They rank at pitiful 58th in the world now, below the likes of Kazakhstan, Mali, Georgia, and Cape Verde. Since 1989, they haven’t finished higher than eighth place in the FIBA Asia Championship, and found themselves at 14th place out of 16 in the most recent tournament in China. They haven’t ever qualified for the FIBA World Championship and haven’t produced a notable star at the worldwide stage in their hoops history.
To the average basketball fan growing up in India of our generation, our national Men’s squad has been a disappointment, failing and falling short of expectations on a yearly basis, for so long that many of our expectations have stopped existing.
But there was a time when India’s basketball squad went through their own golden stage – an era when they were good enough for a top four finish in the Asian championships; an era when our men’s basketball squad held their heads up high to hear the Olympic anthem.
32 years ago, at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, India were amongst the 12 finalists in the Men’s basketball tournament. This was that first – and last – time that India played basketball at the Olympics. It was a last-place finish for the Indian squad who wasn’t even expected to be there, but for a country that has had no Olympic basketball exposure before or since, the Last Placed Legends of ’80 rank First in the country’s basketball history.
Before today’s Indian national squad stars like Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Jagdeep Singh, Yadwinder Singh, TJ Sahi, and Trideep Rai were even born, there was a team 32 years ago that played in the biggest basketball stage in the world. That squad was captained by the excellent Paramjit Singh and featured one of India’s greatest ever players in Ajmer Singh Chopra. While we watch the basketball tournament at the 2012 Olympics in London, let’s take a nostalgic journey back to 1980 when Indian basketball made history.
Media attention to basketball in India has always been scarce, and thus the history of this team remains limited to decades-old box scores and fading memories. What is for certain is that, although India stood one amongst the last 12 basketball teams in the Olympics in 1980, they were far from being one of the world’s top 12 basketball teams. They weren’t even Asia’s best squad. But a political decision elsewhere in the world, leading to several sporting decisions elsewhere in the world, led to a chain of events that brought India’s 12 best basketball players to the Former Soviet Union in July that year.
In late 1979, the Soviet Union began their invasion of Afghanistan with the first deployment on Christmas eve. The invasion fell to harsh reaction by several other countries in the world, and in April of 1980 – less than three months before the start of the Summer Olympics in the Soviet capital of Moscow – the United States of America’s president Jimmy Carter declared a boycott of the Olympics. The American contingent, including their basketball team, withdrew from the games altogether.
And that was a huge blow to world basketball: from 1936-1976, USA’s men’s team had won gold in eight of the nine tournaments and an incredible 72 of 73 Olympic basketball games. Their only loss came in the final of the 1972 championship in Munich to – who else? – but the Soviet Union in controversial fashion. USA made amends for ’72 with a victory in ’76, which guaranteed them automatic qualification for the 1980 tournament.
The other teams that qualified for the 1980 tournament were the Soviet Union (hosts), Yugoslavia (FIBA World Champions), Senegal (African Championship winner), China (Asian Championship winner), and Australia (Oceania Championship winner). The remaining six berths were decided via pre-Olympic qualifying tournaments, which went to Puerto Rico, Canada, Argentina, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Spain.
But after the US announced their boycott, countries which political and economic ties with the US followed suit and withdrew their squads, too. Teams from the USA, followed by China, Puerto Rico, Argentina, and Canada stayed out of the Olympic basketball tournament. Brazil, Cuba, Sweden, and Poland made up for four of the five replacement squads based on their performance in earlier qualifiers. 1980 is only year since the inception of Men’s Basketball in the Summer Olympics in 1936 in which the American Men’s team has not participated.
There was one spot for Asian teams at the tournament, and China – winners of the 1979 FIBA Asia Championship in Nagoya, Japan, had withdrawn. And then, the second, third, and fourth place countries from the 1979 championship – Japan, South Korea, and Philippines – withdrew from the Olympics, too. This left the Asian spot free for the lucky fifth place finishers. Which was…
Unexpected, unprepared, and underdogs, but here was India – a squad who hadn’t ever finished higher than fourth place in Asia – amongst the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Italy, Poland, Australia, Spain, Brazil, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and Senegal at the Olympics. The late 60s and 70s had been a great time for Indian basketball – its greatest time in history to date – and their weird journey, via war and politics, somehow rewarded players of this great era a berth in the Olympics.
India didn’t back away. 6 foot 2 point guard and captain Paramjit Singh led out the team, a roster which included 6’5” superstar Ajmer Singh, talented forward Shyam Radhey, Amarnath Nagarajan, Baldev Singh, Hanuman Rathore, Diniar Parvez Irani, Tarlok Singh Sandhu, Paramdip Singh, Dilip Gurumurthy, Jorawar Singh, and Harbhajan Singh (no relation to the Cricketer).
