March 31, 2013

Guangdong sweep Shandong to win 8th Chinese Basketball Association Championship

The Chinese Basketball league is now 18 years old, just entering its state in adulthood. And in its 18th season, the league took another big jump into respectability, featuring a better-than-ever mix of new superstar players and well-coached teams. But by the time the dust settled and the CBA Finals came to an end, the glory belonged to one of the league’s traditional powerhouses again. The Guangdong Southern Tigers, in their 11th consecutive trip to the CBA Finals (!), won the title in a dominating 4-0 sweep over the Shandong Lions. This victory gave Guangdong their eighth CBA Championship, tying them with the Bayi Rockets for most championships won in China.

After a surprise loss to the Beijing Ducks in the Finals last year, Guangdong made sure that there will be no upsets this time around. Guangdong beat Shandong by an average of 13 points per game in the four-game sweep. Yi Jianlian of the Southern Tigers – who was named the domestic MVP of the league – also won the Finals MVP award, averaging 20 points and 11.3 rebounds per game in the Finals. In the clinching game at home in Guangdong, Yi had 24 and 13 to lead five players in double figures to win the game 94-74 and lift the trophy.

The result was never in doubt. Guangdong have been the most consistently dominant team in China for over a decade, and after a surprise loss to Beijing in the Finals last year, bounced back this season on a mission for redemption. Guangdong went 28-4 through the course of the season, finishing at top place in the league. Guangdong have the advantage of featuring the top Chinese players, many of whom comprise the backbone of China’s national team. Returning from an unsuccessful NBA stint, Yi Jianlian was back to becoming the poster-boy of the league and the best player for Guangdong. The team also featured Wang Shipeng and Zhu Fangyu. Unlike many other teams in China, Guangdong made better use of the foreigners in their squad, who weren’t asked to dominate but asked to become a part of the system. In the playoffs, Ike Diogu and Donald Sloan became an important part of their rotation, while Terrence Williams was cut at the end of the season and joined the Boston Celtics.

Guangdong continued their dominant run into the post-season, going undefeated throughout to win a championship, defeating Zhejiang and Xinjiang 3-0 and 3-0 in the first and second rounds respectively before the Finals sweep over Shandong.

It was the end of a fairytale season for Shandong. The Lions ended last season as one of the worst teams in the league, but the addition of Jordanian Zaid Abbas to the core of American players Jackson Vroman and Pooh Jeter helped this team finish in second place in the season and pull an surprising 3-0 victory over the defending champions Beijing in the semi-finals of the playoffs.

Guangdong’s victory once again highlights the disparity of talent and coaching in the league. Out of the 18 CBA seasons, two teams – Bayi and Guangdong – have won 16 of the titles. Bayi dominated the league in its early days, but ever since other teams began to pay big money to talented foreign players, Bayi – the Army team who doesn’t allow foreigners – slowed down. And ever since, the championship has mostly belonged to Guangdong. The only other teams in China to lift the titles have been the Shanghai Sharks with Yao Ming back in 2002, and the Beijing Ducks led by Stephon Marbury last year.

This season, which began with the hype of former NBA All Stars like Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas joining the league, finally belonged to a Chinese player, Yi Jianlian. Yi, who got his start in Guangdong, tried his luck in the NBA, and then returned to Guangdong and to glory again. The scary thing about Guangdong’s dominance is that the team and the system seem to have gotten stronger as the season progressed, and there is no reason why they wouldn’t be at the top of the hill once again this time next year. Even a potential loss of Yi to the NBA (if he gets a chance to return) may not stand in their way.

March 28, 2013

27 Games Later

For that period of 54 days, the defending champions Miami Heat did not lose a single game, winning all 27 of their contests and clocking in the second-greatest winning streak in NBA history.

What we witnessed, what every NBA fan and sports observer – casual or serious – saw over the past two months, was a team at the apex of its powers, a team doing what few others have done before. In 65 years of the NBA, we have rarely before come across a collection of 12-15 basketball-playing individuals that make together such a successful whole. Whether we like it or hate it, we should savour it.

Right now, this is a team that seems to be fulfilling its potential, fulfilling on the promise that they made to their fans and to themselves of becoming one of the greatest teams of all-time.

