NBA’s Big Bet On Basketball Schools To Build A Pipeline For Indian Talent

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on April 9, 2017

“Grassroots to high performance.” said Yannick Colaco, the managing director of NBA India. “That is our global strategy.”

The NBA on Friday announced the launch of NBA Basketball School, a network of tuition-based basketball development programs around the world open to international male and female players for ages 6-18.

“The NBA Basketball School builds an additional track between the Jr NBA and NBA Academies.” added the vice president of the NBA and the International Basketball Operations & Head of Elite Basketball, Brooks Meek. “The goal is to increase the pool of players who have the talent to attend our academies around the world.”

The first NBA Basketball School was launched on Friday in Mumbai as part of a multi-year agreement announced with India On Track, a sports management, marketing and development company. Additional NBA Basketball Schools will be launched in India and around the world in the coming months.

Technical Director, NBA Basketball School, Ryan Burns, conducts a session at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India
Technical Director, NBA Basketball School, Ryan Burns, conducts a session at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India

How the junior schools help

No Indian has suited up for an NBA team in the regular season till-date. Satnam Singh, the first Indian drafted (by the Dallas Mavericks) to the NBA, has yet to play in the regular season. Currently on the Mavericks D-League team the Texas Legends, Singh’s NBA dream seems even more distant as he suited up for just eight of his team’s 42 games this season.

Like Singh, seven other players (three boys and four girls) headed for the IMG Academies on hefty basketball scholarships in 2010. Unlike Singh, most faded into obscurity. Only Kavita Akula and Barkha Sonkar have done well, and continue to do so. It may seem fair to believe that the IMG experiment failed. But that would ignore the deeper problem with sports development in India: the lack of a structured program for the development of talent in India.

Training session underway at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India
Training session underway at the NBA Basketball School in Mumbai, India. Image credit: NBA India

That is what NBA India hopes to address with the programs they have introduced over the past four years. It is the NBA’s vision to create a pipeline for Indians aspiring to become NBA players. Kids get exposed to the game through the in-school Jr NBA Program, can hone their skills at an NBA Basketball School, and eventually graduate to the elite-level NBA Academy.

What about the journey between graduating from an NBA Academy and getting into the NBA?

“When they graduate from an NBA Academy (at about age 18-20), there are multiple opportunities,” Colaco clarified, “be it applying for a scholarship to a college program in the US, seeking to play professionally in Europe or in the D-League, or if they meet all the criteria declaring for the NBA draft. But we would not want to pigeon-hole players, telling them what to get into”

The lack of a committed development approach

Basketball in India is far behind the mainstream sports. Both football and cricket boast established academies and tournaments right from the grassroots up to the elite level. The lack of a committed development approach from the federation has stalled the growth of basketball in India. Conflict at top was a hindrance as recently as six months ago. The dual-faction matter has settled down for now, allowing the appointed federation to step up their activity.

“Our goal is to have our national teams play at the highest level” said an official from the Basketball Federation of India. “This requires a feeder system in which players are coached the right way. The NBA Basketball Schools venture provides the opportunity to get international level coaching to many. This will help basketball in India, both in the short and long term.”

Does having to go up against an established organisation like the NBA hinder any development plans the BFI has? “No.” he says. “We cooperate with the NBA, but our plans are independent and do not overlap. Our vision is to ensure high coaching standards are implemented across India. If anything, the NBA’s efforts help us.”

The balance between development and marketing

Since 2008, the NBA has sought to find a balance between developmental and marketing initiatives. It has constantly been testing the waters to find out what that works. It has started and discontinued activities, tweaked and overhauled initiatives, all in the hopes of finding the right mix that would have the most impact for its brand in India.

“Sure, marketing initiatives help raise awareness about the game,” added the BFI official, “but the last few NBA initiatives have been development focused, which aligns with our vision.”

The NBA sees India both as a pioneer for these programs, and a market to test them for global adoption. Colaco found this position interesting: “India is first off the block in executing the (NBA Basketball Schools) program, which is part of planned network of basketball schools that we will be starting around the world. This is a reflection of how important the Indian market is for the NBA.”

This won’t be the first time the NBA team in India have pioneered a program. Three years ago, the Jr NBA program, the NBA’s decade-old global grassroots initiative, was modified for the first time in India. The old format focused on simple outreach to young kids, while the new format embraced a more defined curriculum structure to be easily implemented during school hours. This change enabled the program to experience unprecedented growth in three years, reaching 1.5 million kids from 2,200 schools in 14 cities, growth that the NBA has not seen across any of its programs globally.

