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Capital Gains: A short story of Basketball in Delhi

“Delhi is the center – it features everyone from all over the country, people from near and far who make this city their home.”

“Delhi is the center – it features everyone from all over the country, people from near and far who make this city their home.”

Chander Mohan, an executive member of the Delhi Basketball Association (DBA) and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) paused as he said this, and then added, “This means that basketball in Delhi is a focal point of all these different people from different places too: players who come here to study, to work, and become part of the city’s basketball culture. This is the capital, and the central station for basketball in India.”

The story of basketball in Delhi is a long and not-always-successful one: it may be the central station for the game in India – after all, the head office of the BFI lies in India’s capital city – but for most of its nearly 60 year history, basketball in Delhi rarely produced the kind of talent, results, and fan frenzy that has been present in a few other parts of India.

Luckily for all those connected with the game in the city, things are changing rapidly for the better.

The 62nd Junior National Basketball Championship is being held at the Thyagraj Stadium in New Delhi from July 5th-12th: a sprawling stadium with one of the best indoor multi-sport facilities available in India, Thyagraj is playing host to 26 boys’ and 25 girls’ teams for this under-18 championship.

The Thyagraj Stadium is just one of many new stadia built to support the growth of sports in New Delhi, the root of which of course goes back to the 2010 CommonWealth Games in the city. Much-maligned by dubious scam-claims and corruption accusations, the 2010 CWG at least provided one sure-fire, long-term benefit to the city: the construction of world-class sporting infrastructure. Basketball wasn’t even included in the CWG sporting line-up, but with the stadia free, the BFI came calling to ensure it would make full use of the facilities.

The most-recent Senior Nationals, which concluded in the first week of January, were held at the glossy Talkatora Indoor Stadium. At this time, another sprawling facility, the Indira Gandhi Stadium, is being occupied by Indian Senior and Youth male and female basketball players, who are taking part in National camps at the KD Jadhav Indoor Hall in preparation for FIBA Asia events later in the year. With the Thyagraj Stadium offering three indoor, fully air-conditioned, and wooden basketball courts for the Junior Nationals, the current championships have made history by providing indoor facility for every single game played at the nationals.

Delhi has always had good infrastructure, but it has never been this good. It has always had basketball, too: Delhi’s hoops history traces back almost as far as the history of the BFI – with DBA was formed in the early 50s with the mission of creating a basketball culture, holding championships, and ultimately, promoting the game in the city. “The DBA is one of the oldest basketball associations in India,” said Ashok Rangeen, the treasurer of the DBA and joint-secretary of the BFI, “It has been regularly conducting coaching camps and championships in the city for players of all levels – U14, U16, U18 and Senior – and of both genders.”

Despite this history, Delhi used to lag behind when it came to producing National-level talent from the city, as compared to other states in India. But over the past decade, even this equation has flipped. “Delhi has done well in helping to mould players to become stars for India,” said Mohan, “These days, the Indian National team, especially the woman’s one, is full of Delhi-based players.”

And this is certainly true: even the current Indian Senior Woman’s squad, formed by new Woman’s coach Pete Gaudet, features five players currently based from Delhi – Prashanti Singh (the most recent Indian captain), Akanksha Singh, Raspreet Sidhu, Harjeet Kaur, and Asha Hedge. Rangeen added: “The number of star players from Delhi has multiplied – it reflects on the success of the game here.”

What is more inspiring, perhaps, is that fans in the city are becoming more aware of the game – from casual games pick-up games at Siri Fort to competitive matches at Vasant Kunj there is a definite increase in the numbers of basketball players as well as basketball fans in the city, the proof of the latter which is evident by the increased attendance during the Nationals and other basketball-related events.

“There are over 20 school, college, and open basketball tournaments or leagues that are held regularly in New Delhi,” said Rangeen, “These have really help in popularising the game here.”

Both Mohan and Rangeen spoke about DBA’s scheme to ‘Catch them young’ – promoting the game amongst younger players to make them hoop-aficionados at an earlier stage. The first School Basketball League was held amongst 10 boys’ and 10 girls’ schools in Delhi last year, and became the most popular of such events. Sponsored by IMG-Reliance, who have been supporting the BFI for over a year now, the school league saw the emergence of some great young talent from the city. Several of the successful players from this league are now featuring in Delhi’s Youth and Junior teams. The School League is also just the first step – sometime this year, expect to see an IMG-Reliance backed College League in the city too, played in a similar, popular home-and-away league-cum-knockout system.

This effort to ‘Catch them young’ wasn’t born overnight, though: the DBA has been improving its efforts to raise the standards of the younger players in the city for the past 10 years. “We have improved a lot at the Junior, Youth, and Sub-Junior level over the last decade,” said Rangeen, “Over the last year, our Sub-Junior boys squad showed a good performance at the Kangra Nationals, and our Youth Boys won the recently completed Youth Nationals at Nagpur.”

On the Senior level, it is the Delhi woman, powered by the National-level players mentioned above, who have been dominating the game over the last decade. Delhi have found themselves in the Finals of nearly every Senior National Championship in recent years, only to lose out to their biggest foes – Indian Railways – at most occasions.

Outside of the official events, there is a lot more basketball to be found in the city. The second season of the NBA’s Mahindra Challenge, an inner-city recreational basketball league, brought the game to Delhi with Junior and Senior competitions in late 2010/2011. This league saw frenzied participation from several schools and amateur clubs in and around Delhi.

No mention of ‘Delhi’ and ‘club league’ can be completed without mentioning the Prithvi Nath Club (PNC): For years, the PNC was host to Delhi’s only All-India club basketball championship – the Master Prithvi Nath Memorial Basketball Tournament – before construction-work halted the annual tournament three years ago. This year, there was a quick, smaller replacement, as the Reebok IGMA Basketball Association (RIBA) League helped in bringing back all-India club basketball to the city.

With the youth in the city all set to become the future faces of the game, and the present seniors doing a good job at representing the city, there is no doubt that the capital will continue to become a major force for basketball events and attraction in the future.

As for now, we come back to the Thyagraj Stadium, India’s best Junior players are enjoying basketball facilities and infrastructure of the highest quality. In less than a week’s time, the Stadium will host a different kind of basketball talent: the Indian Sr. Men’s team, in practice at the IG Stadium currently with Coach Kenny Natt, will take part in a SAARC countries qualifying tournament at the Thyagraj Stadium for a spot in the 26th FIBA Asia Basketball Championship that will be held in Wuhan (China) later in this year. From July 13-15th, India’s finest players will be in Delhi, along with players from Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.

The capital has already brought together talent from all over the country – with its recent steps forward to become a home for hoops, it could be bringing more and more talent from the world to its shores.

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