Click here to read full article

March 25, 2013

Healthy Body; Healthy Minds: Best NBA Players turned Coaches

Being an NBA Head Coach is a terribly competitive job, and holding one of those 30 available positions is definitely a rare honour for those in the basketball coaching profession. But is it necessary to have NBA experience to be an NBA Head Coach? Common knowledge says no; a lot of big name coaches, such as Gregg Popovich and Larry Brown have been successful in recent years without playing a minute in the NBA. But if you look at the list of the current 30 head coaches today, you’ll notice that 19 of them – over 63 percent – have had NBA playing experience.

In no particular order, here are the top five players-turned-coaches.

Click here to read full feature.

March 23, 2013

Indian software tycoon Vivek Ranadivé joins bid to keep Kings in Sacramento

Vivek Ranadivé – the Indian-born software giant and the owner of billion-dollar software company TIBCO – has joined the team bidding to keep the NBA’s Kings in the city of Sacramento. Ranadivé, who currently owns a share of the California neighbours Golden State Warriors, will join a team led by health-club financier Mark Mastrov and billionaire Ron Burkle.

As you may have already heard, the current owners of the Kings – the Maloof Family – are looking to sell the franchise to its highest bidder, and the highest bidder up to this point seemed to be another tech-inspired group from Seattle, led by Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer and Chris Hansen. If their bid is successful, the Kings would move to the city of Seattle and mark the comeback of the Seattle Supersonics, who moved to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder back in 2008.

The Kings have been in Sacramento since 1985-86. A few weeks ago, NBA Commissioner David Stern announced that the only way the franchise could remain in the city after this season was if Sacramento’s bid was as large as the bid from the Seattle group.

Enter Ranadivé: on Thursday March 21, Ranadivé confirmed that he has joined Burkle and Mastrov to become the third major investor in an attempt to purchase the Kings and keep them in Sacramento. Ranadive extended his support to Sacramento Mayor and former NBA player Kevin Johnson via Twitter.

"Looking forward to supporting @KJ_MayorJohnson as we work towards keeping the @SacramentoKings where they belong. #HereWeStay" Ranadivé tweeted. "Excited to be a part of the revitalization of a great community and the globalization of an amazing franchise."

Born in Mumbai, Ranadivé – a graduate from MIT and a post-graduate from Harvard – founded software company TIBCO in 1997 and is the company’s CEO. He has also authored two books: The Power of Now (1999), The Power to Predict (2006), and most recently, The Two-Second Advantage (2011). He became co-owner and vice chairman of the Golden State Warriors in 2010, making him the first person of Indian descent to own an NBA franchise. Ranadivé has helped bring Indian flavour to the Warriors as the team has held ‘Bollywood Night’ annually for the past three seasons.

If Ranadivé’s bid to the buy the Kings is successful, he will have to sell his share with the Warriors.

Ranadivé’s role is yet another interesting twist in the ever-growing drama surrounding the future of the Kings. It is yet unclear why Ranadivé will want to give up his growing legacy with the Warriors, with whom he seems to have been a successful owner for the past three years. He has been able to engage with the Oakland Indian community as well as spread the message of basketball to Indians back home. The Warriors are enjoying their best season in over a decade and currently stand at a comfortable sixth place in the Western Conference standings.

It’s an intriguing tug-of-war between West coast cities and basketball teams. Seattle wants the Supersonics back, and Sacramento wants to keep the Kings. And now, the Indian owner of the Golden State Warriors Warriors now wants to own the Kings in Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins better be worth it.

The NBA’s Board of Governors will make a final decision about the Kings’ possible relocation by mid-April.

March 22, 2013

Sim Bhullar: Small Step for a Giant; Giant Step for Indian Basketball

Sim Bhullar – a 20-year-old 7-foot-5 giant Center of Indian heritage from Toronto – helped carry his New Mexico State side into the NCAA Men’s Tournament only to be defeated in the opening round to heavy favourites Saint Louis. The tallest player in US college basketball this year, Bhullar didn’t have a great game and the Billikens easily outran his team to victory.

Relative to all the other hoopla surrounding college basketball this time of the year, this was a small step for Sim Bhullar. But the college freshman has the potential to turn it into a giant step for his own career, and for the growth of other Indian/South Asian basketball players around the world.

Click here to read full feature!