Image credit: NBA India
Image credit: NBA India

Indranil Das Blah, the managing partner at KWAN, India’s leading sports and entertainment agency said, “You cannot build a brand without helping develop the sport organically. That’s where the NBA’s approach to development stands out from most other international organisations in India.”

Blah, whose agency KWAN has worked closely with the NBA on some of its projects, believed the NBA was getting it right. “The NBA has been in India for ten years. They’ve seen, tried, tested adapted to the market. The time is right for these basketball schools”

Colaco added, “With the Jr. NBA Program, we used the learning from previous programs to design a structure that would make a greater impact. It’s clear that we look at the India to a priority market to launch and lead some of our global initiatives”

International sports clubs and organisations with academies in India aren’t a new phenomenon. Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester United have all beaten the NBA to the spot. India On Track, the NBA’s partner in the program, also manages the Arsenal Soccer Schools. These schools feature licensed coaches, usually from the clubs’ junior programs. Programs, claimed to be world class, range from one week to a few months. Training sessions happen three times a week and last for about 90 minutes. And how has all this access to world class training worked out?

Not too well.

What NBA India is trying to do differently?

Despite their best efforts, none of the soccer schools have produced a player of note. This is aside from the fact that no player from India has climbed the ranks through the academies to earn a spot on the clubs’ junior teams. Although some of the programs boast of state and national team players, most of them were already at that level upon joining the program. This shortfall in quality has led many to believe that these academies are merely brand building income streams for the clubs. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to make money off the largest and one of the highest spending middle classes in the world. But to believe that these academies are the hope of young players and their parents is a bit naive.

“Most of the [sports] schools that have opened up in India, are seeking short term goals over long term growth. They are seeking to be profitable immediately,” said Blah. “It’s a top-down approach that is not sustainable. It’s great to have the big names in football [or other sports] open academies in India. But without a holistic grassroots effort, growth will be a challenge”

Kids in action at the launch of the first NBA Basketball School at Jamnabai Narsee School in Mumbai. Image credit: NBA India
Kids in action at the launch of the first NBA Basketball School at Jamnabai Narsee School in Mumbai. Image credit: NBA India

So what is the NBA doing differently? How do they avoid the same pitfalls?

“It is about crafting a basketball development system and building an entire ecosystem.” Colaco explained. “You can’t have a grassroots program like the Jr. NBA without a next level like NBA Basketball Schools. You can’t have both without an NBA Elite Academy to aspire to. No other (sports schools) program in India has an ecosystem like the one the NBA has built across all ages, level and platforms. That’s where our year-long tuition based program is different. It is the pathway for kids, not the end goal”

Spending on sports has never been a priority for a vast majority of Indian parents. Unlike academics, most don’t see any returns, both immediate and future, to invest in a child’s sporting future. While details on costs haven’t been made public yet, Colaco does not see cost as a stumbling block to price sensitive Indian parents.

Colaco had good news there. “I would like to stress, that while this is tuition based program, we are constantly scouting for the most talented. Our program is not just for people who can afford it. We are in a position to subsidise, or provide training at no cost to talented and deserving players.”

The NBA has laid out the pipeline. Now it will play the waiting game to watch the flow. There is quiet but confident hope among the basketball community that if it all comes together, we will see an Indian player in the NBA or WNBA sooner than later.

Till then, we wait and watch.

The Others: Predictions On NBA Awards Not Named MVP

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on April 6, 2017

There has been more than enough written on the race for this season’s MVP. Kawhi Leonard is making a valiant run at it. LeBron James has put up yet another monster season even by his lofty standards. The award, however, will go to either Russell Westbrook or James Harden.

Your vote depends on what matters to you. Do historically great numbers by an individual at the cost of his teammates matter? Or does a team’s success as a result of a historically great offensive season matter? Westbrook’s season has been beyond everyone’s wildest imagination. My vote, though, goes to James Harden, the player that makes his team better.

Then there are the other awards.

The executive mastermind that assembles the roster and staff to make the magic happen. The rookie that deals with newly found NBA riches, yet stays focused to put up solid numbers. The player who defies common perception about his ability and improves to deliver a breakout season. The defensive specialist, tasked with disrupting the opponent’s game plan. The team’s sixth man, who is tasked with the responsibility to hold fort while its stars rest. The coach, who deftly connects the dots, brings the wins and, hopefully, the championship.

They are not the stars. But they are vital ingredients to the NBA experience. Some we remember. Some we do not. But all are crucial.

Here are my picks for the awards:

Executive of the Year: Bob Myers, Golden State Warriors

There’s nothing easy about losing one of the ten greatest players to retirement and still tallying 60+ wins. That’s the mind of RC Buford.

