February 28, 2014

Dear Mr. Silver…

10 Suggestions for the new commissioner to improve NBA and Basketball

An edited version of this feature was first published in the 124th edition (2014 - No. 3) of SLAM China magazine. Here is complete, original English version of the story.

For the past 30 years, David Stern shepherded the NBA to the new era. In 1984, he took over a relatively modest league with a small audience desperately in need of creativity and a transformation. Stern did just that, as he added seven expansion teams, helped the NBA become one of the most profitable corporations around the world, launched the WNBA, created the NBA Cares programme, expanded the league’s multimedia presence and, perhaps most importantly, opened up the international borders for players and fans like never before.

But now, we’re in the Silver Age. Stern has passed on the NBA Commissioner’s baton to Adam Silver and, for the first time in three decades, there will be a new face in charge of ‘basketball decisions.’

What will Silver’s legacy be? How will he impact the history of the sport? The NBA is still not perfect, and part of Silver’s job will be dedicated to transforming the sport to become a better product and reach a wider audience.

To welcome the new Commissioner, here are my 10 suggestions of how he can improve the NBA and influence worldwide basketball for the better:

1. 82-game season is way too long.

I understand that the arenas and markets who depend on a certain number of home games to boost their economy might protest this, but an 82-game season is an incredible strain on NBA players. There are too many injuries, too many unexplained DNPs, and a whole lotta lackadaisical play through major chunks of the season. If the season starts on Christmas Day and the number of games played per team is shortened, we would see teams rested and well-prepared to give in their full concentrated effort in every encounter, and every encounter would mean so much more.

2. Get rid of the Conference/Division Divide

Every year, undeserving teams from one conference (usually the East these days) make the playoffs and deserving teams form the other (the tougher West) don’t. This season, the third best team in the East wouldn’t even be good enough to make the playoffs in the West. This is especially surprising considering teams in the West play more often than other tough teams while teams in the East always have a softer schedule. With comfortable modern day travel options (and a shortened season as I suggested above), it’s time to end the conference and division divide and have all 30 teams in the same round-robin league, playing each other an equal number of times. 16 of the best, from any geographical location, will make the playoffs. Stop rewarding mediocrity with a post-season berth and punishing quality play for simply being in the wrong conference. Let’s make things fair and equal for all.

3. Change the draft lottery to give every team an equal chance

The lottery had good intentions, to spread the talent equally around the league by giving bad teams a chance to draft good players, but at the same time, make the likelihood of a higher pick depended on chance. Unfortunately, it has encouraged tanking around the league as GMs offer their fanbase a bad product in hope of getting lucky with a good player in the future. Too many franchises get stuck in the cycle of playing badly and then picking badly for years and the fans suffer. Meanwhile, teams who built upon smart thinking win a lot and never get a chance at drafting a good player. The best young players end up in losing teams with losing cultures. And the worst-sufferers are mid-tier teams who aren’t good enough to get past the First Round or bad enough to rebuild from the draft. So here’s my wacky solution: change the lottery radically to give everyone – including playoff teams – an equal chance in the draft order. The Miami Heat and the Philadelphia 76ers should have the same shot at the number one pick. This way, bad teams won’t be always rewarded, good teams won’t be always punished, and where a player ends up will depend on pure, equal luck.

4. Reward teams with flexible cap room for players they drafted

The NBA cap space is a great thing and it keeps – theoretically, at least – the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer. Unfortunately, the cap space means that teams that have worked hard to draft talented players can sometimes end up losing those players because they become too talented for their budget after the rookie contracts. Case in point: the Thunder, who drafted brilliantly in getting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka together on the same side. So it was a pity that, to stay in budget, they had to trade Harden and be punished for the very thing that should be celebrated – their superior scouting. My solution is this: every team should be allowed exceptions to go over the cap limit a little for the players that have played for them since their rookie contracts. It’s a good way to reward smart management, avoid the breakup of a young team, and build a long-term bond between a team, a city, and a star player.

5. Foresee and prepare to avoid future lockouts

With the current season in full swing, we might be forgiven for forgetting the chaos and emptiness that existed when the NBA locked out in 2011. David Stern’s NBA had four lockouts in the last two decades, and it will be up to Silver to end the costly and painful ordeal that leaves a bad taste for team owners, players, and fans alike. It’s not an easy task, of course, but Silver will need to foresee and try to get both sides to negotiate well in advance before players can opt out of the current CBA (June 30, 2017). Stern called the 2011 Lockout the ‘nuclear winter’ of the NBA. Silver needs to make sure that the sun always shines on basketball.

6. 1x1 Tournament at the All Star Weekend

It might be hard to convince the league’s best players – who will publically profess that basketball is a team game – to put their reputations and health on the line for an exhibition one-on-one tournament. But imagine how much fun it would be! The NBA can have fans vote for the eight players they want to see play in a knockout one-on-one tournament on All Star Saturday. First to 15 wins and moves on to the next round. And offer a cash prize for the player and a charity for the winners. Everyone can be convinced for charity, right? My choice eight players are LeBron, Durant, Paul George, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose (when healthy of course), James Harden, and Kobe.

7. Less Technicals, More Physical Play

Let them play! In recent years, the league has become too reactive to calling fouls on the slightest touch, especially to the super-duper stars, and sensitive to any and every show of passion and emotion by punishing it with a technical. Look, no one wants players fighting or Malice In the Palace style brawls, but NBA rules have gone to the other extreme. Minor face-offs, an angry bounce of the ball, an aggressive step or two, or a frustrated scream for a split second now all warrant technicals. Meanwhile, physical play and tough defense is being discouraged and offensive players are earning the benefit of the doubt. Basketball is a contact sport, and I think a little bit of contact is fine. Offense is fun to watch, but true fans enjoy the grind-it-down style of defensive basketball that the NBA playoffs bring.

8. More penalties to refs for blatantly bad calls

Too many games are decided on refereeing decisions, and in many cases these days, the NBA is admitting to those mistakes a day or two after the damage is done. Refs are human and shouldn’t be penalized for close calls that could’ve gone either way. But I think there should be a bigger penalty to the referees for truly blatant bad calls, especially those that decide the fate of the game.

9. An Off-season, international basketball ‘Champions League’

This will not be Silver’s initiative alone, but like Stern worked with FIBA’s Boris Stankovic to help realize the 1992 Dream Team and thus brought basketball more popularity globally, Silver should work with FIBA to bring together an innovative international club basketball tournament. Think of it like Euroleague Basketball, or Champions League Football, but on a global scale. Like the proposed FIBA World Club Championship with top NBA teams going against top teams from Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia play in a brief off-season tournament in meaningful games. Schedules don’t always align right now, but this can be worked out. Pit Miami Heat against Real Madrid, Olympiacos against Guangdong, Pinheiros against San Antonio Spurs, and more.