March 20, 2013

Zero Sum Game: Gilbert Arenas resurrects his career in Shanghai - Q&A

I wrote this article for SLAM China magazine, who published the Chinese translation of the feature as the back cover story in their Issue # 102. Here is the original English version of the story and Q-and-A, first published on on March 14, 2013.


That’s the number behind Gilbert Arenas’ newest jersey, right below Chinese characters that probably say his name, but Arenas has to ask his agent to confirm if that’s true. It’s his cover photo shoot for SLAM China and—despite the past few years away from the limelight—he’s as comfortable being a star in front of the camera as he’s ever been. It’s Shanghai in 2013, and it’s far away in space and time from the NBA world in which he once thrived. Like most foreigners in China, he has been assigned a different, Chinese name by the media and the fans: Gi Le. It’s a new country, a new fanbase, brand new teammates.

The injuries still haven’t fully healed, but this year, Arenas was back on the court, back playing big minutes for the Shanghai Sharks and back putting up big numbers. He had big scoring nights—like the time he put up 45 points against Fujian—and streaky scoring nights—like the time he scored 12 points in about two minutes against Guangdong. He averaged close to 10 rebounds a game and he’s had clutch moments, like the time he hit a game-winner on the road against Jiangsu. He was smiling on the court and punking his teammates off of it.

Gilbert Arenas seemed to be Gilbert Arenas once again.

The past five dark years seem forgotten. Here is a man re-embracing the game he loves, re-embracing the fans who love him back, and re-embracing himself. Here is a man re-embracing Zero.


The number that, when drawn, begins and ends at the same point, closing in a neat circle. 0. The number that by itself represents no value but in its completion represents a complete 360-degree journey that starts and ends at the same point.

In the NBA, there were All-Star appearances; Playoffs performances; a blog and social media outreach that made him so popular’ hilarious catch-phrases, nicknames and pranks; a dangerous jester who was jovial and happy off the court and a stone-cold monster on it. There was love and there was admiration. There was a rise from the NBA Draft’s second round pick to the NBA’s elite.

And then came the fall.

There were injuries. There was failure. There were losses. There was a gun in a locker room. There was a suspension. There was probation. There was a big contract that was never fulfilled. There was hate and there was criticism.

Arenas’ time with the Wizards was over, and he never seemed to recover from the injuries, the gun-incident with Javaris Crittenton, the suspensions that followed. He started the 2010-11 season by changing his jersey number to ‘9’, hoping for new beginnings.

Over the next few years, he played scarce minutes as a backup for the Orlando Magic and the Memphis Grizzlies. The fire was gone. The ‘Hibachi’ nights—where his shooting hand was so hot that he hilariously compared himself to a Japanese frill—were now few and far between. Gone were the scoring outbursts, the big shoe contracts, and gone was the jovial prankster. Number 9 became Number 1 and then Number 10. A superstar became a journeyman.

So he took a calculated risk. He followed the footsteps of other former NBA All-Stars who itched to continue playing the game they loved at a high level but were denied the opportunities they used to enjoy in their heydays. Like Stephon Marbury and, most recently, Tracy McGrady, Arenas came to China.

He was signed to the Shanghai Sharks, the team owned by the greatest Chinese player of all time, Yao Ming. Before his NBA accomplishments, Yao lead the Sharks to their greatest stretch in the CBA, making the Finals from 2000-2002 and winning a championship in his final year there. The Sharks have been on a steady decline since Yao’s departure, but in Arenas, the former-player-turned-owner brought in the team’s biggest ray of hope since himself.

Things didn’t exactly go as planned. Six minutes into his Shanghai debut against Stephon Marbury’s championship-winning Beijing Ducks, Arenas pulled out with a groin injury. He missed the next nine games, came back in mid-January, but three games later was sidelined with an aggravation to his groin once again. He ended up missing another eight contests, and during this time, he flew back to the US for regenokine treatment shots.

Ever since his return, Arenas has finally been able to string together a long stretch of games, and appeared for the Sharks in the last 11 games of the season. But it may be too little too late; the Sharks played 17 out of their total 32 regular season games without their star player. In a league that relies heavily on the contribution of foreign players, the Sharks stumbled to the bottom of the CBA rankings with only DJ White (now signed to the Celtics) playing consistent minutes all season.

