don’t other larger states with superior basketball talent follow this model?” is a question that needs to be answered by other state basketball federations.
The National Basketball Association, simply known as the NBA, is the richest basketball league in the world. It is said that cricket’s Indian Premier League is borrowed from the NBA model. The recently retired David Stern, NBA’s long serving commissioner for the last 30-odd years, understood early enough that basketball is a sport with potential appeal far beyond the shores of the US. Michael Jordan’s soaring superstardom in the Nineties helped glamourise the sport across the globe. Television audiences in far-flung corners of the world sat up and took notice when Jordan led his Chicago Bulls franchise to a historic sixth NBA Final’s Championship win in 1998.
Jordan would soon retire, but he had done enough to ensure that the NBA transformed from a league of American players into a truly international league. In the 2013-2014 NBA season, 92 foreign players from 39 different countries featured on the opening day rosters.
The last three decades or so has seen NBA focus greatly on China, and its efforts have certainly paid off. Basketball is now the most popular sport in China, a country long associated with badminton or table tennis. Undoubtedly, Yao Ming, the first player from China to play in the NBA, has had a huge contribution in spreading the NBA brand far and wide on both sides of the Great Wall.
After successfully expanding to the Chinese market, India—with its 1.24 billion population—seems the logical next step for the NBA. In 2011, the NBA opened its first and only office in India in Mumbai. Promisingly, they seem to prefer a bottom-up approach to popularising the game in India, focusing on developing the sport from the grassroots. NBA’s most recognisable face in India is that of its senior director of basketball operations (international), 47-year-old Troy Justice. Justice has travelled the length and breadth of the country in the last few years in an effort to get a true picture of a sport that is played across different states, cultures and age groups.
The result of all this backbreaking groundwork has been the creation of three marquee events: the Mahindra NBA Challenge; the 3×3 NBA Jam; and the Junior NBA programme.
The Mahindra NBA Challenge is a multi-city recreational community league, begun in 2010. Since it is recreational in nature, league matches are held only on weekends and its focus is on growing basketball participation and promoting healthy, active lifestyles in Indian communities. Three editions of the Mahindra NBA Challenge have been held so far, with the last one concluding in 2012.
The 3×3 NBA Jam was started with the idea of popularising the NBA brand and the shortest form of basketball (three players on each team as against the standard five) among the nation’s youth. Both the Mahindra NBA Challenge and the NBA Jam have been held in multiple cities across many age groups (12 to 13, 14 to 16, 16 to 18, 19 to 23, and senior), culminating in a star-studded national finals attended by Bollywood celebrities and NBA stars.
The Junior NBA programme, a tie-up between Reliance Foundation and the NBA, is a grassroots initiative in schools which begun in 2013 in Mumbai and Kerala, and which will slowly expand to other cities and states. Young players and coaches are trained by international coaches on the health benefits of following an active playing lifestyle. Participants are familiarised with an “NBA curriculum” that explains the correct nutrition, sleep, stretching, fitness and skills that every basketball player must learn to follow.
In late 2010, the BFI announced a 30 year partnership with IMG-Reliance (a joint venture between IMG Worldwide—a global sports, fashion and media business—and Reliance Group, India’s largest company) to develop basketball at every stage, from grassroots to a professional league. The BFI has granted IMG-Reliance commercial rights including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights.
While these are still early days for the three-year young partnership, the BFI-IMG-R tie-up, orchestrated by Harish Sharma, has already led to creation of visibly better infrastructure (new stadia and gyms), foreign coaching staff for the national teams across different age groups, more exposure trips abroad, better organisation of national tournaments, and more financial rewards.
Most significantly, without any media fanfare, BFI-IMG has steadily (some would even say stealthily) already organised three editions of a pan-India school league and two editions of a national college league. The school league, which began with two cities in 2010, expanded to three cities in 2011-12, five cities in 2012-13, and eight cities for the latest 2013-14 edition. Similarly, the college league, which began a year later in 2011 in Delhi and Chennai, has now expanded to Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Indore, Kolkata and Ludhiana. The current 2013-14 edition is seeing as many as 20 teams each in boys and girls compete in each city, which will then be capped off by a national championship this summer.
Both the BFI-IMG-Reliance conglomerate and NBA India are doing excellent work at the grassroots level, and they need to continue expanding their programmes beyond cities to smaller towns and villages to truly spread the game of basketball in India and break the notion of the “eliteness” of the sport.
Opportunities are undoubtedly increasing for players and others alike in the sport. One needs to look no further than Shiba Maggon, who continues her trail-blazing ways in Indian basketball. Besides succeeding as a player and a coach, in 2008, she also became one of India’s first FIBA-certified international referees. At the 63rd Senior National Basketball Championship in Ludhiana in 2013, she did live commentary for the men’s semi-finals on DD Sports. Until recently, she also served as the lead coordinator for the NBA from the Delhi region. Along with her husband, she is now studying the market to consider the possibilities of launching a “Shiba Maggon” line of basketball accessories.
The possibilities seem endless, or at least that’s what Shiba would have us believe. She says, “As the late Harish Sharma once told me, ‘One alone cannot make a difference but one alone can start the revolution’.”
(Gopalakrishnan R is an independent basketball writer in Bangalore. He frequently travels all over the country to document the nation’s most important tournaments for ekalavyas.com, an alternate sports media initiative he co-created. )
The elevation of mahant Adityanath, head of the Gorakhnath temple, as Uttar Pradesh chief minister shows exactly how far we have come on the road to Hindutva since May ...
The initial announcement that rendered their savings useless came as a shock and spelled disaster to the powerless poor, with no bank accounts and debts to usurers. But ...
Number of issues 12 nos | Yearly cover price INR 600 | Yearly offer price INR 400