From the very first time I saw Amrit Pal Singh play basketball, I knew that it was already too late.
Back in 2011, Amrit Pal had been one of the new additions to India’s senior national team, led by former Head Coach Kenny Natt to play in the Middle Asia Zone qualifiers in New Delhi. As hosts, India had to get past South Asian opponents like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan to qualify for the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship. Amrit Pal – an unknown quantity in Indian basketball until then – played just 12 minutes a game off the bench in India’s three contests but ended up becoming the qualifiers’ biggest breakthrough story. He averaged 13.3 ppg to finish as India’s second-leading scorer and was a beast in the block on both ends of the floor. India won all its games by an average margin of nearly 68 points per game and qualified for the bigger continental tournament.
Usually, the progression of a breakthrough young player to stardom can be tracked back much earlier at the national level in India. Youngsters who perform well at the under-14 level usually graduate to under-16 teams, the best under-16s get to represent the nation’s colours in youth FIBA championships, the improving talents among them move on to dominance at the under-18 or Junior FIBA Asia games, and finally, the best of the best get the opportunity to don a Team India jersey at the senior level. Occasionally, some bright young talents fizzle away and some forgotten bench players become late bloomers.
But no one ever jumped into centre stage as quickly and surprisingly as Amrit Pal. At 19, he was in the village of Fattuwal in Punjab, helping his farmer father plough a rice field. At 20, he was playing for India at the FIBA Asia Championship. By 23, he was India’s best post player and team captain, helping the side pick up its greatest ever basketball triumph with a memorable victory over China last summer.
Amrit Pal’s rise is the ultimate story of a late bloomer who defeated the odds to make the most of his natural talent in limited time. In four years, he had graduated from never seeing a basketball to being the captain of the country’s senior national squad. But interlaced with this heart-warming story is also a sobering reminder of an opportunity lost, a potential left unfulfilled. By the time Amrit Pal was discovered at 19, it was already too late. He has made the most of what he could, but, if the circumstances had been right, he could’ve been so much more.
And Amrit Pal isn’t alone. Over the last decade alone, there have been several Indian players – like S. Robinson, TJ Sahi, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amjyot Singh, and Palpreet Singh Brar – who’ve had the potential to become more dominant stars on the Asian and global scale, but due to late discovery or mismanagement, their potentials were never realized.
Most expert scouts will tell you that many of the players named above – if given access to better coaching and opportunity at an earlier age – could’ve developed into professional players worthy of international recognition. If a player of Amrit Pal’s natural gifts had been honed and trained a decade earlier, he could’ve been on his way to becoming the first Indian national to play at the NCAA Division 1 level and have a real shot at the NBA.
In North America, Europe, and more competitive Asian countries like China, young players with promise are given regular exposure and top coaching opportunities from the age of nine or 10. Basketball for those who improve and specialize in the sport because a clear goal to achieve instead of just a pastime. Most of the top players in the world start playing the game earlier in their lives and thus have much more time to improve their physical and mental approaches to by the time they reach the professional or senior level.
Of course, we still have years (if not decades) before we can match the efficiency and professionalism of scouting and training in the best basketball nations, but India has its own advantage: the world’s largest youth population. Most states in India have functional basketball federations or associations who have access to players from many of their chief districts. Some chhupa rustams (hidden talents) will always go unnoticed, but we have the numbers and the capability to help the development of the majority that we do find.
Currently, with Indian educational culture focusing on academics over other talents in a child, schools rarely have a programme to allow serious exploration of a non-academic speciality – like basketball – at an early age. By the teenage years, regular tournaments for the luckier ones may see them make an impression at the district level, and the best ones may be considered to represent their state. But by then, a lot of fundamental hoops education has already been skipped over by the child’s first coaches and it becomes too late to properly learn those early fundamentals. This is one of the issues that India’s national coaches are hoping to address with ‘Train the Trainer’ programmes, where coaching philosophies and techniques are taught from one coach to another until they reach children at all the grassroots.
