With the FIBA Asia Championships looming, Indian basketball has lost its focus (and coaches) at the worst possible time
Never before in Indian basketball had optimism spread such, like a happy plague of hoops. It was close to 9 PM in Wuhan, China, on July 13, 2014, when India’s biggest basketball victory – a 65-58 upset over Asian superpowers China – was confirmed. Back home in India, the clock moved towards 6:30 PM on this Sunday evening. Since the 5th FIBA Asia Cup – the second-most prominent international basketball tournament in the continent – was not being broadcast in India, fans of the game and India’s national team had to find alternative means of following and consuming this historical contest. Without any mainstream attention to the game, updates were only available through the FIBA website, my live blog of the game on Ekalavyas, and social media.
When the game concluded, the players of the Indian national team celebrated on court with the man responsible for tactically and emotionally leading them to this upset: American Head Coach Scott Flemming. Flemming had worked with the core of the team and probable talents back in India for over 18 months, and his hard work had finally borne fruit: India – ranked 61st in FIBA World Basketball Rankings – had defeated China – ranked in the top 12 (and highest in Asia) – on their home soil. Back home in India, only the tiniest of minorities of the billion-plus citizens had a stake or interest in the proceedings, but once the final score was confirmed, the faithful sent their celebrations and congratulations for Flemming and his team.
Less than 10 minutes later, I found myself inside India’s visitor’s locker room, where the sounds of jubilation echoed in contrast to the silence and disappointment of the home team and fans at the Wuhan Sports Centre Gymnasium. Spontaneously, I asked the players to gather for an impromptu photograph, which I clicked and shared online. The haphazardly-taken camera-phone pic lacked focus, and yet, the happiness on the faces of Yadwinder Singh, Amrit Pal Singh, Narendar Grewal, Amjyot Singh, Palpreet Singh, and more was sharper than ever.
Within minutes, the photograph and the result went viral. While long-term fans celebrated the reward after years of patience and penance, fans of Indian sport, patriots at home and abroad, and the basketball community worldwide took note. India, who were in the habit of losing in blowouts to the strongest Asian teams, had finally registered its benchmark victory.
Over the next few days, India gave a close fight to two more of Asia’s finest – Iran and the Philippines – as Flemming’s boys grew confident with each passing game. 64 years after the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) was formed, the federation could finally hold its head up in pride in helping to assemble the coach, the players, and the perfect environment for improvement. I wrote that Flemming had been the architect for a possible Great Leap Forward in Indian Basketball, and Flemming echoed back the optimism for the future of the Indian basketball team, too.
“I think we have proved that we belong,” Flemming had told me in Wuhan last year, “I don’t think there is anybody here that we feel we can’t beat. We have gotten past that point where we thought we had very little chance of winning. Those days are long gone. Now, we are going into every game knowing that we have an opportunity. It is a new day for India.”
Later in 2014, India showed signs of inconsistency at the Asian Games but an impressive win over Kazakhstan did enough to boost morale once again. By earlier this year, with Flemming still at the helm, FIBA.com’s Enzo Flozo declared that India could be the surprise package of 2015. With the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship (FIBA ABC) – the most prestigious basketball tournament in Asia – looming ahead, the plague of optimism was about to engulf the Indian basketball world again. And after proving their worth at Wuhan last year, it seemed that the attention of the country’s mainstream would be more prepared this time around to pay attention.
Unfortunately, basketball games aren’t just won and lost on the court, and before India got a chance to pick up any more big victories, they ended up blocking their own best shots.
Over the last two months, a dramatic turn of events has plunged the BFI – the association that organizes and governs basketball in India – into an abyss of uncertainty. Political infighting led the association to be split in two: two factions called two separate meetings/elections (on March 27 and March 28 respectively) in two different cities (in Bengaluru and Pune respectively) and selected two separate executive committees (presided by K Govindraj and Poonam Mahajan respectively) to head the BFI. Because of the split in governance, ‘Team Govindraj’ was left with the finances and ‘Team Mahajan’ with capture of the BFI’s office in Delhi.
Over the next few months, the split caused confusion and anger among Indian basketball players and coaches, and soon, the fallout has since led to other serious tribulations. All of India’s three foreign coaches – Men’s National Team Head Coach Scott Flemming, Women’s National Team Head Coach Francisco Garcia, and Strength and Conditioning Head Coach Tommy Heffelfinger – have ended their contracts with Indian basketball this month. A lack of proper governance (and perhaps, funds) may have led to Garcia and Heffelfinger being refused their contract extension. Flemming has insisted that his decision to leave was ‘mostly’ personal, but a fractured BFI certainly didn’t help in pulling him in. For years, India has sought continuity and stability at the helm to help and build a strong basketball structure. With one ruthless swoosh of the political blade, that structure has been shattered.
Meanwhile, FIBA – the world’s governing body of basketball and organizers of all upcoming FIBA Asia basketball tournaments – declared the situation in India a ‘freeze’, and thus, disallowing India to play in FIBA-sanctioned international basketball tournaments. A few weeks later, FIBA finally passed their stamp of recognition to ‘Team Govindraj’, but India’s international basketball future will remain unclear until the domestic messes are cleared up.
