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!

July 20, 2017

Kevin Durant to visit India to coach NBA Academy prospects and donate basketball courts

Kevin Durant's 2017 Summer Checklist:
- Win his first NBA title? Check.
- Win the Finals MVP award? Check.
- Re-sign with the Warriors on a bargain? Check.
- Visit India? Almost there!

Yes, Durant, who has been the brightest star under the scorching headline of NBA news since he joined the Golden State Warriors last year, will cap off a memorable twelve months by visiting India next week. The NBA announced that Durant will visit New Delhi and Greater Noida on July 27th to support the continued growth of basketball in the country. Durant will coach top prospects at the NBA's elite India Academy, host a large-scale clinic for thousands of young players around the country, and donate two basketball courts to a local school through his charity foundation.

Durant will begin his official trip on July 27th in New Delhi with a visit to the Ramjas School, where he will donate two new basketball courts to the school as part of the Kevin Durant Charity Foundation’s "BUILD IT AND THEY WILL BALL" Courts Renovation Initiative. Durant will then visit The NBA Academy India at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Centre in Greater Noida, becoming the first active NBA player to visit the academy. Durant will coach the prospects through a series of shooting, passing, dribbling and defensive drills. On July 28, Durant will lead a large-scale basketball clinic for 5,000 youth from the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme – 1,000 of the athletes will be onsite while the other 4,000 boys and girls will join virtually from Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata via a satellite link. Durant will conclude his trip with a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra on July 29.

"I’m excited to travel to India to help promote the game of basketball and meet the prospects at The NBA Academy India," said Durant. "I’ve wanted to visit India for a long time, and I can’t wait to experience the country’s unique culture and share my knowledge with the kids there."

"We are thrilled to host 2017 Finals MVP Kevin Durant in India," said NBA India Managing Director Yannick Colaco. "Kevin is coming off an historic season with the Golden State Warriors. Having one of the very best players in our league interact with the basketball playing youth of India will serve as great inspiration to the next generation of players here, especially the high-performing prospects at The NBA Academy India."

Indeed, Durant is one of the best players - if not, the absolutely best player (with apologies to LeBron, Curry, Westbrook, Kawhi, and Harden fans) - in the NBA at this moment. That previous point might be debatable, but what is definitely not up for debate is that Durant will instantly become the most-talented basketball player to ever step foot on Indian soil. On a Hoopdarshan podcast last month, we discussed the history of NBA players to visit India, and KD's presence will be historic because he will clearly be at top of that totem pole.

By now, Durant's story is well known among NBA enthusiasts. He was the second pick by the Seattle Supersonics back in 2007, and moved with the team to become the leading star for the Oklahoma City Thunder a year later. Over the years, Durant has developed into one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, winning the 2008 Rookie of the Year, making seven All NBA teams, gathering four scoring titles, reaching his individual pinnacle with the 2014 MVP Award, winning two gold medals for USA in the Olympics and one gold at the FIBA World Championship. Last season, he spectacularly and controversially left the Thunder to join the unstoppable Golden State Warriors, whom he helped to the 2017 NBA Championship as the Finals MVP.

Durant's visit to the NBA Academy will be the highlight of the trip. The Academy, which I wrote about in detail for the most recent issue of the SLAM Magazine, opened in May and hopes to employ a "holistic, 360-degree approach to player development with focuses on education, leadership, character development and life skills". The NBA will be hoping that, through this Academy, they can help players with basketball promise reach their full potential.

Welcome to India, KD. Hope you survive that Delhi summer - it might be tougher than any defense you've faced in the NBA all season. Take back some curry for Steph.

July 19, 2017

Australian College of Sport ties up with Pursuit to boost Indian sporting talent

Earlier this year, Indian basketball received a pleasant surprise: four of our top players - Amjyot Singh, Amritpal Singh, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, and Yadwinder Singh - were invited to Melbourne, Australia to take part in the country's National Basketball League (NBL) Draft Combine. The four players made quite a positive impact with the coaches and scouts from the NBL squads and their performances led to an almost instantaneous reaction: Amritpal was given a chance to take part in the Sydney Kings rookie camp and preseason, while Bhriguvanshi became the first Indian to be signed to an NBL contract, by the Adelaide 36ers.

Photo via: Australian College of Sport
The growing Indo-Australian sports (and particularly, basketball) connection hasn't just been conjured out of thin air. In the background, Indian sports management company Pursuit have been working hard as the mediums between the athletes and their athletic destinations.

Now, Pursuit takes another major step forward in their growing relationship with Australia: On Wednesday, the Australian College of Sport (ACS) formally announced that they have entered a tie-up with Pursuit to act as the ambassador for ACS in India and the rest of the Indian subcontinent. Pursuit will represent ACS for the purpose of scouting and recruiting student athletes to be admitted to the ACS Programme across basketball, football, cricket, badminton, swimming and golf. This tie-up is intended to facilitate India’s most talented athletes to train and study in ACS’s world class facilities in Australia.

