This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India on May 4, 2017. Click here for the original piece.
Three years ago, India’s national basketball team had one of its greatest moments in history. On July 13, 2014, at the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan, China, India – ranked 53rd in the world – did the unthinkable: they defeated China – Asia’s top-ranked squad – for the first time in over seven decades of international basketball. I was in the stands at the Wuhan Sports Centre Gymnasium, one eye on my computer screen live-blogging this historic game, the other eye staring at the court in disbelief. Soon, the moment went viral and arguably became Indian basketball’s biggest cause for celebration.
But this isn’t a story about that day. This is a story of July 12, just 24-hours prior to making history, when the same Indian team created news in a completely different way, sparked an infamous controversy for the Switzerland-based International Basketball Federation (FIBA), and propelled a crusade that took over three years to resolve.
On July 12, 2014, India’s coach Scott Flemming prepared his team for the first game of the tournament against Japan. Minutes before tip-off however, I noticed that two of India’s most important players – the giant Punjabi duo of Amjyot Singh Gill and Amritpal Singh – were missing from the starting line-up. It turned out that FIBA officials at the game had summoned a controversial policy – the “No Headgear” rule – and withheld the two turbaned Sikh players from entering the game. On the sidelines of a major international basketball contest, Amjyot and Amritpal had to take off their turbans, open their hair, and tie it back together with headbands and rubber-bands. It was awkward moment, Amjyot told me after the game, but for the sake of the team, the two players pleaded to return and play. The team never recovered from the funk and lost by 23 points.
was forced to remove his turban at the FIBA Junior Asian Championship in Qatar a month later. Around the same time, Qatar’s women’s basketball team pulled out of the Asian Games in South Korea because the ban asked them to play without their hijab.
The response to FIBA’s close-minded policy – which considered harmless religious headgear a hazard to the game – raised concern with activists and policy-makers around the world, including protests by top American lawmakers. Soon, FIBA announced their decision to review this policy, and in early 2017, recommended a change in the rule at their annual board meeting.
Good news finally arrived at FIBA’s Mid-Term Congress in Hong Kong this week: the congress of 139 national federations unanimously ratified the board’s decision for a new rule that will now allow players to wear headgear. The rule was developed with caution to minimise risk of injuries and preserve consistency of colour of the teams’ uniforms. It will come into effect from October 1, 2017, which is soon, but not soon enough: the big FIBA Asia tournaments for Women and Men this year will be held in July and August.
This is a smart, progressive step by FIBA. Basketball is not a game that belongs to a single culture anymore. There are star players and new avenues to the game all around the world, and changing this institution will help basketball grow in more communities.
However, there is a poignant afterthought to this story. Let’s return back to Amjyot and Amritpal, back to July 2014, and that championship in Wuhan that thrust India into international news for the wrong and the right reasons. A day after adjusting their hair, the two players ended up being the main difference-makers in India’s win over China. Amjyot led all scorers in the game with 13 while Amritpal played suffocating post defence on China’s top players, including future NBA-draftee Zhou Qi.
But even the thrill of victory couldn’t wipe away the sour taste of this experience. To avoid becoming a distraction for the national team again, both Amjyot and Amritpal cut their hair short a few months later. The two bigs have since continued on their path to success, playing professionally in Japan, participating in an Australian league draft combine, and teaming up to defeat China again last year.
Amjyot and Amritpal will be in the forefront of the queue of a long line of talented Sikh basketball players in India, most of whom have been the product of the same basketball academy in Ludhiana, Punjab. As India prepares for the FIBA Asia Cup this year, names like NBA draftee Satnam Singh, NBA D-League draftee Palpreet Singh, and veteran forward Yadwinder Singh will all be vying for roster spots.
Several other international sports, like football and volleyball were ahead of the curve in allowing acceptable headgear; it took an uphill battle, but basketball – finally – seems to have caught up. In the past, all of the Indian Sikh players mentioned above chose to avoid controversy and cut their hair off for basketball participation. In other parts of the world, women players in hijab and Jewish players have faced similar forks in the road between career and religious practice. Looking forward, talented athletes around the world will hopefully not have to make that decision again.