August 18, 2017

Can a strong Team India make waves at the FIBA Asia Cup? I interviewed Coach Phil Weber to preview our chances

This article was first published in my column for on August 7, 2017. Click here to read the original piece.

In recent years, almost every Indian basketball performance abroad—positive or negative—has been accompanied with an asterisk. Due to injury or other professional concerns, India have often been short of a couple of big names in the lineups. In international tournaments therefore, India either played well despite missing out some important players or, or struggled because they were short-handed.

In terms of personnel, that asterisk cannot apply any longer. When Team India step out on court against Iran on August 9 at Beirut’s Nouhad Nawfal Sports Complex for Asia’s most prestigious basketball tournament—the FIBA Asia Cup 2017—they will be doing so with theoretically their strongest roster ever assembled. The tournament, held in Lebanon from August 8-20 this year, will feature the top basketball squads from Asia and Oceania competing for the title and for the qualifying spots at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. India, who have been improving gradually over the past few years, seem prepared – on paper, at least.

India has been drawn in Group A of the FIBA Asia Cup, along with Asian powerhouse and FIBA Asia Challenge champions Iran, a dangerous and higher-seeded team from Jordan, and Syria, who are—in terms of ranking—the weakest team in the group. In the last major continental tournament—the Challenge in Iran last year—India finished 7th and produced their best performance in 27 years. That tournament, however, featured many sides sending out slightly weaker teams; India will get no such breaks at the FIBA Asia Cup this time around.

India’s roster announced by FIBA in early August includes our “Big Three” of Amjyot Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, and Amritpal Singh. Over the past few years, this trio has been instrumental in helping India to respectable performances at the FIBA Asia Cup and the FIBA Asia Challenges. Individually, their career has jumped into the fast lane, as all three have flirted with professional opportunities abroad. Bhriguvanshi became the first Indian to be signed to an NBL (Australian league) contract. Amritpal is close to an NBL squad himself as he spent the preseason with the Sydney Kings. Amjyot has been India’s most successful players at the international 3x3 basketball circuit

Added to this cocktail of talent is the biggest name, who has been missing in national team action since 2013, Satnam Singh. In 2015, Satnam made history by becoming the first Indian citizen to be drafted into the NBA and has played bit-minutes for two years in the NBA’s G-League. His return presents interesting new directions in the team’s potential.

Joining these four big names are players like TJ Sahi, Rikin Pethani, Arvind Annadurai, Muin Bek Hafeez, Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi, Prasanna Sivakumar, and Anil Kumar Gowda. The only marquee names missing from the list are Palpreet Singh Brar (who was drafted to the NBA G-League last year) and long-time veteran Yadwinder Singh (out with back injury), but with a roster so rich in size, India would have barely had space for more bigs, anyways.

The cherry on the top of this roster is the head coach and NBA veteran Phil Weber. Weber, who has been an NBA assistant coach for nearly two decades and will be in the New Orleans Pelicans’ front office when he returns to the States later this year, was hired by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) in early July to lead the team forward at this important tournament. He will be bringing with him years of elite-level basketball experience and a tactical understanding of that game that should immediately create a more demanding playing environment for the team.

And if everything looks theek-thaak and fantastic on the squad, India should be cruising in Lebanon this week, right?

Well, not exactly.

A strong roster, in this case, isn’t necessarily a sure-fire precursor of strong results. According to the Head Coach, many of India’s top players came into camp extremely late due to injuries and other professional duties. Bhriguvanshi, India’s best back-court player, suffered a serious knee injury at the BRICS Games in China a few months ago, and only got his first taste of action in Weber’s lineup a week before the FIBA Asia Cup. Amritpal and Satnam joined the team late and missed last month’s William Jones Cup because of their other obligations. And a couple of other players did not arrive in full game-shape for the challenge ahead, Weber adds.

“It’s a challenge right now,” says Weber. “I wish I had had everybody together because, right now, [I feel like] a painter without the colours before he puts all paint down. Probably our best player, Vishesh has been hampered and is coming back from a knee injury. Amritpal has practiced only a few times. One constant has been AJ—Amjyot—he is a very good player and has been working harder than probably anybody we’ve had here.”

“We had some guys who basically didn’t come in the shape they needed to,” adds Weber. “But since they’ve been here, they have worked hard. It’s probably my background that has not allowed me to feel good, compared to what I’m used to coaching. But I know we have a long way to go. And we’re gonna work hard and try to put everything together.”

India’s advantage is size. The Men’s national team is loaded with a logjam of frontcourt riches, featuring Amjyot, Amritpal, Satnam, Pethani, and Annadurai. With a variety of skillsets and experience levels, these big guys will ensure that India will have the tools to go up against any frontline in the continent.

“We are probably going to be one of the biggest teams going in with Amritpal and Satnam,” says Weber. “I’d be foolish not to go into the post with them and run certain actions that will maximise their abilities. As coaching staff, all we can do is what the players’ strengths are and minimise or try to hide their weaknesses.”

The real problem for India, however, lies in the backcourt. Bhriguvanshi is the only Indian player with All-Asia talent among the guards. Over the past few decades, guards have been faster, stronger, better shooters, and more athletic. A team with great big players will only be half as useful if it doesn’t have creative and talented options in the backcourt, too.

After a short absence, uber-athletic point guard TJ Sahi returns to the team, and will prove valuable for his pace and scoring ability. Coach Weber also shared positive feedback about two relatively newer faces: Anil Kumar Gowda, who played well at the William Jones Cup, and 17-year-old Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi, who has made rapid improvements in practice.

It will ultimately circle back to the “Big Three”, however. India’s past success came on the back of the individual brilliance of Bhriguvanshi, Amjyot, and Amritpal, and going forward, these three are likely to remain the strongest pieces on Weber’s offensive chessboard.

“We just want to be efficient offensively,” Weber says. “In order to do that we have to have our three best players involved in the actions. We want ball movement and quick decisions... Our benefit is that we have Amritpal, Vishesh, and Amjyot, and all three really know how to play… We’re going to have quick ball movement, and want our main guys to be in the action, and the other guys to be very smart in spacing the floor – spacing will be huge for us.

“Defensively, we will emphasize defensive transitions and matchup of course: all the basics, which are fundamentals... We’ll mix up our defences because I don’t believe we’ll have the depth to go ten deep.”

Weber, who has had the experience of working with some of the best basketball players in the world including Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins, is rightfully cautious of projecting the potential of the Indian talent he has seen at camp so far. A strong team on paper can only perform if all those pieces to be healthy, fit, and gelling together at the right time.

Last week, India’s Women’s team ended the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup at home in spectacular fashion, winning the Division B final on a last second shot to enter the higher tier. Despite basketball on the whole getting lesser attention than other sports in India, this victory was greeted with great jubilation by fans, even though it was only a promotion game. If anything, the reaction has taught us that Indian fans are yearning to see our national teams succeed, and any positive result could go a long way in promoting the sport.

