Hundreds of flies swarmed over the circular food tables inside the makeshift dining area at the Thyagaraj Indoor Stadium in Delhi. The once-upon-a-time white tablecloth was spotted with brown curry stains. The food itself was oily and not very hygienic— questionable nutrition for anybody, leave alone promising national and international level basketball players. Coach Scott Flemming was already eating his lunch at one of these tables when he chanced upon me standing a little distance away, holding a plate of food in one hand and sheepishly searching for an empty chair. Immediate recognition registered on his face. “Oh hello Gopal!” “Come, come join me,” he said in his characteristically booming voice. Our conversation began with condolences over the passing of his father a few weeks prior, the quality of players in that particular tournament, and how he was spending Christmas ’14 in India, away from his family.
When people speak of Scott Flemming’s legacy as the head coach of the Indian national men’s basketball programme, the conversation inevitably veers towards the senior team’s epoch making win over China. For me though, this seemingly innocuous luncheon lingers on. That afternoon, as an Indian, I was feeling acutely embarrassed: that a room full of flies and largely unpalatable food was the best we could offer to this American Coach who has given India basketball so much and asked so little in return.
In India’s largely inconspicuous 80-odd year basketball history, Coach Scott’s joining in the November of 2012 has marked the beginning of a significant path of growth and betterment for India basketball. Under his tenure, the senior Indian men’s team defeated China (currently ranked no. 14 in the world) and Angola (currently ranked no. 16 in the world), besides giving fancied Asian giants Iran and Philippines real scares.
However, this path of potential betterment has been hit with a temporarily setback due to the resignation of Coach Scott Flemming earlier this month. Coach Flemming, arguably the most successful coach in Indian basketball history, has accepted an offer to coach at Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho, USA.
Coach Flemming was perhaps more Indian than most Indians: remarkably patient and deeply religious. These two qualities no doubt helped him introduce the efficiencies of the American coaching system in a country which has a deeply embedded “Chalta hai” (anything goes) attitude. As head of the national men’s basketball programme, he regularly did more than was asked of him, from creating a mailing group of dozens of coaches so as to share progressive ideas of coaching, deftly handling the media and acting as a perfect buffer between players and administrators. His longevity is all the more praiseworthy, considering that three of his American predecessors all left in sheer frustration, unable to handle the slow moving ways of the Indian sporting bodies. Not once did Coach Scott lose his cool, not once was he the source of any controversy (careful even to ensure that most of his media interviews are through email!).
He leaves now with his head held high. He has shown what Indian basketball teams are capable of. He was a true alchemist, converting the shoddy pieces of infrastructure, lack of exposure and conflicting ideologies of his players into a cohesive functioning, and ultimately winning unit. It is up-to us now, to ensure we don’t let his work go to waste, and build where he left off. Coach Scott, you will be missed!
Team Ekalavyas’ Vishnu Ravi Shankar spoke to Coach Flemming before he left the country. In this exit interview, the former India coach explained to us his reasons for resigning, his memories with the Indian team and a lot more. The full interview transcript is below.
- When you came to India two and a half years ago, what impression did you have of India?
Well, of course there were many impressions I had. It certainly was very different to where I was from. I learned not to compare it to the US, but just embrace the culture and really enjoy it. That’s been the case over these last two and a half years. Very different culture, but I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve told many people that I cannot imagine my life without India. So, no regrets and I’m so glad that I had this experience.
- Now, how has that initial impression of India changed or evolved?
I think it’s mostly the people. People have been so kind to me overall and really reached out to me. Not only in the basketball family, but overall. The functioning of this country is different and the processes are very different than what I’m used to. I think it became home to me and I just accepted them as they were. I think you’re a lot better off if you’re not comparing.
- What prompted you to resign? Is this purely for personal reasons or does it have anything to do with the recent termination of fellow coaches and the BFI internal power struggles?
My goal was to at least get through the ABCs [FIBA Asia Championship for Men] this year – I signed a one-year contract. I did get involved with a few coaching jobs in the States and this one in particular, being a college position – they don’t come along later. The timing is such that they open up in the spring and usually, they hire at that time. So, if you have to wait till fall ever year, you would never be involved in those positions. So, that’s part of it. I will say this – there is some uncertainty right now regards the BFI, but I’m sure that going to be worked out and things will be better in the long run. But this was mostly a decision for my family. My wife was with me for two years in India and she would have probably returned [from the USA]. But we felt like it was best for her to stay – my daughter is living with her going to school and my sons are in California. So this job is actually going to put all five of us pretty close together. So, that was a big part of the decision and it was not something I could wait on till the ABCs were over. Now, I had some real tough decisions and it was not easy or a decision I made quickly – it was over time. I’m going to very much miss my players and the coaches and I really wished I would’ve had another chance to take it through another year, but it just worked out differently. You know the main reason is really probably the security going ahead into the future and for my family.
