His love for the game keeps him going

THERE cannot be a better person than C. Jayashankar Menon, 37, to talk about Indian basketball.

M. C. RAMAN

An exceptional basketball couple — Prasannakumari and Jayashankar Menon.-V. GANESAN

THERE cannot be a better person than C. Jayashankar Menon, 37, to talk about Indian basketball. The first Asian Allstar player from India, who was in the main continental team that participated in Seoul (South Korea) in 1997, has seen the `Darker Period' of national basketball. But his personal love for the game keeps him going even now for his institution, Indian Bank.

When he was at his best the Basketball Federation of India's administration hit the rock bottom, ignoring the welfare of the players and promotion of the game. In fact, for about 10 to 12 years the BFI just `existed' as a national body and the Indian team's participation in international competitions was erratic and without any interest. It was just a routine thing sometimes. But Jayashankar did not lose even that limited opportunity and showed his class to be considered for the Asian Allstar squad. The towering Bank man was the member of the Indian team for the 14th (Bangkok, 1987), 15th (Beijing, 1989), 16th (Kobe, 1991) and 18th (Seoul, 1995) ABC championships and he also captained the team in the 18th ABC tournament. This apart, the Indian Bank centre was the member of the Indian squads that won the SAF Games gold medals at Colombo and Chennai and played in Malaysia, Syria, U.S. and Indonesia.

Even his domestic record is quite impressive as he played in 13 senior National championships (five title victories), three National Games, six Federation Cups and two inter-zonals, in which he was the `Most Valuable Player.'

As a recipient of `Outstanding Player Award' from Indian Bank in 1992 and from the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister in 1993 he expected to collect the Arjuna Award. But it was a big let down by the BFI because the recommendation of his name was not properly handled. It is for this reason he has formed the Kerala Sports Persons Association (KESPA) to take up the cause of deserving sportspersons. He and his wife, Prasannakumari, also a basketball international, are running the Professional Basketball Academy (PBA) in Chennai, which trains youngsters and conducts inter-school tournaments regularly.

Normally, in basketball, the former internationals hardly do anything for the promotion of the game. This is also one of the reasons for the game's struggle for survival in the country. But this couple is an exception. In fact, Indian basketball needs more such people to strengthen it and take it to higher level. Excerpts:

Question: You were the first Asian Allstar player and you played for the Asian team also in Seoul, which is a rare honour for an Indian. Unfortunately, you were at your best during the `Darker Period' of Indian basketball. Do you regret playing the game?

Answer: No, not at all. I was in this game from an early age in Trichur where I used to admire the matches among top teams and used to put score cards. I chose this game because I liked it and wanted to be a basketball player. There was no wavering. In fact, I was not so tall at that time. I used to dribble and pass the ball to colleagues. I was about 5'8". I grew this tall later.

It was unfortunate we were caught in that period of bad administration. There was not much exposure. There were no Test matches and there was no help for the players. There was hardly any TV coverage. The players get more exposure now, like they did in the Asian junior championship in Bangalore. Had there been such TV coverage then my game would have been appreciated more as it was in the Kobe championship and Seoul in 1995 where I scored 30 points in every match.

Another disturbing factor is that the BFI had a good chance to start a professional league in the late 80s. McCarthy was very much interested in adding India to the pro circuit, but the BFI let go that great chance without responding to his call. Players like me and so many talented ones would have benefited in many ways. That would have lifted Indian basketball to greater heights in a short period. There was a chance for me to play in the Norway league. Golsburg called me in 1995. But that year the league was cancelled there because of sponsorship problem. Otherwise I would have played like Robinson, who is participating in an Iranian league now. Things are better now in the BFI. I am getting a lot of enquiries about players in my website. The BFI needs to be more positive in helping top players to go for various pro leagues.

How do you rate the present BFI?

As a former junior International we all expect a lot from the BFI Secretary, Harish Sharma. When he was in Chennai he said he wanted some more time to put things in order. He must find the right people who should share the responsibility and do their work professionally.