Despite the failings, there seems to be a sense of optimism in the Sharks’ locker room, boosted by Arenas’ late season return and the energy that he has been bringing both on and off the floor. Former NBAers and other foreigners in China usually go one of two ways: there are the types who live alienated to the other Chinese players, using China just as a vehicle to get a shot back into the NBA; and then there are the types who make a concentrated effort to become a part of the culture around them and hint at the possibility of a long-term stay. Stephon Marbury—who has been in China four years and won a championship last season—is amongst the latter. Arenas has taken the early steps to become a part of his team, too, and not just a temporary-foreigner-for-hire.

Arenas has also taken an active role in his relationship with the fans in China. After flirting with numbers 9, 1 and 10, he gave the people what they wanted—Agent Zero—and adopted number 0 for his jersey in Shanghai. Always known to be an entertaining—if mildly controversial—presence on social media, Arenas opened a Weibo account even before he had a guaranteed contract in China, and has since been interacting with his fanbase directly and personally. For one home game in late January, he even bought 888 tickets to hand out free for his quickest-responding Weibo followers. He is seen around town in Shanghai regularly, from malls and electronic showrooms to expat-favorite restaurants.

“Not all American players in China can really immerse themselves into the team,” says Simon Cote, an assistant coach with the Sharks. “But Gilbert has been very open-minded about China. He has done a great job in really getting into the mix.”

Cote adds, “We definitely needed him this season, because in China, it’s tough to win with just one American in your team. But even though he couldn’t be on the floor all time, he has helped us in creating a great team atmosphere and given confidence to some of the younger guys.”

The CBA regular season ended in mid-February with the Sharks in the bottom rungs of the final standings. Like most foreigners in China, Arenas’ future here is still uncertain. But he seems to be comfortable in his new life in Shanghai—China’s most cosmopolitan city—and his rejuvenated role as his team’s primary scorer. Coach Cote remains optimistic about his future.

“I think that he wants to come back to the team,” Cote says. “It really depends on who the Head Coach is next season and what system he plays. Foreigners in China get better the longer they stay. It took Stephon Marbury three years to start playing at a championship level. Gilbert hasn’t been here too long, but I think that there is definitely a chance that he can return.

The circle seems to be nearly complete. The number 0 has returned to the back of his jersey. And the character zero has made its way around, a complete 360 degrees, from rise to fall to rise again. He may not be “Hibachi” any longer, but he’s still got a hot hand, is still capable of grilling defenders that stand in his way, still able to be the type of teammate that can bring joy to himself and the players around him.

He is back to Zero.

With a few weeks left in the season, Arenas spoke to SLAM in Shanghai about settling into his new city, forging relationships with his new teammates, his experiences in the CBA, interacting with fans via social networks, and much more.

SLAM: First off: How are you enjoying Shanghai?

Gilbert Arenas: It’s been going good. I’ve finally had a chance to enjoy myself over the last few weeks, and that’s because I’ve been playing. When you’re playing you get to actually go out and enjoy. But before I just stayed in the room—you know the whole time it was like, why have fun if you’re hurt?

SLAM: I’ve heard you have been out and about around town, which is something that foreign players don’t do too often in China. They usually just stay in.

GA: Yup. China is known for electronics and I love electronics. I’m usually at the DVD store. I’m always the mall, at the electronics store, buying video games and stuff like that.

SLAM: Well, it’s great to see you back, and back on the court. What is your role like with the Sharks? Are you looking to facilitate more or do you have a green light on offense?

GA: It’s a green light. I can go out there and basically do what I wanna do. But you still gotta win games and you still gotta help your teammates get better. It’s not about this year because we’re so far from the playoffs; it’s about getting them prepared for next season.

SLAM: I’ve also noticed that your rebound numbers have skyrocketed.

GA: It’s just part of the game. I’m just playing, being at the right place at the right time. I think I had four-to-five double-doubles in a row. I think my guys are boxing out against good big players, so someone has to rebound.

SLAM: You were known to always have a good relationship with your teammates in the NBA. From the looks of it, it seems that trend is continuing in Shanghai, too.

GA: Well, when it’s your teammate, you’re around them more than your family members. You’re there with them on long bus rides, in locker rooms. So if you don’t have a good relationship with them, you’re at a loss. Even though we have that language barrier, we still get our points across.

