After drudging slowly along and failing to beat the shot clock, basketball in India in on a fast-break and now taking rapid strides forward. A few years ago, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) agreed to a 30-year partnership with IMG-Reliance, a partnership that eventually spawned the birth of school and college inner-city leagues around the country. This year, the leagues have received an unprecedented boost, re-branded officially as the Indian School Basketball League (ISBL) and the Indian College Basketball League (ICBL) in 24 Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities in India. While the leagues serve as a grassroots programme, India continues to make steady improvement at the top - the Men and Women's national teams - both of whom have enjoyed historically successful moments over the past year.
But where do we go from here? A constant battle remains for the BFI and others invested in helping basketball - or any 'alternative' sport - in India against disadvantageous treatment by India's Sports Ministry and the nation's mainstream media. Social, academic, and family pressures discourage young talents from reaching their potential. Stagnancy at the government units and states lead our top talents to plateau after a certain point. Basketball infrastructure in India is still years behind accepted world-class standards. Fans are largely unaware or uninterested in the local game. And the lack of a professional league limits the growth of the game while forcing India's top players to remain semi-pros with other day jobs.
About two and a half years ago, Roopam Sharma took over the CEO of the BFI, and has been building on the groundwork set by her Late husband and former CEO Harish Sharma. On the eve of the launch of the ISBL and ICBL, I got a chance to interview Sharma at the BFI's headquarters in New Delhi about the leagues and eventually, the challenges of basketball in India, and the future of the game.
Hoopistani: Apart from the expanded size of the re-branded leagues, how will the ISBL and ICBL be different from the IMG-Reliance School/College leagues that have been held in India over the past few years?
Sharma: This is the fourth session the School/College leagues. We have increased the number of host cities every year step by step, and this year, our aim is to expand horizons in the grassroots areas as much as possible. We are taking a more professinal approach than ever before.
Basketball is the third-most followed game in India now. IMG Reliance are looking to prepare and collate date and information about our players and teams to give the league a more comprehensive and professional look this year. We are aiming at higher visibility through the media so people can learn more about basketball. It's important eventually to attract more and more school boys and girls to play basketball, from more cities.
We are holding 3,568 total basketball matches around India for the entire league. We invite as many buyers and corporates to support us to join hands and promote the game. Eventually, we hope that this league will help us scout more talent both at grassroots and college level to create a better final structure for basketball.
I'm confident that all the help and support from IMG Reliance will help us in the BFI make good headway this year. We hope to expand this format to be even bigger and better in the coming years.
We have requested the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports to officially recognize the ICBL and ISBL. If young players take part in the league in school, this recognition will help them with their college admissions. In India, where there is a lot of family pressure to focus on academics, it will be a big step forward if basketball can help with academic placement.
Hoopistani: What will be the other eventual incentives or rewards for the winning teams?
Sharma: We have trophies and cash awards for all the winners, but more than that, I'm looking forward to the long-term growth of the game to each of the participating institutions, which will be a product of continuous four or five months of play. This is a big gain for players, coaches, and referees. I think this will eventually help the grassroots growth of the game.
Hoopistani Is the eventual plan to use these leagues to create a backbone for India's first professional basketball league?
Sharma: Well, I think that the manifestation of any sport aims to see a professional league in its final stage. Most sports in India - like us - are now looking to eventually launch a pro league.
Hoopistani When will the professional basketball league be launched?
Hoopistani On the launch of football's Indian Super League (ISL) - also done in partnership with IMG Reliance - IMG's chairman Mike Dolan mentioned that the ISL could be used as a model to launch India's first basketball league over the next year. Are you looking at the ISL as a blueprint for the Indian basketball league?
Sharma: I haven't seen the blueprint for the ISL, but we can consider it. If it flatters our expectations, then we can emulate it. The most important thing for our league is that it should be relevant for the Indian environment.
Hoopistani Basketball in India does have a competitive advantage over football as it can be a more urban game because of it's small space advantage...
Sharma: Basketball is an urban game, but it also isn't. In India, a lot of the top talent is coming the villages, and our best players are not really city kids. But yes, space limitations in the cities make the game more adaptable for an urban set-up. We hope to have infrastructure in our participating cities at par with national and international standards.
Hoopistani Apart from the ICBL and ISBL, what other projects is BFI working on to raise the level of basketball in India?
Sharma: There are various parameters by which we are evaluating our performance right now.
We have improved our coaching camp conditions, shifting from SAI centers to the best courts at Jaypee Greens in Greater Noida to improve the competitive level of our top national teams.
We have done well in providing better physical conditions and improved diets for our players.
