How a professional basketball league could revolutionize hoops in India

Posted on Feb 18 2014 - 4:31pm by Karan Madhok
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A scene from the Kerala Senior State Championship 2013 held at the Sree Kerala Verma College, Thrissur. In the absence of a national league, this is just one of India’s many autonomous tournaments. Copyright: Ekalavyas

Sure, there’s some power to positive thinking. If you say something enough times, it can come true, or at least, you’d start to believe that it’s true. But until the day scientists refine our genes to give all of us psychokinetic powers, no amount of thinking or talking will equate to any physical results, till something is actually, physically, done.

For years now, I’ve closely followed the developments and talk behind the launch of India’s first professional basketball league. When the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and IMG Reliance signed a 30-year partnership agreement in 2010, one of the highlights of their agreement was the development of this pro league as a long-term plan. A couple of years later, it was reported that the NBA’s commissioner David Stern had held talks with IMG executives about establishing such a league. In May 2012, BFI’s CEO Roopam Sharma updated that the Federation was definitely ‘planning a league’.

But nearly two more years have passed since without any clear further development. Every year, we seem to be nearly there, only to discover that there is at least another year to go. The best-case scenario as we stand is that the league has taken some theoretic steps into existence behind closed-door meetings between IMG Reliance, BFI, and with the NBA chiming in. But without any official work of the progress, we still might as well be stuck on square one.

Those invested in the progress of basketball in India have many dreams. They dream of seeing an Indian play in the NBA. They dream of watching the Indian national team rise up the ranks in international competitions. They hope that the sport can catch the imagination of the nation’s mainstream which otherwise sleeps, eats, and dreams cricket. And they envision a day when a profession in basketball in India – as a player, a coach, a referee, a technician, consultant, scout, physiotherapist, journalist, and countless more – will reap real rewards.

All of these dreams are connected, and none of them can be possible without the professional league. For years, India’s best players, from Geethu Anna Jose to Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, have stressed the importance of such a league, of how it could change their lives and the lives of future players around the country. But as their careers cross their peak and new names replace them, there is still no sign of their vision coming to reality.

That reality – when it finally comes – will change everything. No, the pro league won’t become the new IPL and have millions of fans investing their lives around it. No, India won’t suddenly become a basketball-first country with every hoop star getting celebrity status like our cricketers do. We won’t be finding NBA talent or shooting up FIBA Asia rankings overnight.

But what we will see is a goal, a bulls-eye, for every young ball player around the country, to realistically aim at.

At this point, India’s most talented players are still semi-professionals, working in banks, railways, or state government, and taking part in small basketball tournaments either organized by the BFI itself or by local sponsors around the country. Their basketball ‘income’ is usually the measly sum they earn and divide after participation or a first, second, and third place result at any of these tournaments. The travelling basketball circus goes from Chennai to Mumbai to Delhi to Punjab with the same teams playing the same opponents. Without the professional incentive or discipline, many players cruise on their talent instead of striving to get better.

The best amongst them are invited to national camps, receive decent training from high-profile coaches, and are selected for the Indian national teams before major FIBA tournaments. The results at the international level have been more or less the same for the past few decades. India dominates against South Asian opponents (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, etc.) to qualify for FIBA Asia’s top competitions, but is rarely able to compete with super-powers such as China, Iran, Japan, Korea, etc. Even the international circuit and expectations become ‘routine’ until things become static, unchanging.

Every once in a while, a player breaks cycle and aims higher. Geethu Anna Jose – the finest Indian player (of any gender) of this generation – has played professionally in Australia and Thailand (her Southern Railway teammate Anitha Paul Durai joined her in Thailand, too) and was even invited for trials with three WNBA teams. But Jose’s successes have only been an anomaly to that static energy around basketball in India.

Our top players need that extra push, that incentive to break out of their cruising altitudes and aim higher. This is where a league would revolutionize things.