So, which Team India will we see in Iran? The stacked, giant, confident squad with three superstars and Satnam Singh, ready to shock the continent? Or a team that is too rough around the edges to go deeper into the tournament? With tip-off only days away, this is certain to be one of the most-intriguing outings for Indian basketball in recent history. 

August 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 6, 2017

All Around The World

There are over a billion people in India—and none have ever played in the NBA. With a new elite Academy, the League hopes to turn this raw potential into basketball’s next big market.

This feature was first published in SLAM Magazine's September 2017 issue (SLAM # 211) and on on July 17, 2017. Click here to read it on the official website.

Morning practice has ended for the 21 elite prospects at the NBA Academy India in Greater Noida, a city in the suburbs of the capital city New Delhi. The 13- to 17-year-old young men—chosen from a competitive evaluation stage that included hundreds of players from six cities around the country—now pair up for a few minutes to stretch, cooling down after a tiring session.

There are no more sounds of basketballs bouncing on the wood court, no rims clanging, no instructions from the coaches, and no squeaking from the soles of the royal blue Nike KD 9s that the 21 young players have laced up over their feet.

It’s a state of peace rarely found in the culture that created Yoga in its never-ending quest for tranquility. India is expected to overtake China as the world’s largest population in a few years, and every hectic moment in the country is a full-court press of pressure, from competing for the highest grades in the cutthroat national examination systems, jostling for space in Mumbai local trains, to queuing up in desperate masses outside ATMs when the currency was de-monetized. We Indians are in a constant state of squeezing in together and fighting to make our space.

Which is why the first class of recruits into the Academy—launched in May as the NBA’s biggest investment in India yet—enjoy the luxury of being free from the tougher distractions of life. They are in a world of their own, a secluded lagoon of basketball, where international coaches are training India’s best young prospects to make the next big jump and inspire a nation of young Indians to be devoted to the sport.

Despite a population of over one billion, not a single Indian has played in an NBA game. In 2015, the Mavs made 7-2 big man Satnam Singh the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA, but he has since only played for the Texas Legends, the organization’s G League affiliate. Last year, Palpreet Singh Brar was drafted by the G League’s Long Island Nets but never made the roster. India has a long yet largely unsuccessful basketball history, but there is potential in the grassroots to unearth a player capable of participating in NBA basketball.

Robin Banerjee, a 6-3 14-year-old, is one of those young players with hoop dreams. Banerjee’s father owns a small printing business in Patna, Bihar, a poor state that has rarely produced basketball talent in the country. Banerjee, however, had passion and aptitude for the sport early in his life. At 12, he left Patna to attend a specialized coaching center in Varanasi, another small town in a neighboring state. Last year, he heard about the ACG NBA Jump program that scouted the best prospects for the Academy, so he traveled about 430 miles southeast all alone on a train to take part in the event in Kolkata. He and two others were chosen from among over 600 aspiring ballers. A few months later, he qualified as one of the final 21 prospects. [As of presstime, the NBA Academy was planning to invite three more prospects for a total of 24, but they hadn’t been selected yet.—Ed.]

The Academy’s location at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Center in Greater Noida is secluded from “real” India. Here, Banerjee and the other young prospects play, live in large dormitory-style rooms, eat their meals, and have access to exclusive club gym and swimming facilities. Twice a day, Banerjee takes part in training with coaches from Spain, Belgium, the United States and India.

“We practice all the time,” Banerjee says, “and when we’re done, there is nothing else to do but more basketball. There is a TV in our room where we watched the playoffs together.”

To spread the game in the grassroots, the NBA has been making inroads in India for several years. Their most concentrated efforts have come through the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA program, a strategy that has been introducing basketball curriculum to schools since 2013 and has reached over six million kids and five thousand coaches.

“No development programs can work on their own—there has to be an entire ecosystem,” says Yannick Colaco, the Managing Director of NBA India. “We had to start at the base of the pyramid, the bottom. To get kids to have fun playing basketball.”

Once the game is more ingrained in the culture, the Academy hopes to find the diamonds in the rough. India’s tussle against a large, competitive population is also the country’s undeniable advantage.

The NBA’s Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum was in India for the launch of the Academy. Tatum was previously part of Indian basketball history when he called out Singh’s name with the 52nd pick for the Mavericks at the 2015 NBA Draft. Now, he is hopeful that a successor can rise from the Academy.

“There will be a lot of divergent pathways,” Tatum told us in an interview from Mumbai on the day before the Academy’s launch. “Some kids will play at DI colleges in the US. Some will play in the G League. Some in other leagues around the world. We’re hopeful that in the next five to 10 years or so that we’ll see an NBA talent coming through.”

Potential NBA talent in India has been squandered too often. Skilled players have either been scouted too late or not provided the correct infrastructure to raise their games to be more competitive at the international level. The most poignant case is of Amritpal Singh, a powerful, 6-10 center. Amritpal is the son of a farmer, born in the tiny Punjabi farming village of Fattuwal. He didn’t know what a basketball was until he was 18 years old. By 22, he was the captain of the Indian national team, leading the group to surprising victories over China. The now-26-year-old has also played professionally in Japan and India.

Amritpal’s story can be seen as encouraging. But from another perspective, Amritpal’s case is a sobering reminder that a great number of young players weren’t getting the guidance and training at an early age to make the most of their potential.

With the Academy, there is now some hope the next generation of Amritpals can be scouted and taught the game earlier. Colaco says the Academy hopes to employ a holistic, 360-degree approach to player development with focuses on education, leadership, character development and life skills. The NBA will provide education for those selected at the public school in Jaypee Greens. The Academy has already hired a technical director to customize a future woman’s program.

There are similar NBA Academies in China (in Hangzhou, Jinan and Urumqi) and in Senegal (in Thies). India is a unique culture, however, and Tatum understands both the challenges and the opportunities that this program presents for the League’s ambitions.

“I think the opportunity is that in a short amount of time, there are kids here who have been identified through a national scouting network,” Tatum says. “What’s so positive is the level of talent we’re seeing from young kids in a market where basketball infrastructure hasn’t been great. It is a huge opportunity that we’re excited about.”

For now, the millions of young players who are beginning a relationship with the sport can have a realistic goal in mind, an aim to be among the chosen few at the NBA Academy India, to find breathing space for themselves from the cacophony of the country with the calm of basketball. For recruits at the Academy, like Banerjee, the promise is now of a brighter future beyond their wildest dreams, of earning a scholarship in a college abroad, of playing in a foreign professional league, and, of course, in the holy grail of hoops.

It’s simple, really, as the young Banerjee says: “I want to play in the NBA.”

