March 30, 2011
11 years ago, the Varanasi District girls basketball team that was headed for the Under-17 School Nationals in Gorakhpur had a little problem. They only had 11 players on the squad, and needed a 12th from somewhere to complete the roster. They placed their faith on an unproven, small wonder, an 11-year-old who made enough of an impression to bolster her hoops career forever.
‘Bacchi’, the nickname-given to 22-year-old Indian national point guard Akanksha Singh, literally means ‘young girl’. With exceptional performances in over the past year for state, club, or country, Akanksha may have grown into a burgeoning young superstar, but she was only a actually just a little ‘bacchi’ when her life changed.
See, Akanksha comes from a heralded family of Women basketball stars from Varanasi , the ‘Singh Sisters’ – her three older sisters, Priyanka, Divya, and Prashanti had already made a name for themselves on the court. Divya and Prashanti, in particular, had scaled great heights – both had been stars of the Indian Sr. National Women’s team, and both of them had captained the National side at different points.
Growing up in a family of basketball achievers, Akanksha didn’t really have any other choice except to follow their path on to the famed UP College Basketball Court in Varanasi. “Before I started playing, I used to just go bicycling to the court and saw my older sisters playing,” said Akanksha, “The competition and the close games used to excite me a lot. When the next batch of sub-juniors began to play, I joined them, and that’s how I was first introduced to the game.”
But her big break came at the most unexpected of times: Sitting in her Grade VI classroom, the 11-year-old was called out of her class and told that the U17 Varanasi Girl’s team needs a 12th player. Since her older sister Prashanti was in the team, the little Akanksha – at 11, by far the youngest in the team – was taken along.
“That tournament changed my life,” she remembers, “I didn’t get to play too much really, but in a game against Lucknow, the coach surprised me by sending me on the court.”
The tiniest girl on the floor then proceeded to hit a couple of big shots, surprising herself. “I scored just five points,” she said, “But because I was so small everyone loved me for it, and I got excited too! That moment made me really confident that basketball was going to be my game.”
And then the ball got rolling faster: Akanksha practiced harder, and in the next few years, she moved up from Sub-Junior level to Youth level, until she received the next surprise, when she was taken with her older sisters Divya and Prashanti to the Junior (U18) team. Once again, she was an afterthought initially – small in age, experience, and size – but it didn’t stop her from getting her few moments of shine.
She quickly moved up the ranks, surprising herself with her own improvement and growing confident on court. And then the moment arrived that Akanksha remembers as one of the highlights of her young life. “I still remember the first time I was picked to play for India – it was the Indian U18 side,” said Akanksha, “It was the U18 Asian Basketball Championship (ABC) for Women in China. The first time I held my India jersey made me very sentimental!”
That wasn’t the only time that Akanksha felt her emotions nearly getting the best of her. Because guess what? Being in a family full of basketball stars isn’t always peaches and cream. Expectations for success are high, and patience for failure is far too low. With Divya and Prashanti making a name for themselves in the National and International circuit, there was a lot of pressure on Akanksha to follow in their footsteps, prove to the world that she can be in the same class that we have come to expect from the ‘Singh Sisters’. At 5 foot 6, she is also shorter than her older sisters, and like every shorter basketball player, she had to always go a step extra to prove that she belonged. Akanksha admits that, at first, it was a little too much to take. Luckily for her, she transformed that pressure into motivation, practicing further to live up to the billing.
“After my first Junior Nationals, I began to feel the pressure,” she says. “Divya and Prashanti had begun to make a name for themselves. I used to work extra hard because I felt that if I make any mistakes, it would hamper my chances of making the India team.”
But it was the older sisters who came to the aid of Akanksha, helping her regain her confidence. “They had a lot of encouraging things to say to me as I developed,” Akanksha remembers.
Another thing that helped her confidence was her fast-developing skill with the basketball. A common sight during basketball games is the bored look on the faces of some of the bench players, those who have little influence on the outcome of the game. But Akanksha made the most of her time as benchwarmer waiting for her number to be called.
“I used to just sit or stand around the bench while the game was going on with a basketball, and I never stopped dribbling,” she said, “I kept dribbling and dribbling until my handle became a lot better. The coaches used to notice this and then, they began to use me in the end of games, when the opposition played full-court defense on us. I was a good ball-handler in the pressure situations – and that’s how, although my older sisters played the forward positions, I became a point guard.”
The lesson here: even bench-warming can be a learning process!
In 2003, Akanksha Singh made her debut in the Senior Nationals and played for the Uttar Pradesh team when she was just an 11th Grader. “Many of the older girls didn’t take my seriously because I was small, but I always found a way to surprise them!”
In 2004, Akanksha followed her sister’s footsteps into the Delhi team. She had been playing with them a lot as a youngster, and this gave her another chance to play with them and develop a better understanding. As anyone who has ever played regular basketball with a sibling knows, there is a unique experience of understanding and expectations between the two: Siblings tend to understand each other’s movements mentally when the others on court may be a step or two behind, but siblings also judge each other’s mistakes harsher than everyone else on the team.
Akanksha’s experience of playing with her sisters has been no different – whether it has been in pick-up games in Varanasi, National tournament games for Delhi, or international games for India. “I can understand them better, I know their expressions, and get them the ball. I know exactly what they’re going to do.”
And just like her older sister’s mentored her, Akanksha took on the mentor’s role for the youngest, fifth Singh sister, Pratima. “The two of us love to play together,” she said of the 21-year-old, who is now also in the Delhi side, “But I like her to practice playing opposite me so she can get better!”
Suddenly, 2010 became the breakout year for Akanksha Singh, the ‘Small Wonder’. During the month of May, which is considered to be the off-season in Indian basketball, the Mastan League, a first ever professional-style club competition, was organised in Mumbai. “I wanted to play well so people know my name,” Akanksha said, “Even though it was the off-season I didn’t stop practicing. Once the tournament began, the game started to come very easily for me.”
Easy enough that Akanksha walked away with the award for the tournament’s MVP. But she wasn’t done announcing her coming-out party to the Indian basketball world. When India took part in the Asian Games basketball tournament in Guangzhou (China), Akanksha was just one of the smaller stars in the 12-women roster. It was American coach Tamika Raymond, brought to lead India into this competition, who injected another boost of confidence into the youngster, giving her the starting point guard role for the team.
“I wasn’t expecting to start, but Coach Raymond made me work hard to earn it. She began to play me a lot more during the practice sessions – every time there were mistakes with the offense, I was substituted in. I quickly learned that I was being sent in to fix those mistakes, and so I went ahead and did it.”
And suddenly, there was no doubt of her sublime ball-handling and scoring skills anymore – Akanksha responded well and saw her own game elevate to the highest level. She has been on a tear ever since her return from China, becoming a formidable force for Delhi and running the offense like a perfect point guard is supposed to.
And now, for the first time perhaps, Akanksha Singh may be finally established. She is small, but her skills surprise no one anymore. She is one of the 24-women heading for the Indian All Star game in Mumbai in a couple of weeks, and opponents can no longer afford to overlook her talents.
But the youngster is far from done climbing the ladder. She has bigger dreams, for herself and for her country. “I want to be part of a team that finally wins a medal for India. We may not look formidable right now but I don’t think such a feat is impossible. With the right kind of coaching, I think we can reach that summit.”