10. Make the Basketball World Cup the sport’s Holy Grail

Although FIBA will reinvent the World Championship as the World Cup in Spain this year, the tournament is still relatively minor in the basketball world. The best players in the world take the Olympic gold most seriously, and the World Cup second. But in the Olympics, Basketball is only one of the many events and can be lost in the shuffle of the other sports. The World Cup is about basketball and basketball alone. FIBA should learn from the footballing world, where teams usually send a second-tier team to the Olympics and save the best for the World Cup. The NBA’s and thus Silver’s role will be to take the first step in hyping up the World Cup. USA are by far the best team, and the NBA’s coordination in the event would help it reach the greatest audience. More importantly, if the world’s best basketball players – all of whom play in the NBA – can be sold on the idea that winning the World Cup for their country (like it’s in the Football world) is the biggest milestone of their career, even bigger than an NBA title, then Basketball can truly rival Football as one of the world’s biggest sports. For Silver and the NBA, it might sound like taking a step back at first, but I believe it will eventually lead them many steps forward.

The ball’s in your side on your court, Mr Commissioner. It’s up to you to dribble it ahead to a brighter future.

February 27, 2014

Defending champs start with wins as 64th National Basketball Championship tips off in Delhi

The race to fight for India's most prestigious basketball trophy - the National Basketball Championship - got underway in its 64th iteration at the Thyagaraj Stadium in the capital city of New Delhi from Wednesday, February 26th. The eight-day tournament is set to feature 51 total state/unit teams from across India. On the opening day, defending champions Uttarakhand (Men) and Indian Railways (Women) both started their campaigns with decisive wins.

The All India 64th National Basketball Championship for Men and Women is being organized by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) in conjunction with the Delhi Basketball Association (DBA) and support from IMG-Reliance. At the opening ceremony on Friday, Ajit Mohan Saran, the Secretary of Sports for India's Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs, was the chief guest. Neeraj Kansal (Secretary of the Sports Authority of India) and Del Harris (former NBA Coach of the Year) were also present as special guests.

Uttarakhand, the tournament's reigning champs from last year in Ludhiana and featuring some of the best men stars in Indian basketball, opened their title defense with a closely contested victory against Indian Railways. After falling behind by six points at the end of the third quarter, Uttarakhand came charging back with a 29-17 run in the final period to outlast their opponents 68-62. Rising Indian big man Amrit Pal Singh led the way with 25 points for Uttarakhand while experienced guard Riyazuddin added 16. Gagandeep Singh scored 20 to pace Railways.

Last year's Men's finalists Punjab also started off the tournament with championship intentions and put on a fantastic, balanced display to overwhelm Andhra Pradesh en route to a 92-44 win. Punjab started the game on a 27-4 run and never looked back.

Indian Railways women have won the last six National Championships. They continued their form in their first game, capitalizing on a relatively inexperienced West Bengal side early and cruising to a 68-40 win.

Meanwhile, last year's Women's finalists Tamil Nadu crushed Maharashtra, starting the game on a 22-2 first quarter advantage and keeping their opponents under seven points in every quarter there-after. The unstoppable Appoorva Muralinath had 26 points for TN, outscoring Maharashtra all by herself. TN defeated Maharashtra 63-20.

Selected Scores

  • Punjab (Ranbir Singh 15, Amripal Singh 14, Gurvinder Singh 14, Jagdeep Singh 14) bt Andhra Pradesh (GV Reddy 13) 92-44 (27-4, 27-22, 21-10, 17-8).
  • Uttarakhand (Amrit Pal Singh 25, Riyazuddin 16) bt Indian Railways (Gagandeep Singh 20, Prakesh Mishra 10) 68-62 (15-15, 13-11, 11-19, 29-17).
  • Services (Gopal Ram 17, SM Settu 16, Dalip Kumar 13) bt Rajasthan (Prashant Singh 22, Vinod Kumar 10) 101-57 (19-17, 31-9, 26-14, 25-17).
  • Delhi (Raspreet Sidhu 22, Prashanti Singh 18) bt Karnataka (Kruthika Lakshman 19, PU Navneetha 13) 77-58 (20-17, 17-16, 23-13, 17-12).
  • Indian Railways (Anju Lakra 13) bt West Bengal 68-40 (25-16, 12-11, 13-9, 18-4).
  • Tamil Nadu (Appoorva Muralinath 26, Soniya Joy 14, R. Ramya 14) bt Maharashtra 63-20 (22-2, 18-5, 11-7, 12-6).
You can find a daily updates of results from the tournament here.

As mentioned above, former NBA Coach of the Year Del Harris is a special guest at the tournament. Along with India's National Senior Men's team coach Scott Flemming, Harris hosted a training session for attending coaches and players at the Thyagaraj Stadium on Thursday, February 27th.

February 26, 2014

We Miss Yao

Three years after injuries ended Yao Ming’s playing career, the Chinese trailblazer is at peace and as invested in the game as ever.

by Karan Madhok. Photos courtesy: SLAM and Starzsports.

This feature was originally published in the April 2014 edition of SLAM Magazine (SLAM No. 176). You can also find it on SLAMOnline.com.

The Chinese don’t say goodbye. Instead, the most commonly used phrase for an appropriate parting is zài jiàn—or zeh weh, in a Shanghai dialect—which literally translates to “meet again.” In China, no end is permanent. There is always another chance, another time.

Yao Ming was only 30 years old when he officially ended his basketball-playing career. In the short time the gentle 7-6 giant bounced a basketball, he experienced unprecedented highs and disappointing lows; he became one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, and then quickly fizzled out.

Amidst it all — being the No. 1 overall pick, the first draft pick from China, an All-Star, a 20/10 player, the face of the Houston Rockets and China — Yao maintains that the most memorable moment of his career occurred on April 11, 2011, during a game against the Dallas Mavericks that he didn’t even dress for.

“That was my last game,” says Yao, who’d appeared in five games earlier that season. “I didn’t play because I was hurt already. Usually I just walk down, but that time I was thinking, I know this is my last time…I will miss this court! I didn’t tell the fans, or anybody that I was retiring. Only the Rockets management knew that this was my decision. They had to move on and know that I was out of the picture.”

Move on. It’s easier said than done, but Yao took the initiative by moving on himself. At 33, Yao seems to be at peace with his decision, at peace with the glories that lifted him up and the injuries that grounded him. He has moved on to owning a basketball team in China, his hometown Shanghai Sharks, and to engaging in a variety of business ventures back in his homeland. But he remains most excited about his upcoming project, the NBA Yao School, which will launch in Beijing later this year, where he and his team will be coaching kids in an after-school program to learn life skills through basketball.

Yao recently sat down with SLAM in Shanghai and reflected on his playing career and his post-playing life.

SLAM: Why did you open the Yao School?