Hoopdarshan Episode 51: Coach Phil Weber on India at FIBA Asia Cup & the New Orleans Pelicans

India's men's national team will be in Lebanon this week to take part in the prestigious FIBA Asia Cup 2017. To help preview our chances at the tournament, the team's Head Coach and NBA veteran Phil Weber joins co-hosts Kaushik Lakshman and Karan Madhok on Episode 51 of Hoopdarshan. In an informative and entertaining conversation, Weber discussed the players who have impressed him, shared his concerns with the team's fitness level, and took us back to the NBA where he looked forward to a full season with Davis and Cousins in New Orleans.

Join us to hear a lively conversation that includes a breakdown of India's challenge ahead, stories from Weber's days coaching with the Steve Nash Phoenix Suns, news of India's Women's team's success, Kevin Durant and Yao Ming in India, Weber's views on Lonzo Ball, and more.

Hoopdarshan is the truest voice of Indian basketball, and since we're such hopeless fans of the game, it will become the voice of everything basketball related we love, from the NBA to international hoops, too. On every episode of Hoopdarshan, we will be inviting a special guest to interview or chat to about a variety of topics. With expert insight from some of the brightest and most-involved people in the world of Indian basketball, we hope to bring this conversation to a many more interested fans, players, and followers of the game.

Make sure to follow Hoopdarshan on Soundcloud or search for 'Hoopdarshan' on the iTunes Store! Auto-sync Hoopdarshan to your preferred podcast app NOW!

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August 5, 2017

FIBA Asia Cup 2017 tips off in Lebanon on Tuesday - Preview with India's roster and schedule

If you are an Indian basketball fan of any capacity, now is the time to pay attention.

On Tuesday August 8, the most prestigious of tournaments for India's men's national basketball team is set to tip off in Lebanon. The FIBA Asia Cup 2017 (formerly known as the FIBA Asia Championship) will be held among 16 of the best teams from the Asia and (for the first time) Oceania region from August 8-20. The tournament will determine the composition of the joint FIBA Asia and FIBA Oceania qualifiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

The last iteration of this tournament was held in Changsha, China, in 2015, where the host teams romped undefeated to the title. Popularly known as the FIBA ABC, this tournament has been held 28 times in the past and China has won an incredible 16 of those championships. India put up some good performances at Changsha 2015 and improved to 8th place.

China is set to be one of the favourites to regain their trophy again this year, although they will be fiercely challenged by Australia, who will be playing in the 'Asian' fray for the first time. The other top teams to watch will include New Zealand, Iran, and Lebanon.

India qualified for this tournament by winning their fifth-straight gold at the South Asian (SABA) Championship in Maldives back in May. Since then, however, India has struggled in the exhibitions tournaments leading up to the FIBA ABC, returning 0-3 from the BRICS Games in China and 0-9 from the William Jones Cup in Chinese Taipei.

In both cases, India sent out depleted squads due to injury and other professional obligations. Fortunately, that won't be the case anymore. India has recently announced their final roster for Lebanon and the team is as stacked as they could possibly be on paper, including the talented "Big Three" of Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amjyot Singh, and Amritpal Singh, as well as the NBA drafted Satnam Singh who returns to national colours for the first time since 2013. Other players of note include the uber-athletic point guard TJ Sahi, 17-year-old phenom Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi, big men duo of Rikin Pethani and Aravind Annadurai, and the veteran swingman Prasanna Venkatesh. This is a relatively young squad (average age: 24).

Steering the ship from the top will be India's recently-hired foreign Head Coach Phil Weber, who holds a front office role in player personnel with the New Orleans Pelicans and has been an NBA assistant coach for nearly two decades. Utah Jazz video analyst Steve Klei is with the team as the assistant coach.

Coach Phil Weber with Team India at the 2017 William
Jones Cup 
Team India for the FIBA Asia Cup 2017
  • Aravind Annadurai
  • Vishesh Bhriguvanshi
  • Muin Bek Hafeez
  • Anil Kumar Gowda
  • Rikin Pethani
  • Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi
  • Amjyot Singh
  • Amritpal Singh
  • Rajvir Singh
  • Satnam Singh
  • TJ Sahi
  • Prasanna Venkatesh
  • Head Coach: Phil Weber
  • Assistant Coach: Steve Klei

Despite being stacked on paper, India has been struggling with injuries and availability. Most concerning is the health of Bhriguvanshi, India's only true elite backcourt player, who suffered a major knee injury at the BRICS Games and will not be at 100% at the FIBA ABC. Important players like Amritpal and Satnam joined the team late due to playing abroad, and Coach Weber was pressed for time in having them gel together with the rest of the team before the tournament.

India are in Group A of the tournament, along with the powerhouse squad Iran, Jordan, and Syria.

FIBA Asia Cup 2017 Groups
  • Group A: Iran, Jordan, Syria, India.
  • Group B: Iraq, China, Philippines, Qatar.
  • Group C: Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Korea, New Zealand.
  • Group A: Japan, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Australia.

The availability of superstar center Hamed Haddadi is questionable for Iran right now, but the reigning FIBA Asia Challenge champions are still clear favourites to top this group with big names like Arsalan Kazemi, Oshin Sahakian and Rouzbeh Arghavan on the roster. Jordan's player to watch will be the naturalised American Kevin Ware, and their frontcourt threats including Mohammad Shaher Hussein, Ali Jamal Zaghab and Yousef Abuwazaneh. Syria are underdogs in this group but can be a threat with players like Michael Madanly and Ivan Todorovic on their team. India is the third-best team in this group in terms of ranking.

The top team in each group will move on automatically to the Quarter-Finals and the bottom team will be automatically eliminated. Teams ranked 2 and 3 in each group will enter a qualifying bracket for the Quarter-Finals.

India's Preliminary Round Schedule at FIBA Asia Cup 2017 - all timings IST
  • August 9 - Iran vs. India - 06:30 PM
  • August 11 - India vs. Jordan - 09:00 PM
  • August 13 - Syria vs. India - 11:30 PM

The knockout stages begin with the pre-quarter-finals on August 14 and the final of the tournament will be held on August 20.

Last week, India's Women's basketball team made the country proud by sweeping through their Division B opponents and winning Division A promotion in Bengaluru at the FIBA Asia Women's Cup. The men will obviously have a tougher time since the Men's ABC pits India against all the top tier teams. But hopefully, on the backs of some of our superstar talent, they, too, will be able to generate some waves and excitement for basketball in the country.

August 2, 2017

Scott Flemming returns: Former national team head coach will lead NBA India operations

By the time his three-year tenure ended as Head Coach of India's Men's Basketball National Team in September 2015, Scott Flemming left the country with an unmatched legacy. From 2012-2015, the American coach carried the national team to unforeseen heights with confidence-boosting victories and helped strengthen the domestic grassroots basketball structure.

