For the first time in decades, the national women’s basketball teams of India and Pakistan stepped on the court together. The two nations had not faced each other in an organised contest in decades, and at the 2016 South Asian Games in Guwahati, the two teams turned to hoops to thaw the national relations. It was a historic moment.
Except it did not count. Just days before the start of the Games, FIBA – the international basketball federation – de-recognised the event’s basketball tournament because of the Indian Olympic Association’s “unacceptable interference” with the Basketball Federation of India. Political infighting between two competing federations of the BFI had pitted IOA and FIBA on opposite ends. The India versus Pakistan game took place anyways, as did some of India’s other games in Guwahati, but without official recognition, the players’ efforts were voided.
For Indian basketball players, each missed opportunity for international exposure, experience, and earning hurts a little extra: Our best players are only semi-professionals who spend their years employed in jobs as ticket collectors in the Railways or clerks at state/national banks, while occasionally heading out to play in national championships, invitational tournaments, and if they are good enough, be invited the national team camps. There is no full-time option of a professional league.
The IMG-Reliance partnership
With every passing year, the promise of that pro league slips a little further away. Back in 2010, things seemed to be heading in the right direction when Reliance Industries teamed up with US-based sports marketing company IMG Worldwide to promote sports in India, including basketball.
By the summer of 2010, the BFI officially entered into a thirty-year partnership to hand all commercial rights relating to basketball in India, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, and more, to IMG-Reliance. The highlight of the agreement was expected to be the development of a professional basketball league.
The BFI’s then Secretary-General (and later, CEO), Harish Sharma was instrumental in realising this deal for the federation, which is India’s governing body of the sport. In an interview in 2010, Sharma told me that the professional league was imminent – “maybe three years”. The partnership with IMGR made many believe that the dream could be realised even sooner.
Now, almost seven years have passed since BFI’s initial partnership with IMGR. Around the country, the face of sports has changed drastically. The Indian Premier League and cricket continues to dominate, but other sports are getting their moment in the sun, too. National leagues have been since launched in hockey, football, kabaddi, golf, badminton, wrestling, and more.
Basketball, however, one of the world’s most popular sports with a long history in India, continues to fall behind.
The story of an unfulfilled promise
In the beginning, IMGR’s marriage with the BFI was headed in the right direction. IMGR helped India to hire expensive international coaches for our national squads and invested heavily in better coordination of domestic tournaments. Within a couple of years, the IMGR School and College Basketball Leagues had involved thousands of students from India’s biggest cities. Like Sharma had predicted, these young players seemed primed to constitute of the talent and the audience of that future pro league.
But year after year, the promise went unfulfilled. In late 2011, Sharma was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the brain. He battled for his life following a surgery but succumbed to multiple-organ complications and passed away at 53 in early 2012. After he passed, Sharma’s wife Roopam – a Deputy General Manager with Air India – was named BFI’s CEO. But without Harish Sharma’s leadership or proper delegation of responsibilities, the growth of basketball hit a major speed-bump.
A few years later, and with still no professional league on the horizon, the BFI became embroiled in a dramatic case of infighting that eventually tore the federation apart. In March 2015, two opposing factions of the BFI, competing for leadership of the federation, held two different Annual General Meetings to vote in two separate executive committees in Bengaluru and Pune, respectively. On March 27, the faction in Bengaluru voted K Govindraj (secretary of the Karnataka Basketball Association) as president and Chander Mukhi Sharma as Secretary-General. On March 28, the faction in Pune named Bharatiya Janata Party politician and Member of Parliament Poonam Mahajan as President and Roopam Sharma as Secretary-General.
Infighting raises its ugly head
Since their meeting was presided by the outgoing president, the Govindraj-Bengaluru faction claimed that they were created within the BFI’s original constitution, and were able to earn the recognition of FIBA to rightfully govern the sport.
But the Mahajan-Sharma faction, with their political ties, were able to coax the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports to put on hold all official basketball events in the country until the government recognised the office-bearers of the BFI. Earlier this year, the Government of India derecognised the BFI among the country’s national sports federations.
The Govindraj faction of the BFI have continued their work regardless, using private funds and donations to hold domestic and international events without recognition from the government.
Directly affected by this fiasco has been the relationship between IMGR and the BFI. A source in the BFI told me that, ever since the split in the federation, IMGR has not funded the new BFI faction. This new faction has been unable move on to secure separate sponsorship deals because of the original thirty-year exclusive contract with IMGR. After over a year of unanswered requests and complaints, BFI filed a record of termination of the contract in July 2016. A few months later, IMGR responded by taking a court order against the BFI.
Now arbitration awaits: The BFI will wait for IMGR to either pay their dues or agree to terminate the partnership. This would free the BFI to seek other sponsors – with many domestic and international investors interested – to partner with to launch their own league. But until this case comes to its conclusion, plans for a professional league will remain stalled.
Players the biggest victim
The biggest victims of the infighting have been the players. With states and units swearing loyalty to different factions, Indian basketball has been divided, and players from certain states/units are not able to participate in competitions held by the opposing faction. Eventually, when the IOA sent Indian teams to the South Asian Games in Guwahati without permission from the holding BFI office, FIBA cancelled the basketball competition at the Games altogether.
Meanwhile, the American-backed United Basketball Alliance launched a short-term league featuring eight franchises in mid-2015. The UBA quickly completed three seasons in the space of a single calendar year. But the BFI, deeming the UBA an “unauthorised competition” banned all of UBA’s participants from taking part in official Indian basketball events.
Narender Grewal, an Air Force player who was until recently a starter in India’s national men’s team, played in UBA’s Season 3 and became one of the hundred and twenty-two individuals banned. “We already have problems that there are two federations in India,” Grewal told Scroll in an interview after the ban, “and if we play for one, we are annoying the other. Where do I play? I decided to play for the UBA. I’m a player, and playing is important for me.”
“BFI wants to ban all of us, but first, they need to fix their own two federations issue. Once they launch their own league, of course I would like to play for them.”
It’s time for a proper league
While domestic basketball has suffered, ironically, India has managed to do extremely well for itself internationally in spite of the problems at home. India shocked Asia’s top-ranked team China on their home turf at a FIBA Asia event in 2014. Earlier this year, they did it again, and beat other Asian heavyweights to have their best international performance in nearly three decades at the FIBA Asia Challenge. Punjab’s seven-foot giant Satnam Singh became the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA last year. Other talents like Amjyot Singh, Amritpal Singh, and Palpreet Singh have since made a name for themselves abroad.
But these players are the exception, not the norm. For most of the other talents in India, who juggle their lives between day jobs and basketball activities, India’s own, full league couldn’t come soon enough.
Last year, the independently-formed Indian Basketball Players Association, established by several of the nation’s former international players, got together to hold a “Save Our Game” campaign in New Delhi to shed light on the troubling trends. Their Secretary-General Jayasankar Menon, a former superstar of the Indian national team in the 1990s, told me that a professional league could truly turn things around in India.
“The pro league is the only medicine for Indian basketball’s sickness,” Menon said. “Although the UBA exists, it is sad that there is no full-fledged league in India, with a home-and-away format and a longer schedule.”
“Politics have made basketball fall behind in India,” Menon added. “Foreign investors look at India as a huge market for basketball but stay away because of the politics. Organisers are not doing a good job recruiting youngsters. They need to promote Indian talent first, then think of politics.”
Apart from a handful of those who have found careers overseas, our top players are still collecting railways tickets and exchanging old currency notes while moonlighting on the basketball court. Domestic troubles have forced Indian basketball to be played with deflated equipment, bouncing slowly ahead, failing to take off and catch up with the rest of the world.