Yao: I wanted to provide a service for kids after school. The education system [in China] has been focused only on academics. I feel that sports are equally important. Sports can provide a social experience before a child steps into the real world. The idea was for an after-school program where kids can relax their minds from school and have a chance to learn to become a team member. Concepts like teamwork, communication, cooperation or leadership can’t just be learned from paper; you have to experience them. And that’s what Yao School is here for. Basketball skills are the strategy to put that experience together.

SLAM: What are your goals, in terms of basketball and culturally, for this program?

Yao: This is character education. For years, kids in China have been isolated. Isolated at home, because of the one-child policy, and in school, where everyone is worried about [grades]. I want to take them out of that element and give them a chance to play as a group. A future career cannot be done in isolation; you have to work with somebody.

SLAM: What is your fondest memory of your international career?

Yao: Playing in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was a special moment. And I still remember the first time I ever put my national team uniform on. It was the China junior team in ’97. That moment was so enjoyable; I spent a lot of time looking at myself in the mirror! I didn’t realize there was a long journey ahead for me.

SLAM: You retired as one of the most popular players of all time, and definitely the most successful Asian player. When you look back at your career, do you feel that you achieved the goals you had when you started off?

Yao: Honestly, I feel that the American players probably dream much bigger than this, but my situation was that I never dreamt to play in the NBA. I just hoped to play on the Chinese national team. The NBA seemed too far for me when I was a kid. Being drafted by the Rockets was already beyond my goals. But of course when you get there, you want to set a higher goal, you don’t want to stop, you want more. So, maybe I broke even. Maybe I should’ve gone a little bit further, but my injuries slowed me down. But you can’t change that fact. And you can’t live in regret.

SLAM: Do you have any regrets? Is there anything else that you wish you had achieved?

Yao: Not many…I think I did everything possibly I could. And if I went any harder, I would have probably broken my ankles a couple years earlier [laughs].

SLAM: If you, Tracy McGrady and all of the Rockets had been healthy in your prime, how good do you think you guys could’ve been?

Yao: First of all, there’s no such thing as “if”…I think we had our chance but we missed it. Whether we regret it or not, that is a fact, and we just need to learn from the experience and move on. Otherwise how can we go to teach kids: “Hey, you have to pull yourself together after this loss and move on,” you know?

SLAM: Was there one particular year when you thought that you were good enough to go all the way and win a Championship?

Yao: Yes, a couple of years. In ’06-’07, I felt really good about myself. I had rehabbed well from a fracture, had a good summer with the national team to get back to shape and I won Player of the Month the first month of the season. But then my knees broke right before Christmas. After that I never really had a complete season. My last full year [’08-’09] was good, too. Even though Dikembe [Mutombo] got hurt in the first round and I got hurt in the second round, it was a good year for me.

SLAM: Was there any one moment that made you decide to retire?

Yao: I was mentally stressed from the injuries and the recovery process. It’s hard to imagine waking up every morning, going to rehab for two to three hours, and then still going to practice after that…That’s really hard. You worry about getting hurt again. Once or twice it’s OK, but then to get hurt three or four times a couple of years in a row? You lose that confidence, and when you lose confidence, you cannot compete at that level. I thought I wasn’t at that level anymore. Of course, I was concerned about my future life…[Points at his feet and laughs] I didn’t want to end up in a wheelchair.

SLAM: You’ve said you still follow the NBA closely, so you’ve noticed the League’s shift toward small ball. If you were still healthy and still at the top of the game, how do you think you’d fit in now?

Yao: I’ve thought more than once about how I would compete in today’s basketball if I was still healthy and in my best shape. I think, if you can make enough free throws, or create enough free throws, you can still be effective. Otherwise, you probably need to run with the small ball. Someone like Shaquille O’Neal could create enough free throws for himself. He was very dominant and could change the pace of the game with that. But, the shooting skill today is so incredible. The three-pointer is so easy today. I think they should extend the line even another meter farther [laughs]. The defense is much more stressed by the range. And obviously, players with size like me would find it much more difficult to guard a shooter. So…[today’s NBA] definitely would not be easy for me.

The game has changed. Basketball is a form of knowledge. Sometimes I compare basketball skill to war weapons. Think about war weapons through history. In the beginning, if people wanted to knock down some big towns they needed those big machines, like catapults, and they were huge. Consider that they are centers. And then came the fire guns. When the fire guns first came out how big were they? [Motions with his hands] They were huge. And then they became smaller and smaller, and now the pistol is only that size [shows the size of his palm]. That is the skill and shape of a player, you see. The first nuclear weapons, the first missiles were so big, but now, they can be very small. Consider a player’s skill and body like a weapon. The weapon has gone from huge to small, but their damage is the same or even greater now. The point guards are the smaller and more powerful weapon nowadays. And they are mobilized. More mobile. Easy to transport, easy to ship somewhere, easy to sneak into somewhere like cutting into the lane. That’s what I think.

SLAM: You inspired so many people in China and beyond to take up basketball, to learn the game. When you are inducted in the Hall of Fame, how do you want your legacy to be remembered?

Yao: I’m too young to be in the Hall of Fame. But, well, I want people to think of me as a basketball man, not just a basketball player. Of course I was a basketball player in my career, but after that, I still continue to work with basketball and to spread the sport. And I want many people to benefit not from me, but from that sport.

February 25, 2014

51 teams head to New Delhi for 2014 National Basketball Championship

Simply put, there is no bigger domestic basketball event in India, and this year, it returns to the capital city promising to be bigger than ever. From February 26 - March 5, New Delhi will host the 64th National Basketball Championship for Men and Women at the city's Thyagaraj Stadium. A total of 51 teams combined in both divisions will be taking part. For fans and scouts alike, this will be the chance to see the finest of Indian hoops in action competing for the most prized basketball trophy in the country: the National Championship.

Once again, Indian Railways' Women will start as favourites to defend their title for an incredible seventh consecutive year. In the Men's division, Uttarakhand's star-studded squad won the trophy last year in Ludhiana and are still a good bet to retain their trophy. The home squad Delhi, which finished outside a medal place in both Men's and Women's divisions last year, will be looking to ride the momentum of their local fans in attendance and make a run for the championship.

The National Championship was originally slated to be held from the end of November to early December 2013, but it was postponed to avoid any clash with the Delhi Assembly Elections on December 4th.

The tournament will be organized by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and the Delhi Basketball Association (DBA) and supported by IMG-Reliance. Several of India's best players will be suiting up, including the gold and bronze medal winning men and women's players respectively from last month's Lusofonia Games in Goa. The winner will take home Rs.1 lakh while the first and second runners-up will receive Rs. 75,000 and Rs. 50,000, respectively.

The National Championship will also help the BFI to select India's national Men and Women teams for the basketball tournament at the 17th Asian Games, set to be begin in Incheon, Korea from September 19, 2014.