The Australian College of Sport was established in Adelaide, Australia in November 2006, and focuses on individualized athlete development combined with formal education to prepare athletes for a professional playing career. In 2011, ACS launched its golfing programme in Melbourne and in 2015, expanded its basketball programme and opened a second campus in Sydney.

This tie-up is a direct result of the Australian Prime Minister, Malcom Turnbull’s visit to India in April 2017, when the Indian and Australian Governments signed several MoUs, including one on sports. This MoU endeavours to connect Australia’s global reputation for sports excellence and expertise with India’s ambition to improve its sports administration and infrastructure.

“This tie-up is significant as it provides another pathway to young Indian athletes to develop their craft in a world-class environment," said Vishnu Ravi Shankar, Director of Pursuit. "What’s more, the classroom education that ACS offers on sports development and management creates an opportunity for the student-athlete to build a career in the global sports industry."

“Through this tie-up, we aim to get exposed to the right pool of talent in India and provide the right platform to aspiring athletes in India that are willing to compete professionally and exploring the sporting industry," said Stuart Roberts, the CEO of ACS. "Our High Performance Training Curriculum enables the athlete to achieve superior results."

From an Indian perspective, this tie-up is intended to address the lack of coaching and training facilities in the country, allowing India’s most talented athletes to train and study in Australia’s world class facilities. The focus is on finding players in the age group of 17 to 22, where player development is crucial. Besides honing of pro athletes, ACS also delivers vocational education through its degree pathways with top tier Australian Universities such as Deakin University, University of South Australia and Torrens University.

Shankar added that the programme in ACS should increase the future scope for Indian players to have an opportunity to play in Australia. "Doors are opening up for Indian players now," said Shankar. "Australians already know that Indians can play sport because we compete with them in cricket. After Amritpal, they will be looking at Indian athletes as viable options for basketball, too."

Recently, Pursuit also finalised a deal with the IMG Academy in the USA for a different programme to promote Indian athletes. "Both of these things are just the beginning stage," said Shankar. "We need to do a lot more, we need to tie up with more colleges and academies and with the right kind of people. The point is that kids should have multiple options. Eventually they should have options in different parts of the world with different types of affordability. World class training is important. A course like ACS which comes with a sports development programme can be a great starting point."

July 17, 2017

Guards of Honour

This article was first published in my blog for The Times of India on July 7, 2017. Click here for the original piece.

With no shortage of talented bigs, India’s immediate basketball requirement is in the backcourt

In the very first game of the BRICS Games in Guangzhou last month, India were down by 10 to China, 38-28 at halftime. The deficit, considering the circumstances, wasn’t really a worry up: China were always going to be heavy favourites over a developing Indian basketball team and the BRICS Games were largely serving as practice for the larger challenge ahead, the FIBA Asia Cup in August. India were playing in the tournament without star big man Amritpal Singh, but had seen good early performances by their other two stars Amjyot Singh and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi.

But early in the second half, tragedy struck. Bhriguvanshi, India’s most experienced player, a former captain, and one of the best shooting guards in Asia, took a hard fall and then writhed on the floor clutching his right knee. It took the help of medical staff and teammates to carry him back to the locker rooms. His night was over.

India were outscored by 30 points in the second half and ended up losing the game 97-57 to the hosts. But the larger concern for the team – and for the Indian basketball fans following the tournament from home – was Bhriguvanshi’s health. Medical staff feared an ACL tear. He was ruled out of the rest of the tournament, and crucially, India faced the daunting possibility of heading out to Lebanon for the FIBA Asia Cup without their best wing player.

There is a common belief that basketball is a game for tall players, and scouts in India have long been in the hunt for the most talented bigs around from around the country to hone and develop them into game-changers. The swing towards looking for those athletic bigs took such a turn over the past decade that India now enjoys a glut of tall talents. The Men’s national team is loaded with a logjam of frontcourt riches, featuring Amjyot Singh, Amritpal Singh (set to return to the team for the FIBA Asia Cup), Satnam Singh (India’s first NBA draftee who will return for the championship, too), Yadwinder Singh, Rikin Pethani, Ravi Bhardwaj, and our first NBA G-League draftee, Palpreet Singh Brar. With a variety of skillsets and experience levels, these big guys will ensure that India will have the might to go up against any frontline in the continent.

The real problem for India, however, lies in the backcourt. Any regular player or fan of basketball knows that, while the big guys are the muscle on the court, the “smaller” guys (relatively) are the engine. It is the guards and the “wing” players who are usually every team’s best ball-handlers, creators on offense, shooters, and perimeter defenders. Even in teams where the big guys are the best and highest-scoring players, it is the players in the backcourt that set the pace of the game.

In recent years, especially with the way that the game has developed in the NBA and worldwide, there is now an urgent need for elite guards and wings for every successful team. 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.

A great current example of this unbalance in the NBA is with the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans’ frontline features arguably the two best big men in the league: Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. But without too many backcourt options to set up plays for the big guys and stretch the floor for them to have space in the middle, the ‘Twin Towers’ experiment hasn’t worked so far.