Coming from someone who has looked up at every summit and then confidently mastered it, experience has now taught us to know better than doubt the ‘Bacchi’s’ ambitions.
March 29, 2011
It's no secret anymore how much social networks have changed our lives. There are about 500 million people on Facebook - in India, we started a little late, but we quickly caught up and take over, becoming one of the biggest Facebook users in the world.
But we are still a little slower to catch on Twitter, which is kind of a pity, because nothing bridges the gap between news-maker, news-sharer, and news-reader than Twitter does. There are about 140 million tweets sent per day between millions more.
And one of the fascinating developments of the ever-twittering world is the bridging gap between the Big Guys and the Little Ones. Now, within an instant, the average Ramu on his PC in Faridabad can tell 50 Cent how awful his last album was, and have 50 Cent give a derogatory response, too.
So of course, for NBA fans, Twitter has helped to create a new kind of relationship and understanding with otherwise unapproachable superstars that live the grind of 82-game-plus-more NBA seasons half-way across the world. Not all the information has been useful or interesting (it rarely is), but through Twitter, I've learnt what certain NBA players think of their opponents, how certain players would like to address any controversy or speculation regarding themselves, their favourite foods, and mostly, a whole bunch of other incoherent garble.
The first person I followed on Twitter when I created my own account was Shaquille O'Neal (@THE_REAL_SHAQ), and it has been a very wise decision. Shaq has described himself as being 'VERY QUOTATIOUS, I PERFORM RANDOM ACTS OF SHAQNESS', and really, if you don't know what means, then you are probably at the right place, because I'm not sure Shaq knows either. Like you would expect him to be, Shaq is funny and memorable, posting pictures of himself dressed up in drag for Halloween, inviting fans in Boston to come and hang out with him, or praising Justin Bieber.
Basketball's biggest superstars are surprisingly non-existent on social networking. Kobe Bryant doesn't have an account yet. LeBron does, humbly calling himself @KingJames, but he, too, is mostly politically correct about things. I say mostly, because every once in a while, LeBron does pull a Homer - like the time he told followers to shower their hate - and they did - and then he went ahead and retweeted their comments to everyone else. His finest/worst moment so far came when he published the famous 'karma' tweet. The Cavs had lost by a franchise-worst 55 points to the Lakers, embarrasingly, when LeBron wrote "Crazy. Karma is a b****.. Gets you every time. Its not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything!" Karma, indeed was a bitch, since LeBron was injured a game later and Miami went on to lose four straight.
My favourite NBA-twitterer - by FAR - is Ron Artest (@ronartest). On a daily basis, Ron Ron pretty much confirms what everyone already thinks - that he is in serious, serious need of his psychiatrist! It is an unpredictable ride daily as Artest boasts about Laker winning streaks ("do u like to win? then u must be a lakers fan"), promotes his music ("Go Loco"), writes nonsensical stuff that he probably thinks of on a daily basis ("i love my pet penguin", "I can't believe I jumped in the air like a silly pirate on drugs") or talking about his favourite eating joint ("It's. 1:30 In n out is open Wozeers").
But behind all the crazy, Ron Ron does some good, too. He is known to randomely hand out tickets to his fans in LA, those who responded fastest to him on Twitter. He even follows some of his fans.
Late last night, Artest made his India connect, asking Abhishek Bachan (@juniorbachan) if he is a Laker fan after Abhishek had a Twitter conversation with Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson).
Speaking of Magic, the Laker great is pretty active on Twitter, too, giving his commentary on NBA/NCAA games, and awkwardly, adding his Dove Men Care sponsorship with each Tweet.
Another fairly regular tweeter is Steve Nash (@SteveNash) - the legendary Suns point guard proves that he is pretty much as cool in real life as you would expect him to be. Nash talks about random day-to-day issues or makes references to his favourite football team, the Tottenham Hotspurs.
As a Knick fan, I follow a bunch of New York players, including Amare Stoudemire (@Amareisreal) and new Knick Carmelo Anthony (@carmeloanthony). The most interesting Knick, though, is rookie Landry Fields (@landryfields). Fields has posted refreshingly honest thoughts and funny videos to quickly become a Twitter Superstar for the Knicks.
One of the NBA's rising young stars is Kevin Durant (@KDthunderup), who used his Twitter status to make the biggest statement in the smallest way in the last off-season, when he wrote "Exstension for 5 more years wit the thunder....God Is Great, me and my family came a long way...I love yall man forreal, this a blessing!"
Amongst the other big NBA stars, the likes of Dwyane Wade (@dwadeofficial), Chris Bosh (@chrisbosh), Dwight Howard (@DwightHoward), Pau Gasol (@paugasol), Chris Paul (@oneandonelycp3), Rajon Rondo (@RajonRondo), Paul Pierce (@paulpierce34), Blake Griffin (@blakegriffin), Kevin Love (@kevinlove), and Russel Westbrook (@russwest44)) are also on Twitter. Besides of promoting non-NBA events that may be involved in, or talking about their family and friends, the players mostly just check in and out with their fans, conversing with a few every now and then and helping to build a unique player-fan relationship.
And of course, there are the NBA's cast-aways, but via Twitter, you can be sure they are never too far. Allen Iverson (@alleniverson) makes sure to check in from Turkey occasionally, and regularly proving to the universe that, like his shooting outbursts, he has a hard time keeping the 140-character limit in check, too. From China, I here from Stephon Marbury (@StephonMarbury) sometimes, who makes sure to drop his words of positivity and optimism every now and then.
The one person that I really wish was back on social networking is Gilbert Arenas. Before anyone else did it, Arenas was the first NBA superstar to really establish the one-on-one connect with the fans through his blog. Twitter was to become the perfect platform form the Former Agent 0's hilarious musings, before his account was deleted last year, around the same time he was suspended by the NBA for the whole guns-in-the-locker incident. His tweets during the ordeal only added fuel to the fire, and suddenly, like Arenas, the account was suspended indefinitely too. Arenas has returned since, but his Twitter presence hasn't.
Of course, if you prefer to follow your favourite teams, they all have twitter accounts too: From the Lakers (@Lakers), to the Celtics (@celtics) to the Heat (@MiamiHEAT) and the Knicks (@thenyknicks) - and of course, the NBA (@NBA) is on Twitter, too!
This is just a start. You can literally go crazy looking for your favourite teams, players, news feeds, reporters, or fake-player pages. For Indian basketball fans, I'm going to leave you with some important few feeds to follow:
- Basketball Federation of India: @BFIbasketball
- Troy Justice, Director of Basketball Operations, NBA India: @troyjustice
- JD Basketball / JD Walsh, American basketball coach in India: @jdbasketball
And of course, yours truly, for getting the finest information about basketball, India, NBA, philosophy, and a bunch of other things, you need to follow the Hoopistani (@Hoopistani) twitter feed. It will make your life better, I swear it. Or at least more interesting.
March 25, 2011
Timir Patel may only be 25 years old but he's already seen quiet a bit of this world: an American of Indian descent, Patel was born and raised in Houston, Texas, but his parents hail from the city of Anand in Gujarat. The 6 foot 9 inch tall forward/Center has taken his basketball talents from all around the US, and in the way became one of the few people of Indian origin to play Division 1 basketball, the highest level of college basketball, in the US. He has since played hoops in Romania and China as well.