SLAM: Some jokes need no translation.

GA: Some jokes don’t!

SLAM: It’s been a tough season for the Sharks and for yourself, especially considering your injury layoff. The season is so short, you miss 10 games, and you miss a third of the season. How did you deal with being off the court?

GA: It was rough, man. You know, when I came, it was like everything was rushed. I didn’t get a chance to jell with the players, the trainers, the medical staff. So once I got hurt it was like, What? Am I going back home? Am I getting cut? It was going so fast. Only these last two weeks I’ve gotten to know the players on the court. Off the court I’ve already been hanging out with them and getting to know their vibe.

SLAM: And you did go back home for a while.

GA: Yeah, I went back to get the regenokine shots. It’s what people get to take away pain and help with arthritis. So I took them thinking that it could help my groin—take away the pain, at least. Heal a little bit faster. It basically took away the pain. The injury’s still there, it just took away the pain.

SLAM: Do you feel that there’s been a return to the spring in your step since you got those shots?

GA: Nah, nah. Not even close. With the tear that’s still there, I can’t push off or jump like I want to. I can’t move well side to side. It took away everything I built on over the summer.

SLAM: But it does seem like the joy in your game is back. Being back on the court, back with teammates…

GA: You know, that’s all basketball is. If someone loves something, and you take it away, it’s like, what does he do now? What does someone do? That’s what happened with me in the last couple of years in the NBA when I went to Orlando, and then I got benched. And I was in Memphis and I wasn’t playing. It was just like, why do I wanna keep doing this? So then when I got the chance to come to China to play…OK! As long as I get to play.

SLAM: You’ve always been a step ahead when it comes to your relationship with fans. For the Guangdong game, you gave away 888 tickets to fans in Shanghai. What’s your relationship like with the fans here? How have you embraced Weibo and your fanbase in Shanghai?

GA: Weibo started off difficult because of the language barrier. I can’t read any of the stuff on it in Chinese. So Ge Yang [the team's young Chinese point guard] taught me basically how to text, change pictures, like the little things, so I can get by. Looking at it, I figured out more of it. I comment back to the fans who say things in English. The fans have been good, they make me wanna go out and play. They have always been positive; I haven’t seen anything negative at all. That’s a relief.

SLAM: But you’ve disappeared on Twitter…

GA: Yeah, yeah. Because you know what? Back in the States, I guess it’s just like, when you’re following somebody…[long pause]…As a fan, what do you expect them to do and say? You don’t want them to be who they are [laughs]. I’m a jokester, so when I was joking on Twitter, it kinda rubbed people the wrong way. And I was like, I didn’t make these up. I’m just letting you know they’re there.

And then they gave high fives to all the players who say like the most obvious textbook answers in the world. It’s like after each game, you already know what they’re going to say. If they lost: “Ahh… Tough loss.” It’s like, come on, how do you guys fall for that? And if they something that they really feel, everyone goes crazy. Like “Oohh! He’s spazzing out!” Now he gotta say sorry for saying something he really felt. It’s like, Oh lord.

SLAM: So do you have long-term plans in China? What do you see for yourself in the future here?

GA: 32 games a year. Maximum 36 minutes. That’s all I need at this point in my career. So as long as China teams want me, I’ll be here.

SLAM: Do you have any plans or hopes to tryout with the NBA again?

GA: Nah! [Shakes head vehemently] Because after this season I can enjoy my family. You know my kids are getting older. Being in the NBA, you don’t really get to enjoy your family life because you’re always on the road, you’re always gone. So, no. After this season will be the first time I’ll get to be with my kids for a long period of time.

SLAM: What’s your relationship like with Yao Ming?

GA: We have our NBA relationship. There are only a few players that you can respect and get along with. So somebody like Yao who’s lovable to everyone—I was going through my jersey collection and I realized that I had six Yao jerseys. I thing I got one jersey that had ‘Ming’ on it. It was his first year, and they got his name wrong.

SLAM: Tell me about life on the road here, about traveling around with the team.

GA: Umm…[Long Pause] Let’s just say some hotels are better than others. [Laughs] You have your ups and your downs. But that’s what you expect coming here.

