If you have played pick-up basketball, you would know that there is no such nightmare quite like the odd number. Six players on court divides into a neat, healthy, 3-on-3. Add the seventh, and suddenly, one team is shooting against the 4-on-3 odds. The team with the shorter end of the stick is always chasing that extra open player. They are always double-teamed on offense. They have conceded a lead even before the ball gets checked.
A conversation on sports in India usually begins, ends, and is full of cricket. The sport dominates India’s sporting economy, infrastructure, attention, and success. Every other sport competes for the second spot, and the growth of football, tennis, hockey, kabaddi, badminton, boxing and more are out, clamouring for cricket’s remains, solidifying a space for themselves in the cracks in between. In an economy based on the attentions of over a billion human beings, every small percentage is still a conversation of millions. Basketball in India, however – a sport usually outside the mainstream of Indian consciousness – has gotten in the habit of conceding an early lead, of being the odd one out.
Small but significant steps
But for every concession, for every drawback, there has been a story of underdog triumph, of defeating the very odds that have kept the game down. In the same year that basketball’s governing body in India – the Basketball Federation of India – broke apart to political turmoil, the Indian national team defeated Asia’s finest squad China in their second-such historic upset.
Just last week, Netflix released a documentary on Satnam Singh, a seven-foot giant born to a farmer in a village deep in the heart of Punjab, who punched far above his weight (and seven-foot height) to make history and be drafted into the United States’ National Basketball Association, the world’s finest and richest basketball league.
Now, the same NBA is quickening the pace of its efforts in India with hopes that they, too, can overcome the odds and elevate basketball up above all other contenders to cricket.
“We want basketball to become a clear number two sport to cricket in India,” said Yannick Colaco, the managing director of NBA India, over a phone interview from Mumbai. “Our primary goal is to raise the level of talent of basketball in India.”
The NBA Academy
Basketball is usually cited as the second-most popular sport worldwide (behind football), and ever since they opened their Mumbai office in 2011, the NBA has been hoping to combine the game’s international popularity with the potential in India to reach what is the world’s largest untapped market. Last month, the NBA unveiled its most-lucrative project yet: the NBA Academy India, an elite basketball training centre for the top prospects in the country.
Set to open in April 2017 in the Delhi-National Capital Region region, the academy will be fully-funded by the NBA and will provide 24 young prospects (ages 13-17) high-level training by NBA-affiliated coaches.
The players for the academy will be chosen in a nationwide talent hunt programme – ACG-NBA Jump – over the next few months.
“The talent hunt is focused on finding those twenty-four prospects for the academy,” said Colaco. “These players will get fully-funded scholarships. The critical part for us is education; along with coaching and player development, the prospects will be provided academic and personal development, too. One can’t be without the other. We will have academic scholarship: the idea will be to find a school of a certain level and in a reasonable vicinity of academy for our students.”
This will be the fifth such elite training centre globally. So far, the NBA has similar academies in Hangzhou, Jinan and Urumqi in China and one in Australia.
Colaco added that NBA scouts, including NBA India Operations’ Associate VP Carlos Barroca, will be looking primarily for players with a high-level of talent and potential at a young age for this academy. But another important character trait in their search will be their desire for success. “Desire is something important wherever you play competitive sport: how much you want to be successful. When we had our ACG NBA Jump try-out in Mumbai last week, we saw this desire; there were over four hundred kids with their parents, many of whom had queued up from six in the morning for hours, to get their shot at the try-out.”
Over the next month, similar tryouts will be held in Chennai, Delhi, Ludhiana, Kochi, and Kolkata. In the next phase of the ACG NBA Jump programme, a three-day national camp will be held and culminate with the selection of the top 24 talents for the Academy.
“When it comes to the level of training in team development, conditioning, competition, in India, a lot is still left to be desired,” said Colaco. “This is where we think we can immediately plug that gap. We are making a big investment, and we think that our investment will immediately help in improving the standard of India’s national teams at all age level.”
Aiming for the grassroots
Indian basketball is still lagging behind at the international stage. Despite being the world’s second-largest population, FIBA – the international basketball federation – ranks India 53rd and 40th in the men’s and women’s divisions respectively worldwide. But India is starting to show some improvement: they have beaten Asia’s highest-ranked team China twice in the last three years, made it to the quarter-finals of Asia’s top basketball tournament – FIBA Asia Basketball Championship – last year, and feature individual players like Palpreet Singh, Amjyot Singh, Amrit Pal Singh, in addition to Satnam Singh, who have made a mark professionally overseas.
Colaco hoped that the NBA’s involvement will help improve the national team’s progress and add to the international and domestic exposure for India’s top players.
“We think that competitions are critical for growth of players in the Academy,” said Colaco, “We will be working closely within the national system to ensure that these kids are constantly playing in competitions and work with the BFI and state associations to increase the competitive events in India.We hope to take our players abroad for international exposure, too.”
While the Academy will deal with players at the elite level, the NBA has been holding a grassroots level programme for several years along with Reliance to make basketball an important part of the lifestyle and sporting habits for young Indian kids. This year, the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme will open in 19 Indian cities and reach around 35 lakh children.
“We believe that we continue doing the right thing both for grassroots and elite level, there will be a steady stream of high quality basketball players from India,” said Colaco, “Where they take their career from that point will depend eventually on how good they are and how hard they work.”
“Everything we do in India is towards the goal of growing our fanbase and pushing basketball to the number two spot.”
With so many other contenders in the game, basketball’s place as India’s top substitute to cricket is a longshot. But with the support of the NBA and a nation brimming with potential future stars, Indian basketball has the promise to shoot past the odds.