When I took over the BFI over two years ago, the Men's team was ranked 14th in Asia, and now we have jumped up to number seven. We beat China and even our losses to other strong teams were by a narrow margin. At the Lusofonia Games, the Men's team won a gold and Women won silver. The Women's team is now fifth in Asia behind China, Chinese Taipei, Japan, and Korea. We are trying to bridge that gap and the girls have undertaken aggressive training to improve their level of play. We were also happy to see Geethu Anna Jose receive an Arjuna Award this year. Outside of basketball, our players continue to get excellent career opportunities.
We have shown great degree of improvement in 3x3 basketball too: our Senior team won gold at the FIBA Asia 3x3 championship and the junior boys and girls won U18 FIBA Asia 3x3 championship silver medals.
There is now good potential for the senior teams and additionally, a great lineup of future players waiting at both the senior and under-18 levels. Our goal for the national teams is to feature a mix of experienced and young players.
BFI and IMG Reliance have been tracking significant improvement of several state teams at the national championships. We are also giving exposure to the game by taking the game to more cities as possible through the nationals. It's important to bring basketball closer to fans in more cities, and not just the metros in India. We have now ensured that all our cities hosting national championships have indoor courts to reduce injuries.
BFI has been lucky in getting FIBA international instructors like Nelson Isley to come to India the last two years and train our young coaches in at least 12 Indian cities. These young coaches have been passing with great distinction. India's referees are now much sought-after for international tournaments like the Basketball World Cup and even the Olympics.
All our under-14, under-16, under-18, and senior levels, in both boys and girls, are improving. But I feel that exposure trips for our teams is essential as a final challenge before international tournaments. If we want to win, we need more and more games under our belts. I was disappointed with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) when they didn't approve our recent exposure trips. That is a regret for me, the players, and the coaches. SAI has budget for the national team which wasn't used for its purpose.
Hoopistani: You mentioned that you are looking to engage fans in more cities in India. Has this been a challenge to get fans to come watch basketball at the nationals or the school/college leagues?
Sharma: The good schools in India will usually have 2000-odd kids, and during school hours, it's ensured that many of these kids will come to see the basketball games. The same in colleges, too. For the ICBL/ISBL national finals in New Delhi, we will have several top teams who are city winners. We are looking to take professional help from event managers here to invite people to come and witness the competition.
For the nationals, I think that it is media which has the potential to make or break a lot of our activities. We are hoping that the media will support our sports endeavour. We want to communicate more with our fans to popularize the sport. We have sponsors at the nationals and we hope that they will help us attract a local fan following. There is a need for more visibility of the game in all the cities.
We want to reach out to the maximum number of Indian basketball fans directly through our website, social media, and tools such as WhatsApp etc.
Hoopistani: What would you say are some challenges that BFI faces in their endeavours to grow the game?
Sharma: The biggest challenges are financial and the commercial viability of the sport. Infrastructure costs are huge. Readily-made infrastructure that meets our conditions isn't easily available or costs a lot of money. I think that the Government of India should give sports federations like us more help. I can requests the corporate partners but without indoor courts, which the government can help with, I'll always be limited.
Secondly, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports need to support us and not only think of potential medal winners [The Ministry nearly cancelled Indian basketball participation at the Asian Games because of this]. A budget should be created by SAI not just for the individual performers but also for teams who have larger size. India needs to evaluate its budget for team sports.
SAI needs to promote the sport and not wait till the last minute to give us approval. The government needs a strong policy regarding this. Also, they want us to use our own funding for exposure trips. I told them in a letter that the national federation didn't have such deep pockets. Fortunately, they replied positively and have said that they will grant our requests for future exposure trips. The people in the government should be aware of the sports federations' restrictions and problems, and find ways in which they can help us. They shouldn't be a controller, they should be a facilitator.
If we want to view India as a medal prospect at any level of basketball, we need to seriously train our players better. It's crucial to set up academies for training of future stars.
Sharma: We'll be taking small steps to align ourselves with the ultimate objective of developing the game in India. We have to increase and improve when we participate in international tournaments and create basketball icons in India which the young fans be inspired by. If we can create our own Yao Ming, it will act as a catalyst to the game of basketball in India.
Hoopistani: Do we have a potential India 'Yao Ming' in the pipeline?
Sharma: We currently have players who are tall, athletic, and young, but without continuous support, they cannot compete at the NBA level, except for Satnam Singh Bhamara, who is currently training at the IMG Academy in the USA and getting the needed basketball exposure. We need to work hard at improving the skill level of other players by getting specialized trainers.
The NBA has shown intent in India, and this gives me a flicker of hope that they must have done their homework. Out of 125 million young Indians, maybe one or two can fit the bill!