Del Harris, a former NBA coach of the year with decades of NBA and international experience, will be visiting India for the National Championship. Harris has been invited as a guest of honour for the tournament's opening ceremony on Wednesday, February 26, and to lead a 'Train the Trainers' Coaches' clinic on Thursday, February 27th. Harris will be conducting the clinic alongside India's Senior Men's national coach Scott Flemming on from 11 AM - 1 PM at the Thyagaraj Stadium for local and attending Indian basketball coaches and players. The clinic is open to all coaches and/or players.

"I am pleased to announce that the 64th National Basketball Championship is being held in New Delhi," said Roopam Sharma, the CEO of the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), "The National Basketball Championship continues to be one of the most competitive basketball tournaments in India at the highest level. BFI and its partners IMG-Reliance have made significant progress in developing the sport of Basketball in the country and competitions like these will help to boost the popularity of the sport. I would also like to thank Coach Del Harris for making himself available and being a part of enhancing the knowledge of our coaches."

Participating Teams


Group A: Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Indian Railways, Chhattisgarh, Delhi

Group B: Punjab, Services, Rajasthan, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh.

Group C: Haryana, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal.
Group D: Karnataka, Chandigarh, Jammu and Kashmir, Puducherry
Group E: Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa.
Group F: Gujarat, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram..


Group A:  Indian Railways, Delhi, Kerala, Karnataka, West Bengal.
Group B: Tamil Nadu, Chhatttisgarh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh.
Group C: Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir.
Group D: Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Jharkhand.
Group E:  Rajasthan, Chandigarh, Odisha
Group F: Bihar, Assam, Puducherry, Uttarakhand.
Outside of Uttarakhand, 2012 champions Punjab will be hoping to get some payback for their lost last year and spring back up to the top in the Men's division. Services and Tamil Nadu will also be threats to Uttarakhand's crown this year. In the Women's division, Tamil Nadu and ever-improving Chattisgarh side will be the ones to watch for.

February 24, 2014

The Indian Lob Pass: How Basketball is becoming an unlikely bridge to India

I wrote this article originally for the India Abroad Magazine and it was first published in their February 14, 2014 edition.

There is no shortage of basketball courts in India. There are courts in high schools, in colleges, in private and public clubs, at YMCAs, at government facilities, and even in some backyards. There are courts in the middle of the mountains and courts by the beach. There are some indoor courts, but mostly, there cement outdoor courts. There are courts that have hosted international basketball tournaments and courts that host parking lots.

The trouble is, there just aren’t that many dedicated players to fill these courts. As a sport that isn’t the government’s top athletic priority, basketball loses almost as many serious players as it attracts. Most quit the game to join that mysterious rat-race called ‘real life’ turning to academics or other sure-shot careers. Many are bullied off the floor by the rabid and overpopulated cricketers, who turn every nook, cranny, gullie, rooftop and basketball court into a cricket pitch. Soon, the sounds of bouncing rubber basketballs are replaced by sounds of willow on cork and leather. And many of those basketball courts go under-used, misused, or simply, unused.

This is something that a man called Vivek Ranadive – born in Mumbai but residing in California – would desperately like to change. Last year, Ranadive, a software entrepreneur and CEO of the billion-dollar company TIBCO, became the first-ever Indian majority-owner of an NBA team when he purchased the Sacramento Kings. As a bidder for the Kings, Ranadive had a very clear vision for basketball: to make it the world’s biggest sport, and to start with his homeland in India, where he believed that the sport is simple enough to spread like wildfire.

"Cricket will always be the national pastime in India," Ranadive said in an interview with NBA.com’s Jared Greenberg, “But if basketball can be a strong second, I think it will be an important step towards my vision of NBA 3.0, making basketball the premier sport of the 21st century. It's already become the fastest-growing sport in India… It's the kind of sport that can be played in a poor country like India; it can be played by one person, by a few people, by boys, by girls, in villages, in cities, you don't need a lot of space for it like you do for cricket. So I fully expect it to be very very popular.”

Within just the first few months of his Kings’ takeover, Ranadive has turned words into action. He has already professed his dream of making the Kings the first NBA team to play an exhibition game in India. The team then went ahead and signed a deal with Indian real-estate company the Krrish Group. Furthermore, the Kings made it clear that they will be announcing several more partnerships with India in the near future.

Meanwhile, back in Sacramento, the first home game for the Kings this season was a celebration for the city in succeeding to team the team in its home since 1985. On the historic night, the franchise also ensured their commitment to reach out to a whole new fanbase. From part-owner Shaquille O’Neal playing cricket to a festival of Bollywood flavours across the arena, the Kings started strong on their promise of becoming “India’s home team”. The Kings also become the NBA’s first-ever team to launch a Hindi website.

Ranadive understands that, to truly capture the imagination of Indian fans, his team has to play exciting and meaningful games on the court, first. Over the last year, there has been a massive increase of live NBA games broadcast back in India, many of which are Kings’ games. Ranadive is also banking on his star player DeMarcus Cousins to become a dominant and popular force, at his adopted home, as well as his homeland.

Other teams in the NBA have followed on a parallel thought-process as Ranadive and correctly identified India and the Indian community as the next market to target for their basketball product, after the success that the game has enjoyed with the other billion-plus population, China. Unlike China, India doesn’t have the same market for the game, a functioning league, or a Yao Ming like home-grown star yet. What they do have is the largest young population in the world. Before he was with the Kings, Ranadive attempted to tap to the Indian audience by hosting ‘Bollywood Nights’ as a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors. Meanwhile in Orlando, the Indian-American Chamber of Commerce have been organizing ‘India Day’ for the past two years for the Orlando Magic. Both events have featured colourful aspects of Indian culture tied in with the NBA.

The NBA has had their eyes on India for a while now. League representatives have been in the country for several years already, holding grassroots events and programmes to raise awareness about basketball and even playing host to dozens of current and former NBA stars that have started to add the country in their travel itineraries. NBA India opened their first office in the country in Mumbai a few years ago, and the league’s iconic former Commissioner – David Stern – made his first visit to India for a charity programme last year. Even after stepping down, Stern is likely to invest time supporting India’s Reliance Foundation to grow the Jr. NBA programme to reach hundreds of thousands of kids in the country.

The onus will now be on Adam Silver, Stern’s successor as NBA Commissioner, to turn the league's ambitions in India into a basketball revolution.

Working from the ground up to construct this revolution have been two very visible faces for NBA India: their Senior Director of Development and Indian-American Akash Jain, and NBA’s Worldwide Senior Director of Basketball Operations Troy Justice.

Unlike some other foreign sports and sporting leagues trying to breakthrough to the Indian market, the NBA has a distinct advantage: India already has a functioning system and culture of organized basketball that goes back almost 80 years.