I first read about Patel from an article on Hoops India. I immediately felt that I should follow it up: like I wrote in my article about American-Indian CCAA Player of the Year (or Indian-American?) baller Inderbir Gill a few days ago, people like Patel and Gill are good examples against the dogma that Indians aren't athletic enough for the elite level of hoops - with the right diet, conditioning, competitive environment, and training facilities, anything is possible!
I have corresponded with Patel since and got the opportunity to ask him a few questions. Most recently, Patel was supposed to head to Japan to take part in a showcase basketball event, but the Tsunami/Earthquake/Nuclear crisis forced him to cancel his current plans. He has already experienced great ups and downs in the course of his career and is now figuring out a way to contribute to basketball in India.
So without further ado, here's my Q&A with Timir Patel:
Hoopistani: How did you get into basketball? At what point did you know for sure that basketball will be your life?
Patel: Growing up I was always taller than everybody my age but surprisingly I did not start playing organized basketball until I was 14. Starting at such a late age I was very raw and was still growing into my body. Needless to say I was not very strong or coordinated but I had a good group of coaches and teammates that encouraged me to get better everyday. My high school team at Cinco Ranch was very good and because I was still developing my game I did not get a chance to play varsity basketball until my senior year. I played very well my senior year and was a integral part of a team that finished 25-7 and ranked as one of the top 20 teams in the state of Texas. Also, I was one of three of Division I signees from that team.
I guess you can say it is then that I knew I wanted to play basketball as long as I could. I went from not being looked at by any colleges to getting a few Division I scholarship offers my senior year. It was also then that I knew how much I had improved from when I first started playing basketball but still had a long way to go to reach the potential to be a great player. That hunger is what still drives me to this day to become better every day.
Hoopistani: How was the experience of playing college hoops and the States, particularly at Division 1 (D1) Level?
Patel: The experience of playing D1 basketball was one of the best blessings ever. I am honoured to say that I am one of a handful of Indians to play at the highest level of college basketball. I started off at Prairie View A&M University. For my sophomore year I transferred to junior college, Blinn College, because I did not want to sit out a year at a D1 school per NCAA rules. The only thing was that my coach did not play me at all in the first part of the season. We had one of the most talented teams in the country easily and were not performing up to those standards and it was frustrating not being to help my team out. Finally about 6 games into our conference play I went from playing no minutes to being in the starting lineup. I played well and was able to help the team.
Even though I had not played much that season I still had D1 offers from some schools but after taking my recruiting visits I decided the University of Nebraska Omaha was the best fit for me. Although it was not a D1 school it was high major D2 school with the same atmosphere of D1 school. Initially, I struggled on the court, but started coming along at the end of my junior season.
Because of some family issues, I had to transfer back home to Houston, to the Houston Baptist University (HBU). It just so happened to be that HBU was transitioning to D1 so I was going to have a opportunity to play D1 basketball again my senior year. It was hard leaving Omaha but I went to a better situation being close to home and being a part of the first D1 team at HBU. This was a great honor because it meant being part of something that is going to be big in the future and also putting something back into the city I was born and raised in.
I would have to say coming back and playing in front of my family and being able to help HBU transition to D1 is one of my biggest highlights of my college career. My fondest memory would be all the relationships I made while in college because of basketball.
Hoopistani: You have trained with several current and former professional players during your transition from a college player to a pro. Can you talk a bit about those experiences?
Patel: After I graduated from college I was ready to pursue my pro career and one of my good friends that played overseas was training at a gym with a personal trainer that had many pro athletes as clients. As soon as I went there I saw the difference from college and the pro game, my first day the trainer explained to me that in the pro game its all about minimizing mistakes and being efficient as possible. There was a consistent group of guys that came everyday for pick-up games, including Rashard Lewis, Maurice Taylor, Moochie Norris, Terrence Morris, Ansu Sesay, Gerald Green and many other players who play overseas. All these guys were always mentoring me on how I could improve but the thing that will always stick with me was how hard they worked. They had no egos and were all humble like they didn't ever play in the NBA and brought a work mans attitude everyday.
Hoopistani: Where has your professional career taken you so far?
Patel: It was a tough transition getting a professional deal coming out of college, since I played behind two guys and didn't put up very good numbers in my professional career. I got a tryout with a team in the top league in Romania, called Brasov, but they didn't have enough money to offer me a contract.
When I got home, I was a little disappointed, but also motivated because I knew I was so close - I just had to get over the hump. In May 2010, I was invited by Coach Cyril White To God Be The Glory (TGBTG) gym to go for a two-game tour against the Bayi Rockets, a top league team of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).
Hoopistani: How was the experience of playing in China? What is the level of the league there? What is the level of basketball in general in China, in terms of talent and fans?
Patel: China was a better experience for me than Romania. Chinese players seemed to have a high basketball IQ and were all fundamentally sound. It is no surprise that the CBA is considered one of the top leagues in the world, right next to the NBA and Euroleague.
I attended a draft camp in the second league in China (NBL): I played well, averaging 11ppg and 7 rpg but was not selected. The level of talent in that camp was very high with guys that played in some of the top leagues in Europe and the NBDL.
In terms of the fans I would have to say the games I played in China were some of the best atmospheres I have ever played in. Every arena that we played in was sold out and after some of the games we had to be escorted out by security because fans had run onto the court and wanted to take pictures, etc. With two very good leagues and a great fan interest in the game it is no wonder that China is on its way to becoming one of the basketball powers of the world.
Unfortunately, I got terribly sick while in China: I lost 45 pounds (20.4 kgs) during my illness and was put on a strict diet when trying to recover. When I first got in the gym, I was not even able to run with out almost falling. I could not even touch the rim. But I was hungry to play again and get back to level I was playing at before I got sick. Slowly but surely I was able to regain my weight and with that came all of the skills I had before. I am blessed to say that right now I am stronger, quicker, jumping higher and playing better than I ever have before and also regained all the weight I lost.
In December last year, I was offered a trial by the Foshan Lions team of the CBA (the team which Stephon Marbury plays for). Teams that finished in the bottom five in the CBA can have one asian import along with there two american imports: That is when I tried to get my Indian passport, but it never happened and ultimately that was why the deal fell apart.
Hoopistani: I have read that you now wish to connect the with basketball in India. Could you please talk about some of your future plans?
Patel: As far as promoting the game right now I am just trying to be an example for all young Indian basketball players that have a dream of playing in college and professionally. I know there is not many people that will put India and basketball in the same sentence but know if one person opens the door and lays the foundation then many more can follow.
I would like to play for the national team but unfortunately there is a rule that will not let me play unless I have an Indian passport. I have an Overseas Citizenship with India but that does not pass and since India does not let people have a dual citizenship like most countries my hands are tied.
India has the same potential to become a basketball power like China and they are starting to realize that potential. It is exciting to see the development going on and if I cannot play for the national team I would still like to be a part of this development in any way possible. Hopefully I can sit down and speak with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) soon about what opportunities they have and how I can help them.
March 23, 2011
Every once in a while, I like to pay a little mention to Indian-origin basketball players who are having or have had some measure of success in other parts of the world. They might not be technically 'Indian' if they don't hold the passport, but what's more important to show from their examples is that the shoddy myth that: 'Indian bodies aren't athletic enough for basketball' is a blatant lie. It's all about nurture: provide a basketball player with the right diet, conditioning, competitive environment, and training facilities, and just watch him or her blossom!