The Pelicans will serve as a good learning experience for India’s rumoured new men’s basketball team head coach, Phil Weber. Weber has been a long-time NBA assistant and most recently finished working with – you guessed it – Davis and Cousins in New Orleans. In India, he will get a sense of déjà vu in that first practice, as Amjyot and Amritpal (and Satnam and Palpreet and Yadwinder etc. etc. etc.) will provide limitless options for dominance in the post, but the backcourt will continue to be a point of major concern, from New Orleans to New Delhi.

The good news is that Bhriguvanshi’s injury has turned out to be less serious than initially diagnosed; the player I fondly like to call the ‘Banarasi Mamba’ is now likely to return to the team in time for the FIBA Asia Cup next month. Bhriguvanshi will be asked to excel at multiple backcourt positions for India as both our best creator and best scorer at the FIBA Asia Cup. He will be a little rusty, and even if he’s at his best, India has no other players in the guard or wing positions who can match the best backcourts in Asia.

While Akilan Pari, Hafeez Muin Bek, Prasanna Sivakumar, Anil Kumar Gowda, Arjun Singh, Arshpreet Bhullar, and the aging TJ Sahi are all great players at the domestic level, they will struggle against the top guards and small forwards in the continent, such as China’s Guo Ailun, Philippines’ Jayson Castro and Terrance Romeo, Iran’s Samad Nikkah Bahrami, Lebanon’s Wael Arakji and Fadi El Khatib, and many more.

A couple of talented young perimeter players, like Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi and Prudhvi Reddy, are in the pipeline for India already, but still need to add muscle and match experience to be ready for the biggest stages. In the long run, however, India needs to begin focusing on developing young talent all across the board, and not just the “readymade” big players.

So, start dribbling kids: India needs a point guard. Keep working on that outside shot, on those passing skills, on your court vision, and learn to put the ball on the floor to drive and dish or to take it all the way to the hole. Basketball is as much a game for the quick and dexterous as it is for the big and strong, and India’s future excellence depends on finding elite-level talent to cover all ends of the spectrum.

July 14, 2017

IOA finally grants affiliation to the "new" Basketball Federation of India

From a distance, it might seem like Indian Basketball has been bouncing around just fine. India has seen improvements in our national performances over the past few years and have hired a couple of respected international coaches for the senior men's and women's squads. Our stars are starting to make waves internationally and we are even hosting a couple of major FIBA events - the FIBA Asia Women's Cup and FIBA Asia U16 Women's Championship - on our home turf this year.

But true fans know that basketball's mere existence in India since 2015 has been an act of rebellion. Two years ago, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) broke apart into two opposing factions, each claiming to be the rightful committee to lead Indian basketball. The faction led by President K. Govindraj, formed in Bengaluru, was granted affiliated by the international basketball association FIBA because they held their annual general meeting legally as per the BFI constitution. But the faction led by President Poonam Mahajan, formed in Pune, contested this decision, and were supported by the the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports of the Government of India. Because of this division, the IOA and the Sports Ministry didn't recognise the Govindraj-faction BFI under the umbrella of Olympic sports and sports federations in India. All of the progress in the sport has since been propelled by the Govindraj-BFI without direct support or affiliations from these higher associations.

Anyways, it's now mid-2017, and the IOA - who had earlier appointed an "ad-hoc" committee to oversee Indian Basketball - have finally done the right thing and granted affiliation to the BFI, coming to terms with the federation that is recognised by BFI and who have been running the show for Indian basketball for the last few years.

The Times of India reported on Friday that, in a letter dated July 13, 2017, the IOA's General Secretary Rajeev Mehta wrote, "In accordance with the directives of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) and honouring the rule 29 of Olympic Charter, the IOA grants affiliation to the BFI with K Govindraj as president and Chander Mukhi Sharma as secretary general." Mehta added that the affiliation is "subject to ratification by the executive council / general body of the IOA."

Apparently, it was the leader of the opposing faction - Poonam Mahajan - that finally urged the IOA to end the impasse. More reporting on this issue by Amit Sampat for The Times of India:

The reason to revise the decision and grant recognition to the other faction was the initiative of Poonam Mahajan informed Mehta. "On the initiative of Poonam Mahajan we took this decision. She wanted to end this impasse and was eager to see basketball as one of the top sport. She was always positive for basketball and informed me that she has no problem if IOA grants recognition to the other group. On her positive approach the IOA took this decision and the issue will soon be resolved," Mehta told TOI.
The sports ministry, however, has not granted recognition to either of the factions. Ever since June 12, 2015, the sports ministry has put on hold the conduct of any official basketball event in India until the office bearers of the BFI are recognized by the government.
Even the IMG-Reliance group, which signed a 30-year contract with the BFI in 2010, has stopped all activities including sponsorships until the office bearers are recognized. In that historic deal in 2010 the IMG-Reliance group was given the commercial rights of basketball in India.

Officials of both the factions and IMG-Reliance group have been fighting their respective battles in the court. Mediation is in progress to resolve the issue.