The Basketball Federation of India (BFI), the governing and controlling body of basketball in the country, was launched in 1950 and has since been the backbone of sport in the country, conducting and associating with national, state, and district level tournaments every year and forming India’s international basketball squads. But it took about six decades of existence before the BFI took their biggest step forward: a sponsoring relationship with the American sports/events management company IMG Worldwide and one of India’s largest conglomerate companies, Reliance, in 2010. Aside from various promotional deals, BFI and IMG-Reliance have also invested in school and college level basketball leagues in India, and made promises of India’s first-ever professional basketball league in the future.

IMG hired Bobby Sharma, an Indian-American who formerly served as the Senior VP of the NBA’s Development League, to take the SVP position for IMG’s global basketball and strategic initiatives. Sharma helped steer IMG’s relationship with Reliance and the BFI in India as he joined the growing list of individuals further strengthening the basketball bridge between India and the States.

The Indian basketball dream is to see the country get more competitive at the international level, make the sport a bigger of the culture and activity among Indians – both recreationally and professionally – and of course, see Indian individuals develop into some the world’s finest players. But before that game-changing player comes around, India will need game-changing coaching.

IMG-Reliance have aggressively sought out interested American and international coaches to bring their expertise to Indian national squads. Over the past four years, former Wheaton College Coach Bill Harris, former WNBA player Tamika Raymond, former NBA Head Coach Kenny Natt, and former Duke University Assistant Pete Gaudet all came to India for short-term coaching tenures, working with the senior teams, young players, as well as other Indian coaches.

Currently, former NBDL Coach Scott Flemming and experienced Spanish Coach Francisco Garcia are working with the Men’s and Women’s team respectively, and both have overseen serious improvement for the national sides. IMG-Reliance also hired American Strength & Conditioning Coach Zak Penwell to be the first such trainer of his expertise ever in India.

From the NBA to IMG and everywhere else in between, all these individuals are weaving together a complex bond of basketball between India and the West, between expertise and potential, between the country where basketball was invented and the country that could be a major player in the game’s future.

For India, that future means more national team success, a functioning and popular pro league, and more interest in the sport on the grassroots level. Perhaps then, all those misused basketball courts could finally be utilized, and India could follow up with the infrastructure to support its world-class ambitions.

Basketball is a team game, where the different individuals on court offer different specialities and skills but merge together as one to accomplish the same goal. The goal in India is to realize the country’s promise as a consumer and a lover of game, and with each passing day, there are more players joining the team to make that promise come true.

February 23, 2014

Former NBA Coach of the Year Del Harris to hold coaches clinic in India

Del Harris, an experienced former NBA Coach and the NBA's 1994 Coach of the Year, will be visiting New Delhi later in this week to attend India's 64th National Basketball Championship for Men and Women and also conduct a clinic for coaches from all over India attending the tournament. Harris, who coached the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, and Los Angeles Lakers in stints between 1979-2000, will conduct the coaches clinic on Tuesday, February 27th, starting at 10 AM at New Delhi's Thyagaraj Stadium.

Harris will be one of the most high-profile and accomplished basketball coaches to ever visit India in official terms and his clinic will be held on the opening day of India's national championship.

In the NBA, Harris started his coaching career with the Houston Rockets and was promoted as their Head Coach in 1979. In 1981, Harris led the Rockets - led by NBA great Moses Malone - to the NBA Finals where they lost 4-2 to the Boston Celtics.

Harris' next stint was with the Milwaukee Bucks, where he served first as Assistant Coach, then as Head Coach (1987-1993), and also later as General Manager.

In 1994, he was hired by the rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers without any of the big name stars of the successful 80s. Harris led a team featuring Cedric Ceballos, Nick Van Exel, and Vlade Divac to a 48-34 record and into the second round of the playoffs. Harris was named the NBA's 1995 Coach of the Year. He served the Lakers for about four more years.

Harris' was as an assistant coach to the Dallas Mavericks from 2000-2007, and helped team reach the 2006 NBA Finals. He also served as an assistant for the Chicago Bulls and the New Jersey Nets over the next three years. He was voted the NBA's best assistant coach four times, including three of his last four years with the Mavericks.

Harris was named the GM of the Texas Legends - the NBDL affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks - since 2009. He was also the Head Coach of the team in 2011-12 and is currently the team's Vice President of Basketball. It is with the Texas Legends that Harris developed his relationship with Scott Flemming, the Head Coach of India's Senior National Men's Basketball team. Flemming served as an assistant coach for the Legends in for the 2010-11 season and he has been the Head Coach of Team India since September 2012. Flemming has led India to various tournaments including last year's FIBA Asia Championship in Manila and a gold medal at the Lusofonia Games in Goa last month.

Harris has had a distinguished international coaching career too, which stretches back to 1975 when he started work with teams in Puerto Rico. He has worked as an assistant with Team USA in the FIBA World Championship and was the first foreign Coach for China's national team at the 2004 Olympics. Most recently, Harris was an assistant coach to the national team of the Dominican Republic.

And if you aren't done being impressed, Harris even had a role in the 1996 cult classic (and shocking Oscar snub) Space Jam.

Harris also wrote a book called 'On Point', and you can find much more comprehensive list of his accomplishments here.

Hopefully Harris and Coach Flemming are able to work together to impart some knowledge to visiting coaches at the clinic in New Delhi. It isn't often that a basketball figure with so much high-level experience visits India, and I hope that local coaches and young players who are involved in the training sessions make the most of the opportunity.

The 64th National Basketball Championships are slated to be held from February 27th - March 5th.

February 22, 2014

The Combo-Guard: Varun Ram is combining his athletic and academic goals at Maryland

The life of a student athlete can be complicated. There's homework to deal with in the classroom and homework to deal with on the court. You have to study Xs and Os as much as you have to study formulas and equations. Sometimes, for the rare few, the two worlds combine so that the lab room science trickles out to make the science of basketball clearer, and the on-court discipline brings structure to the classroom, too.

It was nearing 9 at night when Maryland's guard Varun Ram finally had the time to take my call. His schedule was stacked as he tried to balance between two worlds. He was exiting the lab, catching up on missed time as a physiology and biology major. And he had to get rest to be ready for practice the next day. A game against famous rivals Duke - which would be Maryland-Duke's last ever face-off in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) - lingered only a few days ahead.

"Things are definitely busy," Ram laughs and says, "I have to write things down so I don't forget my schedule!"

Shuffling between different worlds, and sometimes, polar opposites, isn't exactly new for the 21-year-old. Casual US college basketball fans might not flinch at 5-foot-9 backup guard out of his team's rotation, and averaging fewer than eight minutes per contest for the season, but Ram's significance stretches way beyond those casual eyes. Born to Indian immigrants, Ram is one of an extremely tiny list of Indian-origin players who have ever cracked NCAA D1 Basketball, the highest level of the college game in the world. He mixes cultures, academic interests, and athletic life, and he's doing it in the toughest division in college basketball.