Last week, American Inderbir Gill, who born and brought up in India, was named the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association (CCAA) Player of the Year. Gill is a three-time CCAA All Canadian, former CCAA Men’s Championship MVP and was named 2010’s CCAA Athlete of the Year Across All Sports.
Gill, who attends the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) in Prince George (Canada) and plays for their squad, the Timberwolves (not to be confused with the NBA team in Minnesota!), was second in scoring in the British Columbia Colleges' Athletic Association (BCCAA) this season and third in assists. The six foot guard led his team to a 22-4 record.
According to a feature by Wally Donaldson of Oshawa Express, Gill lived in India till he was 12 years old before his parents moved to the US. Hailing from the village of Kharar Acharwal in Punjab, Gill's family immigrated to the US in 1998. They have since settled in Spokane in Washington.
I found an interesting snipped about him from The Tribune newspaper in 2007, when Gill had briefly returned to this village
“Before I immigrated to the US in 1998, I had never played basketball. I started playing the game in the summer of 1998 with Indian friends. Then in 2000, we moved to Spokane in Washington State, where I was selected to play for my high school team and was one of their main players in our league."
Inderbir comes from a family of sportspersons. His father, Parminder Singh, led Punjabi University football team in early 70s, while his mother, Sital Kaur, played basketball for Lyallpur Khalsa College, Jalandhar.
Inderbir feels that it is the training which makes the difference. “I am considered one of the quickest and agile player. This is why I am considered one of the best in assists and steals in my team.”
“I had an opportunity to play against the only player of Indian origin who has represented Canada in international basketball events,” he claims.
And here's more about from Donaldson's recent article:
Inderbir Gill is completing his fifth and final year in financing at the University of Northern British Columbia in St. George.
Just for the record, he is quick to point out, the native of Spokane Washington has no intentions of spending his working days behind a desk.
Not when he still has the talent to move a basketball swiftly up court and in harmony with Raptors’ Jose Calderon, possess the peripheral vision to dish the ball off to an open man.
“I was the main facilitator this year by getting the guys the ball for the easy shots,” said Gill, whose team fell far short of expectations last weekend at Durham College. “Our defence had been a concern all year because we didn’t play a full 40 minutes every game.
Gill is keeping his options open as to where he hopes to play professionally in the not-too-distant future. Europe is high on the list, he notes, although anywhere he can continue to hone his skills is a bonus.
“I’ve talked to people here and there,” he says with a huge grin, “but now that this season is over, I will step it up a bit and see what happens. I love this game and if I can continue to play, it will be the best thing in my life.”
“I love the competitive nature of basketball. Whenever I have free time, I go out and shoot some hoops. I had a lot of fun here (UNBC) and my rewards were just a reflection of how the team played.”
A solid fan of Steve Nash and Lebron James, Gill likes to fashion is talents on the style of play of these elite NBA players.
Now isn't that awesome? A six-foot tall Punjabi kid, who hadn't even played basketball till his teens, finding the right environment to becoming a dominating player? Good stuff Inderbir - hopefully he can make a name for himself professionally abroad.
There are several other NRIs like him who have enjoyed successful basketball careers around the world - and I will be posting a Q&A with one such star in the near future...
March 22, 2011
About a month ago, I was lucky enough to represent NBA.com/India at the 60th NBA All Star Weekend in Los Angeles. As you can imagine for someone who has been a lifelong fan of the game, it was indubitably one of the most memorable experiences of my life. From getting to meet and converse with the world's best basketball players, watching them compete against each other in the All Star Game and other exciting challenges, to just soaking in the terrific carnival of basketball that the City of Los Angeles had transformed into, there were way too many glorious moments to properly recapture the essence of actually being there.
I kept a daily blog for NBA-India during the Weekend. Check it out!
Day 1: Los Angeles, the Home to a Basketball Pilgrim on ASW.
Day 2: Can the Stars come out and play?
Day 3: The City of Angels, Hollywood, and the Black Mamba.
I know it took some time for me to get around to do this, but I've uploaded several of the photographs that I snapped from my own (very primitive) camera. Of course, if you want well taken photos from good cameras at fantastic angles, you are much better off finding them here - for everyone else, check out my pics and anecdotes below.
The weekend started with the Rookie practice and the Rookie game on Friday. But Friday afternoon was the real entertaining time, as the Media Members were invited to interview all of the Eastern and Western Conference All Star Players.
Being one of the hometown players, the Lakers' power-forward Pau Gasol obviously garnered a lot of attention, from the local as well as the Spanish-language Media. I got around to asking him about his experiences in India. "It was a great experience," Gasol said, "I had a chance to get to know India a little bit, but at the same time I was very busy. Hopefully I can visit again and get some downtime to do more. I'm hoping basketball continues to grow there: The NBA has done a good job in promoting the sport in India. They have gotten the kids excited about it and showed how great basketball is."
A few weeks before the All Star Game, Chris Paul, one of the top point guards in the league, conversed with fans in India via an online chat. Paul remembered the event and spoke about the future growth of the league worldwide. "It's unbelievable how the game has grown," he said, "Just a year ago, I went to London, Paris, and over in China. At one point in the late 90s you could say that basketball is America's game, but now it's a world's game. Everyone has caught up."
The toughest people to catch in the room were LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony (this was nearing the trade deadline and he was still a member of the Nuggets then), hometown player Blake Griffin (who took part in the Rookie Challenge, the Slam Dunk competition, and the All Star Game), and of course, the Black Mamba, Kobe Bryant. The entire city of LA was like Kobe's shrine, and this was literally the clearest pic I could get of him - Kobe's media table was swarmed by nearly a 100 media people even BEFORE he showed up! Winning the All Star Game MVP later only added to his local mythical status.
And here's Derrick Rose, who in about a month's time will be named the regular season's MVP. Rose and Durant were two of the least hyped stars at the Weekend, despite the fact that they had been having incredible individual seasons. Playing point guard to the likes of LeBron and Wade, Rose made it clear before the All Star Game that he was going to defer and let others dominate the night.
Surrounded by 100s like Kobe is his Eastern Conference counterpart LeBron. LeBron ended up having only the second-ever All Star Game triple double since Michael Jordan - an incredible feat - but it wasn't enough as he wasn't able to stop Kobe and co run away with the game on Sunday night.
Many people may not remember this, but Garnett came to India about four years ago, while he was still a Minnesota player, as part of an adidas promotional trip. He visited Bangalore, Delhi, and Agra. When I asked him about it, Garnett spoke about his fondness for Indian food. "I'm a curry guy - so I loved it there!" he said.
On a more serious note, KG added how impressed he was by the schoolkids he worked with back in India. "The best thing about my tour was how the kids in India embraced basketball straight away," said Garnett, "My advice would be that they should know that they can improve in multiple areas. I spoke to kids there and told them that whatever your focus on life may be, be it football or basketball or their studies - they should do it with passion. Show love for whatever you're doing and do it with your heart first."