SLAM: What do you foresee for yourself and the Sharks in the future? This season’s nearly over, but looking forward…

GA: Everyone’s just gotta get better in the summer. Everyone has to do their part to make themselves better. If I’m back here next year, we have to come to the training camp with a mindset of trying to win it all. Right now, you know we have glimpses of being good, and glimpses of being bad. We have our ups and downs just like any team, but we need to get our consistency level higher, and along with that will come maturity. Most of the players in the team are quite young right now. They just need one of those real good summers of working hard.

SLAM: You’ve sort of had a mini-resurrection of your career over here in China. Even though you missed games with injury, just to see you on the court and playing big minutes, it’s a great thing for the fans.

GA: Yeah, you know, that’s all that it was about. Even this year, in the beginning, I was thinking when I got hurt that this has been going on for the last three years of my career. Some little ticky-tack injuries been keeping me out for long periods of time and I’m getting benched. So when Yao decided that he wasn’t going to cut me, he was going to keep me, I was like, Thank you Lord! I can’t wait ’til I get on the court to show that I can actually play at a high level. So I’m just happy that he gave me the opportunity.

March 18, 2013

Catching-22: Before the Heat hit 22, the Rockets did it first

Before the Heat won 22 consecutive games, the 2007-08 Rockets did it first. But how did it happen? How did a team, riddled with injuries, and without transcendent rosters like the 71-72 Lakers of the 12-13 Heat, boast of the longest modern day winning streak? How does a team go seven full weeks without a loss despite being a mid-table side? Here is there story.

Click here for full feature

March 15, 2013

Now, Euroleague Basketball to be shown live in India, too!

Good news, basketball fans in India! The most important basketball league in the world outside of the NBA – Euroleague Basketball – will now be shown live in India, starting Thursday, March 14th! The league recently announced their partnership with sports marketing and entertainment agency Total Sports Asia to show live games on the Ten Sports channel (of the Taj Entertainment Network). Ten Sports will broadcast one game a week (the official Game of the Week of the Euroleague) in India, and the broadcast will continue for the two more seasons after this one.

Click here to read full article!

March 13, 2013

IOB (Chennai) win 1st Chandigarh Invitational Basketball Tournament

A top-level national club basketball tournament finally came to the city of Chandigarh, and fans who witnessed the action over the past five days were rewarded with games featuring some of India's finest players. Chandigarh's 1st All India Invitational Basketball Tournament saw the participation of eight of the best Indian club sides at the Sector 46 Complex Courts from March 8-12, 2013. On the tournament's finale on Sunday, Chennai's Indian Overseas Bank (IOB) emerged winners, defeating favourites ONGC (Uttarakhand) to lift the trophy.

ONGC came into the Final featuring the tournament's hot hand Trideep Rai, who had up to that point, been the leading scorer in the tournament. But balanced play from their opponents turned out to be too much for ONGC, who trailed through the course of the game, down by 15 points at half time and finally losing the game 71-57. Pratham Singh dominated proceedings for IOB with 27 points in the Final, while Mihir Pandey chipped in with 18. The winning team (IOB) won Rs. 1.5 lakhs prize money, while the runners-up received Rs. 75,000.

Earlier in the day, Punjab Armed Police (PAP) faced Indian Army in one of the best games of the tournament, a back-and-forth encounter that remained close until the very end. PAP were able to sneak by to win the game 72-71 and claim the Rs. 50,000 third-place award. Army led at halftime, but PAP were able to turn the score around behind big performances by Harminder (20) and Tejinder Pal Singh (18). Gopal Ram (27) was the leading scorer for the losing side.

In the previous day, IOB had entered the final after they blew out Indian Army 87-60. ONGC defeated PAP 87-76 in their semi-final in a comeback win after trailing at halftime.

The tournament was organised by the Chandigarh Administration. Check out a special feature by Neeraj Grover over at SportsKeeda, who attended the games in Chandigarh and wrote a nice first-person account of the championship!

March 12, 2013

Unsung Heroes of the Advanced Stat!

We shall focus our attention on some of the league’s lesser-known names who do not get the stats or the individual accolades, or who do now play in a big enough market to make a name for themselves. We shall turn to to find the league’s advanced stats heroes, who are quietly making a big difference for their team.

Here are five unsung heroes of the advanced stat!