But age isn’t the only hindrance. In many situations, the coaches or team management in India’s grassroots have overzealously guarded their players from exposure or blocked them from exploring other, better opportunities. Ideally, if a talented young player is discovered in a state with poor infrastructure or coaching resources, the player should transfer elsewhere where a system can best enhance his or her natural penchant for the game. Unfortunately, there are too many players around the country who were never given that release – or even that encouragement – from their early coaches, and remained battling with mediocrity.
Punjab’s duo of Amjyot Singh and Palpreet Singh Brar are other examples of discovery left too late. Brar, like Amrit Pal, was a relatively unknown quantity before having his big breakout as India’s best player in the junior team at the FIBA Asia Under-18 Championship in Mongolia. Amjyot, at 22, might already be India’s best player. He was another one of the country’s top players at last summer’s FIBA Asia Cup and has the talent to be a professional player in Asia’s top leagues. But, just like Amrit Pal, the late bloom of both these players is only an example of how much more they could’ve done if their talent had been spotted earlier. With the right exposure and training earlier, all three bigs – Amrit Pal, Amjyot, and Palpreet – should’ve had an opportunity and earned a scholarship to develop their game further at a top US college.
Then, there are the cases like Tamil Nadu great Sozhasingarayer Robinson, known more simply as S. Robinson. The fan favourite power forward reached cult status when he scored 36 to help India beat South Korea at the 2004 Stankovic Cup. But clashes with authority led him to be banned from state and country, an early retirement, and an underwhelming comeback. Without proper guidance and a support system, the cold war between Robinson and the Federation robbed India of one of its great performers of the last decade.
Punjab’s explosive point guard TJ Sahi – nicknamed Air India – was a similar story of rebellion gone wrong and potential gone awry. On pure talent alone, Sahi should’ve been India’s starting point guard for the majority of the past 10 years. He has enjoyed a decent national team career and has had some notable highlights for India, and once outdid Blake Griffin’s ‘over the car’ dunk, with a more Indian remix. But Sahi only received his big break for Punjab at the junior level, when years of potential for the skilled young ball-handler were already wasted. Like Robinson, clashes with authority and lack of discipline denied him further greatness.
The one notable exception has been Satnam Singh Bhamara, the talented 7-footer out of Ballo Ke in Punjab, who was scouted and picked to play at the IMG Basketball Academy in Florida, USA, at 14. Bhamara’s game has developed gradually. Equally as importantly, he has learned invaluable lessons on improving his game off the court, such as his work in the weight room through strength and conditioning opportunities that would’ve never been available to him back home. But the IMG scholarship to Bhamara and a few others in 2010 was a one-off, and opportunities like that won’t be falling into the laps of our other good young players anytime soon.
Before he headed to Florida, Bhamara was a produce of India’s richest ‘bread basket of basketball’ in Punjab. In recent years, Bhamara, Sahi, Amrit Pal, Amjyot, Sahi, Brar, and other players like Jagdeep Singh Bains, Yadwinder Singh, Loveneet Singh Atwal, were all found and honed through the Ludhiana Basketball Academy in Punjab. The academy – and the state – has done a good job at developing the athletic talent available in the ‘Land of Five Rivers’, but their efforts need to dial up to begin training players at an earlier age, not just when it is a convenient time to start participating in state or national championships.
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, and nothing can now change the lost opportunities of the past. What we can do is learn from the past to help improve the future. The players named above prove that ‘lack of talent’ is not an excuse anymore for India’s performances at the international level. India, and our billion plus, have a wealth of potential basketball talent, but unfortunately, it is too late by the time most of them are discovered and developed.
If scouted and trained in the right fundamentals of basketball earlier, India should be able to field a unit capable of challenging the best teams in the continent and feature star players who can play professionally in basketball leagues in Asia, Europe, or even the NBA.