Fighting against odds

The players of the Indian team that finished in the top-eight in the Asian Championship proved that they are willing to fight. Their progress could be faster if only the sport’s administrators could make life easier for the players.

India's Amjyot Singh (right) attempts to thwart Andray Blatche of the Philippines in a group match of the FIBA Asian Championship in Changsha, Hunan, China. Amjyot was one of the star performers for India, who finished in the top-eight in the championship.   -  AP

As they lined up for their game against Japan in the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan last year, Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh got the shock of their lives. Just as they were about to enter the court, the organising officials stopped them as they were wearing turbans.

The two players, ultimately, played without their turbans and a couple of days later, they stood out as India pulled off their first-ever victory against China.

There was something of a churn in Indian basketball last year. For three years, the American coach, Scott Flemming, had toiled with the national team, offered the boys hope and raised their confidence. And clearly, the memorable victory against China had dissolved quite a few mental blocks in the players.

However, just when Indian basketball seemed to be looking up, the factional feud in the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) destroyed much of the gains the country had made in the last couple of years. And just as the BFI fire appeared to bring the house down, the Indian men emerged stronger and played their hearts out in the FIBA Asian Championship in Changsha, Hunan, China.

Following the problems in the BFI, Flemming resigned in disappointment a few months ago and returned to the United States. However, thanks to the strong foundation laid by the American coach, India finished in the top-eight at the Asian Championship. The last time the country had made the last eight was 12 years ago, in 2003, but this time, it was against all odds.

“I have watched several of the games. I have also talked with the players. They are doing their best to run the system I put in place, both offensively and defensively,” Flemming, now the head coach at the Northwest Nazarene University at Idaho in the US, told Sportstar. “They have done a pretty good job but it is hard when the coaches are not familiar with the system and there are so many new players.”

Flemming, who says that his heart will always be with India, believes that the country has many young players who can compete with the best in basketball.

“I think we have several really good young players who can compete at a high level. It is disappointing that all the best players in India are not on the team because of the ongoing political issues.

“As we have seen, it is difficult for our team to compete with the better teams in Asia because of the lack of depth.”

Amjyot Singh, the forward, and captain Vishesh Bhriguvanshi along with centre Amritpal Singh played a huge role in India’s performance in the Asian Championship.

Eight years ago, all that Amjyot was thinking about was bowling well for his school’s cricket team in Chandigarh. But an injury put paid to his cricketing dreams and his school coach asked him to take up basketball as he was very tall.

Around that time, Vishesh, a football striker at his school in Varanasi, was cajoled by his elder brother Vibhor to try out basketball.

“I took up basketball very reluctantly. In fact, I hated it when I started out,” Vishesh once told this writer. “All my friends and neighbours were in football and the ground was very close to my house, it was tough to give it up.”

The country should now be happy that Amjyot and Vishesh took up the hoop game.

In fact, Amjyot, who along with Amritpal plays in the Japan league, was the Asian Championship’s top scorer after the league phase with 138 points from six games at an impressive average of 23 points per game.

The 23-year-old, six-foot eight-inch forward slammed a massive 32 points that helped India stun newcomers Palestine in the second round league which played a big role in the country entering the last-eight stage after taking the fourth spot in the six-team Group ‘E’.

Of course, it was a different story in the quarterfinals as India were thrashed by China. China later defeated the Philippines in the final 78-67 to win the Asian title.

After missing the semi-finals, the playoff matches for positions five to eight, where India lost to Korea and Qatar before settling for the eighth spot, showed that the road to the top-four is very tough.

Overall, India’s brave men have proved that they are willing to fight. Their progress could be faster if only the sport’s administrators could make life easier for the players.