Click here to read full feature!

March 11, 2013

The Unfinished Symphony of Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant has an impossible-to-quench thirst for success, and one thing is for certain: no matter how the Lakers do this season, no one in their right mind would proclaim that the Mamba is anywhere close to being done. At this point, it looks like he has several more elite years left in him.

Where would we rank Kobe in my pantheon of greatest ever players? It’s a tricky because, unlike many others in the pantheon, he’s still putting in work and still rising. When it’s all said and done, how will be judge Kobe?

Click here to read the full feature!

March 6, 2013

Suicide Drill: A basketball player’s death reminds us of the plight of Indian athletes

Despite my comprehensive travels and research around the country following basketball, I don’t remember ever meeting Ritu Kumari Rana. I don’t know, I may have come across her at a national tournament in Mumbai or Vashi or Nagpur or somewhere, but really, all I know of her is what Google tells me, and Google doesn’t tell me that much.

Ritu, a 30-year-old national-level basketball player in India, committed suicide on Monday morning when she leapt in front of a train track between Malad and Kandivli. She hailed from Himachal Pradesh and was working as a sports teacher at the Ecole Mondiale World School in Mumbai for the past six months. She has worked in several schools as a coach, and had spent about six years in Mumbai. Sources say that, in the past, she had represented both Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh in Basketball and Cricket.

The death of a basketball player in the country of course concerns all loosely attached to basketball in the country, but Ritu’s case, it turns out, is special. A year ago, Ritu was selected amongst 14 Indian Basketball Coaches to travel to the USA as part of a Sports Visitor exchange programme, organized by the US Department of State and the NBA. The 14 coaches spent 10 days in the USA, where they trained with American basketball coaches in Washington DC and even travelled to Orlando for the NBA All Star Weekend.

The cynic could argue that the event was more diplomacy than sport, where the choice of Indian coaches attending may not have been made by merit. I don’t know; I wasn’t there. But still, Ritu was chosen, so Ritu must have been good enough to belong. She must have been good enough to catch the eye of the NBA who sent her there and of the coaches who worked with her in the US. She must have been good enough if she was coaching in a reputed school in Mumbai. She must have been good enough if she played at the national level.

So why does a talented life choose to end itself so early, so tragically?

In an article on the Afternoon Despatch & Courier, Ritu’s sports mentor Sayed Nisar Ali was quoted clarifying the young women’s suicide note, mentioning that she felt the pressure by her family for a better job and pressure by herself to represent the Indian basketball team.

“She kept looking for a good job and despite all her credentials and the scholarship from the NBA, could not manage to get one,” Ali said, “She used to feel very dejected about it. Ritu failed to understand that if the government in the US could recognize her for her talent why was the Indian government so ignorant about her skills.”

There is little we know so far of her story beyond this. Now, here’s the thing: there is no prerogative for any employer or team in India to offer every available player a job or a spot in the squad. Some people make it, some people don’t. It’s the ugly truth of the competitive rat-race for survival in this world. She did odd coaching jobs but perhaps it didn’t earn her enough.

But Ritu’s death highlights – in the cruelest possible way – the worst-case scenario of India’s sporting fraternity gone wrong. She is not the only one who suffered from the pressure to make it in Indian sports. I have met athletes of different fields – from tennis to archery to of course, basketball – who are in Ritu’s shoes. Many of these athletes are very skilled. Many of them should be professionals in the sport, earning a respectable, constant salary for their hard work. And perhaps, almost equally as importantly, should be earning the respect of the community for choosing sport as a career.

But we Indians regard sports – along with other professions that don’t involve MBAs, Doctorates, Engineering Degrees or political aspirations – as a lesser choice. Our parents tell us that sports should be kept as a hobby and we should think of something ‘serious’ as a profession. The job market reminds us that there is a higher demand, respect, and salary for those who stashed away the basketball and replaced it with a textbook. Many still continue down that line though, because sports are often the one true love that they can’t forget or their one and only option out of dire straits. After all, athletes in India, if they’re good or ‘connected’ enough, can secure sarkari jobs and a constant (if poor) government salary.