The IOA's affiliation is good news, as the rightful committee atop the BFI can now clear one obstruction on their way to full legitimacy. Hopefully, the government can now follow on this decision and extend their recognition towards the BFI, too. The ball is now in the court - literally, as it is a courtroom battle now - but fans will be hoping for a quick mediation so that the BFI can look for new sponsors beyond IMG Reliance and help move the game forward.

July 13, 2017

India's Men squad head to Chinese Taipei for 2017 William Jones Cup: Roster, Schedule, Preview

India's big summer of international basketball action continues. After the women's team's experiences at the William Jones Cup last week, the Senior Men's squad will have their chance at the prestigious invitational tournament in Chinese Taipei. Under a new, experienced head coach, but minus several of our top players, India heads to Chinese Taipei for the 2017 William Jones Cup - the Men's tournament - to be held from July 15-23 at the Taipei Heping Basketball Gymnasium in Taipei. The tournament will serve as crucial practice for India as they prepare for the summer's biggest extravaganza: next month's FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon.

India's squad from the 2017 BRICS Games last month
This year's large fray of the round robin championship will feature ten teams, including international squads from Asia and a couple of club teams from the rest of the world. India's schedule will be jam-packed, with nine games in nine consecutive days. Participating teams include two host Chinese Taipei teams, Asian champions Iran, Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Iraq, and club sides from Lithuania and Canada.

Last year's the Philippines' club squad Mighty Sports won the William Jones Cup. India showed potential but finished with a 1-7 record. Memorably, a couple of important Indian players arrived late to Chinese Taipei because of a visa issue.

India will not be held back by visa problems this year, but injuries and travel will reduce the team to a more depleted squad, compared to what the coaching staff will hope will be the full team for Lebanon. India is being led by Rikin Pethani as captain and will feature international star Amjyot Singh. Missing from action will be Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Yadwinder Singh (injury) and Amritpal Singh, Palpreet Singh, and Satnam Singh (busy with international club 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.

All the spotlight, however, will be on Phil Weber, newly-hired coach of the Indian Men squad - even though at the time of writing, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) is set to finalise his contract or make an official announcement. Weber is an experienced NBA assistant coach who is currently working for the New Orleans Pelicans alongside Alvin Gentry and has worked in the past for the Phoenix Suns and the New York Knicks. This will be the first opportunity for Weber to put to test about ten days of practice time with the national team and get an idea of how India will shape up against top-ranked teams from the region (and beyond). Assisting him in India's coaching staff will be experienced national coaches Bhaskar Sappaniambalam and Sebastian Padipurakkal Joseph.

India Men's roster for 2017 William Jones Cup
  • Prudhvi Reddy
  • Anil Kumar Gowda
  • Arjun Singh
  • Pratham Singh
  • Basil Philip
  • Jeevanantham Pandi
  • Rikin Pethani - captain
  • Amjyot Singh
  • Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi
  • Gurvinder Singh Gill
  • Prasanna Venkatesh
  • Muin Bek Hafeez
  • Head Coach: Phil Weber
  • Assistant Coach: Bhaskar Sappaniambalam
  • Assistant Coach: Sebastian Padipurakkal Joseph
  • Manager: Devender Kumar

India Men's schedule for 2017 William Jones Cup - all timings IST
  • July 15 - Iraq vs. India - 8:30 AM
  • July 16 - India vs. South Korea - 8:30 AM
  • July 17 - Chinese Taipei Blue vs. India - 4:30 PM
  • July 18 - India vs. Iran - 12:30 PM
  • July 19 - Atletas All-Star Lithuania vs. India - 8:30 AM
  • July 20 - India vs. Chinese Taipei White - 12:30 PM
  • July 21 - 3D Canada vs. India - 8:30 AM
  • July 22 - India vs. Philippines - 10:30 AM
  • July 23 - India vs. Japan - 12:30 PM

India's last international outing was at the 2017 BRICS Games in Guangzhou, China, from where they returned with a 0-3 record. Without Amritpal and Bhriguvanshi on the roster for the William Jones Cup, a lot of hopes will be on Amjyot Singh to be India's star man. Coach Weber will be putting a lot of trust on relatively inexperienced role players beyond the core of Amjyot, Pethani, Pratham, and Venkatesh, but that is why a tournament like this can be crucial to help the team get big match practice.

India's most winnable challenge will be in their very first game, against Iraq. The rest of the national teams are ranked higher than India and the club squads are likely to post a major threat, too. Playing against Iran will give India a good idea of the team they are also scheduled to face in their preliminary round stage at the FIBA Asia Cup.

The 2017 FIBA Asia Cup will be the biggest-ever iteration of the event, featuring the top teams from both the Asia and Oceania regions, held from August 8-20 in Beirut, Lebanon. India are in Group A of the tournament with defending champions Iran, Jordan, and Syria. Hopefully, Weber and the team are able to learn important lessons at the William Jones Cup over the next ten days and have a full, healthy squad available for the bigger challenge ahead.

July 9, 2017

William Jones Cup 2017 (Women): 3 teams tie for best record; India finish 0-5

Under the leadership of a new, foreign head coach, India's women's team got off to a bumpy start in their first outing - the 2017 William Jones Cup in Chinese Taipei - but gained valuable experience against much-better squads to bring back home with them for the bigger challenge ahead.

