Take me away from the gloss and glamour of the world’s finest arenas. From the sleek wooden floor with the fancy logos and the fiber-glass backboards with rims made out of the expensive nylon. It’s all too much for me. Take me away from referees, matching uniforms, and electronic scoreboards.
Just give me a ball, some friends, and a rim. Now we can get started.
I have a confession: despite the ‘proper’ standards of an indoor court with the right FIBA or NBA determined dimensions, painted lines, and world-class flooring, I much prefer shooting hoops outdoors. From childhood, something about the open air, the challenge of braving any weather and any court conditions (including concrete, clay, wood, grass, mud, or a broken combination of many), and the overall casual atmosphere has always evoked me more. Indoor basketball reminds of rules, regulations, technicalities, and statistics. Outdoor basketball reminds of poetry and unpredictability.
I absolutely love playing pick-up ball, whether it’s with friends or with random people I’ve met on the day. It’s the purest form of the game. Any ring elevated to a height is your basket. Any round bounceable object is your ball. Anyone you meet when you show up to this temple of hoops is your teammate or your opponent.
It doesn’t matter if you organize things perfectly. It doesn’t matter if there’s a shot-clock, or a game clock. We don’t need referees to call our fouls. We don’t need coaches to make substitutions. We’ll fight and argue, high-five and fist-bump, adjust and accommodate, and for the love of the game, we’ll get through it.
I’m not merely picking on organized and serious basketball. To rise in the world rankings, India needs as much high-level training, competitions, facilities, and infrastructure that it can get.
But to get truly serious about basketball, we Indians have to first get casual about it.
Does that sound like a paradox?
Of course, it’s necessary to have organization and structure to create high-level athletes in India. But super athletes won’t change the nation’s culture towards basketball. Only changing the culture will change the culture. After all, India has won various Olympic medals in recent years in shooting, wrestling, and boxing, but apart from a dedicated few, the status of any of those sports among the common public has barely risen. As China’s model of collecting Olympic gold medals by concentrated focus on the best while sometimes neglecting grassroots development has shown, sporting excellence isn’t just determined by the few at the top but also by the many who dwell at the very bottom.
For basketball, this means that, while the authorities running the show must continue to focus on the betterment of our national teams and the top national tournaments, they must also shift their attention to the grassroots and try to popularize the sport within the common Indian kid as well. The kid who might perhaps never get to play for his district, state or his country. The kid who may not even play for his school team. But the kid who loves the game nevertheless, and wants to take part, no matter the circumstance or the stage.
As a model, the USA is the utopia of world basketball, a country which has FIBA’s number one ranked teams in the Men’s, Women’s, Boys’ and Girls’ divisions, and wins the world title in nearly every competition it takes part in, and has the world’s most organized and talented professional, collegiate, and high-school leagues. But what makes American basketball even more special is that, in any urban city in the country, from coast to coast, you are likely to find public basketball courts with casual players – who have no future investment in the game – coming out to play for no other reason except that they simply like to play. In China, who are tops in Asia, the government has tried to recreate the same type of grassroots basketball opportunities for its citizens. They’ve had mixed results in different parts of the country, although the combination of grassroots encouragement, a popular professional league, and the success of Yao Ming has made the Chinese accept basketball as their favourite sport.
India can also learn from the Philippines, a nation similar to India in population density, chaotically rising economy, and bureaucratic corruption. Despite the nation’s economic disparity and the lack of any breakthrough stars on the international stage, Philippines has long been a basketball paradise, where the game is played fervently and passionately from the grassroots to the professional level, and from poor street corners to international level arenas. The success and failure of the national team (they’ve qualified for 2014 Basketball World Cup) of course matters to the fan, but doesn’t affect the average Filipino hooper’s day to day love for the game.
In India, the common complaint is that it is simply too difficult to find public-access, free-to-use basketball courts, especially outside of schools and colleges. I dream of seeing public outdoor courts built cheaply in major urban areas around Indian cities where casual players – young and old – can drop in for some pick-up hoops.
India boasts of internationally known cricket stars and have some of the world’s best facilities to develop cricketing talent. Couple that with the world’s most fervent cricket fanbase and the game’s most expensive professional league, it’s no surprise to see that the game reigns supreme in the country. But the love for cricket – despite however much the advertisers or big money IPL auctions may dilute it – goes much deeper. Cricket is found in every nook, cranny, and gullie of the country. Only a few make a career out of it, but millions dream about it. Old men listening to their transistors in barbershops, auto-wallahs with their Raina and Dhoni stickers, those annoying kids in your neighbourhood… they don’t need the IPL to tell them to love cricket. They love it regardless. Cricket is casual, it’s easy, it’s day-to-day lifestyle, and its’ the culture. Casual interest leads to serious fans, serious fans lead to a big market, and big market leads to more money invested in the sport. That’s what eventually makes us seriously good at it.
It’s the same story with football (soccer) all around Europe and South America and, depending on which part of the country you’re in, baseball and basketball in the USA. The game and the local culture intersect naturally, making it an integral part of the daily life.
So this is my bat-signal (or hoop signal) calling all basketball lovers in the country. Find your nearest court, don’t worry about how modern or archaic it is, and don’t worry if it’s indoors, outdoors, or whether or not the measurements exactly add up. Just go out and play. Don’t play because playing basketball makes you sound cool and alternative, or ‘western’. Don’t play because your fancy shorts and your brand new sneakers match. Don’t play because you want to impress the girls (or boys) watching.
Go and play because you love how the bounce of the ball feels when it touches your palm and your fingertips. Go because you love the sound of the swish more than any other sound in the world. Go because you get an adrenaline rush being part of five individuals working as one, together in perfect symphony.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a state-level player, the hot-shot star in your school, or that one guy whose only skill is to get on other people’s nerves (we all know someone like that!). It doesn’t matter if you are embarrassed on court or if you’re the ‘embarrasser’. It doesn’t matter if you’re an older player playing with athletic youngsters or a freshie on court with wily old veterans. If you’re a girl playing against boys or a boy among girls.
This emotion, of basketball as a simple and accessible sport for all, has also been shared by Vivek Ranadive, the first Indian-born majority owner of an NBA franchise, who became the owner of the Sacramento Kings last year. Ranadive wants to popularize basketball worldwide by helping it grow in India. “[Basketball] is the kind of sport that can be played in a poor country like India,” said Ranadive, “It can be played by one person, by a few people, by boys, by girls, in villages, in cities, you don’t need a lot of space for it like you do for cricket. So I fully expect it to be very very popular.”
The highest level of the game are the NBA, FIBA or Olympic basketball events. But to become a serious player, and to grow serious fan culture in the country, one must first start from the bottom. From casual games that don’t require too much preparation, expectations, facilities, or rules. Only when lakhs of citizens fall in love with the game casually will we get to see the thousands who dominate it seriously. Only when we encourage a bigger casual fanbase will it eventually translate to popular growth and future public investment.
So don’t worry about the details; when you’re out on the court and you truly love the game, just go out and play!
*Pic: A scene from a casual basketball game being played near the Hari Parbat or ‘Durrani’ Fort in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir. Courtesy: Shahid Bhat