And yet, it almost never worked out. At an early age, Ram had to choose between his academic, athletic, and family goals, in a journey that saw him do an extra High School year to improve his basketball skills, move to Connecticut and play Division 3 ball, travel back to Maryland to return home, and then work his way into a Division 1 roster.

But let's start the story at the very beginning: Ram was born in Lexington, Kentucky to Indian parents who immigrated from Tamil Nadu 25 years ago. His mother was from Attur while his father called the town of Rasipuram his home. In the States, Ram and his family moved around a lot but finally settled in Maryland for good 15 years ago. His roots to India remained strong as ever, though.

"I go back to visit often," he added, "And even here in America, I feel absolutely connected to the Indian community. My parents have brought me up completely with the Indian culture. My older sister is a bharatnatyam dancer, and we're constantly surrounded by the Indian community."

But Ram chose a path usually less traveled for an Indian: basketball. He started playing basketball and football (soccer) at eight, but as he grew older and academic pressure increased, he only had time for just one out of class activity in his schedule. So he chose basketball, the one thing he loved the most. "My parents wanted me to be well-rounded," Ram added, "They said that as long as I do well academically, I can do anything else. If my grades had been worse, maybe they would've been more strict!"

Ram excelled for River Hill High School in Clarksville, Maryland, and had dreams of attending an Ivy League college with a good balance of sports and athletics. Since his High School wasn't too high on the list of college recruiters, many skipped over him. He was shown some interest by coaches at Brown and Dartmouth who encouraged to do a post-graduate year in High School (which took some convincing to the Indian parents) to improve his skills, which he did. Unfortunately, by the time the year ended, the coaches that the shown interest moved on. Ram's hoops dreams were at the crossroads.

So he ended up leaving home to take any basketball opportunity he could, and it came in the shape of the Division 3's Connecticut Trinity College in Hartford, CT. "I was there for a year, I played a lot, and I played well. But after the year ended, I decided it was time for me to come back home to my family in Maryland."

Ram's homecoming was fated to be bittersweet, as he would end up joining Maryland University to focus on his academic major, but was told to give up on basketball. The Maryland Terps were too strong and too deep, he was told. It was over.

Except that it wasn't.

"I've been playing ball all my life," Ram says, "It's what I'm best at. I couldn't just stop. I worked my tail off and got a tryout at end of 2012. I made the team as a red-shirt, practicing with the team but not suiting up for games. And then, finally this season, I got the chance to become a D1 player."

As a third-choice point guard, Ram's opportunities for the Terps (15-12) have been far and few in-between, but the young man who has journeyed through so many obstacles isn't complaining. "My job now is to push the guys ahead of me in practice as hard as possible. If I train hard against them they'll be better in game against other point guards. I take my role very seriously and I'm waiting for more opportunities to play for the team."

Earlier in the season, that opportunity came when Maryland's starting point guard Seth Allen went down to injury, inserting Ram in the regular rotation. He played about 10-15 minutes a game, including in a marquee national television showcase against Ohio State.

Now, Ram is also planning ahead for the future. He has two more years left in college plus another year of eligibility. "I feel I could pursue a career overseas if possible after graduation. I've played at highest college ball level. I know I can do it. But if it doesn't work out, perhaps I'll aim for medical school."

Ram has also connected with the Indian national team in the past, and has had dreams of going back to his parents' home country to explore basketball opportunities. Unfortunately, India's rules against naturalization in sports might restrict his ambitions.

"I've played some ball in India," he says, "They are athletic and have a love for the game, but are very often lacking in technical skills."

"But, I think it's 100 percent possible for India to develop basketball stars one day. There are 1.2 billion people in the country and so many athletes. I was born and raised in a country where sports like basketball are a big deal. If I was in India, maybe I wouldn't be playing ball, especially considering my height. I'm sure there are kids in India who have the potential to be as good or better than me but who don't have the opportunities. They could make it if they were given the right exposure."

And that's why, despite the journey he faced to get where he is, Ram knows that he's been blessed. He's been blessed to have parents that supported both his athletic and academic ambitions, blessed to have a system around him that encouraged his love for basketball, and blessed to be playing for Maryland, where he can have home, sports, and studies all at the same time.

The life of a student-athlete is surely complicated, yes. But if you manage it right, it can be a blessing. At 5-foot-9 and from a community that is still an outsider to basketball, he worked hard enough to make it to the highest level. Hopefully, his example can motivate others to aim higher, too.

February 21, 2014

Picks and Caps (And Evan): Top 7 players to move at the NBA Trade Deadline

So the 2014 NBA trade deadline came and went, and once again, we were left with little to write home about. More than an opportunity to boost or balance their rosters, most NBA teams used the deadlines to stack up future draft picks and clear cap space. Here are the not-so-top seven players who eventually ended up packing their bags for another town on the deadline.

Click here to read full feature.

February 20, 2014

The Underdog: Muggsy Bogues returned to India and preached big dreams

At just 5-foot-3, he was - and still is - the shortest player ever to play in the NBA. And despite the overwhelming odds of being the smallest man in primarily a big guy's game, Muggsy Bogues lasted in the world's most competitive basketball league for 14 years, most of them as a stable starting point guard. From his rough childhood to his unlikely NBA success, Bogues is the ultimate underdog story. Over a decade after his retirement from the game, Bogues continues to be an inspiration for others of the power of self-belief. Earlier This month, he made his second trip to India to preach the gospel of hoops.

Bogues was invited officially to assist with the first season of the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme, and he visited Mumbai and Kochi in the first week of February to train the hundreds of players and coaches involved in the events.

"I'm here to teach kids the game of basketball in schools and hopefully get them interested in the game at a young age," he told the Times of India, "The most important message I look to share is how important it is for youth to be active and healthy."

The Reliance Foundation and NBA announced a multiyear partnership to launch a comprehensive school-based youth basketball strategy for India: the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme, which aims to teach basketball to more than 100,000 youth and train 300 coaches and physical education instructors to implement a turnkey NBA curriculum in India. Over the course of the long-term partnership, the goal is to reach one million youth and train 2,000 coaches and physical education instructors across the country.

Bogues visit included attending the finals of Kerala's first Reliance Foundation Jr. City Championship in Kochi, where he trained the kids and gave out awards. He thrilled the kids with an exhibition of various basketball skills, including ball-handling, shooting and defending techniques.

Of course, Bogues' calling card for his career and after has always been his height, or lack thereof. So when asked how he managed to enjoy a long career with the height disadvantage, he flipped the script. "In fact, I thought of it as an advantage," he told The Hindu, "No one knows, how big your potential is, how big your heart is. When you start dreaming, you start winning."

To Mid-Day, he added that the qualities of teamwork and sportsmanship are more important than being tall in basketball. He used his own example to motivate kids in India who might be too short, too unskilled, too poor, or too far away from basketball opportunities in other countries. "There can definitely be an Indian player in the NBA some time soon," he added in the Mid-Day interview, "I mean never say never. I'm living testimony of it. Even though India is not known for tall athletes, don't get discouraged with that. Great things come in small packages."