India were one of six Women's teams that took part in the 39th William Jones Cup, a round robin tournament at the Changhua Gymnasium in Changhua in Chinese Taipei as a preparatory outing before the FIBA Asia Cup for Women destined to be held back at home in Bengaluru at the end of July. India were the only Division B team (the lower pool of the FIBA Asia Cup) at William Jones and lost all of their games to end at the bottom of the table. Nevertheless, the tournament turned out to be crucial for new Serbian head coach Zoran Visic to tinker with the team's lineups, instill some of his coaching style and philosophies, and provide the women with necessary competitive-game experience.

Three teams - Japan, New Zealand, and Chinese Taipei Blue - finished with identical 4-1 records to top the tournament fray, with a total of 9 points each and identical 1-1 records against each other. Japan, the current Asian champions, held the tie-breaker differential between the three teams with +1.07.

India's squad was captained by veteran star Anitha Paul Durai and feature other talents to watch like Jeena Scaria, Kavita Akula, Poojamol Subhashmon, and Shireen Limaye. Visic was joined in the coaching staff by veteran coach Shiba Maggon.

India's final scores at 39th William Jones Cup
  • July 5: New Zealand bt. India 75-52
  • July 6: Japan bt. India 93-42
  • July 5: South Korea bt. India 56-51
  • July 5: Chinese Taipei Blue bt. India 113-59
  • July 5: Chinese Taipei White bt. India 79-41

India's 0-5 record dropped them to sixth/last place in the tournament. India were definitely a pace slower than all of their Division A opponents, but played a great game against South Korea in the close loss. Visic relied on the team's eldest players - Raspreet Sidhu and Anitha Paul Durai - to play the bulk of the minutes for the team. Paul Durai, Jeena Scaria, and Sidhu were India's top three scorers. Kavita Akula, Rajapriyadharshini Rajaganapathi, and Shireen Limaye also got to play major minutes through the course of the tournament.

India will now come back home for the FIBA Asia Cup in Bengaluru from July 23-29. In an interview a few weeks ago, Coach Visic had told me that the team will have to overcome their relative inexperience if they hope to win Division B and be relegated to the higher division for the Cup's next iteration. After playing against tougher opponents in Chinese Taipei, India should find their group - with Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan - a little easier. They will have to overcome Division B's Group B winners next, most likely to be Lebanon or Kazakhstan. With a home crowd cheering behind him, let's hope that the team can bounce back to Asia's higher level.

India are participating in the men's William Jones Cup, too, set to begin in Chinese Taipei on July 15.

July 8, 2017

Youth Nationals 2017: Tamil Nadu (Girls) and Punjab (Boys) win gold in Hyderabad

A month ago, Tamil Nadu's Girls and Punjab's Boys rose among the best under-18 talents in the country to win the Junior Nationals gold in Puducherry. This week, it was deja vu of their younger sisters and brothers, as the two states repeated their incredible feat at the under-16 level, too.

Two of India's most-famed factories of young basketball talent - Tamil Nadu and Punjab - continued to stamp their authority at the game's youth level when both emerged as victors at the 34th Youth (U16) National Basketball Championship for Men and Women in Hyderabad. The eight-day tournament concluded at the famed Gachibowli Stadium in Hyderabad with the finals between the top remaining squads in the country on Saturday, July 8.

Tipping off on July 1st in Hyderabad, the 'Youth Nationals' were organised by the Hyderabad District Basketball Association (HDBA) under the aegis of the Telangana Basketball Association and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI). The prestigious championship featured 26 boys' and 25 girls' teams from all across the country.

This year's tournament marked a special high-point for Tamil Nadu's Girls, who have now won four consecutive gold medals at this event and played in five straight finals. In the final, TN clashed against Karnataka, who were India's U18 champions last year and, like TN, reached the final stage undefeated. With a fast start where they took a 14-point first-half lead, however, TN assured their intent of keeping their names on the trophy. Led by the duo of Monica Jayaseeli (23) and Pushpa (20), TN's first half helped secure a 70-53 victory and yet another impressive title. Reshma Ramesh scored 18 for Karnataka in the loss.

Despite being the training ground for so many of India's top players, Punjab hadn't made it to the medal rounds of the Youth Nationals since 2013. This year, however, they fielded a stacked up featuring young phenom Princepal Singh. In the final they faced a surprising Madhya Pradesh side who had risen dramatically from Level 2 to reach the podium stage. But what was supposed to be a blowout turned out to be a closely-contested matchup, as MP's talented wing players helped to neutralise the damage Princepal did in the inside. In a back and forth game where both teams exchanged leads throughout, it eventually ended up being clutch free throws made by Princepal in the game's last 20 seconds that helped secure a 80-77 victory for Punjab. Princepal ended up with 25 points on the day while Rajan (18) and Harsimranjit Singh (16) aided his cause in the win. MP's star player Divyaraj Singh Rathore scored 28 while his teammate Udayveer Yadav added 20.

