Competitive as ever

SANDEEP SAXENA

The 6’10” former star talks to Uthra Ganesan about his playing days, his involvement with the NBA after retirement and the purpose of his visit to India.

Horace Grant was nicknamed ‘The General’ for his attacks and charging play during his heydays. Recognisable instantly with his trademark wrap-around glasses on court, the former NBA champion was part of the Chicago Bulls during their most successful period in the early 1990s, sharing the spotlight with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Now 48, the 6’10” former star talks about his playing days, his involvement with the NBA post-retirement and the purpose of his visit to India.

Question: What brings you to India?

Answer: This is my first visit to India and I am here as the brand ambassador for the NBA JAM. It is a 3-on-3 basketball competition for colleges in various cities culminating in the national finals (in Mumbai). It is all about getting kids interested in basketball and of course to promote the NBA itself.

Basketball is not exactly a popular sport in India, definitely not as much as in China. How would you compare India vis-à-vis China as a market?

Well, China is a big market but it too had to start somewhere. It started at step one and then kept growing. Today they have a big name like Yao Ming, something that most people wouldn’t have thought of, say, 25 years ago. India today is moving in that direction. And, with the population here and the kind of enthusiasm and talent I have seen, these guys are moving in the right direction.

There is a notion that one has to be really tall and muscular to play basketball. What, according to you, are the attributes of a good basketball player?

That is not true, it’s all bunkum. And I say this because I have played with pretty short guys in my career — people like Tyrone ‘Muggsy’ Bogues, who was 5’3” or Earl Boykins, who was 5’5”. These guys played, like, 10 years in the NBA. So size doesn’t matter.

What does is the determination, the heart. The most important thing, I would say, is the love of the game. Secondly, the passion, the enthusiasm…and yes, you have to have some talent too! If you have a place to grow as a basketball player, the facilities and the coaching, then the sky is the limit, tall or not.

As a competition, what is it that makes the NBA so special?

Well, to be honest, I haven’t really thought about it ever! If I had to, I would say it starts right at the top, with the NBA commissioner. David Stern (former NBA commissioner who retired this February after 30 years) has done just a fantastic job during his stay at the NBA. The way he spread it, made it popular across the world was exceptional.

NBA greats Horace Grant, Peja Stojakovic and Ron Harper ensured a good time for basketball enthusiasts in Mumbai.-AP

Then, I think the players that make up the NBA, the best in the world are in action. And, of course, the fans — those who buy the tickets to watch the games, buy the merchandise, watch it on TV. The NBA reaching out to a global audience makes it different from just another game of basketball.

And the money…

Oh, yes! I mean, you do like to get compensated for your work, right? Since my first day in the competition in 1987-88, I couldn’t believe the emoluments, they were just going through the roof and I think there is still room to grow.

You have played with and against some of the biggest names in professional basketball — legends like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant — for the biggest teams in the NBA. Can you share some of your experiences?

Oh, it was something else. Playing at Chicago with Jordan and Scottie and guys like John Paxson, B. J. Armstrong and numerous other guys was an experience. But Jordan and Pippen were the core of our team.

Jordan, in my opinion, is the best player I have ever seen playing, and not only because he was a team-mate. I say this because of his determination, his ‘Captain America’ mentality that led him to raise his team and play up to his level. He led from the front and he took the rest along with him. As the captain at Chicago, he always set the standards, both on field and off it. He never did let us see him ‘lose it’, if you know what I mean.

Playing with Kobe and Shaq was almost the same but there is only one Jordan. They are right up there amongst the greatest ever. To be part of that side, and later winning the championship at LA was nice.

Can you tell us about your involvement with basketball post-retirement?

I am not exactly employed professionally as a coach but I do teach around. I have a full court in my backyard and I often call up high school kids and coach them. My daughter plays in high school and I coach her, as well as my nephews and nieces who also play basketball. As for the NBA, I am not employed with them but they often ask me to conduct clinics or NBA JAM across various countries and I am more than happy to contribute my bit to the game.

The NBA Jam in India is primarily focusing on colleges. How important is college basketball for a professional player?

It is very important. The four years of college give you the buffer time to guide your choices, find out how good you are, take your life decisions. It is competitive but amateur; you don’t need it to survive. At NBA, we are grown men, we cannot sit back and analyse our options. It is our livelihood and we have to go out there and win more games than the other team. In that sense, NBA is the destination for the road you decide to take in college.

On a different note, the winner of this competition will get to play against the trio of Ron Harper, Peja Stojakovic and yourself. What do you expect from that?

Well, it would be fun! I think whoever wins the 3x3 deserves to have some fun, and playing against guys like us will be good for them. You want to give them that experience of playing against former NBA guys. But it sure won’t be easy for them, I can guarantee you that. We will be very competitive, we don’t want to lose — once you play at that level, you cannot let go of the competitiveness in you!

Also, this will be the first time I will be playing with Ron since I retired from NBA, so I am pretty excited at that. Hopefully, he will pass the ball!

Is there anything specific that you think should be done to promote basketball at the grassroots in India?

Yes, the coaches. That’s one thing I would like to see here, some good training facilities and some very good coaches. A good coach at the developmental stage is vital and perhaps the most important person in a player’s life. I would like to see some good coaches from back home or anywhere else to come over and teach and help the coaches here — that would be fantastic for the growth of basketball in India.