Let’s say that the theoretical professional basketball follows the format of the IPL: held for around two months annually between 8-12 teams. For several years already, the BFI and IMG Reliance has been holding school and college leagues in various cities which have laid the groundwork amongst the youth. The same eight cities – Mumbai, Delhi, Ludhiana, Chennai, Bangalore, Indore, Hyderabad, and Kolkata – can serve as the flagship franchises of the basketball league, too. Each team can feature top local talent with a ‘draft’ (or IPL-like auction) for the top players. It would be difficult to attract foreign players to this league in the beginning, but if the money is decent, there are more than enough basketball vagabonds around the world looking for a two-month gig.

With the motivation to play in a league that offers a steady, assured contract, India’s top players can start thinking about becoming full-time professionals with focus on basketball alone. There will be greater competition once foreign talents start trickling in, raising the overall skill-level. And most importantly, young Indians seriously considering basketball as a career will have a goal to shoot at. Thousands (if not more) quality players are lost every year because they quit basketball for (what the typical Indian parent would call) “real life”. With a league, basketball can become the “real life”.

The league will eventually give rise to more jobs to coaches, referees, scouts, trainers, broadcast personnel, and more. Once things are privatized and taken out of the government’s hands, the competitiveness between teams and competition for jobs will raise everyone’s aptitude. More importantly, now with real repercussions for success and failure, everyone from the players to the trainers to the scouts will work harder in the training rooms. Young players will be groomed from an earlier age. The right training and right diet will start becoming a factor.

In the US, the biggest professional league (the NBA) wouldn’t be where it is if it wasn’t for the most-organized High School and College athletics programme in the world. That is why it is important to continue developing the structure at those levels in India, too. The BFI-IMG Reliance leagues have been a positive start.

Infrastructure in India is a big stumbling block and will need major upgrades. In recent years, new stadia have been built or upgraded in various major cities in the country. We are not looking for NBA-quality arenas; just something to start things off. At this point, every basketball event in India is free, and it will be a challenge to fill the seats in the arenas for a lesser-known game. But if the product is packaged and promoted right, I’m sure people will eventually start to pay a small fee to cheer on their hometown squads.

None of this would be possible without the right broadcast partnership. The league would be meaningless without decent television viewership, which will also require at least half-decent productive value (unlike the basketball tournaments shown on DD Sports in the past). Neo Prime took an important step forward last year when they became the first to broadcast Indian basketball on cable TV in India. Sony SIX already broadcast tonnes of hoops – from NBA to Europe and NBA India events – and could be interested too. Counting all the channels associated with Star Sports, Ten Sports, Neo, and Sony, there are a lot of potential partners for such a league in the future.

Let’s be honest here: Indian sports fans are generally an impatient bunch. That is why T-20 cricket catches all the eyeballs while Test and (increasingly) One-Day cricket falls behind. Basketball is a fast-paced, all action, and energetic game. It’s simple to understand for the newcomer and is relatively short, perfectly suiting the modern viewership mentalities. Vivek Ranadive, the Indian-born owner of the Sacramento Kings, has often stated that he believes basketball can be sold to India easily because it is fast, simple, and accessible. Apart from creating better opportunities and organization in the basketball world, a pro league would give birth to a whole new set of fans looking for an exciting new sport to follow.

India is a complicated country, and nothing that works elsewhere can work here the same way. Sports are a dark alley beyond cricket. But in recent years, the development of other pro leagues has been a positive sign. Joining the popular IPL, India now has leagues in football, hockey, badminton, and even American Football.

Creating a basketball league would obviously not just be a quick fix that makes Indians into NBA stars and Asia champions. But it would be the most important project yet to improving the game in India, and could open doors to many other projects in the future. Basketball is one of the biggest sports in the world which Indians are familiar with; a pro league here should be the next logical step.

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 [KARAN MADHOK]

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Karan Madhok is a die-hard basketball junkie, in love with everything hoops, from the cracked cement outdoor courts in Varanasi to the polished maple-wood court at the Madison Square Garden. He is the author of the 'Hoopistani' blog on Indian basketball and beyond, and is also a regular contributor to NBA.com/India and SLAM.

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9 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. ajay February 19, 2014 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    sir, I am so impressed n agree with what u wrote..Can u please tell me what is the current position n scope for basketball in india?