In his NBA career, Bogues played with years with the Washington Bullets, Charlotte Hornets (he's still their franchise All Time leader in minutes played, assists, and steals), Golden State Warriors, and Toronto Raptors. He averaged around 11 points and 10 assists in his prime years. He briefly coached WNBA's Charlotte Sting and currently coaches the United Faith Christian Academy. And he had a monumental role in Space Jam. For all intents and purposes, Bogues went out and proved that size and circumstance shouldn't hold back one from achieving their dreams.

And to young Indians who interacted with him, Bogues' visit once more proved that no matter how small, underprivileged, or how far you may be from your goals, nothing can stop you from dreaming big.

February 19, 2014

Hoopistani on Ekalavyas!

Ekalavya is one of the most popular characters in Hindu mythology, who, even after facing rejection from the great Duru Dronacharya, taught himself to become one of the greatest archers of his time. It's the ultimate underdog story, the story of how someone with potential can overcome circumstance as long as they they have drive.

It's with that inspiration that Ekalavyas.com was formed, seeking to empower those underdogs in sport with will and drive to rise above any circumstance. In India, that circumstance is how every sport not named cricket gets dominated and ignored by the mainstream. One of Ekalavyas missions is to support the rise of these alternative sports. Fortunately for us Hoopistanis, Ekalavyas have started their journey with a strong focus on basketball around India.

Photo Source: Ekalavyas.com
Over the past few months, the website has already covered live several basketball tournaments in the country, including India's triumph at the Lusofonia Games in Goa and the Inter Zonal All India University Championship in Varanasi. In addition, they have also featured several players and coaches around the country, such as Amrit Pal Singh and Subhash Mahajan.

Of course, I have developed a nagging habit of refusing to keep myself away from any sentence that includes the words 'india' and 'basketball' in close proximity. So when Ekalavyas came calling, 'Yes' was the only option.

Starting this month, I'll be contributing a column to Ekalavyas.com on Indian hoops and hopefully, together, we can reach a greater audience and bring more awareness to people around the country and the world about the game here. For my first feature, I wrote about the possibility of a future professional basketball league in India, and how it could revolutionize things.

So join the Ekalavyas and support the movement. Just don't go around cutting off any right thumbs.

February 18, 2014

Market Men: Biggest names on the NBA’s trading block

3 PM Eastern Time on February 20th – that’s when the NBA market shuts down. And with the deadline looming, teams around the league are exploring, contemplating, and imagining. Some are imagining opposing players in their own jerseys, some are imagining hording up future draft picks, and some are focused single-mindedly on the accounts chart, hoping to clear up as much cap space as possible. Some wanna get better now, some wanna get better later, and some are clueless.

There aren’t too many big names or current All Stars involved in serious trade rumours this season, but here are the top players that could be on the market if their team gets an exciting offer or two.

Click here to read full feature.

February 17, 2014

Points: The NBA All Star Weekend concluded with an outburst of offense

By the time the fun-filled weekend was over, it left a legacy that could be described in a single, mono-syllable word: Points. This year's All Star Game became the greatest celebration of offense that it has ever seen in its 63 year history. The West and the East combined to score 318 points together, shattering the previous combined total of 303 from 1987. The East, who came back from 18 down to win the game, set an All Star record with 163 points.

Check out my review of the weekend here.

February 15, 2014

Elevating the Game: Elevate Basketball Academy begins professional training center in Mumbai

India's success and failures have been conducted yin and yang with the efforts of the public and the private sector. Where the government failed it's people, the people stepped up and created their own success.

And in basketball - where for decades the world's second-highest population has yet to take a notable step forward - we're finally going to have someone step up and help provide the professional training and support required to turn India's potential into reality.

Elevate Sports - who have been supporting basketball in the country for several years - partnered with Global Sports Partners (GSP), an internationally recognized sports consulting company, to launch India's most professional basketball training Academy in Mumbai. The first center of the Elevate Basketball Academy opened up at the Indian Gymkhana in Matunga on February 1. With international basketball experts and coaches at the helm, the Academy aims to track and hone grassroots basketball talent from around the city and help them realize their hoop dreams.

Elevate have been organizing and supporting basketball events in Mumbai for a long time, particularly the annual crowd-pleasing Savio Cup and Ramu Memorial Basketball Tournament, both of which are some of the most professionally-conducted basketball championships in India.

Elevate have entered an initial three-year partnership with GSP to launch the Basketball Academy. Vinod Muthukumar, the Managing Partner of Elevate Sports, has expressed their plans to launch many more centers after Indian Gymkhana in the city over the coming weeks.

Unlike a conventional basketball academy, the aim for Elevate will be to identify talent from different parts of the city and provide them a structured training programme with special emphasis on fitness, diet and conditioning. Muthukumar said that they will be targeting school programmes, with participating kids initially paying a fee. "At a later stage the kids will be selected based on their performance to form an elite squad where the training will be more intensive," added Muthukumar, "By targeting schools, we get a ready bunch of kids and we shall be also be targeting the nearby vicinity kids to join the academy."

The total programme will include health and nutrition information, a fitness plan, as well as basketball training

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Academy programme, and one which sets the academy apart from many other Academies and school basketball programmes, is the opportunity to be coached by USA trained coaches - brought together by GSP - using coaching styles and methods employed by the preeminent basketball nation in the world. The coaches have been selected and trained by USA coaches who have 30 years of experience coaching all age groups in multiple countries and at various levels.

Once fully operational, Elevate-GSP will take its advanced methods to schools across the country and establish academies there. In the long run, this would serve as a model to groom talent at the grassroots level and prepare youngsters for the future proposed Indian professional basketball league.

The Academy promises to use a 'player-centered' approach to training and coaching. The focus will be on individual skill development through a personal, one-on-one basketball instruction programme. The academy aims at enabling players to be able to move through the system and as they do so pick up the tactics and skills to move on to the next level. It will embrace all aspects of player development to build the better person, the better athlete and ultimately the better basketball player. The one-on-one instruction, along with group/team training, will give them the opportunity to instruct students of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels (6-17 years old) while accomplishing the task of individual skill development advancement.

On signing up at the Academy, a player will undergo an initial player profile to evaluate and record their fitness level, basketball skills level, and goals for their progression in the Academy. Each player would be and given an individualized program,e to follow. The players would undergo regular 3 month reviews, always identifying their progress and areas to continue working towards their goals along their sports journey and beyond! Players will train for up to 5-10 hours a week around their academic timetable.

At least 10 percent of the student admissions at the Elevate Basketball Academy will be reserved for talented players from under-privileged backgrounds.