For the prize and souvenir distribution ceremony, G Kishan Reddy (MLA & Floor Leader, BJLP, Telangana) was the chief guest and Dr V Ragothaman was the guest of honour. MVP awards given to Karnataka's Sanjana Ramesh (Girls) & Punjab's Princepal Singh (Boys). Princepal, you may recall is the same Punjabi youngster who last year won a $75,000 scholarship from the Spire Institute to train in USA. The BFI gave additional 'Most Promising Player' awards to Telangana's Arya Sreeramaneni (Girls) and MP's Divyaraj Singh Rathore (Boys).

The third/fourth place matchups were also held on Saturday. Last year's finalists Kerala defeated a strong Uttar Pradesh side 58-67, led by An Mariya Johny (17) and Ann Mary Zachariah (16). In the men's game, Andhra Pradesh capped off an unlikely surge in this year's tournament with a nail-biting victory over Haryana, 72-68. A Sai Pavan scored 21 for the winning side, assisted by SVV Sai Krishna's 17. Haryana were led by Anil (20), Mukesh (17), and Kapil Mor (17).

Final Scores
  • Girls: Tamil Nadu (Monica Jayaseeli 23, Pushpa 20) bt Karnataka (Reshma Ramesh 18) 70-53 [18-14, 19-9, 16-14, 17-16].
  • Boys: Punjab (Princepal Singh 25, Rajan 18, Harsimranjit Singh 16) bt Madhya Pradesh (Divyaraj Singh Rathore 28, Udayveer Yadav 20) 80-77 [19-18, 19-19, 20-21, 22-19].

Third/Fourth Place
  • Girls: Kerala (An Mariya Johny 17, Ann Mary Zachariah 16) bt Uttar Pradesh 58-47 [16-7, 9-7, 17-13, 16-20].
  • Boys: Andhra Pradesh (A Sai Pavan 21, SVV Sai Krishna 17) bt Haryana (Anil 20, Mukesh 17, Kapil Mor 17) 72-68 [15-16, 14-21, 25-11, 18-20].

Final Standings

  • 1. Tamil Nadu
  • 2. Karnataka
  • 3. Kerala
  • 4. Uttar Pradesh
  • 5. Chhattisgarh

  • 1. Punjab
  • 2. Madhya Pradesh
  • 3. Andhra Pradesh
  • 4. Haryana
  • 5. Uttar Pradesh

July 7, 2017

Vishesh Bhriguvanshi becomes first Indian signed to Australian basketball league NBL

Adelaide, the capital city of South Australia and the country's fifth-most populous city, is nearly 9,000 kilometres away from Varanasi, the ever-living, ancient Indian city in Uttar Pradesh. And yet, with the supreme power of basketball, one of Varanasi's most accomplished contemporary exports is going to turn that distance into dust with his newest incredible leap.

Bhriguvanshi, one of the most experienced and talented players produced by Indian basketball, has just made history by becoming the first player to be signed by Australia's top-tier basketball league, the National Basketball League (NBL). He has been offered a one-year training contract by the Adelaide 36ers for their forthcoming season, which is set to begin in October. This contract means that Bhriguvanshi will be a part of the team as a reserve to train with the club, but will only get to play if he replaces an injured player.

Bhriguvanshi (25) was part of a four-member contingent of top Indian players who were invited to the NBL's Draft Combine in Melbourne in April. A 6-foot-5 shooting guard, he clearly made an impression on the Adelaide scouts for his ability to lead a team from the backcourt. Bhriguvanshi's Indian squad teammate, Amritpal Singh, has also received serious NBL interest and will be part of a pre-season tour with the Sydney Kings. One of them will surely become the first Indian to play in the NBL.

"Vishesh is an exciting talent from India, renowned for his court presence and intuitive feel for the game," said Guy Hedderwick, the 36ers, CEO. "It’s great to have signed the first Indian player to the NBL and we’re looking forward to connecting with the Indian community during his basketball journey."

Bhriguvanshi spoke to Jamie Alter on The Times of India and acknowledged that the signing was a dream come true for him. "A league in India is what I always wanted, but we still lack in that, so this opportunity makes me feel on top of the world. The NBL is one of the world's biggest leagues after the NBA," said Vishesh. "Every player has a dream to play for a reputed league some day, and so it was my dream. Representing the nation is very different feeling, and I am definitely proud of that, but playing in a league like this has always been my dream and that is what keeps me motivated."

In keeping with that 'dreamy' theme, Bhriguvanshi will also join the Dream Basketball Academy in Adelaide for the 2017-18 season. It is this Academy that introduced Bhriguvanshi to the 36ers by the Dream Basketball Academy. The deal follows the success of former Adelaide 36ers and Dream Basketball Academy player, Terrance Ferguson, who was selected at pick 21 by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Draft last month. Bhriguvanshi was also aided by My Sports Factory, a Coimbatore-based company that got in touch with Dream Basketball Academy to get the deal done.