What the BFI needs is a representative in each zone to coordinate the promotion work there and the Federation must coordinate their work to bring all the talented players under one roof to train them. A lot of Indians are playing abroad and they all seek information from here. In fact, a NRI tycoon is associated with an NBA team. So there is tremendous scope for Indian players to go and play there. It is the duty of the Federation to open the avenue for the players. Former internationals must also come forward and share the responsibility in taking the game forward.

Then there must be an open and frank selection system to take the best. After I took part in the Asian Allstar tournament I was dropped from the Indian team the very next year. It surprised me and there was no one to question this decision. The selection trials clashed with the Allstar tournament, but I explained my position and expressed my willingness to play. But I was dropped. Such selection method can do more harm than good.

Then the Arjuna Award. I was a victim. My name was recommended in 1998, but there was no backing. Sajjan and Parminder Singh (Sr) got after a long gap, but an Asian Allstar player was left out. I wanted to take legal action. But I dropped that idea because it would affect all basketball players in the long run. The BFI should back deserving players to the hilt.

What is to be done to take India to the top in Asia?

As it stands now India can work hard to be in the top four. We have players to do that. What we need is more coordination among the BFI officials, coaches and players to do that. But it is difficult to be in the first two as China is way ahead. We have to start the Pro league first and modernise our coaching system. Various combinations have to be tried and go for more pressure defence. All the top 10 teams in the country must play pressure defence. At present the Indian team plays the same pattern in every match. But we must change our approach and assess the rival strengths and weaknesses to choose the right players for that game. Then only we can achieve better results in Asian championships. In the 70s and early 80s the former BFI Secretary P. N. Sankaran used to bring foreign teams for Tests and that helped more local players to see and play against various teams. The BFI must revive such Tests. Cuba's Oveido was the best foreign coach we had. We need such a coach. I picked up a lot from him. As a former World Cup star he taught us many things. If Oveido is here now he would work wonders with players like Robinson, Shabeer and Sridhar. The game is basically how to `cheat' the rivals. The more quickly you `cheat' them with your sharp athleticism and thinking, it is better for your team.

What does the Indian team lack technically?

I have done a small study of our matches. Whenever our ball possession was high we did extremely well. Whenever we lost ball possession quickly the team failed miserably. This is because we play very loose in domestic tournaments. This is why I say the Federation must give clear instructions to all the coaches and teams that they must play more full court press and pressure defence. In fact, when the Indian team played against Korea in one ABC tournament our team had very high ball possession because of strong rebounding and man-to-man defence and we gave them a tough fight. Whether it is domestic or international we don't have a game plan. This is our weakness and we lack ideas when under pressure. Now tall and athletic boys are coming and we have to mould them. This moulding is also important and we have to bring them together to achieve better results. Another drawback is that all our top tournaments are conducted without 24 seconds and other time clocks. This is bad and the players are tuned to this type of `guessing' game. But when I provided them all these in my tournament the performance of teams was excellent.

Whether it is competition or administration the South is better organised, except perhaps Punjab. How can one bring about an overall development of the game in the country?

It may be true to some extent. But there are a lot of basketball activities at the school and college levels in north. They all show keen interest in participating in my All-India inter-school tournament. The only thing is that they do not go beyond that to the senior level. There are job opportunities here and the interest is kept alive too. I have played for 11 years and Indian Bank is looking after me well.

How do you assess Tamil Nadu's performance in the recent National championship in which it lost after winning the title five times in a row?

Indian Bank played a practice match before the team left for the Nationals. I was not satisfied with their defence. Shabeer's rebounding was missing. They should look for more 6'7" or 6'8" players to fill Shabeer's place. We won because of our excellent rebounding against Parminder, quick counter-attack and fast break. Coach Senthu knows that. Tamil Nadu can come back because there is so much depth of talent here.