Looking ahead, Elevate plans to market players from India and present them to team owners and college athletic departments primarily in the USA. Elevate will work closely with these players to create a player promotion kit which would contain a video of their game and highlight their talent through a presentation and also publish them on our website so that scouts could view their profile and select them for try-outs. The eventual aim is to place the players in the NBA and the NCAA Division One Teams, and other leagues within Europe and Asia that offer great opportunity to market Indian talent.

Elevate are aspiring to be India's leading sports solutions company. Currently, they provide services in event planning and management, basketball talent scouting, television and web-enabled sports production, and now, the Academy.

GSP is an internationally recognized sport consulting company with strategically placed representatives throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The company work at all levels of sport, including Professional, Olympic, Club, University and Recreational.

Hopefully, the Elevate Academy's mission - to produce skilled, motivated, and athletic basketball players in India - can come to fruition soon so that some of those talents can start breaking into India's national squads and of course, fulfill every basketball fan's dream of seeing an Indian one day play for the world's best basketball leagues. The Academy could motivate others to start taking sports like basketball more seriously and professionally in India.

February 14, 2014

New Rising Suns

This feature was first published in the 124th edition (2014 - No. 3) of SLAM China magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.

When asked about the surprising success of the Phoenix Suns this season, the team’s new GM Ryan McDonough said that, “The whole is better than the sum of its parts.”

The ‘parts’ are a group of underrated, unheard-of, and unexpected young talents. A late second-round pick. A career backup guard. A player who missed all of last season to a heart defect. A set of twin big men, known more for looking identical than for their skills on court. A swingman who spent the majority of his career jumping between the D-League, Russia, and China. Another swingman who spent the past half a decade between playing professionally in a different country nearly every year. And a second-year Center who barely stepped on the court last season.

But the ‘whole’? That’s a Suns team which found itself at sixth place in the cut-throat Western Conference after the season’s first two months, winning more games by the end of December than they were expected to win all season. A team that, at full health, was en route to becoming the year’s most unlikely success story.

Before the season began, the Suns were ranked by many to be at the bottom of the West’s totem pole, aiming for the star-studded 2014 draft class rather than a playoff place. They had a new coach, a new GM, and several new untested players in a roster that displayed all the symptoms of a team ready to tank and sacrifice a season for better luck in the long run.

For a franchise that once enjoyed great regular season success in the mid-2000s, it seemed that the good times were far gone. Former back-to-back MVP Steve Nash left a season ago, and the Suns had the second-worst season in franchise history, finishing 25-57. Before the new season began, they cleaned house some more of their remaining starters. Marcin Gortat was sent to Washington for the injured Emeka Okafor (and his expiring contract). Luis Scola was sent to Indiana for backups Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a first round pick. And Jared Dudley was sent to the LA in a three-team trade that landed Clippers’ backup Eric Bledsoe to Phoenix.

The Bledsoe trade turned out to be a masterstroke. Before he got injured, Bledsoe and Goran Dragic suddenly morphed into an electrifying double point-guard backcourt which was running through every defender and running past most opponents in the Conference. On paper, there were many better teams out West: the Mavericks, the Nuggets, the Grizzlies, the Timberwolves, the Pelicans, even the Lakers. But somehow, the Suns jumped up over them all.

And if their arrival to this point has been a revelation, their journey here makes it even more intriguing. The Slovenian Dragic was the 45th pick back in the 2008 draft, who mostly spent his career as Nash’s backup in Phoenix or Lowry’s back in Houston. Bledsoe always displayed his explosive potential on both ends of the court early in his career, but only played around 20 minutes as game behind Chris Paul in the Clippers. This season, both guards have been posting career-high numbers, averaging around 19 points and six assists each. Before his injury, Bledsoe was one of the front-runners of the Most Improved Player award, doubling his stats across the board.

Around these two guards, the supporting cast has followed them in unlikely roads to success. PJ Tucker played in Israel, Ukraine, Greece, Italy, Puerto Rico, and Germany before battling his way back to the NBA, and is now playing 30 minutes as the Suns’ starting small forward. Miles Plumlee was Roy Hibbert’s backup in Indiana, who got a grand total 13 points and 22 rebounds in 55 minutes of action all of last season! He was a throw-in piece in the Luis Scola trade and has exploded in Phoenix in his sophomore campaign, averaging around 10 points and nine rebounds per game. Then there’s Channing Frye, the sharp-shooting big man, who missed all of last season after discovering his heart defect. Upon his return, Frye hasn’t skipped a beat and is back averaging double-digits this season.

The high-scoring bench mob has been equally impressive. Once a slam dunk champion, Gerald Green bounced around in the D-League, in Russia, and in China (where he played for Foshan in 2011) before returning to the league. He was also a part of the Scola trade from Indiana, and is now enjoying a career-best scoring season for the Suns. The Morris Twins – Markieff and Marcus – have matured to being a minor punch-line to a major front-line. And the Suns recently brought back the ‘Brazilian Blur’, Leandro Barbosa.

Barbosa’s job will now be to help the Suns cope with the loss of Bledsoe. Along with Dragic, he should be able to help continue Phoenix’s two-point guard offense, where the small guys penetrate and the skilled three-point shooters spread the floor to help create space.

A man who knows a thing or three about three-point shooting is the Suns’ rookie head coach, Jeff Hornacek. Hornacek has been a coaching revelation; the former sharp-shooting guard has helped change the culture in Phoenix, brought a run-and-gun offense back to the team, and has encouraged selfless, sharing basketball. He quickly started setting records for a debut coach and was named December’s Coach of the Month. If the Suns continue to survive in the playoff race without Bledsoe, he might become a favourite for the Coach of the Year award.

But with the loss of one-half of their unstoppable point guard combo, that playoff dream just got much tougher. Can they keep up their form for the rest of the season? Dragic’s numbers have improved, and so have the contributions of the rest of the team, but that simply won’t be enough. Few are expecting that Emeka Okafor will contrubute if he returns from injury.

Before Bledsoe’s injury, the Suns could’ve used Okafor and his expiring contract, along with a couple other pieces, to go for another major contributor and try to rise even higher in in the West. Do they now revert to the original rebuilding plan for next season, or keep battling to get better?

There is one other x-factor for the team: the potential of Ukrainian rookie Alen Len. Len has played sparingly so far this season after recovering from his ankle surgery. He was shelved as a prospect for the future, but the 7-footer has the skill-set to start making some major strides if he is given more opportunities this season.

The Suns may have lost one of their most important players, but as their GM said, they are still better as a whole than the sum of their parts. When one part goes down, others will rise. Luckily, Hornacek’s squad is a system more than just a set of individuals, and as long as the players trust in that system, they should be fine.

Hornacek’s surprising squad have been here before; they’ve been underrated and they’ve been written off, and yet, they’ve risen above and beyond their expectations. Perhaps it wouldn’t be wise to bet against them again. No matter how dark the night gets, this is a Sun that can keep rising.