"We look forward to this new relationship, not only with Vishesh, but with the whole of India," said Managing Director and Co-Founder of The Dream Basketball Academy Raheim Brown. "He will represent the Dream Academy and the Adelaide 36ers proudly for his country and himself. Following Terrance Ferguson’s success, NBA scouts are paying increased attention to the Dream Academy, the Adelaide 36ers and the NBL, as an alternative pathway to achieve an NBA career."

Bhriguvanshi, who had injured himself while playing for India at the BRICS Games 2017 last month, has recovered and is set to participate for the national team at the FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon in August. He may head to Adelaide before that to begin training alongside the 36ers.

The 36ers have won four NBL titles in their franchise history, the second-most of any team in the league, but their last championship came back in 2002. They are currently coached by former NBA draftee Joey Wright and reached the NBL's semi-finals in the 2016-17 season led by Mitch Creek and Jerome Randle.

Getting a chance to make his NBL debut will be another great feather in Bhriguvanshi's hat. Born to a humble family in Varanasi (my hometown!) he has come a long way over the past eight years, becoming one of India's best young players, getting the post of national captain, dominating the domestic circuit with ONGC, and winning the MVP award of the recent season of the UBA Basketball League with the Bengaluru Beast. I have written extensively about Bhriguvanshi, who is perhaps the most-decorated athlete in India without mainstream name-recognition. Hopefully, this latest honour opens up doors for more opportunities for him and other Indian stars.

As we celebrate Bhriguvanshi's achievement, let us also take a moment to reflect on the first Indian to play professional basketball in Australia: Arjuna Award winner Geethu Anna Jose. The star of the Indian women team over the past decade Jose played for the Ringwood Hawks in 2006, won the MVP award in the Big V division, and played in the WNBL preseason in 2008.

July 6, 2017

Doordarshan plans to launch university sports leagues in India - including basketball

If you are an avid basketball watcher in India, you know that the grainy, technicolour coverage on state broadcasters Doordarshan and DD Sports have been our only option for domestic hoops for years. "Alternative" sports like basketball get little national media attention and, until the recent Ten Sports/UBA League partnership, have had to settle for the DD coverage for years. But Doordarshan - that eternal time machine to the 1980s - is now deciding to take a surprising step forward for the future of sports in India.

Last week, The Mint reported that Doordarshan is currently making plans to launch three different university sports leagues in India later this year, in basketball, tackle football (a modified form of American football) and kabaddi. According to Doordarshan's director general Supriya Sahu, the network has already initiated talks with a yet-unnamed American company that has experience in the university sports sector.

More details as reported by Harveen Ahluwalia on Livemint:
The idea, Sahu said, is to develop a public-private partnership in a bid to put in place a structure for university sports—beginning with the aforementioned sports and later expanding the format to others.
“DD Sports is in the process of reinvigorating the content of the channel and rebranding it to make it relevant for its target audience. Sports leagues are major content differentiators in the genre. It sees potential in university sports,” she said.
Once the leagues are in place, the plan is to air the zonal matches on the regional channels of Doordarshan and the finals on DD National. “However, all the matches will be aired on DD Sports. The leagues will be launched with a strategic publicity and promotion plan which includes cross-channel, print, radio and outdoor publicity,” said Sahu.

“The television rights for collegiate sports are widely contested for and are sold at huge prices in the US. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. To replicate this in India is a great proposition by Doordarshan, only if it is marketed, promoted and produced well,” said Tuhin Mishra, managing director and co-founder of sports marketing firm Baseline Ventures.

“Most of the developed sporting nations have grown on the back of strong university league infrastructure. In India, there is no structure for someone who wants to become a professional football or cricket player,” said Vinit Karnik, business head of ESP Properties, the sports and entertainment arm of media buying agency GroupM.
A university basketball league and circuit has existed in India for a long time, starting with the old All India University Tournament, which immediately morphed into the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) tournament that was most-recently run by the UBAU, bringing the best teams from all four Indian zones for a national championship. UBAU's intention was for this tournament to be inspired by the American NCAA basketball structure.

The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) along with their sponsors IMG-Reliance also launched the Indian College Basketball League (ICBL) several years ago, which at its height was held in 24 Indian cities. But the break-up within the BFI into two competing factions hurt the IMG-Reliance partnership and the ICBL has been in hiatus for the past two years.

It is unclear how Doordarshan's proposed university basketball league will differ or compete with the AIU championships or the ICBL, which will likely make a return soon. Of course, some shade of politics will be in the backdrop of these two competing university basketball events: the ruling BFI has been opposed by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports of the Government of India, and Doordarshan happens to fall fully under the government's lap. With a basketball league launched by Doordarshan itself, fans can at least be certain of guaranteed basketball broadcast of the games.

It is good to see that non-Cricket sports are getting more attention in India. According to Ahluwali's Livemint piece, there are currently six major sports leagues played across the country: Indian Premier League, Indian Super League, Pro Kabaddi League, Hockey India League, Premier Badminton League and International Premier Tennis League. Non-cricket leagues saw their franchise revenue growing 4.97% from Rs 201.2 crore in 2015 to Rs 211.2 crore in 2016.