    Please reply to the given mail.

    • Karan Madhok February 19, 2014 at 4:29 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Ajay. India is currently ranked around 50th place in the world in basketball. The Basketball Federation of India and state federations conduct national, state, and district level tournaments around the year and choose the national teams.

  2. Pavan February 19, 2014 at 6:26 pm - Reply

    Bang on! Good job Karan, couldn’t have summed up in a better fashion. “Once things are privatized and taken out of the government’s hands, the competitiveness between teams and competition for jobs will raise everyone’s aptitude.” This is the most important aspect for developments to take place. The associations should rope in private companies (specifically the ones who take up CSR initiatives). Reliance can do the trick here by using its networks. NBA can help get sponsors like And1, Spalding etc – now these companies should look at the ROI here in India. Considering the nascent stage we are in, there is tremendous potential in the long run but all that starts with generating awareness and what better platform than being associated with the first ever pro-league. The demand side is ready. The supply side needs a thorough plan (basically circling around the ROI and ability to look beyond it, in the name of CSR) I am a baller from Bangalore, have recently moved to Singapore and have signed up for a club. There is a pro-league here already (though only a handful of players are being paid) called Pro-AM SBL. The quality of the competition is still below par with that of India but it is very professionally managed. The association should absorb such best practices and put it to use here. Thanks for letting the world know about the state of bball in India Karan. You are doing a fantastic job and I hope someday I join in full-time too :) :) take care and keep writing.

    • Karan Madhok February 20, 2014 at 6:24 pm - Reply

      thanks a lot for your comment Pavan. If Singapore can do it, we should be able to, too, with so much more potential.

  3. Ashish February 19, 2014 at 9:32 pm - Reply

    Hmmm true that, would really love to see a pro league for basketball india

  4. Abhipsit February 22, 2014 at 6:11 pm - Reply

    They need to cleanse BFI first. Cleanse; not change. It needs to be rid of the pests who are running it.

    Then, we need someone who understands what “vision” to have for Indian basketball. Someone needs to go convince David Stern to come here. He has probably revolutionised basketball as it is seen (NBA) on his own. Not just the money; see the level of the game and how it has changed over time. Institutions can do that; create an environment to engineer changes of that magnitude (where how a game is played starts to take a different shape). For e.g. how Spanish sports institutions have revolutionised the art of “passing”. Spaniards are great passers (not just Iniesta and Xavi); look at Rubio and Pau.

    Probably Stern is looking for a challenge like this. What else will motivate a man who is credited for making the NBA what it is today. Something this challenging. It is such a challenge which I think will excite someone like Kobe or Jordan to coach the Indian team. They are so fiercely competitive, if someone goes up to them and say, “Okay, you can win NBA titles. You guys can thrive in a fair world, in an equal world. But what about an unfair game? What can you do when the playing field is uneven? Can you coach India to a FIBA championship?” BANG! That’ll probably get them going.

    But here’s how it will play out. Stern (or Kobe or MJ) will come, and shackles will be put on him by our ministers and our bureaucrats. Some regionalistic or nationalistic factions will refuse to cooperate with him. He’ll get frustrated, quit and then rip apart Indian sports administration on an nba.com article or a new yorker article.

    Too fanciful? :-)

    • Karan Madhok February 24, 2014 at 6:05 am - Reply

      great ideas, and by the way, rumours are that stern will be spending a lot more time in India now that he’s not commissioner anymore, working mostly with NBA cares programmes but of course also keeping an eye out for basketball development here. hopefully something can grow from this

  5. srinivas April 30, 2014 at 5:58 am - Reply

    karan your saying about the progress of the game it can only happen only if we have players of standard ex: as you said geeth anu the Indian player of the decade could not pass the trials of the wnba, this shows there is some thing that we do not do while we train for the game, first India needs is good trainers so that we have players who can and must pass wnba standards than only we can think of professional league and then there is crowds to watch the players because my time is precious and i must feel i had good time. nba in India must first help us achieve this if they want to see big in India

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