Now, two years after serving as head coach of Northwest Nazareth University back in the USA, Flemming will return to India to continue the job he began - the development of Indian basketball - under a different title. On Monday, July 31, Northwest Nazarene announced that Flemming was stepping aside to begin a new role as the Senior Director of Basketball Operations for NBA India.

"Going back to India is close to my heart, but working for the NBA takes it to another level,” Flemming said. “It would have taken a job like this to pull me away from NNU. I was enjoying what I was doing."

More on this news from the Idaho Press:

With NBA India, Flemming will oversee a program which has grown from a grass roots organization, to a program which is hosting major events. Flemming will be involved in hosting events like the Global Games, and Basketball without Borders, which will bring NBA stars to India to teach at camps. Flemming said there is also talk of holding an NBA preseason game in India.
But one of the biggest goals for the program, Flemming said, is identifying and producing the player who the program hopes will become India’s first NBA player.
Satnam Singh Bhamara, who played for Flemming on the Indian National Team, became the first Indian drafted when the Dallas Mavericks took him in the second round of the 2015 NBA draft, but he has yet to play at the NBA level.
“That was one big step to get a player drafted,” Flemming said. “They saw what Yao Ming did for China. That’s one of the goals, so they’re trying to evaluate and identify talent.”

Flemming first came to India when he was hired as the national Men's NT coach by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) in September 2012 after 30 years of coaching experience in the USA, including serving as an assistant coach with the NBDL squad Texas Legends. Flemming helped the national team hold their heads up higher with respectable performances at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, a gold medal at the Lusofonia Games, and important experience at the Asian Game. He was responsible for leading India to the 'Wonder of Wuhan', our biggest ever international victory over hosts China (for the first time) in the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan, China. In a country with fleeting basketball success where foreign coaches had been hired and dropped like flies, Flemming had lasted the test of time and the challenges of a broken system to become arguably India's greatest international coach ever.

Beyond his international influence, Flemming also served as an adviser to coaches domestically, helping to further cultivate and grow basketball at the grassroots level in India. He took part in various Coaches Coaching programmes around the country, launched the Indian Basketball Coaches Network (IBCN), and made basketball player development videos to reach out to the legions of hoop hopefuls in India. He and his wife Chawn forged valuable relationships with coaches and players in India and he went out of his way to have honest and open communication through interviews, his blog, and social media with the Indian fans and media. Memorably, Flemming fought for the religious rights of India's Sikh players Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh when FIBA forced them to play without their turbans at the FIBA Asia Cup.

Over the last two years at NNU, Flemming posted a 20-32 record for the Crusaders, including a 12-14 record this past season. The Crusaders tied for sixth place in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference standings, just missing out on the conference’s postseason tournament due to tiebreakers. Assistant coach Paul Rush will take over as the interim coach to help the team prepare for the upcoming season.

Flemming has the coaching expertise, India experience, and an attitude to deal with the challenges that India might present, and he is the ideal hire to lead NBA India's basketball operations. The league is obviously betting big on India as a market for basketball and a vast land from where they hope to unearth an NBA talent. With the launch of the NBA Academy India in Greater Noida earlier this year, they have already selected the first batch of youngsters to hone and develop into future potential stars. With Flemming on the team, hopefully they will take the next major step for the game's development in the country.

July 31, 2017

Indian basketball legends unite to launch Basketball India Players Association; announce nationwide inter-school league

After several years preparing in the background for the big moment, the Basketball India Players Association (BIPA) formally launched on Saturday, July 29, at the Constitutional Club in New Delhi, in the presence of Olympians, former captains and distinguished awardees of the game. Registered as a non-profit company, The BIPA will be an organisation hoping to promote the game without being in “confrontation or competition” with any federation or association - which means, of course, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI).

Straightaway, BIPA announced the launch of a massive 16-city, 1,024-team inter-school basketball league, which will begin next month all across the country.

The attendees at the launch event included chief guest Yogeshwar Dutt (India's 2012 Olympic Medalist Wrestler), Gyan Sherawat Singh (1984 Olympian), Ajmer Singh, Hanuman Singh (both Arjuna Awardees and 1980 Basketball Olympians), Zorawar Singh, TS Sandhu (1980 Basketball Olympian), Gajendra Singh (Member of Parliament and BIPA President) Ram Kumar (Dhyanchand Awardee, Former Captain of Indian Men's Basketball Team, Secretary General of BIPA), Divya Singh (Former Captain of Indian Women's Basketball Team and Treasurer of BIPA) and many more.

The BIPA have several objectives for current and former players, listed on his blog by Aruneshwar Gupta, including lifelong security, medical coverage, pension benefits, marketing, help with contractual rights, and mentoring of players and their families. According to Gupta, BIPA is the one of the largest players association in the country and possibly in the world with about 2,800 members who are basketball players, coaches, referees, ground officials, physiotherapists, dietitians, and other stakeholders. The membership is likely to increase to 20,000 by the end of the year.

Dutt, the chief guest at the launch, said at the event, "In any game, the voice of the players, has to be heard. It is great that all the great players have got together."

More details of the BIPA launch and future plans via The Hindu:

The Inter-school tournament will feature events for boys and girls in the under-14 and under-17 sections, in Bengaluru, Bhopal, Bhubaneswar, Chennai, Delhi, Dehradun, Gurugram, Hyderabad, Indore, Jaipur, Kolkata, Mumbai, Noida, Pune, Raipur and Thiruvananthapuram. It will be played from August 23 to September 6.

There will also be clinics by the leading players of the game to inspire school kids and strengthen their bond with the game.
On the occasion, Olympians Ajmer Singh, Hanuman Singh, Paramjit Singh, Zoravar Singh, Baldev Singh, T.S. Sandhu and Gyan Singh were honoured, along with a host of other players like Ram Kumar, Trideep Rai, Divya Singh, Prashanti Singh, Akanksha Singh, Pratima Singh etc.

Japan win threepeat at FIBA Asia Women's Cup 2017; Undefeated India win Division B in front of home fans!

The biggest women's basketball tournament in the continent - and beyond! - was held in our very own shores as India hosted the FIBA Women's Asia Cup 2017 from July 23-29 in Bengaluru. The top teams from the Asia and Oceania region took part in a week of memorable action at the Sree Kantaveera Indoor Stadium. The event came to a breathless end with two huge moments on Saturday: Japan defeated Australia in a nail-biter to win their third straight gold medal; and India were lifted in spectacular fashion with a game-winning shot to the Division B title and promotion to the higher Division A.