The first event on Saturday morning was a practice session for the two teams. All the All Stars took different sides of the same court to practice with their coaches for the weekend, but mostly, joke around with each other. After the practice session, they held a Guinness Book of World Records competition of most three-pointers made by a duo in a minute. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen of the Celtics represented the East and scored 13 threes. But their record was short-lived, as Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant quickly took on the challenge for the West and nailed 15 three-pointers to snatch the record away!
Right after the practice session, the Media were given permission to talk to the players on court. This is when I got a chance to approach Dwyane Wade and talk to him. Wade, who was the MVP of last year's All Star Game, said that this time around, he will not be gunning for the MVP - "I predict my teammate Chris Bosh will get it," he said. Wade had a low-key game, but nearly gave his fans a scare after he suffered a minor injury by stepping on Deron Williams' foot during the All Star Game.
One of the more likable characters in the course of the weekend was Ray Allen, who I got the opportunity to interview twice, on Friday and on Saturday. Allen had recently beaten Reggie Miller's record of most three-pointers made, and seemed to be on a roll, having the most efficient season of his career, even in an older age. This was the night that he was to participate in (and lose) the three-point shooting competition. Allen said that when he was growing up, his own shooting idol was Dell Curry.
Another anecdote regarding Ray Allen is that, the previous day, I asked him a question that I didn't really expect him to take seriously: see, I'm a big fan of Spike Lee's basketball classic He Got Game, featuring Ray Allen as a talented young star, Jesus Shuttlesworth, and Denzel Washington as his father who plays him one-on-one at the end of the game. I will not tell you any more about it, except that you need to go and see it. But back to my question: "Ray - who has been your toughest basketball challenge - Kobe Bryant... Or Denzel Washington?"
Without a flinch, and with a straight face, Jesus Shuttlesworth answered: "My toughest challenge is probably eating too much lasagna before a game!"
For most of the time, Thunder teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook took their interviews together, a good sign of the bond between the two young stars of one of the league's most exciting up-and-coming squads. Both of them had led Team USA to the FIBA World Championship gold in Turkey last summer, and in the progress, Kevin Durant won the tournament's MVP. Durant was optimistic about the growth of basketball worldwide. "It's great to see the talent developing around the world," he said, "I hope that one day basketball can become the most popular game in the world."
This photo is from Saturday night - the Slam Dunk competition, and here's Blake Griffin about to take off for his final dunk, while being serenaded "I believe I can fly" by a gospel choir, ready to jump over a car. The hype for this event may have been greater than the final product, but actually being there in person made this one of the most entertaining nights ever. I also believe that this was surely the most entertaining slam dunk competition since Vince Carter destroyed everything in his sight 11 years ago. Check out the video of Griffin's dunk here. And for good measure and nostalgia, here are Vince Carter's finest aerial moments.
Lakers fans, the photo below is for you. For Clippers fans, too, if there are any here. This is the Staples Center, the Mecca of Los Angeles Basketball. The area around Staples was entirely of a basketball theme. And I was lucky enough to be given a short tour of the Arena hours before the All Star Game.
ANDDDDD... Here we go... Tip off to the 60th NBA All Star Game - Amar'e Stoudemire and Tim Duncan tipping it off. It was the beginning to the end to a wonderful weekend - thanks a lot NBA for helping me soak in this amazing experience!
What were your thoughts on the All Star Weekend? What were your favourite moments and your favourite players? Feel free to share any thoughts on the comments section below...
March 19, 2011
So as you may know, the Golden State Warriors recently celebrated "Bollywood Night" when they hosted the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night at the Oracle Arena in Oakland. It was a celebration of Indian culture by the people behind the Warriors, which include Indian-born owner of the team, Vivek Ranadivé.
Through the course of the night, fans got to see Bollywood-type dances, taste Indian food, go home with cleverly-punned "got Curry" T-shirt (Stephen Curry, get it?), etc. Click here to go on NBA Videos to watch a nice recap of Bollywood Night, featuring interviews with Stephen Curry and Ranadivé.
Ranadivé in particular makes some very interesting points here. It is great to see an Indian man in-charge of a basketball team in the world's richest league. Inviting the Indian community in Oakland/San Francisco region, as well as Indians back home to be a part of the sport of basketball, Ranadivé says, "I believe that basketball will be the sport of the 21st century. Soccer was the sport of the last generation, basketball will the sport of the next generation. It can be played inside and it can be played outside. It can be played in rich countries and in poor countries. Indians love sport, Indians love to celerbate, and Indians love a good show!"
Ranadivé also announced that the game was broadcast live in India. Yes it was, but unfortunately, all the 'Indian' related programmes, which were held pre-game, during halftime, or post-game, were not, since the broadcasting channel PIX, as I predicted, decided to show its own local advertisements. FAIL.
But hey, I'm glad they pulled if off well over there. And I hope you enjoy the pics (courtesy NBA-India) I've attached from the event to his article. In between all this hoo-haa, there was actually a basketball game played, a very entertaining one at that, too. Golden State led most of the way, even going up 18 over an excellent Mavs side at halftime. But Mavericks were a team too deep, and too experienced. Mavs went on a 15-0 fourth quarter run, and led by Dirk Nowitzki's 34 points and 13 rebounds, they pulled off a 112-106 win.
Don't worry Warrior fans. At least you enjoyed some good kebabs.
March 18, 2011
It's been around three weeks since the trade deadline, and the new pieces that were roughly reshuffled on Feb 24 are now starting to show some shape with adjusting to their new teams. But out of all the teams involved in major trades at the deadline - Hawks, Celtics, Cavs, Nets, Knicks, Thunder, Blazers, Jazz, and Wizards, it has been the Denver Nuggets who have shown the most improvement, winning nine of their 11 games since.
Before the trade, it had been a season full of 'Melo'Drama for the Denver Nuggets and their coach George Karl. Trade rumours were lurking for their superstar forward, and the Nuggets, who have been one of the best teams in the West for Carmelo Anthony's seven-year era, were on a slightly slower pace this season. True, they were still winning more games than they lost, but there was a tension in the air.
And then Carmelo and Chauncey Billups were sent to New York Knicks for four lesser-known players. Now, a lot of people compared Carmelo bolstering out of Denver to LeBron James' exit from Cleveland, but this is far from a fair comparison. LeBron left the Cavs as a free agent, leaving his former team with nothing in return. Cavs lost LeBron, Shaq, Ilgauskas, and Delonte West to free agency, getting nothing in return but large cap space to use on players who didn't want to go there in the first place.
Anthony was also reaching his free-agency at the end of this season, so instead of leaving Denver with nothing, his trade to New York mid-season at least brought the Nuggets some value for him. And oh my, have the Nuggets struck gold.
This was the original trade: The Nuggets gave up Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Shelden Williams, Renaldo Balkman, and Anthony Carter. Melo is a multiple time all star in his prime and one of the league's best scorers. Billups is a multiple time all star from the past and a Finals MVP. Melo and Chauncey were their top two scorers. The other three guys are solid backups.
In return, they got Wilson Chanlder, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, and Timofey Mozgov from the Knicks, and Kosta Koufos from the Timberwolves. No all stars, no championships, not even a 20 point average - just four or five guys who are willing to fit into the system.
And the trade has worked miracles! Before the trade, Denver were a respectable 32-25. Since the trade? They are 41-27. Conversely, look at the Knicks, who have seemingly gotten the better of the trade - Knicks were 28-26 before Melo, and have been 7-6 since.