Nothing easy about assembling the perfect team and coach around your star to unleash an offensive juggernaut. That’s the mind of Daryl Morey.

But.

Convincing one of the four best players in the NBA to join you, after your 73-9 record team has beaten him in an epic comeback from being 3-1 down, is near legendary. It can be, and often is, argued that this was entirely Durant’s decision. That would be too simplistic.

At no point in NBA history has a player of Durant’s calibre joined a rival at his career peak. Myers not only convinced Durant to move, he did so at the risk of gutting his roster of key contributors in the run up to the 2015 Championship and the 73-9 record. It is a General Manager’s duty to seek out the best mix of players and coaching staff in the pursuit of a championship. In that regard, Myers made one of the boldest decisions in NBA history. Either he’s a hero for going all in, or a villain for being too greedy. Either he’ll be vindicated with an NBA Championship, or be mocked for trying to game the system. Either ways, the Durant signing required a ton of courage. Something a great number of GMs sadly lack.

Runners Up: Daryl Morey (Houston Rockets), RC Buford (San Antonio Spurs)

Rookie of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

Everything we saw this summer virtually guaranteed Ben Simmons would lock up the award. Joel “The Process” Embiid was pummelling his way through NBA defences early in the season. Both their campaigns, derailed by injuries, were not meant to be.

In their absence, their promising European teammate Dario Saric is leading nearly every pundit’s column for the the award. However, the impact Brogdon has had in Milwaukee cannot be overlooked. Overall, Saric has better numbers that will swing the vote in his favour. Brogdon, however, has firmly established himself as a threat on both of the floor. He is the only rookie who is a major contributor on a 40 win team.

Runners Up: Dario Saric (Philadelphia 76ers), Buddy Hield (Sacramento Kings)

Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

This is precariously close to a Bucks’ fan fest. Antetokounmpo’s improvement, however, cannot be overlooked. He leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, all career highs. He is stuffing stat sheets like very few before him have. This season, he’s tallied career-highs in points (41 vs. Lakers) and blocks (7 vs. Bulls). He has also dropped at least 30 points on both the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

Most importantly though, Antetokounmpo has led the Bucks to the third best record (15-7) since the All Star break. Despite losing key players to injuries during the season, the Bucks are taking care of business during the home stretch, quietly moving into fifth place in the East. Given a couple more seasons, the Greek Freak will lift himself out of this awards list into the conversation for MVP.

Runners Up: Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Otto Porter Jr (Washington Wizards)

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Gobert is a throwback to the old-school defensive big man. The 7’1” center has a 7’9” wingspan, the longest in the NBA. That wingspan is a big (pun intended) reason behind the Utah Jazz’ league’s best defence for most of the season. It’s only in the home stretch that the Jazz have fallen behind the Spurs and Warriors stifling defence.

Gobert leads the league averaging 2.7 blocks per game. Opponents are also making just 45.5% of their shots against him when within 10 feet of the rim, a league leading number. Both Leonard and Green have mounted considerable competition to Gobert’s campaign. While they are exceptional individual defenders, Gobert’s mere presence on the floor completely alters an opponent team’s game plan.

Runners Up: Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs), Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors)

Sixth Man of the Year: Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

This will most likely be the easiest of awards. Gordon is head and shoulders above the rest of this sixth men this season. Despite his reduced role, he’s averaging 16.4 points, his best since the 2013-14 season. Thanks to Harden’s brilliance, Gordon is pulling up for 3-pointers 8.8 times a game, third in the league behind Harden and Curry. His biggest contribution is efficiently keeping the second unit in the game, allowing Harden to rest for extended periods of time, thus saving his legs for the playoffs. That alone should qualify Gordon for the sixth-man award.

Runners Up: Zach Randolph (Memphis Grizzlies), Enes Kanter (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

You you make a case for at least five, if not more, coaches here. D’Antoni has turned the Rockets into an unstoppable juggernaut, Snyder is working with a motley crew of individuals that quietly snagged the fourth seed in the West. Stevens knocked on the No. 1 seed in the East led by a 5’9” guard. Spolestra lost his championship winning trio in LeBron, Wade and Bosh over the course of two seasons and made the playoff despite starting the season 11-30. Give the award to any of these four, and you’d be justified. It is confusing. And when it’s confusing, give the award to Popovich.

In the face of having just one All-Star, losing his team leader to retirement and trotting out an aging roster, Pop has still managed to deliver the first back-to-back 60+ win season in the history of the franchise.