The FIBA Women's ABC was the first time India hosted a major FIBA event since the same championship was held in Chennai in 2009. A total of 15 teams took part this year in the two Divisions, featuring, for the first time, teams from the Oceania region, too. It was was the qualifying tournament for FIBA Asia at the 2018 FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup in Spain.

Japan landed in India as two-time holders of the title, including the most-recent win in 2015 at Wuhan, China. In Bengaluru, they finished another magical run with a thrilling final victory over Australia. In a contest truly befitting a final fight for the crown, Australia and Japan went through seven lead changes and several ties in the final. Shooting guard Saki Mizushima ended up being Japan's unlikely hero, exploding for 26 points in the final including a clutch three that broke the deadlock in the game's dying minutes. Australian superstar Kelsey Griffin scored 30 in the final, but her efforts weren't enough and Japan sneaked by to a 74-73 victory at the end of regulation.

This was Japan's fourth title overall and third in succession, cementing their place atop Asian women's basketball. Griffin was named the tournament's MVP. Australia's Griffin was named tournament's MVP.

China won the bronze medal on Saturday with a comfortable 75-51 victory over Korea. Sijing Huang and Yueru Li each scored 16 for China in the victory.

The top four teams from Division A - Japan, Australia, China, and Korea - qualified for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2018.

After falling out of the top division at the tournament's previous iteration in 2015, India had to begin the 2017 competition at home from Division B. They would have no chance to compete for the title, but a Division B victory could secure them a place in Division A for the next FIBA Asia Women's Cup. With this mission in mind, India hired Serbian head coach Zoran Visic to lead a healthy and talented squad, featuring important players like the veteran Anitha Paul Durai, Jeena Scaria, Shireen Limaye, Kavita Akula, and more. India were placed in Group A of Division B along with Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, and American Samoa, but American Samoa pulled out of the tournament before it began.

India opened their account on home floor against Uzbekistan in their first game, and captain Anitha Paul Durai ensured that the team got off to a positive start. A 19-9 run in the first quarter proved to be the big difference in the game. Paul Durai led all scorers with 28 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Grima Merlin Varghese, a late replacement to the squad in place of Poojamol KS, was India's surprise x-factor, scoring 17 in the victory.

India showed no mercy to South Asian neighbours Sri Lanka in their second preliminary group game, flying off to another quick start 23-10 and holding Sri Lanka to just three points in the second quarter. Varghese continued her dream run, pouring in 19 points and 10 rebounds for India's 88-42 win, which put them through to the Quarter-Final as group leaders.

The knockout stage began with another easy rout for India, an impressive 93-51 win over Fiji. Captain Paul Durai led India with 19, while Fiji's star player Miji Koiyamainavure (24) fell short despite a strong individual performance.

The semi-final presented India with their toughest challenge yet, against Lebanon. India had a hesitant start to the crucial match, and Lebanon, the more confident team from the get-go, marched to a 38-33 halftime lead. With Lebanon still leading by 2 at the end of the third quarter, India needed one last boost to carry them to the final stage. They got just that from Kerala's star Jeena Scaria, who went into beast mode in the fourth quarter, ultimately finishing with 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists to help India go on a late run and win the game 79-69. Raspreet Sidhu added 17 in the win. Lebanon's Rebecca Akl and Chirin El Charif scored 20 and 17 respectively in the loss.

India's biggest test, appropriately, came in the Division B final against Kazakhstan. Playing in-front of a sell-out home crowd in Bengaluru (which was a relief, after several days of sparse audience at the event), India once again started slow, and fell down by 14 points midway through the second half. Led by the amazing Nadezhda Kondrakova (who finished with 30 points and 18 rebounds) and Zalina Kurazova (17) Kazakhstan were up by 8 at the end of the third quarter. Once again, Scaria came to the rescue (20 points, 6 assists), helping ignite India's big comeback in the fourth quarter. In crunch time however, India's hero turned out to be All-Around talent Shireen Limaye. Limaye hit two huge baskets in the game's last minutes, including a memorable game-winning shot with just five seconds left on the clock that gave India the 73-71 victory. The heroics capped Limaye's biggest game of the tournament, as she finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists.

The victory earned India promotion into Division A for the next iteration of the tournament in 2019. They will replace North Korea, who will fall to Division B.

This well be a tournament that basketball fans won't easily forget. Even though India played in the lower division, they delighted the fans and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) by going 5-0 with incredible performances, and then winning the division in dramatic fashion. BFI announced a reward of Rs. 15 lakhs for the team for their efforts.

Coach Visic's contract technically expires at the end of this tournament, and the BFI will now decide whether or not they will choose to extend this successful coach to stay and build up Indian basketball for a longer period.

The BFI counted another major win as they hosted Hall of Famer and Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming, who attended the FIBA Women's ABC in the knockout stages, too.

Paul Durai, who returned to this team after maternity leave, ended up as India's top scorer at the tournament (16.4 ppg). 22-year-old Varghese was the surprise package for the squad and should now feel confident of playing a major role in the team in the future, too. Raspreet Sidhu, Kavita Akula, Jeena Scaria, and Rajapriyadarshani Rajaganapathi were all part of India's main rotation throughout the tournament. And Limaye can return home safe knowing that she hit one of the biggest shots in Indian women basketball history!

Final Standings
  • 1. Japan
  • 2. Australia
  • 3. China
  • 4. Korea
  • 5. Chinese Taipei

All Tournament Team

  • Manami Fujioka (Japan)
  • Lim Yung-Hui (Korea)
  • Moeko Nagaoka (Japan)
  • Kelsey Griffin (Australia) - MVP
  • Li Yueru (China)

July 29, 2017

India needs to make home support count for the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup 2017

This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India Sports on July 19, 2017. Click here to read the original piece.

One of the theories of how ‘Bengaluru’ gets its name dates over a millenia ago. An inscription found in Begur village, 14 kilometres from the city, states that the place – called ‘Bengaval-uru’ was part of the Ganga Kingdom till 1004. To face the battles fought at this spot, the inscription means ‘City of Guards’ in Halegannada (Old Kannada).

A few hundred years, many more kingdoms and governments, and a couple more name changes later, the city named Bangalore became Bengaluru again. And in 2017, some of the best guards on the continent- the basketball-playing kind- get set to invade India’s third-largest city.

Starting from Sunday, July 23, Bengaluru will host Asian basketball’s most-prestigious women’s trophy- the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup 2017-at the Kanteerava Indoor Stadium, situated in the heart of the city’s Central Administrative Area. This will mark the first time that India will host a major FIBA (the International Basketball Federation) tournament since the same tournament was held in Chennai back in 2009.

Basketball is still a niche sport in India, but a major tournament like this should shine a spotlight not only on the beauty of the game itself but also on India’s potential. With the help of home support, India’s national squad will be hoping to rise back to the elite division of teams in Asia.

