Moneyball: A Basket Case

That’s right, people! India is now home to the Largest Basketball Lesson in the world! #DurantInIndia (Instagram, NBA India). Before the 2017 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP), Kevin Durant, went on a rant about India and its various shortcomings, the champion basketball player set a new Guinness World Record for holding the largest basketball lesson, which included 3,459 participants.

One just needs to visit NBA India’s web pages to understand that Durant came here “hoping to be a huge factor in the growth of the sport in this country and most definitely left an indelible mark on the Academy’s kids”.

NBA seems to have achieved more than what they had bargained for, as not only has Durant left a permanent mark on a whole lot of people across the world with his post-tour remarks, NBA has managed to garner more mind space within these few days than they have during the many years they have been trying to grow their brand in India.

For those who have dribbled in late, Durant came to India, did the assigned tasks for NBA, gave the appropriate sound bites, visited Taj Mahal, and flew back the USA. Once there, he, for reasons best known to him, told The Athletic about his “unique experience” in India. It was not scripted, and came right from his heart. A headline from NBA India – “Kevin Durant’s Indian tour rumbles on” – would have been an apt one for this interview.

He talked about his expectations (palaces, royalty, gold, expecting a Dubai), the culture, rough life, cows, monkeys, mud, stray dogs, unfinished houses, hundreds of people, million cars, traffic violations, and the bunch of underprivileged people who want to learn how to play basketball. Also – “It’s a country that’s 20 years behind in terms of knowledge and experience”.

At least on the presence of hundreds of people he should have got some inkling what to expect when he agreed to participate in creating the inane record of training 3,500 people. Imagine what he must have been thinking: World record, my! These underprivileged guys need a life, not a record! No wonder he thought that every deprived person in the country wants to learn how to play basketball.

While he has apologised on all fronts, and one accepts it at face value, what is relevant here is that Durant is incorrect about India being 20 years behind in knowledge and experience in the game of basketball, if that is what he meant. We are definitely much more behind.

He based his statement on what he witnessed on the Indian courts while playing and wondering who these people were, and would have given a much more accurate picture if NBA India or whoever responsible would have provided him with some points and key messages on the ground realities in the development of basketball in the country.

Apart from NBA, which has been around since 2011, the key stakeholders in basketball include the two factions of the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), led by Karnataka’s K. Govindraj, and Maharashtra’s Poonam Mahajan, as well as the ubiquitous IMG Reliance, India’s leading sports management company.

The fight between the two factions for official recognition has been going on since March 2015. While the Bengaluru faction appointed Govindraj as president on March 27 - a day later the Pune faction named Mahajan as president. It is only recently that the Indian Olympic Association (IOC), on directives from the International Basketball Federation (Fiba), granted affiliation to the BFI with Govindraj as the president.

This positive development now might fuel the basketball engine, which has meanwhile been stuttering along, though seven years ago IMG Reliance had entered into a 30-year deal with the BFI giving the former all commercial rights, including a professional league.

Two factors have prevented a professional league seeing the light of day till now – the BFI fight, and IMG Reliance facing a delay in merging the two football leagues, the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League. While the BFI issue seems to have been resolved, and money should start coming in from the commercial partners again, the merger is also around the corner and should fructify in the 2018 season. Which means an ISL-style basketball league is in the offing, definitely in 2019, if not in 2018.

Interestingly, UBA Pro Basketball League, run by the United Basketball Alliance (UBA) of India claims to the first professional men’s professional basketball tournament in India, and has already completed four seasons. But though they have had a first-mover advantage and brought a lot of improvements during each season, the story seems too good to last as the BFI has already made an announcement that it is a private league and will ban players participating in it. With IMG Reliance back in action, it is unlikely that there can be two pro leagues. One needs to only follow the football saga to know that even a national league does not stand much chance.

While UBA will be contemplating their next move on holding ground, for the NBA it is the India story that they are interested in. A story in which an emerging middle class with the purchasing power and young demographic will buy into the brand and its superstar exploits. The pressure to deliver for NBA India is very much evident.

It is hence eagerly searching for a Yao Ming from India. It has been 15 years since Ming was selected by Houston Rockets, leading to an explosion of the sport in China. NBA even tried to build a story around Satnam Bhamra, who became the first Indian to be drafted to the league by Dallas Mavericks in a second-round pick. A poor country’s Ming, as Durant would have aptly observed!

(The writer is co-founder,  SportzPower & The Fan Garage)

CP Thomas