The tournament was held in Moscow from July 20-30, 1980. India were placed in Group A, along with hosts and now, the most confident team at the tournament, the Soviet Union, Brazil, who featured the legendary Oscar Schmidt, and Czechoslovakia. Group B consisted of Yugoslavia, Spain, Poland, and Senegal, and Group C rounded things up with Italy, Cuba, Australia, and Sweden.
And straight from the jump, India were thrown into the line of fire. The hosts – Soviet Union – gave India a not-so-friendly welcome, with a 121-65 drubbing in the first game. It was a balanced effort by the USSR, while India fought back with Ajmer Singh’s 22 point and 5 rebound effort. Despite the loss, Singh’s 10-16 shooting performance set the tone for his scoring barrage in the rest of the tournament.
India faced Czechoslovakia in Game 2: an easier opponent on paper, but on this day, not on the court. The Czechs were even tougher to stop than the hosts had and swept through India for a 133-65 win. This game was highlighted by a memorable one-on-one shootout between Ajmer Singh and Czechoslovakia’s Kamil Brabenec. Brabenec had 28 points to lead his side, but on the other end, he found Singh equally difficult to stop. Singh led all scorers with 35 points in another magnificent shooting display (17-24) from the field. Hanuman Rathore had 10 assists for India.
Having won their game against the Czechs in a thriller but lost to the Soviets, Brazil faced India in the last group game needing a win to secure their place in the Final Round. India were outmatched once again as Brazil raced to a massive first half lead and toyed with India to secure a 137-64 win. Ajmer Singh finally cooled down but India’s high man on this night was Shyam Radhey with 32 points. Brazil featured Oscar Schmidt, considered by many to be the greatest scorer in world basketball history. Schmidt had 26 points and 13 rebounds in this outing against India, while Ramon Marcel (24) and Marcos Abdala Leite (22) further added to India’s misery.
Finishing last in the group stage, India had to settle for Classification Round games, where they didn’t fare much better. Mieczyslaw Mlinarski (34) led Poland to a 113-67 win over India, who were once again led by Ajmer Singh (25).
India next played Senegal, and had their first decent half of the tournament, trailing the African champions just 37-31 at halftime. But Senegal’s Birejma Diagne (25 points, 12 rebounds) and Oumar Dia (24 points) were too hot to handle for the Indians, who were soundly beaten 81-59 by the end of the game.
Sweden defeated India 119-63 a day later behind 29 points by Roland Rahm. On the same day, Yugoslavia shocked the home crowd by beating the Soviet Union in the Semi-Final round of the championship.
0-6 and going into the last game against Australia for the 11th or the 12th place, India finally showed some determination that briefly raised some eyebrows. India again played a good first half, so good that they led Australia by four points – 41-37 – at the halftime break. The defensive strangle didn’t hold for too long though, as Australia – led by Ian Davies’ (the tournament’s leading scorer) 36 points and 11 rebounds – broke through to take the lead and eventually run past India for a 93-75 win. Ajmer Singh finished with 25 points for India. It was India’s ‘best loss’ of the tournament, if there is such a thing as a ‘good loss’.
Two days later, Yugoslavia and Italy faced off in the final of the tournament, which was won 86-77 by Yugoslavia. India finished the tournament 0-7 at 12th place.
Despite the obvious obliteration at the hands of much more talented teams from across the world, India took home more than a few positives. Their performance against Senegal, and later, the game against a considerably stronger Australia squad would be remembered by the players and their fans forever. At 21.3 points a game, Ajmer Singh finished the tournament with the eighth-best scoring average. Radhey Shyam (15.3 ppg) was the second-highest scorer for India and 19th overall. Both Ajmer and Shyam were later presented with the prestigious Arjuna Award.
And above all, there would be no tangible way of describing the experience – simply – of being there at the Olympics, wearing an ‘India Basketball’ shirt. Indian basketball players and fans will be watching the Olympics in London for the world’s best players and teams – from the USA, from Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Lithuania, Russia, and France – and more than a few will dream of seeing India amongst those names. Through a serious of unfortunate circumstances, it happened before. But can it happen – all fair and square – again?
Our basketball past is definitely more glorious than our present, but we can have some hope for the future. India’s basketball is on a fast growth curve, and our junior and youth squads have already made waves in Asian basketball championships. It may not happen for the players in this era, or even the next, but there is surely a day in the horizon where India can improve to become one of the top teams in the Asian continent. And the day when India’s 12 best basketball players can perhaps be good enough to hear the Olympic anthem again.