The FIBA ABC’s for Men and Women are held every two years. These are the most prestigious basketball tournaments for Asian countries and have been held since the 60s. They serve as qualifiers for the Olympic basketball tournament and the FIBA Basketball World Cup. For Indian basketball players, representing and winning for their country at an ABC remains the ultimate prize.
Unsurprisingly, China has been the most dominant Men’s team at the ABC, winning it 15 of the 27 times. Among the Women, China and South Korea have shared the spoils to win the championship an incredible 23 of the 25 times. India have never received a medal: our Men finished fourth in 1975 but haven’t been in the top 10 since 2003; our Women broke a major barrier in 2013 by finishing at best-ever 5th place.
The ABC’s are back this year. From August 29 to September 5, the 26th FIBA Asia Championship for Women will be held in Wuhan, China. From September 23 to October 3, China will play hosts again, this time to the 28th FIBA Asia Championship for Men in Henan. In the Women’s ABC, this should be team’s chance of solidifying their claim at fifth place and maybe even dream of an upset or two over the Asia’s Women’s Big Four of China, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Korea. In the Men’s ABC, this is India’s chance to prove that last year’s heroics at the FIBA Asia Cup were no fluke and that they can truly be a team that qualifies not just to participate, but to win big.
Francisco Garcia, India’s Women’s Head Coach, was not one to mince his words. In the two years he spent at the helm of the national team, the Spaniard was outspoken about the drawbacks and shortcomings that the Indian system suffered, and his outspokenness may have been part of the reason why the BFI considered it better to hold back his contract extension.
But Garcia may feel – justifiably – that after two years, he had earned the right to speak clearly and fairly his opinions about the national team and the federation.
Like Flemming and India’s Men’s team did in July 2014, Garcia’s Women’s side delivered India a breakthrough moment with their big win over Kazakhstan at the last FIBA ABC in Thailand. India’s incredible 65-62 overtime win helped them secure fifth place, and he remembered it as the highlight of his time in the country. A few months later, he delivered a bronze to a junior team at the Lusofonia Games in Goa. He coached the team to a 6th place finish at the Asian Games and took his knowledge to the grassroots level, coaching players and other coaches at various events around the country.
For Garcia, success at the national team level came early into his tenure, and it came at the biggest stage. It is difficult to believe that nearly two years have passed since the big win that had all of us declaring in excitement of how basketball in India had finally turned a corner.
But as we speak, India’s fortunes and future at both these tournaments are looking bleak. Until the BFI power struggle is sorted, it doesn’t seem like that FIBA will redact their ‘freeze’ over Indian basketball and allow us to return to these FIBA-organized tournaments.
And even if they do, India’s hopes of continuing the wave of optimism gathered over the last few years will be halted by a sudden reality check. The high quality of opponents at the ABCs had already presented India’s basketball teams with an improbable uphill task; now, with both our national team coaches leaving just months before the big tournaments, our federation has presented itself with an added handicap to make this improbable task close to impossible.
India doesn’t have a good track record of being prepared for major international tournaments. Foreign coaches in the past have complained about the lack of practice games in the lead up to the tournaments. Back home, without a professional league to keep the players involved with high-level hoops around the calendar year, our best players can be inclined to lose match fitness and competitiveness. With no Strength and Conditioning coach on the payroll anymore either, it will be a miracle if the men and women representing India at the next few international championships will be in decent condition and form.
Even in the best-case scenario, if between now and September the BFI is able to heal its fractures, bring back some structure and order to the association, and hire capable good coaches in time, the damage caused in the past few months would still not be undone. While the rest of the Asian teams have been preparing full throttle for these championship for months, India – already a weaker side – will start the race much too late.
India can be a challenging yet rewarding gig for Head Coaches, and any coach that accepts the job has to survive the dual challenge of being a basketball mastermind on the court and open-minded optimist to deal with the problems off of it. Flemming and Garcia – for the large part – were both such coaches. Now, we are in a race against time to a) be eligible for FIBA events again, b) find the right coaches to fit the teams’ tactical needs, c) make sure those coaches are also comfortable with the challenges and dramas of dealing with India and the federation, d) select the teams all over again and magicly expedite the re-teaching process to our players under the new system, e) get the players to the elite level of physical fitness required to run against Asia’s best, and f) somehow find a way of not embarrass ourselves against the continents top dogs at the FIBA ABCs.
For the already-staggering Basketball Federation of India, these are going to be one challenge too many. And for the fans of the game who had celebrated the high-points of recent years, the future takes a sharp turn towards the dark.
The Indian basketball family waited for years, even decades, to experience the collective joy that was felt on the night of the win over China. The women’s squad had played in over a dozen ABCs before raising their own ceiling up to fifth place. The ball seemed to finally be bouncing in India’s favour, and the basketball potential of the nation – second only to China in population – felt so much closer to realization.
But that ball has now been deflated. With the FIBA Asia Championships looming, Indian basketball has lost its focus (and coaches) at the worst possible time. Unless the people who are running and sometimes ruining the sport perform a miracle, it could be long before Indian gains back that lost momentum and optimism again.