Kenny Natt’s booming voice cuts through the incessant thud of basketballs bouncing off the floor—“CLEAR, EXCHANGE, CLEAR, EXCHANGE, STEP FORWARD, BRING IT!”
Twelve players from the national basketball team are swirling around an indoor court at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in New Delhi, practising offensive drills. They spread out in groups of three, feinting, passing, shooting, constantly in motion. Natt, 52, the team’s American coach, is prowling with a notepad in hand, calling the shots, pressing the players.
“Create options—YOU create the game!” Natt bellows.
Amjyot Singh swivels past his marker, and passes wide to the onrushing Jagdeep Singh. Jagdeep releases the ball in a flash to Amrit Pal Singh, who squares up, springs from the floor, and shoots. The ball rolls around the rim, teasing, like a silver sphere on a roulette wheel, and then drops in for a basket.
Just three months ago, when former US National Basketball Association (NBA) coach and player Natt signed a two-year deal to coach the Indian team, his focus was to just get the basics right. That stage is past.
“We are better physically and mentally,” says Natt. “We are continuing to make progress every single day at practice. We are far ahead of the basics now, and we’ve put in all our offensive and defensive strategies. We are ready to compete today.” The squad is now in Wuhan, China, for the Fédération Internationale de Basketball’s (Fiba) Asian Championship, which started on Thursday.
Three months is like the first 10m in the marathon of sports development, but the signs are clear—Indian basketball is in a development frenzy.
Natt is the first head coach for the Indian team who has also held the same position for a NBA team. His nine seasons as assistant coach for Utah Jazz saw the team reach the NBA finals twice. The Indian women’s national team has roped in Pete Gaudet, 69, a veteran US coach with over 40 years’ experience at the collegiate level. As assistant coach at Duke University, Gaudet won two National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championships, and coached 12 NBA draft picks. Zak Penwell, 31, a certified coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) of America, has been signed on to hone the fitness of both the men’s and the women’s teams.
NBA India’s Troy Justice. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
In basketball language, this is called a full-court press—an all-fronts attack to change the profile of the sport in India, from the grassroots all the way to the national teams.
On the offence
In June last year, American sports and entertainment company IMG Worldwide and Reliance Industries entered into a 30-year deal with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) for all commercial rights to the sport in India, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising and franchising rights, as well as advising BFI on managing school and college leagues.
IMG was clear about the agenda—to own the next Indian sports league after the runaway success of the Indian Premier League (IPL), which IMG helped establish in 2008, and which is now valued at over $4 billion (around Rs.18,800 crore).
On the ground, the effects are already being felt at every level of the game. The BFI is building a gym for the national teams, and a residential academy in New Delhi is nearing completion, in addition to the academies in Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu. Eight under-15 players from these academies won scholarships to train at the IMG’s basketball academy in Florida in the last one year. In 2010, the BFI kicked off school leagues in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. Next month, BFI’s first college league will begin, featuring 80 teams, and a city franchise-based pro-league is in advanced stages of planning.
“We could never have afforded these programmes without IMG-Reliance funding,” says BFI secretary general Harish Sharma. “We could not have hired these coaches or afforded the gyms and machines or kits.”
The NBA too features prominently on the scene, targeting India as its next big overseas market. The NBA had previously focused on China to expand its global reach, and after the success of Yao Ming, a 7ft 6 inches player from Shanghai who became a star with the Houston Rockets, the league attracted hundreds of millions of new fans in China.
The sport’s relative simplicity and the fact that it does not need elaborate infrastructure or equipment makes it an ideal choice for fast-track development. In 2010, NBA tied up with Mahindra and Mahindra to start the Mahindra NBA Challenge, a community-based programme spread across five cities. Now in its second year, the programme features 600 participating teams.
“The Mahindra NBA Challenge has a waiting list in every city,” says Troy Justice, NBA’s director of basketball operations in India. “Over 800 coaches enrolled for our Junior NBA/WNBA programme too, which works to improve basketball at the school level for both coaches and players.”
Justice also works with the BFI, conducting clinics and workshops with both coaches and players, as well as assisting in talent scouting.
A boy, a ball and a basket
At 20, Amrit Pal has already shown enough court savvy to be drafted straight into the men’s national team without ever having played for an age-group side. The 6ft 9 inches Punjab player had only passing knowledge of the sport till two years ago, when a coach from the Ludhiana Basketball Academy saw the lanky and athletic teenager at a bus stop and approached him.
“He asked me if I had ever played basketball,” says Amrit Pal. “I said no, I play kabaddi. He offered me a two-month training stint at the academy, and then if I did well, I’d be taken in for full training as well as schooling.”
In 2010, with just two years’ training, Amrit Pal was in the Punjab squad.
Satnam Singh Bhamara, a 7ft 2 inches giant, shares a similar story. At 15, he is the youngest member of the Indian team. In 2005, when the Ludhiana Basketball Academy inundated local papers in Punjab with an ad with the tag line “Tall? Give basketball a try”. Satnam’s father Balbir Singh, a farmer in a village called Ballo Ke, responded to the call. Satnam was 9 at the time, and already 5ft 9 inches. Balbir himself is 7ft 2 inches, Balbir’s mother is 6ft 9 inches. No one in Ballo Ke, a tiny farming village with a population of roughly 500, had heard of the sport before Satnam. After five years at the academy, Satnam’s sheer presence on the court created such a stir that IMG gave him a scholarship to train at their academy in Florida, and Natt decided to draft him into the national squad straightaway.
The three senior coaches, Natt, Gaudet and Penwell, have also expanded their mandate with missionary zeal, taking on coaching, training and scouting duties for age-group teams, as well as Indian coaches and trainers.
“Coaching is not a 9-5 job,” says Gaudet. “Good coaches realize that they need a whole network of coaches to feed them from the grass-roots level to be successful, and that’s what we are trying to put in place.”
When the BFI bagged the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium facilities for its teams in early 2011, the floor of the massive basketball complex was covered in pigeon shit, the nets were ripped and there was no padding on the boards. “It took time to get things right,” Gaudet says. “The government is trying to give us all the help it can, but I’m not Anna (Hazare) that I can go on fast every time I want something badly.”
Gaudet, Natt and Penwell are working on a schedule that will take them from city to city, holding coaching clinics all over India.
Penwell says he was aware of India’s poor sporting culture, barring cricket, when he took up the job, and that was part of the excitement, but that the nuances of the challenge still surprise him from time to time.
Courtside: The Indian basketball team at practice; (right) coach Kenny Natt,
“When I first came in, players used to come to me often complaining of stomach bugs,” Penwell says. “Then I found out that they had no soap in the hostel, and that they regularly ate after practice without washing their hands. I went out and bought soap for all of them. Then the soap got stolen! So I went out and got more.”
Gaudet says his most pressing priority is to identify and develop young talent as quickly as possible.
“There’s a saying which goes, ‘a boy, a ball and a basket’,” says Gaudet. “In the US, anywhere you go you will see a basket pinned to a garage, a wall, a park. We need to get some of that spirit here.”
Over at the court, Natt is still pushing the men’s team, trying to extract that last ounce of energy. A high, long pass is caught by a player who reaches out his hands to the full extent, arching back in the air. He regains his balance on landing and passes the ball.
“That’s it, that’s it,” Natt hollers, “that’s a champ.”