India have never finished better than fifth-place in Asia, after the continent’s usual powerhouses: China, Japan, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei. This year, the addition of Oceania squads like Australia and New Zealand will add the two squads among the long-list of title contenders, too.

Following a miserable performance at the same tournament in 2015 in Wuhan, China, India fell to the lower level-Division B-of the championship, meaning that the home team will not have a chance to contend for the title with the Division A teams. But there is a silver-lining to this cloud: with most of the top teams in the continent in the tougher division, India will have a chance to put out winning performances against lower-ranked teams to delight the home fans.

The team’s hope will be to finish top in Division B and qualify for Division A for the 2019 iteration of the championship. India were drawn in Group A of Division B, along with southern neighbours Sri Lanka, Uzbekistan, and American Samoa, but the latter eventually pulled out of the competition. For India to be promoted to Division A, we will have to win Group A in our division, and then defeat the top ranked team from Group B, likely to be Lebanon or Kazakhstan.

To help see India through this task, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) appointed veteran Serbian Zoran Visic as Head Coach of the Women’s squad a month before the championship. Although Visic will face the challenge of getting the team prepared for this big challenge in such a short span of time, he will have a good mix of veteran and youth players on the roster to help lead the brigade. Team India will be captained by Tamil Nadu’s veteran star Anitha Paul Durai, and she will definitely be one of the stars to watch in the tournament. India’s best player is most likely Kerala-born Jeena Scaria, a multi-talented forward who was our leading scorer at the tournament in 2015. Others likely to play major minutes in this team will be Raspreet Sidhu, Kavita Akula, Rajapriyadharshini Rajaganapathi, and Shireen Limaye. Our tallest-ever women’s player-the 6’11” Poonam Chaturvedi-will hope to shrug off her injuries to play an important role, too.

Visic’s squad stammered in their first exposure against international challenge at the William Jones Cup in Chinese Taipei earlier this month, finishing without a win in five matches against all higher-ranked squads. But the experience should definitely pay dividends when the team returns home to face more beatable competition.

The last time India hosted a tournament of this stature, Arjuna Awardee Geethu Anna Rahul ended up finishing as the leading scorer in the entire tournament. There is no game-changer like Rahul in the squad anymore, but between Scaria, Paul Durai, Akula, and more, India has players who will hope to make their turn towards superstardom in Bengaluru.

But as important as India’s performances on-court will be the performance and participation of fans off of it. This tournament is going to offer a chance for Indian sports fans to watch some of Asia’s best basketball talent competing at the highest level. Reigning champions Japan will return to defend their title with stars like Asami Yoshida and Yuka Osaki. Australia will feature many players that starred in their team for the Rio Olympics like Mariana Tolo, Belinda Snell, and Abby Bishop. Other players to watch will include China’s Sun Mengran, Chinese Taipei’s Lin Yu-Ting and Huang Ping-Jen, and South Korean superstar Danbi Kim.

The priority for home fans, however, will obviously be the home team. For those who are based in or near Bengaluru, the tickets to watch high-level basketball action for a whole day are going to be just ?100. The games can be followed online via the tournament’s official website. And there is hope that a domestic TV network (most likely Neo Sports) might show some of the games live in India.

So, watch the games, cheer on the team, and support the other stars showing up in India for the championship, too. Tournaments like these don’t come often in Indian Basketball, and it is a responsibility for fans like us to make them count. A successful performance by our home team – whom I like to call ‘Desi Heights’ – will just be the cherry on the cake. Let’s make the ‘City of Guards’ showcase its skills on battles on the hardwood, too.

July 28, 2017

Sports Ministry grants recognition for Basketball among India's National Sports Federations

The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) has been having a busy week. While organising what has arguably been the biggest basketball event ever hosted in India - the FIBA Asia Women's Cup 2017 - the BFI received some good news. A year after the Indian government's Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports removed BFI from the list of National Sports Federations (NSF) of the country, they have reinstated recognition to the basketball body, announced the BFI itself on Thursday.

If you recall, this whole ridiculous drama began when the BFI split into two separate executive committees, each competing to be the rightful BFI body in India. The committee led by president K. Govindraj were eventually able to gain recognition by FIBA (the international basketball association) and continue to hold domestic and international basketball events over the past two years. But because of political backing, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the Sports Ministry both backed away from this committee as a favour to the other.

Two weeks ago, the IOA finally granted affiliation to this "new" BFI, and this week, the Sports Ministry did the same, as the BFI has fulfilled all the conditions laid down by the National Sports Development Code of India, 2011 for grant of recognition. This is a major step forward as the committee which has been working to develop basketball in India without official national support can now move forward with the government in hand, instead of being at odds with it.

Speaking about the ministry's decision, BFI's Secretary-General Chander Mukhi Sharma said, "This positive step is in recognition of the continued service to the game under the leadership and guidance of our President Shri K Govindaraj. I’m thankful to all the stakeholders who have stood by us and supported us in the last two and a half years. We will take the game to new heights."

Since the election of Govindraj, Sharma, and V. Raghothaman as President, Secretary General and Treasurer, respectively, of the BFI in March 2015, the committee has been federation has kept the ball bouncing in Indian basketball. The Indian national teams have participated in 16 prestigious international competitions across various age groups in both the men and women sections. In terms of competitive events, BFI has hosted two South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) Championships and important FIBA gatherings such as the FIBA Asia Central Board Meeting and the FIBA New Competitions System Workshop. The BFI has also been conducting regular National Championships and various FIBA Coaching Certification courses. This year, the BFI has been entrusted to conduct two major FIBA Asia events: the ongoing FIBA Asia Women's Cup and the future FIBA Asia Championship for U16 Women.

Glad to see a chapter in this long, nasty soap opera finally come to a close. Basketball needs all federations and associations working together to grow in the country. Hopefully, the BFI can now move forward and secure funding to develop the game at all levels.

July 27, 2017

Hall of Famer Yao Ming is in India for the FIBA Women's Asia Cup in Bengaluru!

In what turned out to be a pleasant surprise, Chinese basketball legend and Basketball Hall of Famer Yao Ming arrived on India on Wednesday night to attend the FIBA Women's Asia Cup 2017 in Bengaluru. Yao, 36, indisputably the most successful Asian basketball player in history, retired from the game in 2011 and is currently the president of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).

The FIBA Women's Asia Cup 2017 is the biggest competition for teams from Asia and Oceania, and is being held in India for the first time in eight years from July 23-29. Yao's country-women from China are once again one of the favourites at this tournament and have most-recently defeated the Philippines at Bengaluru's Sri Kantaveera Stadium to make it to the semi-finals.