Everyone expected Denver to free fall without their two leaders. Instead, this team has figured out a way to stay relevant and even get better. The Nuggets now share their offense between Nene, Chandler, Arron Afflalo, JR Smith, Ty Lawson, Felton, Al Harrington, Kenyon Martin, Chris Anderson, and Gallinari, who is currently injured. In a team full of support-guys, players amongst whom near is no real star, they have figured out a way to be incredibly efficient.
A lot of credit for this needs to go to Coach Karl. Without Anthony's lack of defensive ability, the Nuggets are now a much better team on the defensive end. And on offense, since the ball doesn't need to go through one player alone, they are a lot more efficient, sharing, assisting, and actually scoring more points.
Of course, the true test of this team will come in the playoffs. If the playoffs started today, the Nuggets would be fifth in the West, and they would play their first round against the Thunder. If they keep playing balanced basketball the way they are, the Thunder have a right to be quiet worried.
But does all this mean that, despite all his abilities, Carmelo Anthony is a negative player? Well, yes and no. Of course, his problems on defense and sometimes his one-trackedness can hinder a team, but every successful squad needs someone to turn to when the going got tough, and Anthony is one of the best in the league at that. At this point, the Nuggets may be enjoying life without their former best player. But the Knicks shouldn't feel despair about getting a lethal scorer like him: it will take time for him and Billups to settle in their new team, and once the playoffs start, we will see Anthony's real value.
As of now though, the Denver Nuggets are definitely the winners of the trade deadline.
March 16, 2011
Get ready for Indian basketball’s brightest stars to shine together: For the second year, the top Men and Women players in India will descend to the Mastan YMCA in Mumbai to take part in Indian Basketball’s All Star Weekend - India All Star - on Friday 8th and Saturday 9th of April, 2011. Organised by Ibrahim Lakdawala of Lakdawala Developer PVT. LTD., the two day event will host skills competitions on April 8th and the Men and Women All Star Games on April 9th, featuring the most talented players in the country divided into East and West sides.
India’s most popular and exciting players, from all over the country, have been invited by the organisers for this landmark event, which will be an opportunity for Indian hoops aficionados to see their favourite players in action against each other. “We had organised the All Star Game on a small scale last year,” said Lakdawala, a former national-level player for the country, who has been the brainchild behind the project, “But this time, we will be hosting a much bigger event.”
The events on Friday will include a three-point shooting competition for Men & Women and a Slam Dunk Competition for Men. The All Star Games will be held on Saturday evening: the participants in the two games will be divided into East and West sides. The all stars will include top-level players such as Jagdeep Singh, Yadwinder Singh, Trideep Rai, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Geethu Anna Jose, Anitha Pau Durai, Prashanti Singh, and Akanksha Singh.
“It will be a fun festival of basketball,” said Salim Shaikh, the co-organiser of the event, “We hope that our players will enjoy participating against each other. There will be a lot of exciting prizes for all the players.
“In addition, we will have a lot of merchandise for the fans, including T-shirts featuring their favourite Indian players,” Shaikh added.
The All Star Game will also mark as a fitting prelude to the Ramu Memorial Basketball Tournament, set to tip off at the Indian Gymkhana Grounds in Matunga, Mumbai, from April 10-17.
Indian All Star Teams
Anitha Pau Durai (Tamil Nadu) - Captain
Seema Singh (Chhattisgarh)
Sonika Ohylan (Delhi)
Raspreet Sidhu (Delhi)
Bharti Netam (Chhattisgarh)
Asha Hegde (Delhi)
Pushma M. (Chhattisgarh)
Anju Lakra (Chhattisgarh)
Savihta C.S. (Karnataka)
Manisha Dange (Maharashtra)
Prashanti Singh (Delhi) - Captain
Geethu Anna Jose (Tamil Nadu)
Divya Singh (Delhi)
Akanksha Singh (Delhi)
Varsha Verma (Delhi)
Kokila (Tamil Nadu)
Aakansha Singh (Chhattisgarh)
Sagarika Shyam (Karnataka)
Yadwinder Singh (Railways) - Captain
Vishesh Bhriguvanshi (Railways)
Trideep Rai (ONGC)
Jai Ram Jat (Services)
Harish Koroth (IOB)
Shanmugam Sridhar (ONGC)
Arjun Singh (Railways)
Ajay Pratap Singh (Chhattisgarh)
Amrit Pal Singh (Punjab)
Murali Krishna R. (ONGC)
Riyazuddin (ONGC) - Captain
Jagdeep Singh (Punjab)
Mihir Pandey (IOB)
Jasjot Singh (Railways)
Narender Kumar (Services)
Mohit Bhandari (ONGC)
Gagandeep Singh (Railways)
Bobby Singh (Uttar Pradesh)
Talwinderjit Singh Sahi (Punjab)
Jaskaran Singh / Amjyot Singh (Punjab) – not confirmed yet
March 15, 2011
'Tis the season for... Bollywood?
NBA team Golden State Warriors, whose Vice-Chairman is Mumbai-born software entrepreneur Vivek Ranadivé, will be hosting their first ever 'Bollywood Night' when they face the Dallas Mavericks at the Oracle Arena in Oakland on Wednesday evening, March 16. The game will be shown live in India at 8 AM the next morning, Thursday, March 17, on PIX.
And what is 'Bollywood Night' exactly, you ask? Well, it's pretty much a mish-mash production of everything Indian that the Warriors' management could think of, which, pretty much equals singing, dancing, Indian food, and a couple of software people in suits.
You want Dance Performances? Dances troupes Aerodance and Bhangra Empire will be tickling your senses pre-game and at halftime. Even the Warrior Girls cheerleading troupe will be doing a Bollywood dance performance. You want Indian food? Yes, it will be available at the Oracle Arena Concessions. You want vaguely famous Indian-American popstars singing to you? A finalist at American Idol, Indian-origin American singer Anoop Desai will be crooning on-court postgame.
You want to hang out with Indian people in America / Other people with names that sound like Indian food? Desai, Vivek Ranadivé, Warriors ace guard Stephen Curry, and others will be interviewed post-game by news-anchor in San Jose, Raj Mithai. The last one qualifies for both categories: Indian-ness, and for his name sounding like Indian dessert.
And perhaps my favourite part of the whole show is that the Warriors' are giving away a T-shirt that says 'got Curry' to the first 19,000 attendants, making an awesome reference to an NBA Star and to our masalas. Too bad the Warriors' don't have a Center called Murgh Makhani, which is, my friends, the best thing to eat in the world, ever.
First of all - I need to get my hands, somehow, on that awesome T-Shirt. Secondly, I'm excited to watch this game and all the other India-related paraphernalia. Let's just hope that we can get through the night without a freakin 'Slumdog Millionaire' reference. Unlikely.
Unfortunately, I fear that the PIX channel, like they usually do, are likely to replace all the pre-game, halftime, and post-game events and replace them with a documentary showing the Making of "Did You Hear About the Morgans".
In between of all this, a basketball game will be played. Go David Lee.
March 14, 2011
Press Release: MUMBAI, India, March 14, 2011 – The most comprehensive Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA program ever in India tipped off today in Mumbai with the first of a series of coaching clinics. Students from approximately 500 schools in Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and Pune will participate in the NBA’s international youth basketball development program that builds the game of basketball within schools and teaches its fundamentals and values to youth in a fun environment. This will mark the first-ever NBA initiative held in Pune as the league continues to expand in India.
The Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA program in India is being supported by Basketball Federation of India (BFI), HP, Spalding, and Ten Sports.
“The Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA program will not only provide access to basketball for thousands of children across the country, but will help develop quality coaches who can become ambassadors for our sport,” said NBA India Senior Director of Development, Akash Jain. “We believe this program is a logical next step in our commitment to growing the game in India, and thanks to the support of our partners we will be reaching a large number of players and coaches in five major cities, including our first NBA event in Pune.”
At the core of the program is the Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA Skills Challenge, a competition for boys and girls ages 10 to 12 that tests participants’ abilities in various basketball fundamentals, including dribbling, passing, and shooting. Local Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA coaches will implement the first round of competition in approximately 100 schools in each of the five cities. Four winners from each school – two girls and two boys – will move on to compete in a citywide competition of 400 participants with 10 winners from each city (5 boys and 5 girls) moving on to compete in front of an NBA star at the Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA National Skills Challenge on May 14. One boy and one girl will be crowned Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA Skills Challenge Champions and will each win an all expenses paid trip to New York City where they will have the opportunity to train with an NBA coach, visit NBA league headquarters and historic landmarks throughout the city.
In order to provide coaches necessary resources to establish a consistent and sustained basketball curriculum in schools, the NBA has partnered with the BFI and HP to distribute a Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA ‘Basketball in a Box’ kit to 500 schools across India. This box will include a coaching guide customized for India, a Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA Skills Challenge overview, clipboard, stopwatch, basketballs, and other equipment. Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA coaches will learn about fundamental skill development at the Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA Skills Challenge from NBA coaches at two-day coaching clinics that will be held in each city to tip off the program.
Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA Skills Challenge participants and coaches will be able to keep up with their competition by visiting NBA.com/India, which will include program information, coaching and player guides, training videos, and player highlights.
The first Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA program staged in India was the 2008 Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA Hoops School in Bangalore, Delhi, and Mumbai. The five-week program included coaching and youth clinics and tournaments conducted at between 20 and 25 schools in each city. Additionally, coaching guides and posters were distributed throughout the country, reaching more than 500,000 youth.
March 13, 2011
Shawn Bradley is a very tall man - 7 foot 6 - who played in the NBA for a dozen years between 1993-2005, mostly with the Dallas Mavericks, and averaged a modest 8.1 points and 6.3 rebounds for the course of his career. But really, what Bradley's legacy in the league will truly be remembered for will be as the man responsible for many, many posters. Below every great dunk there was a giant, white man, just happy to add to the spectacular freeze-frame.
But from henceforth, I will think of something before 'dunked on' when I think of Shawn Bradley. Bradley, along with his wife and four kids from Salt Lake City in Utah, travelled to India on a volunteer programme on behalf of Rising Star Outreach. The Bradleys went to work with a leprosy colony in the Thottanaval village in Tamil Nadu. He spend a lot of time with people of all ages infected with leprosy.
If you don't know: Leprosy is an infectious disease that mainly affects the skin and nerves in the hands and feet, and in some cases, the lining of the nose. The World Health Organization says there are countries in the world where cases of leprosy remain high, including, Angola, Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo and India. Since the 1980s, 11 million people have been cured of leprosy in India.
In an article for Deseret News, Kathy Aiken writes about Bradley and his experience in India.
So along with their four daughters, ages 11, 12, 14 and 15, the Bradleys traveled to the southeast coast of India to help at a school built by Rising Star Outreach.
Peery School for Rising Stars is for children of those with leprosy, children who are often shunned by their local schools and forced to beg on the streets. Everything is located on the 14-acre Rising Star campus in Thottanaval Village, which is about two hours outside of the city of Chennai.
“Going over there and working with them was an amazing experience,” Shawn said.
The family was in India for two weeks; one week with the colonies and one week they toured the country. Annette Bradley said the living conditions at the colonies were not what they were used to. The minute they left the colonies they started staying in nice hotels, but all that the family wanted to do was go back to the colonies and be with the children. They wanted to help them learn English and help them with schoolwork.
“It was really a rewarding experience,” she said.
The realistic goal for the organization is to eradicate leprosy. “Once they’ve done that, they can work on the people who have it and the scars from it and getting them back into mainstream society and becoming successful business people and contributing in a way other than sitting on the streets begging,” Shawn explained.
Leprosy can be cured with antibiotics. “They won’t have leprosy anymore, but the scars from leprosy will last with you, and if you catch it early enough, you won’t have any scars,” explained Shawn. But many people won’t get treatment because they are shunned.
Educating children and treating those with leprosy are only two of the three initiatives the organization has. The third goal is to help them create their own businesses using microlending so those afflicted with leprosy can become self-sufficient.
Truly, a wonderful story. Leprosy is a serious problem in India, but what is more depressing than the disease itself is the social isolation and misunderstanding that the infected have to suffer with. It's great to hear about anyone who goes out of their way to help people in need, but when a former NBA player like Bradley involves himself and talks about it, it only raises more awareness overseas about the issues facing the lepers.
Good going, big man.
March 11, 2011
Imagine you’re in the theatre. The drama on stage is the tale of a legend. You have heard about him before, maybe even seen him, but what you know is only a rumour or story. But now, you’re going to see the action for yourself. Like every good character-based drama, this one starts with a life-changing moment for our hero, then sees the hero cement his legend, and then he meets his perfect heroine. But no story is complete without the conflict, which leads to the moment of climax, and then to a resolution that leaves demands a thunderous applause from the happy audience.
This is the story of Jayasankar Menon.
ACT – 1: The Auto-Rickshaw Accident
Our saga begins in the Wadakanchery, in Thrissur district, in Kerala around 1980. Young Jai, the son of a revenue officer in the Thrissur Municipal Office, grows up with what he calls a “free pass” to a local basketball tournament. His first major exposure to the world of basketball comes when Jai participates, not on-court, but just beside it, as he manages the scoreboard for the games.
But his own sublime basketball skills continue to grow as he grows older and taller. Learning under a coach at the local sports council, CP Michel, Jai improves to qualify for the Kerala Youth (U16) side, playing in his first National tournament at Bhilwara in Rajasthan. Soon after, in the year 1984, he gets selected to the Sports Hostel in Kerala, a move that injects a boost into his hoops development.
But basketball wasn’t the only sport that Jai participated in. He was also a very able Handball player, and was selected to represent Kerala’s Senior Handball side. Unfortunately, before he could explore his potential on the Handball court, his destiny would be changed forever.
“I should say, fortunately, I got into an accident,” Menon says, “While I was in Trivandrum for the Senior State coaching camp, an Auto-Rickshaw ran over my leg and I injured myself. That, luckily, put an end to my Handball career!”
When he recovered, he was fully back to basketball, as he began to play regularly and developed into good shape. “Of course I’m happy now that I had that accident!” Menon added, “Basketball got me so much more than Handball could have – I’m obligated to this game.”
ACT – 2: A rookie in the Starting 5
Jai climbed the ranks quickly, from Youth to Junior to the Senior side, before he joined Railways in 1987 and moved to Chennai, where he played for Southern Railways. That was the same year that Indian Railways took part in the World Railway Games in Delhi, where Indian Railways obtained a silver medal. Later that year, Jai was picked to his first Senior National, when India participated in the Asian Basketball Championship in Bangkok.
