Kenny Natt has done it all. He spent three years in the American National Basketball Association, or NBA, playing for top teams such as Utah Jazz, Kansas City Kings and Indiana Pacers. When he hung up his boots in 1994, he spent two seasons as a scout for Jazz, and then dabbled in numerous coaching assignments—including nine seasons as assistant coach for the Utah team that reached the NBA finals twice during his tenure. With that kind of pedigree, it’s little wonder that just two weeks after Natt took over the reins, the Indian national team beat all opponents by huge margins at the qualifying tournament for the Fédération Internationale de Basketball’s (FIBA) Asian Championship to be held in Wuhan, China, in September. Natt, who has signed a two-year contract with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), spoke to Mintahead of the preparatory camp, beginning Friday, for the Asian Championship, on the challenges and rewards of coaching the Indian team. Edited excerpts:
India qualified for the FIBA Asian Championship with some big wins, and it was also your first competition as coach of the team. Were you satisfied?
I was satisfied. Obviously, winning so many games and the opportunity to gauge where we are and what we need to improve on, to evaluate my players extensively in games situations, was fantastic. Practice is always different—some guys perform better in games than in practice—and it gives you an opportunity to see them in flow, and also try out different rotations—who works better with who. I wanted to make sure that I was able to play everyone in different rotations.
New order: Natt is implementing NBA-style strategies for the Indian tea. Photograph by: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
You will face much tougher teams in the Asian Championship than Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the teams in the qualifiers. Are you concerned?
I’m not worried about it, just concentrating on improving our guys every day. I expect it to be tougher, but I expect us to be better by the time the champs come around. The ultimate goal is to compete at the highest level and that takes time. But I’m seeing progress from the first day that I’ve come in.
How hard are you and strength-conditioning coach Zak Penwell working on the diet and fitness of the team?
We are doing extensive work on diet and fitness. Everything the players are doing is new. I’m putting in NBA-type offensive and defensive strategies, but I can only improve the team so much. To physically make them capable of playing at their peak, that’s where Zak comes in. Where we are a year from now will probably be light years from now.
The players have taken to everything well. Unlike most American players, these players have been receptive, they’ve gone beyond their means to please me, and we don’t get that in the NBA as coaches.
During the qualifiers, you also tried out some really young and promising players like 15-year-old Satnam Singh Bhamara, who is 7ft, 2 inches,and Amritpal Singh, who is 19 and stands at 6ft, 8 inches. What’s your assessment?
I thought it would be a great idea to make Satnam work with the senior players to get him to learn quickly, and so far it has worked well. The older players are acting like mentors, which is needed. They’ve been patient with him, with the mistakes he makes as a 15-year-old, and that’s how you become a better player. Amritpal has been a pleasant surprise—he is hard-working, and his skills are beyond the two-three years of basketball that he has played. He and Satnam bring size to the team and that in itself should help us.
So you think the BFI’s plan of scouting for tall players is good?
You scout to find the best talent that is available, you don’t have to be tall to be good. Satnam and Amritpal are valuable additions, but you may not see them take the floor as often as you would think. For example, you can’t play really tall guys against a team which is shorter—that is to your disadvantage.
How happy are you with the balance of the team?
Well we’re still evaluating it. We’re pretty good with our small forwards, and the two guard, and four and five are in pretty good shape too, but our point guard situation is in limbo. Obviously Sambhaji (Kadam) has taken the lead in that respect. He’s a veteran and he’s shown leadership on the floor, but with his age who knows how long his body is going to hold up.
Is there some aspect of the team’s play that you are focusing on more than others?
Primarily the focus is on the defence. We’ve found that defence gives you a chance to win a game no matter what size or how well skilled your opponents are. Getting stops, rebounding, eliminating the opportunities of the opponent—if you can do that, then you’ll get the chance to do what you want to do with the offence.
From the NBA, basketball’s power centre, to India—what has the transition been like for you?
It’s been bittersweet, but it has changed my coaching stance. In the NBA, you are working with elite players and all you do is tell them what their responsibilities are and what you expect them to do. Here it’s all about patience. We are at Stage 1. We are focusing on things that you do at a much earlier age—concentrating on making lay ups, for example. I find myself spending a lot of time just explaining a lot of the basics. But all this takes away a lot of the practice time and I’ve had to scrap my schedule to work on discipline. It’s also been nice because I’m teaching here instead of just instructing.