This is huge news, metaphorically and literally. Despite ending his playing years early to chronic foot injuries, the 7-foot-6 Yao enjoyed a successful career. He excelled in the CBA with the Shanghai Sharks in his youth, became number one pick in the 2002 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets, dominated the paint to become one of the league's best big men (he just happened to be playing in the Shaq era, unfortunately), and became one of the most popular basketball players worldwide. The Chinese sports icon won three FIBA Asia gold medals for his country and carried China's national flag for his delegation during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In 2016, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

This is Yao's second trip to India. Before he got into the fast-lane to superstardom, Yao took an early step to success in Calcutta at the FIBA Asia U18 Championship back in 1998, as an 18-year-old. Yao was the best player in Team China at the tournament and helped with win the gold medal and took home the tournament's MVP trophy. He was a rookie with the Shanghai Sharks then, and a few years later won the CBA MVP award, the CBA title, and was drafted to the NBA, and the rest is history. During an interview I did with Yao in Shanghai for SLAM Magazine in 2014, he told me that he still harboured great memories of India because of his early success.

China will be hoping that Yao's presence proves to be their good-luck charm as they look to end Japan's recent dominance at this competition and win the gold medal. Meanwhile, India is in Division B of the tournament and have a starkly different ambition: just to qualify for the higher Division A.

What makes Yao's trip even more special is that he arrived in India less than 24-hours before another worldwide super-duper basketball star, Kevin Durant. Durant, however, is spending in time in the north, where he will be training players at the NBA Academy India in Greater Noida.

July 26, 2017

3D Canada win 2017 William Jones Cup for Men - India (0-9) finish at last pace

At the 2017 William Jones Cup for Men in Chinese Taipei, an invitational tournament held mainly among Asian squads as preparation for the larger FIBA Asia Cup next month, the two best teams ended up being dominant club squads from outside the continent. The squad from 3D Global Sports Canada and Atletas All-Star Lithuania finished with the tournament's best records (8-1) after nine days of breathless action concluded on July 23rd. With the best point-differential, 3D Canada lifted the championship trophy on Sunday at the Taipei Peace International Basketball Hall.

India, led by brand-new NBA-experienced head coach Phil Weber, suffered from injuries and absences and sent a depleted squad for the tournament. With most of the squads present ranked higher, India were always going to be underdogs at this event, and despite a few standout individual performances, they returned from Taipei without notching a win and finishing at ninth (last) place.

Captained by Rikin Pethani, Team India's best player, as expected, was the 6-foot-8 forward Amjyot Singh. Amjyot had to carry the heavy load for India's campaign in the absence of Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Yadwinder Singh (injuries), Satnam Singh, Palpreet Singh, and Amritpal Singh (international obligations). Their absence will give other veterans and up-and-comers like Pratham Singh, Basil Philip, Prudhvi Reddy, Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi, Gurvinder Singh Gill, and Prasanna Sivakumar a chance to shine.

India's final scores at 39th William Jones Cup
  • July 15: Iraq beat India 86-68.
  • July 16: South Korea beat India 92-67.
  • July 17: Chinese Taipei Blue beat India 101-80.
  • July 18: Iran beat India 88-44.
  • July 19: Atletas All-Star Lithuania beat India 102-79.
  • July 20: Chinese Taipei White beat India 117-87.
  • July 21: 3D Canada beat India 121-72.
  • July 22: Philippines beat India 101-70.
  • July 23: Japan beat India 77-61.

The 0-9 record will cause some sullen faces for the national team stars, but the silver lining to the dark cloud is that Weber was able to get his first outing in rapid-fire succession and get a crash course in competitive basketball for India and our opponents. Leading India with 18.1 points per game, Amjyot Singh finished as the tournament's fifth-highest scorer. Muin Bek Hafeez and Anil Kumar Gowda also earned valuable playing time for India in the course of the nine games.

India will now turn their gaze to Lebanon, which will be hosting the massive 2017 FIBA Asia Cup from August 8-20. India is placed in Group A with Iran, Jordan and Syria. The loss to Iran will give Weber some scouting knowledge to build upon, and at full-strength, India has the talent to challenge for second-place in their group. Hopefully, Weber has the squad at the best of their health at his disposal and finally get this debut victory as national team coach under the brighter lights next month.

July 25, 2017

Hoopdarshan Episode 50: FIBA Asia Women's Cup preview with Geethu Anna Rahul

Hoopdarshan - the Indian Basketball podcast - celebrates their half-century in style. With the FIBA Asia Women's Cup 2017 around the corner, set to be held in India in Bengaluru, hosts Kaushik Lakshman and Karan Madhok are joined by Indian basketball legend and Arjuna Awardee Geethu Anna Rahul. Rahul helped us preview the tournament, talked about her past experiences with Team India, playing pro in Australia, the WNBL, discussed the chances of her comeback to the national team, and much more!

Tune in to the latest episode for our thoughts on India's campaign at the FIBA Asia Women's Cup, on how Indian Men are preparing under new head coach Phil Weber, catch up with news our performances from the William Jones Cup, and hear an amazing David Robinson story.

Hoopdarshan is the truest voice of Indian basketball, and since we're such hopeless fans of the game, it will become the voice of everything basketball related we love, from the NBA to international hoops, too. On every episode of Hoopdarshan, we will be inviting a special guest to interview or chat to about a variety of topics. With expert insight from some of the brightest and most-involved people in the world of Indian basketball, we hope to bring this conversation to a many more interested fans, players, and followers of the game.

Make sure to follow Hoopdarshan on Soundcloud or search for 'Hoopdarshan' on the iTunes Store! Auto-sync Hoopdarshan to your preferred podcast app NOW!

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July 21, 2017

May the rings be with you

How Warriors vs. Cavaliers in the NBA Finals was the greatest trilogy since Star Wars

This article was first published in my column for Ekalavyas on July 10, 2017. Click here to read the original piece.

Illustration by Eshita Munshi for Ekalavyas

Even George Lucas in his prime couldn’t have conjured up a better tale of suspense, greatness, dominance, revenge, and heroism: for the first time in the NBA’s 70-year history, the Finals over three consecutive years featured a trilogy of the same illustrious matchup of the Golden State Warriors vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers. The three-peat of Finals featured future Basketball Hall-of-Famers, MVPs, All NBA talents, memorable role-players, and enough basketball ‘force’ to put the greatest Jedi to shame.

As a matter of fact, Warriors-Cavaliers from 2015-17 has been the greatest trilogy since the original Star Wars movies, released between 1977-1983. As an ardent fan of both mediums of entertainment, please allow me to explain.

The Prequel

Let’s set up the world before 2014-15, or in Star Wars terms, revisit the later films: Episodes I-III. In The Phantom Menace, a young child with prodigious gifts named Anakin Skywalker is recruited by the Jedi for having unnaturally strong powers of the Force. Qui-Gon is convinced that Anakin is the “chosen one”. By Attack of the Clones, Anakin is living up to his potential as the true heir to the Jedi greatness.