All of these, however, are leagues where the athletes are not university students but professionals. No matter if the source is Doordarshan, the BFI, or the UBAU, I hope that a college/university basketball league can eventually gain more traction and popularity and usher in demand for a full, professional basketball league in India.

NBA's second Basketball School in India launched in New Delhi

What better place to get a basketball education than at school... with the NBA?

After the success of their first-ever Basketball School in Mumbai earlier this year, the NBA has followed up this week with the launch of its first Basketball School in New Delhi. NBA India announced that the school will be part of a network of tuition-based basketball development programs around the world open to international male and female players ages 6-18. The NBA School in New Delhi will be at the city's Apeejay School in Seikh Sarai.

The first NBA Basketball School globally was launched in Mumbai in April, as part of a multiyear agreement with India On Track (IOT), one of India’s leading sports management, marketing and development companies. Additional NBA Basketball Schools will be launched in India and around the world in the coming months.

The new initiative adds an additional layer to the NBA’s existing basketball development efforts, including the Jr. NBA, Basketball without Borders (BWB) and NBA Academies.

The Jr. NBA, the league’s global youth basketball participation program for boys and girls, will help identify young players who have the talent to attend NBA Basketball Schools. From there, the top players at each NBA Basketball School will have the opportunity to be selected to attend NBA Academies, the league’s network of elite basketball training centers around the world to develop top international male and female prospects. Registration to attend the NBA Basketball School is now open at indiaontrack.nba.com.

The NBA's first Academy in India also opened earlier this year, in Greater Noida.

Each NBA Basketball School will feature year-long, tuition-based programmes open to international male and female players ages 6-18. The NBA Basketball School curriculum, which is designed to help players, parents, coaches and organizations better understand the process of improvement, has been developed by the NBA’s Elite Basketball Development team in consultation with current and former NBA coaches, former NBA players, and player development experts. The comprehensive curriculum covers oncourt training, strength and conditioning, and basketball education for young players ages 6-18 and will be implemented by local coaches working directly with the NBA’s International Basketball Operations staff around the world.

July 5, 2017

India Women NT begin 2017 William Jones Cup campaign in Chinese Taipei today

It's been a little over a month since India hired Serbia's Zoran Visic to be the head coach of the Senior Women's National Basketball Team, with an eye for the marquee event of the summer: the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup for Women. Now, with about two weeks to go before the big tournament, Visic will get the first chance to see how the past month of practice and team-building has paid out as India's Women's NT have headed to Chinese Taipei to take part in the 39th William Jones Cup from July 5-9.

This will be a chance for India's first competitive games under the new coach. India's squad will be captained by veteran star Anitha Paul Durai and feature other talents to watch like Jeena Scaria, Kavita Akula, Poojamol Subhashmon, and Shireen Limaye. Visic will be joined in the coaching staff by veteran coach Shiba Maggon.

India are set to play against New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and two local Chinese Taipei in the round robin tournament at the Changhua Gymnasium in Changhua, Taiwan. This is the first time India will play in the Women's tournament since 2011.

India roster for 39th William Jones Cup
  • Anitha Paul Durai - captain
  • Anjana Geetha
  • Anmolpreet Kaur
  • Barkha Sonkar
  • Jeena Scaria
  • Kavita Akula
  • Navaneetha Udayakumar
  • Poojamol Subhashmon
  • Rajapriyadarshani Rajaganapathi
  • Raspreet Sidhu
  • Shireen Limaye
  • Poonam Chaturvedi
  • Head Coach: Zoran Visic
  • Assistant Coach: Shiba Maggon
  • Manager: Srinivasa Murthy

Last year, the South Korean team took the gold in the women’s tournament, while Japan and Chinese Taipei A finished second and third respectively.

Participating Teams: New Zealand, India, South Korea, Chinese Taipei Blue, Chinese Taipei White, Japan.

India's schedule at 39th William Jones Cup for Women - all timings IST
  • July 5 - New Zealand vs. India - 11:30 AM
  • July 6 - Japan vs. India - 11:30 AM
  • July 7 - South Korea vs. India - 11:30 AM
  • July 8 - India vs. Chinese Taipei Blue - 3:30 PM
  • July 9 - Chinese Taipei White vs. India - 1:30 PM

"Our team is very fast, very quick, and they are very good athletes," Visic had told me in an extensive interview for Scroll last week. "So, we can work with this positive and to try as much as possible to cover the ‘negative’ part – our inexperience."

This tournament should serve as important match practice for India as the team gears up for the FIBA Asia Cup, the biggest tournament in Asia which will be hosted by India in Bengaluru this year. India will play in the men's edition of the William Jones Cup, too, which will be held in Chinese Taipei from July 15-23.

The William Jones Cup is a basketball tournament that has been held annually in Chinese Taipei since 1977. The tournament was named in honor of Renato William Jones, who was one of the founders of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). One team represents each country, and that team could be the national team, a professional club, or a college team. The tournament will be played in a single round-robin format, and the final points tally will determine the placing of the teams.