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Indian basketball players speak: "The game must go on for the sake of the country."

A number of Indian basketball players spoke up about India's participation in the South Asian Games and the condition of basketball in India

Indian team at the South Asian Games in 2010

When a international competition looms ahead, it should be all that the players have to worry about. They ought to be planning their strategy and ironing out their gameplan. It gets doubly difficult to look forward and focus on your opponent while looking in the rear view mirror and wondering if you are caught up in any crossfire.

The 2016 South Asian Games are set to be held in Guwahati and Shillong from 5th February. Eight countries will be participating in 23 sports, or it may be 22 sports for India as there is a question mark hanging over the status of India's participation in basketball at the event which India is hosting.

India may not even have a basketball team to field in the South Asian Games. Several players spoke under the condition of anonymity about what they are going through and the condition of basketball in India. However objective one may try to be, one's views tend to gravitate towards one side or the other. When an issue is as contentious as the current precarious state of basketball in India, it is difficult to remain objective without picking sides.

Without pointing fingers at either faction of the BFI, or the IOA, or FIBA, or anybody else for that matter, one can definitely pick one side: that of sport of basketball itself. And make no mistake, it is currently the losing side.

A sport divided

The BFI is divided in two factions. Mr. K Govindraj leads a faction which has FIBA approval, running domestic and international events. Poonam Mahajan and Roopam Sharma head the other faction which has the approval of the IOA and they conduct domestic events. And in the middle of this tug of war we have the players who have to tiptoe and not offend either side.
 
BFI claims that the Karnataka High Court has issued a stay order against the IOA's ad hoc committee. The IOA contests that the order is valid against the ad-hoc committee only, not the IOA itself. One player has said "Nobody is backing the players in this. We are the ones who are stuck in the middle of this seemingly endless tug of war.”

As the court comes in session on the 1st February, perhaps more light will be shed on the matter as the BFI has stated that it will settle on a course of action on the 1st. The IOA and Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports have been directed to appear in court on 1st February.
 
The selections for SAG were held on 30th January at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in Delhi. The players were uncertain about the entire status of the competition until just two days prior to that. Yet, operating on a two day notice, the players dropped everything and turned up for the selections. There were approximately 135 players for the open tryouts in the men's team and around 25 for the women's team.
 
The players were adamant about one thing: "The game must go on, the country cannot be let down. The state of basketball in India has decayed by 20 years in the current situation.” Yet the status of the team is unclear. The players do not know what action BFI is looking to take against them for participating.

Trials on multiple fronts

Trials for Indian basketball men's and women's team for the SAG were held at Indira Gandhi Stadium, Delhi on 30th January. This was called for by the IOA. The BFI had sent a letter to the associations and federations, warning them that if players are sent to the camp, it will be at their own risk. Here is a copy of that letter:
Indian basketball players are risking their careers to play for India

The players did not know if they will be participating until two days before the camp. The threat in the letter is evident and no player wants to have action taken against them for attempting to represent the country. The Railways, ONGC, and other employers of the players told the players to go for the trials in Delhi, and they adhered to the directions from their employers.

“It is tough for employers too to understand what to do with their players in these circumstances.“ one player said. “There is lot of time and money going in vain because of all the confusion. The team is currently sweating hard in training without knowing what the future holds.” the player added.

The last time SAG were held, Indian basketball team finished second after losing to Afghanistan. The SAG will now collide with a tournament supposed to happen in Dubai. The South Asian Games are scheduled to have the basketball events from 11 to 16 February. The players representing India at the South Asian Games are scheduled to be at Guwahati on 8th February. While the players participating in the tournament in Dubai are scheduled to leave on 11 February.

Having two events at coinciding times can be seen as a result of conflicting directions arising from conflicting interests of conflicting parties.

“The BFI decided to send a team to Dubai once the players were heading to Delhi for the IOA trials. When we started training for the SAG, we got a letter to participate in another tournament.“ a player said.

The selection were set to commence at 10 AM. Some contingents arrived late as their train was delayed. For them selections were held again. This shows how rushed the entire process was as the state bodies were only informed on the 26th to send players for the trials.