- With the BFI factional struggle and the coaches’ change, India’s participation in international events in the near future seems doubtful. It feels like one step forward and two steps back. What would you tell the Indian players so that they can keep their faith?
Well, they’ve come a long way and we’ve really progressed. I would hate to see us lose that path whoever the coach is going to be. I think we’ve got a good bunch of young players and we’re still a very young team, which is optimistic for the future. They just have to be patient. I think things will work out in the long run. It doesn’t look great right now, but I think in the long run it will work out. If they’re just patient, they will get right back on track and do some great things in the future.
- How would you define the basketball legacy that you have left behind or in other words, how would you want to be remembered?
I hope even more than the game, I am remembered as somebody who loved the people and the players and tried to be a part of India. Even though I brought some new ideas in, I felt like I tried to compromise and meet my players and the coaches on their terms as well. I hope that they just remember me as somebody that not only has a passion for basketball, but also has a passion for life. I tried to make a difference to the lives of those that I came in contact with. That was probably my biggest goal. I’ll remember most the relationships that I made an impact on and those that made a big impact on me.
- Tell us about your most memorable moments coaching the Indian men’s team?
I think a lot of people want to point to the China win and that was huge and I think I realized how big it was probably after it happened. But I think even more so was that whole Asian Cup tournament. We did win three games and we could’ve won probably a few more. But I felt like that whole tournament, we finally arrived and our players could walk around the lobby of the hotel and feel like they belong and feel like they have respect. For the first time at least in a while, I think teams that were playing India had to worry about us and we were not an easy win. I think we really established that during that Asia Cup tournament in China. Not only in the China game, but I think that overall tournament, we really showed that we belonged. I was most happy for the players – I felt like they had a confidence that they hadn’t had before and a feeling that they deserved to belong at the high-level tournaments.
- On the flipside, what have been your most frustrating moments coaching the Indian men’s team?
I have said all along that we need to play more games, more matches. We go into a lot of these tournaments with either a couple of games or sometimes no games as was the case with that Asian Cup tournament. A lot of these teams like Iran and the Philippines and China, they’re playing multiple games. They’re sometimes bringing 25 games into these tournaments. I think that’s something that was somewhat frustrating in that we really need to continue to work on and play more and have more preparation with regards to game play. Who knows what we could’ve done if we had 10 or 12 or 15 matches in before we played those tournaments where we basically went in ‘cold turkey’. That’s a US term, but that means with not much game preparation.
- Indian men’s basketball was following continuity under your regime with emphasis on defense, transition buckets and more recently, set half court plays. What advise would you give to the head coach that replaces you?
Well, of course, any new coach coming in is going to have to do their own thing. I’m just hoping that the player development would just play over to whoever the coach is. I feel like we really worked hard to teach them how to be defensive players. As I said, that was our weakness back then and now I feel like that’s our strength. They’re not going to forget how to play defense with a new coach coming in. He may have a different strategy but I hope that the time I spent with player development carries over to any coach that comes in here at this point.
- At almost every basketball event, we have seen your wife Chawn by your side. She calls herself “India’s biggest cheerleader”. How has Chawn supported and helped you during your time in India?
Well, her favourite time spent here were with the players. On all these trips, she’s now one of their biggest fans. I think they really appreciate her and they ask about her all the time. When she was on these trips with us, she was very much involved with a team. She had a different role obviously than I did, but she and I are a team. We’re a two-person team and we do so much together. She’s a great supporter of mine and you have to have a great supporter of a coach because it’s not an easy profession and there’s a lot of stress to it. It’s great to have somebody who can share that with you. I know she loves these players, she communicates with them a lot through Facebook and e-mail and things like that. So, I think she’ll miss that as well.
- Will this be the end of your connection with Indian basketball or are you open to any advisory sort-of role?
I’ve told several people here that I want to stay connected. I would even be open to coming back years down the road, in maybe more of a temporary assignment situation, maybe 2-3 months with training camp. I don’t think I’m done with India yet. I’ve always said I have a heart for India and the basketball program here. I hope to maybe even come back if they want me to serve in a role like that.
- How excited are you to take up coaching at Northwest Nazarene University?
I am excited. I always enjoyed being on a college campus and recruiting college kids and coaching them and being a part of that campus community. So, we are excited. It’s mixed feelings because I loved coaching here but I think getting back to the college game is really going to be a great experience for me as it was before.