Sound familiar? In the early 2000s, a teenager with prodigious gifts named LeBron James emerges in the international basketball consciousness. James gets a “Chosen One” tattoo over his back and becomes the first pick in the 2003 NBA Draft by the Cavs. By the end of the decade, he has already won two MVP awards despite being dented a little in the 2007 Finals because of 4-0 sweep by the robotic clones, I mean, the San Antonio Spurs.

But by 2010, LeBron has realised that there is a greater, darker level of power available that the Cavaliers couldn’t provide for him. In spectacular fashion, he joins the Dark Side with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, taking his talents down to South Beach, and immediately becoming the NBA’s biggest villain. Speaking of villains, Anakin in Revenge of the Sith has had enough of the Jedi and joins the Dark Side, too. He puts on a mask, speaks in a heavier voice, and is now hated by everyone.

Anakin is now Darth Vader, and his dominance supports the Galactic Empire, which is ruling over the rest of the galaxy. LeBron is now in the Miami Heat and spurs a mini empire of his own with four straight Finals, two championships, and two more MVP awards. He returns to Cleveland in 2014 and immediately makes them the favourites in the East again.

A New Hope

Rebellions come from unexpected places. A ragtag bunch of underdogs, including a son of a farmer in the quite planet of Tattooine (Luke Skywalker), an imprisoned princess who is actually his twin sister (Leia), a trash-talking pilot (Han Solo), his weird Wookie friend (Chewbacca), and two ever-confused droids (C3P0 and R2D2) lead an unlikely Rebel Alliance. No one expects much from them against the bigger badder lord of the Force Vader or the Empire.

Meanwhile, an innocent, harmless-looking hero just like Luke is called to action and realises that he, too, has some special powers of the force. His name is Stephen Curry, and his power is the three-point shot, and he has a sibling like Leia blessed with the force, too, except this sibling is a brother-in-splash and his name is Klay Thompson. With the rise of second-round pick and legendary trash-talker Draymond Green, this alliance of rebels – or Warriors from the Golden State – end up having the best record in the NBA in 2014-15 to go against the “Chosen One”.

Skywalker and the Alliance find a weakness in the Death Star and set out to destroy this vulnerable exhaust port to take down the Empire’s weaponised ship. For the Cavaliers, injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love leave them vulnerable in the finals, and even Lord Vader LeBron wasn’t enough to stop Curry and the Warriors from snatching the victory. At the very end of A New Hope, the heroes of the Alliance are honoured on a pedestal just like NBA champs are handed the trophy on centre-court.

The Empire Strikes Back

Considered by many to be the finest Star Wars film ever made, the second of Warriors-Cavaliers clashes in the Finals was also the most entertaining. In The Empire Strikes Back, the champion Rebels are now gaining more ground and setting up a legitimate base on the planet Hoth. Luke Skywalker spends much of this film improving his Jedi powers under the tutelage of Master Yoda. Before the final clash, it seems like he’s becoming, unanimously, the greatest Jedi around. The Millennium Falcon ship, brags Solo, can make hyperspace faster than the speed of light.

Oh, and the Warriors, their owner brags, are “lightyears ahead” of the rest of the NBA. They start 2015-16 on a 25-game winning streak and end up the season as the greatest regular season team ever, with a 73-9 record. Jedi Stephen dominates historically on all fronts to become the NBA’s first regular-season MVP. He is popular and likeable, and over in Cleveland, Lord LeBron is troubled by his rise.

The finale sets up another classic clash of the two warring sides. Just when it seems that all is going right for the Warriors, Draymond Green gets suspended for a nut-punch at LeBron in the Finals. His spiritual twin in Star Wars, Han Solo, is locked up in suspended animation in a block of carbonite. Things go awry for Golden State as LeBron reasserts his greatness, “strikes back” at the Warriors, and leaves them in tatters. By leading the Finals in all categories as the Finals MVP, he literally “sons” the unanimous MVP Curry and reminds him who is the greatest. Curry is injured and lost, and at the end of Empire, so is Luke Skywalker: Vader makes the big revelation that he is Luke’s father, cuts off Luke’s hand, and brings him down. After suffering a surprising loss in the previous Episode, Vader regains his place at the top.

Return of the Jedi

Luke Skywalker has to bring down his father, but he can’t do it alone. Han Solo is rescued, Princess Leia is in top form, and the gang is back together. In the previous instalment, Lando Calrissian betrayed his friend Solo; this time around, he has joined the Alliance, too. A bunch of Ewoks are destined to play a small but important role. The Jedi in the final film return more stacked than ever, and are determined to defeat the Empire.

Kevin Durant joins the Warriors, but he is no Lando: he is more like a mixture of Yoda’s smooth style and Luke Skywalker’s heroism. Our original Luke – Curry – now grows a beard to try and look more menacing. The rest of the gang is at the top of their games, role players like Iguodala, Livingston, and West play an important part, and the Warriors have yet another dominant season. Oh yeah, and JaVale McGee is Jar Jar Binks. No matter how much they Shaq’t-a-fool, you can’t knock on those rings.

The finale of the trilogy is the 2017 NBA Finals, or the final battle on the moon Endor and the Death Star. Despite predictions that this will be the most epic end to these “Wars”, the final doesn’t have the tension and excitement of the previous episode. Kevin Durant, the newest Jedi, returns to the final after being defeated by Lord LeBron in 2012, and this time – along with Curry – he gets his revenge. The Warriors win 4-1 while the Rebel Alliance blow some shit up. LeBron or Vader, despite excellence performances, lie lost in the end and defensively begin to look their age. There is a touching moment of mutual respect between LeBron and Durant, who is the former’s spiritual successor/son as the greatest of his generation. As the Warriors celebrate centre-court on their home floor, there is an Ewok party in Endor.

The Next Episodes

The latest episodes of Star Wars showcase a new generation of young rebels going against the newly-strengthened First Order. The son of Leia and Solo, Kylo Ren, is the new bad boy in the galaxy. Despite the new characters and plotlines, a lot of the themes of The Force Awakens provide nostalgia for the original trilogy.

The Warriors are sure to remain dominant for many more seasons, and despite some rise of talent in the East, odds are that it will be LeBron and the Cavs in the finals again next year. Some things will be different, but the general themes of this legendary rivalry will remain the same. Meanwhile, the NBA continues to change and evolve in reaction to the Warriors’ greatness and every team is starting to look for the next superstar player to usurp them, someone who can be a versatile defender like Draymond and shoot like Klay – or the child of Leia and Solo.

As for the next Star Wars film releasing later this year: I don’t know anything about The Last Jedi, but in NBA terms, it sounds a whole lot like Russell Westbrook. May the rings be with you all!