When you think about India’s performance in the Olympic Games, you would imagine our shooters, weightlifters and wrestlers. Apart from the few medals that Indians have won in these categories, India has had little success at the Olympic stage in the recent past. Barring our dominance over the rest of the world in hockey, when we won 8 gold medals from 1928 to 1956, and Leader Paes’ bronze medal performance in 1996, history has not much to offer either, as India has only won a measly total of 26 Olympic medals. The only other sport in which we are able to compete on the world stage is cricket. But unfortunately, cricket is not an Olympic sport.
As a result, barring the hardcore sports fans, most Indians have very little attraction towards watching the Olympics. However, 35 years ago, there was a reason for people to turn their attention to the leading sporting event in the world. A little known fact is that the Indian men’s basketball team qualified for the 1980 Olympic Games held in Moscow, Russia – the only time in Indian basketball history. The sport of basketball at the Olympics is played only by the elite teams of the world, usually the top 12; and 1980 was the time when Indian players were also on the same stage.
Amarnath Nagarajan played on that 1980 Indian team. Now, at 60 years young, he still has that same enthusiasm for basketball as he did back then. Hailing from a small town in Tamil Nadu, Nagarajan went on to captain the Indian team at the 1982 Asian Games held in New Delhi. He also played in an international tournament in Seoul, South Korea and was a part of a coaching tour for the Indian team to the USSR in 1982. I spoke to the Olympian recently on his basketball playing days, the 1980 Olympics, basketball in the ’80s and a lot more. Read the full Q&A below (apologies for the quality of the pictures – technology was different at that time!).
1. How did you first pick up the sport of basketball?
I did my schooling at Periyakulam, Tamil Nadu where each year an All India tournament is conducted where top teams of India participate. Inspired by that, I started playing basketball in 1970.
2. When did you decide to take up the sport of basketball at a professional level?
In 1973, Madura Mills, a textile company at Madurai started a [basketball] team. I got a sports quota appointment there. Then I moved to ICF Chennai in 1976 and played there for 10 months, after which I joint the State Bank of India in 1977 under sports quota.
3. What position did you play in and what was your style of play?
Even at 182 centimetres, I was one of the tallest then in the Tamil Nadu teams and hence played center for my club teams and the state. For the Indian team, I played as a point guard.
4. Tell us about your most memorable moments playing basketball.
Most memorable moments are 1980 Moscow Olympics and as India captain in the Asian Games held in New Delhi in 1982. I also cherish our 5th ranking performance in the 1981 Asian Basketball Championship at Calcutta.
5. You played in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which is the only time India has qualified for the Olympics in the sport of basketball. How was that experience?
It was a great experience to see in action the top teams of the world. We are far below [them], but after playing in the Olympics, I realised that we can also reach that level.
6. You were the captain of the Indian team in the 1982 Asian Games. Tell us about that tournament.
We finished much lower in the rankings. But except against China, we lost our other matches by close margins. The team was well prepared and strong, but the results were not up to our potential.
7. You have had a few interactions with foreign coaches and players during your playing time, including mostly the USSR coaches and players. How did their advice help you improve your game?
The foreign coaches have practical exposure to the highest level of the game and it helps us. Their demand on our physical fitness is also very useful for us to perform better.
8. Did you have any influences or mentors that helped to shape your game?
Senior players of our times – Abbas Moontasir, Vijayaraghvan, Hanuman Singh – were my heroes. All my coaches, both Indian and foreign, were also responsible for my game.
9. What kind of training facilities did the Indian team have during your playing days?
We had the best of facilities and playing experience as at that time, the Government support was maximum as we hosted the Asian Games in 1982. But at times we had to practice outdoors… that is ok.
10. How has basketball in India improved today as compared to your time?
Tremendously. More and more tall players have come. All players have TV and media exposure to know about the top games currently. We have not been able to better our rankings in Asia and the rest of the world because other teams, particularly Gulf countries, have improved better than us and some strong erstwhile USSR states have moved to Asia. But locally, what I observe is that players are not generating that kind of spectator interest as was present earlier in India for basketball games.
11. The Indian men’s team defeated China last year at the Asia Cup and is gradually improving its standing among other Asian teams. What message would you like to give to the current Indian team?
Superb performance. I saw that match against China on YouTube. Full marks to the coach and players. I also watched their match against Iran in the Asiad live on TV. They played well there also. Keep it up Team India. We are proud of you. If I get the chance to meet them and talk to them, I can motivate them, sharing with them a few technical points. But they need more international match experience and a professional league.
12. What advice would you have for young Indian basketball players?
Work, work and work. The whole universe is created to provide you in proportion to your intensity of efforts and dreams. God bless.