If he does wrap up this award, he will be the first NBA coach to have won it four times (he has won it in ‘03, ‘12, ‘14). Fitting for one of the three greatest NBA coaches ever.

Runners Up: Mike D’Antoni (Houston Rockets), Quinn Snyder (Utah Jazz), Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics), Eric Spoelstra (Miami Heat)

Shaquille O’Neal Immortalized By The Los Angeles Lakers

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 30, 2017.

The Los Angeles Lakers unveiled a statue of the 19-year veteran who brought three Championships to the city between 2000 and 2002. Shaquille O’Neal joins Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jerry West in being immortalised with statues at the Staples Center.

Joined by Jeanie Buss, Kobe, Jabbar and Jackson on stage, Shaq went on to give a shout out to nearly every one of his teammates during his days as a Laker. At the top of the speech was of course, Kobe Bryant with whom Shaq shared one of the greatest love-hate relationships the NBA has ever known.

Shaq arrived in LA in time for the 1996-‘97 season as a result of his failing contract negotiations with Orlando. The Lakers who were rebuilding, also acquired Kobe in a draft day trade in the 1996 Draft. What they did not expect was that these two would go on to form one of the greatest duos the NBA has ever seen. Despite the dysfunction that defined their relationship off court, Shaq and Kobe respected the game and each other enough to lift the Lakers to three championships in the eight seasons they were teammates.

Once-in-a-generation abilities

While with the Magic, Shaq was beginning to understand his once-in-a-generation physical abilities. The NBA had not seen a more imposing physical presence since the great Wilt Chamberlain. Simply put, Shaq was an absolute beast, wreaking havoc upon opposing defences. His high point was disposing off the Chicago Bulls in the season where Jordan returned from his first retirement.

It was with the Lakers, however, that Shaq realised his true potential as a winner, moulding himself into the most dominating centre the NBA has ever seen.

The rap on Shaq has always been his level of seriousness, or rather lack of it. It is what allegedly drove a wedge between an obsessive workaholic like Kobe and some who picked his spots (read: Playoffs) like Shaq. “It used to drive me crazy that he was so lazy,” Bryant said to the New Yorker. “You got to have the responsibility of working every single day. You can’t skate through shit.”

It was common to see Shaq show up to camp overweight from taking the summer off. He’d have a fairly sluggish start to the regular season, then using the games to whip himself into shape right in time for the playoffs. Shaq in the Playoffs, was a different beast.

What is often overlooked is the fact that, except for his first two seasons in Orlando, Shaq has not missed the Playoffs. Despite his reduced role and a significant drop in production in his last few seasons, Shaq retired with averages of 24.3 points / 11.6 / rebounds / 2.1 blocks while shooting 56.3% from the field. Those are number accumulated over 17 playoffs. No centre has retired with better numbers. Not even the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Optimist or pessimist?

With the Lakers, Shaq averaged 27.7 points / 13.4 rebounds / 2.5 blocks while shooting a blistering 56% from the field during the Playoffs. He was the focus of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense that featured the young and hungry Kobe Bryant. Opponents had to pick their poison for the night: either keep up with Kobe and his relentless style, or contain the 300+ pound force that was Shaq. It’s no surprise then, that the Lakers ended up with three Championships in as many seasons.

There is a school of experts who believe that Shaq failed to live up to his potential. That he was lazy. That his fooling around and lack of commitment (by his own admission) to practice greatly affected his career. That he used the regular season to prepare for the only thing that mattered: the playoffs. That he stubbornly refused to correct his flawed free throw shot to raise his atrocious free throw percentage. That he let his ego come in the way of building a dynasty with Kobe Bryant. His career often gets ranked among the most disappointing NBA careers of all time.

I wholeheartedly subscribe to the above school of thought.

But.

The numbers also matter. The sheer volume of work also matters. He is a four-time champion. He was the best or second best player on all those four championship teams. He played 19 seasons in the NBA, played in 17 playoffs and retired with better playoff numbers than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the greatest centre in NBA history.

In his seminal book on basketball, Bill Simmons ranks Shaq just behind Hakeem, wrapping up Shaq’s career with this line” “(He) could have earned a top-five Pyramid spot and multiple MVPs, but he happily settled for No 12, some top five records, three Finals MVPs and a fantastically fun ride”. While at it he made a ton of money, released rap albums, made movies, got roasted and almost got killed.

We can look at Shaq’s career through the eyes of the sceptic that believes he underachieved, or through the eyes of the optimist who believes he did just fine for himself. No matter your take on his career, there is one truth: there simply wasn’t and will never be another center as dominant as Shaquille O’Neal.