Later that year, the 19-year-old was part of the Railways squad that won the first Senior National in 19 years, at Mysore. He was part of the team that started a golden era for the Railways side, who are now favourites to win every major competition they participate in.
Jai played his first senior international game for India against Jordan, a 89-72 victory for India. But he got a bigger confidence boost as, in a rare move, the coach made him part of the starting five. “I completely didn’t expect that – usually youngsters have to move up the ranks before they get a starting slot. It was a rare opportunity for me, in my first international game, to start for India.”
Act 3 – Dominating Big Man
The dominance continued: over Six foot five inches tall, Jai played the Power Forward or the Center position, depending on the situation. He was also a strong player, who wasn’t afraid to use this strength to dominate the post play. One of the country’s best ever rebounders, Jai went on to represent India in four Asian Basketball Championships (ABCs). He won two gold medals for India in the South Asian Games, in Colombo and Chennai. His international basketball travels took him to the USA, Syria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, and more.
During the 1995 ABC in Seoul, Jai led India as captain, and it was during this tournament where the full range of his abilities were put on display. “I played both the inside and outside game,” he said, “In some of the games, the opponents started to put full-court press on us, so I even began to bring the ball up the court and play the point guard position.”
Back home, there was no stopping Jai either. In his tenure with Southern Railways and Indian Bank, he participated in 15 Senior Nationals, winning the gold medal five times, and silver and bronze one time each. He won a further three golds and two silvers in Federation Cup Championships.
One of the biggest games of Jai’s domestic career came in the 1991 Senior Nationals – he had now moved to Chennai for good, and while representing a Tamil Nadu side, he was back in his home state of Kerala, where, in the Quarter-Finals, his team played against Kerala!
“It was a great game,” Menon remembers, “I really wanted to get this victory – I scored 49 points, and the game went into three overtime periods, but we still lost!”
In the very next Nationals, Jai’s redemption would be complete, as he helped lead TN to the gold.
The other game he remembers is the final of the 1995 Nationals in Calcutta, where, now as Tamil Nadu captain, he helped his team to another National win. “I remember playing the whole second half with four fouls,” Menon said.
Act 4 – The Heroine and the Co-Stars
Every hero needs a heroine, and the female lead role in the story of our main character is played by someone who is a legend herself, someone who deserves her own headline story. In 1994, Jai married Prasannakumari, who was the captain of the Indian Sr. Women’s side. A few years later, Jai became captain himself, taking the helm of the Indian Sr. Men’s team.
“We were probably the first marriage of captains,” Menon said, “Not only in basketball, but in any sport!”
Just like his illustrious lead partner, Jai was blessed with co-stars who helped him through his career. He speaks in high regard of the greats he has played with, included Ajmer Singh, Ram Kumar, Sunny CV, Shahid Quereshi, Unwin J. Anthony, Rajesh Srivastava, and Parminder Singh – each of whom could have a saga of their own now.
“The basketball players today are far more athletic, far more stronger than the players in our time,” he says, “But what we had, and what the current crop has to work on, is perfecting the team game. We had good fitness, and knew how to move well without the ball. This is something that the generation today has to work on.”
He adds: “There is also not much good height in the players today – maybe some in the Juniors – we need good big players, 7 footers in India.”
Act 5 – The High Point – The All Star and the Arjuna nominee
In 1997, Jai did the extraordinary – after leading India as captain to the ABC in Seoul (South Korea) two years earlier, Jai became the first basketball player from the South Asian region, and certainly the first from India, to be chosen to the Asian All Star side. He was the sixth-man in the All Star Team that played against the South Korea team in Seoul.
A year later, he was nominated for the Arjuna Award, recommended by the BFI, and although he never received the honour, in the eyes of the true fans, our protagonist had reached his high point.
Act 6 – The Suspension
As his international career ended, Jai still found it impossible to stay off the court in domestic competitions, continuing to be a dominating force for Indian Bank well into his late 30s. But for our lead character, the conflict was never against age – it was against an unfortunate circumstance.
In 2005, Jai stepped on court for Indian Bank against Southern Railway. When a little rough play from both sides got out of control, Jai found himself in an altercation. Three players from each side, including Jai were banned from the game. Five out of the six had their bans rescinded afterwards – but not Jai. He suffered a suspension from the game of basketball, the game he loved, the game that made him, and the game he had given his life to. Having lost his ‘current player’ status, he was transferred to Mumbai, forced to stay away from his wife and his daughters.
It took three more years, when a change in the association came about, and finally, Jai’s ban was lifted. But by then our protagonist was no longer the dominating force of his younger years. Between a knee surgery and weight-gain due to inactivity, he was never in shape to be a star again.
Act 7 – The glass half full
But that is not the end of our drama. The end is still in process, still in play, as we, the rest of the audience, watch and, and as we listen. Because although Jayasankar Menon may have waved goodbye to a legendary playing career, he has started to contribute to the game in other ways.
“I’m an optimistic person,” he says, “I always like to see the positive side of things and I believe that good things are bound to happen. As basketball grows bigger, I’m continuing to look for more opportunities to contribute to the growth of the game in India.”
And indeed, he has already made a name for himself off the court. He is an honorary Sports Advisor for Hindustan Group of Institutions and Sports Committee member of Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). Menon and Prasanna, Indian basketball’s power couple, started the Professional Basketball Academy (PBA) in Chennai, where he is Director. He has organised inter-school basketball tournaments for several years, and has been involved in coaching. “I have learnt a lot from a lot of different coaches, in India and abroad,” says Menon, “I like to use all their influences but I have my own style!”
Of course, it is perhaps likely that you may have heard Jai before you ever got a chance to see him, despite the fact that he stands at a giant’s height. Jai is a regular colour commentator for DD Sports during India’s televised basketball tournaments. His game may have slowed down, but his voice never does!
And as he watches the game of basketball in India enter an exciting new phase, Menon keeps his outlook positive, but at the same time, offers some sound advice. “There are good things happening to the game in India. The current General-Secretary of the Basketball Federation of India, Mr. Harish Sharma, has helped guide this new way, this new beginning for Indian basketball. I’m happy to see the involvement of IMG-Reliance. Now that our players have begun to receive an honorarium, they will be encouraged to perform better.”
“But we still have a long way to go,” he adds. “We have to make sure our players are promoted the right way. They have to have more exposure against better foreign talents. Our best players now might be dominating the domestic scene, but they get exposed overseas because they do not play enough against better players. We should get more and more foreign teams to come play in India against us so our own level can improve.”
And this is where, for now, the curtains close, and Menon’s story so far comes to an end. Because this is the part that our lead character leaves the stage and he joins the audience to witness a bigger show. A show that his story is a small part of, and a show that we all have a stake in: The Story of Basketball in India.
“The presence of these giants – IMG, Reliance, and NBA in India will take basketball to the next level,” says Menon, “It will take three or four years for things to smooth out, but once a professional league starts in India, things will start to work out.”
We all certainly hope so. But before we welcome our exciting future, let’s celebrate a legend from the past. Who knows? There might well be a young child somewhere in the country, manning the scoreboard at a basketball tournament, and have his eyes set on becoming the next Jayasanker Menon.