I don’t know anything more about her, so all I can offer is conjecture. Maybe Ritu wasn’t good enough to play for a state any more. Maybe she wasn’t good enough to be recruited by any one of India’s few women’s basketball clubs. Maybe she couldn’t hold another sarkari job because basketball is she could do, or all she wanted to do. She was a 30-year-old single woman struggling to find work in Mumbai and all she had was basketball. She was like tens of thousands of other basketball, volleyball, athletics, archery, tennis, football, or hockey players around the country whose skill-set isn’t respected enough for them to make a guaranteed living out of it.

We need to change our mind-set. We need to save other Ritus around the country. It starts with respect for athletes, respect that they deserve for their art and for their talents. They shouldn’t have to suffer for the respect of their parents or the society for what they do. We need to especially change that mentality towards women athletes, who have a tougher time breaking into the sporting arena. The next step would be for our federations and institutions to provide a platform where these athletes have the opportunity to – somehow or the other – stay involved with the sport. (Especially if they showed great potential and were chosen for a programme like the US Department of State Sports Exchange!)

Ritu’s suicide note, found at her flat in Malwani, finished with the lines, “I request my family to forgive me. I could not do anything for them.” There are no good ways to die, but when a basketball player commits suicide because they couldn’t do more for their family – economically, or as Ali suggested, in living up to their expectations – it is an even bleaker situation that many other athletes in the nation can relate to. On the Afternoon Despatch & Courier feature, author Priyal Dave says to us that India let Ritu down. We can’t let that happen to any others like her.  

I didn’t know Ritu. But I know the stories of those like her, those in the sometimes dark and depressing line of sports in India. And we need to save those Indian sportsmen and sportswomen who need their sport to survive, or to fulfil their dreams. She may have checked out of the game, but for those who are still on court, we have to now change the system so they can keep playing at the highest level.

March 5, 2013

Chandigarh to host 1st All India Invitational Basketball Tournament with top club sides

Despite close proximity to Indian basketball’s hotbed Punjab and the headquarters of the BasketballFederation of India (BFI) in New Delhi, the city/union territory of Chandigarh hasn’t had much of a basketball history to boast of. Perhaps the small size of the city has limited the talent that could be assembled to represent them in National competitions, where Chandigarh usually finishes in the bottom half the standings every year. There has also been a dearth of national level competitions and basketball events in the city.

The Chandigarh Administration is set to change that very soon: after organizing All-India football and hockey tournaments in the city, the administration has set its sights on basketball. Eight of India’s top Men’s clubs teams have been invited to take part in the first edition of the All India Invitational Basketball Tournament at the Sector 46 Complex Courts from March 8-12, 2013.

As regular followers of Indian hoops may already know, India has no professional basketball league yet; the best players in the country represent their states or their clubs in various tournaments that are held around the country annually. Outside of the national tournaments organized by the BFI in different age groups for both Men and Women, the top players also take part in state and district level competitions. Indian clubs play in invitational tournaments throughout the year such as the Savio Cup in Mumbai, the JCI tournament in Kerala, or the Chennai invitational tournament.

This first time tournament in Chandigarh has high hopes: According to a report on IndianExpress, the eight teams invited for the tournament include 2013 Federation cup winners ONGC and runners-up IOB (Chennai). Most of the other teams will be from around the Chandigarh/Punjab region. This will be a prize money tournament with the winners offered Rs. 1.5 lakhs, the runners-up Rs. 75,000, and third place holders Rs. 50,000. Matches will be played in the league-cum-knockout basis.

Participating Teams:: ONGC, IOB, Central Reserve Police Force, Indian Army, Punjab Armed Police, Rail Coach Factory (Kapurthala), Rest of Punjab, and hosts Chandigarh.

Good job Chandigarh: hopefully this tournament can motivate some young players attending this tournament to emulate the biggest stars of India and play for their city and country some day!

March 4, 2013

5-Man Armies: The best 5-player lineups in the NBA this season

Newsflash: Basketball is a Team Game. Yes, your superstars can be the difference between a win and a loss in a close fourth quarter finish, but the majority of the work is done by how the unit on the floor performs as a whole on both sides of the floor. In basketball, five players on the court have to work as one single entity: passing, scoring, defending, rebounding, and even fighting together as a group.

Taking the point-differential (+/-) as a reference point, let’s countdown the top five lineups in the league that have been the most effective when they are set together on the court this season.

Click here to read full feature