One can imagine the status of the support staff if the players were so rushed. "The Indian team is without a physiotherapist. In the event of an injury the players have to fend for themselves for the most part." another player said.

Confusion in competition

Indian national basketball calendar is far from packed. Besides the nationals and federation cup, we barely have a few invitational tournaments happening through the course of a year. The players need to be competing in order to play at their peak level.

The National championship was held in Mysore from 9 to 16 January. But the players are yet to get participation and merit certificates for playing because the senior national championship is still not recognized by SAI and IOA. The cash prize was just Rs 75000 for champion team of 15 members. That comes down to Rs 5000 each.
Some time ago it was around Rs 1,50,000. The players also used to get a monthly honorarium from the BFI but that stopped around 2013.

"Ideally a country ought to reward performance and representation in a sport at the international level. But with all the confusion it becomes difficult for the players to get meaningful reimbursement or accolades for their performance.” a player said.

The Nationals were not endorsed by SAI or the IOA

Yet as the championship concluded in January, the status of the team is unclear. The players do not know what action BFI is looking to take against them for participating. One player lamented the situation saying “The game should not stop. Sri Lanka has been conducting its camp for the past month. They have the advantage of preparation. The Indian selection has just concluded and there will be a week long camp before the competition. This makes it difficult for us to find consistency. While India has dominated competition in the Indian subcontinent, when one is not prepared any standard of competition is too high."

The selectors for this camp included Mr. Ram Kumar and Mr JN Nehra. Mr Ram Kumar is a Dhyanchand Awardee with years of coaching experience. Mr Nehra is an experienced senior SAI coach who is also in charge of the Indira Gandhi Stadium as a coach. The players are at least in good hands with such experience guiding them.

In the ongoing feud between the two factions of the BFI and the ever present influence of different federations and associations, there are no clear winners. But the players are adamant about one thing: "Whoever wins or loses control, basketball should not lose. The sport itself should not suffer." a player said.

The younger players are new to this scenario. One of them has said "The nation needs to take priority above all else. The South Asian Games are prestigious. We are hosting it and we ought to be well represented. Whichever body, either faction of the BFI or the IOA decides to handle it, the players should be allowed to play.”

One would think that the players are living in a state of constant confusion and despair. One would be right about the former, but the latter is debatable. The players are used to witnessing and being affected by politics at some form or the other.
 
Upon being asked about the reason the players continue to soldier on in a seemingly thankless situation, one of the players replied "When we picked up the ball, there were no big shots who put the ball in our hands. There were no selectors who ensured that we play. The elders, coaches, and teammates taught us about the game and it is to them that we have a responsibility. We cannot be influenced by those who do not support the sport. We play for the chance to represent our country.”

The players are in an unenviable position. Consistently having to look over their shoulder to see if there is a target on their back. Navigating the minefield of numerous bodies which are involved in the sport but are at loggerheads with each other.

"Don't insult the players and don't insult the sport. Whatever the issues between the officials and organizations, please sort it out among yourselves but ensure that the game does not suffer. Basketball is not a sport played among a handful of countries. It is a truly international sport. We should not allow infighting to interfere with India's participation." a player said.

There are almost a hundred countries ranked by FIBA and numerous others vying to climb on the rankings board. India's position has slipped in the rankings of late. "We have players like Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Talwinderjit Sahi, and more who are perennial faces of the Indian team in the lineup. They are here for a reason, to play and represent their country." another player added.

"If India fails to field a team in the South Asian Games, it will reflect very poorly on basketball as a whole and on the country itself. If the host nation cannot work out how to have a team representing a discipline in which India has excelled in, we will lose face in front of the world. The sport should not be insulted." he said.

Someone is definitely right here, and someone is in the wrong. The players are not pointing fingers at anybody. All they want is for the sport to go on. And they are under no illusion about their role with the basketball officials in India. One player said "If the players leave, the officials will not feel a pang of loss. It won't affect them.”

One hopes that India gets to field a team in the SAG without repercussions. The future of Indian basketball should be decided on the courts across the country. Not in courtrooms.
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