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Restart Game: The UBA League brings an exciting new avenue for Indian Basketball

You end game, you stop, you restart, you try again.

UBA League
Players in action during a UBA League match

Real life doesn’t offer a second chance like video games do. In a game, you load your guns, shoot at the bad guys, get hit, and die. You play against an opponent and allow three goals in the first half. You are left in-charge of a few angry birds that don’t succeed angrily enough.

You end game, you stop, you restart, you try again.

In Indian sports, progress has come across the banner, from the most popular sport to the most obscure. Over the past few years, professional sporting leagues have been launched in cricket, football, hockey, badminton, wrestling, tennis, and even kabaddi, a sport so obscure internationally that India has won every World and Asian tournament ever held.

But basketball – unlucky with feigning corporate support and suffering the side-effects of a vicious political fight back home – continued to miss the boat. While Asian and global opponents fortified their domestic basketball structure, created leagues and professional opportunities for their best players, and eventually, saw their efforts trickle down to improve the quality of their national teams, India remained several steps behind.

Our best international basketball performances felt like miracles, because our structure back home hardly seem to prepare us for international success and improvement. Unsurprisingly, the moments of success and improvement over the last four decades have been few and far in-between.

Without a professional league in India, our best players have remained semi-pros, and thus, basketball has been a risky career alternative for the country’s youth. Without the league structure offering regular high-level competition for best players, the inexperience of these players is exposed internationally.

Without this professional league, basketball hasn’t received the media and mainstream visibility it deserves, and the financial growth of the sport has suffered as a result.

But perhaps, there is a chance to try again, to give the sport the boost it needs from a different angle. And through the early steps of their basketball league, the Universal Basketball Alliance (UBA India) is trying to do just that.

You end game, you stop, you restart, you try again.

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It started, as it always should, with the grassroots.

A few years ago, UBA India invested their interest in the All India University Basketball tournament, which – in its preliminary stages – combines so many colleges and universities around the country that the UBA billed it as the world’s largest basketball contest.

Working with the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) in a model structured much like the NCAA Basketball Tournament in the United States, the UBA strengthened their grassroots presence in India and grew connections with the best college-level players in the country.

The next step was to experiment with a short professional league, featuring many of the same players that starred in the university tournament. The first season of the UBA Basketball League was held in summer 2015. The UBA brought together teams representing eight different Indian regions – Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Pune – to Hyderabad for a two-week long competition.

The team colours, logos, jerseys, and names added an exciting new dimension to Indian basketball like never before. The league was short, and there was no ‘home-and-away’ format, but it was an encouraging start.

This year, the UBA Basketball League has doubled its efforts for the second season. After selection tryouts among hundreds of players in Bengaluru, the league launched Season 2 in two phases in two different cities – Pune and Hyderabad – last month and stretched out the schedule of games to nearly seven weeks. The first phase of games have already been held in Pune; the second phase is set to begin in Hyderabad.

Apart from an organized structure to Indian basketball, the UBA has also focused on bringing celebrities from other fields to attract fan attention. The trend began with Abhishek Bachchan in the University league and has continued into Season 2 of their Basketball League, too.

The second season was launched by Olympic medallist boxer MC Mary Kom and Bollywood actor Suniel Shetty. Investments have been made to bring celebrities like Neil Nitin Mukesh, Himesh Reshammiya, Ameesha Patel, and others daily.

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Mahesh Padmanabhan is one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of elite-level basketball players of Indian origin born or raised outside of India. For over a decade, Padmanabhan, an Australian son of immigrants from Chennai, strived to make his hoop dreams into a reality.

The 6-foot-1 combo guard played in semi-professional leagues in Australia while working as a physiotherapist on the side.

But for Padmanabhan, just like for other Indian-origin ballers abroad, basketball nirvana ironically lay not in Australia but the country where he claimed his roots: India. In an interview last year, Padmanabhan told me that he was waiting for that opportunity to bring his brand of hoop excellence back to India, to find an opportunity for himself, and concurrently, contribute to the growth of Indian basketball, too.

While he mulled over his future options, thousands of kilometres away in India, the first steps of that opportunity were beginning to come to life. Padmanabhan heard about the UBA League through some friends in an international tournament, and after learning more from UBA Director Deepesh Solanki, he realized that he finally had the outlet for playing basketball in India that he had been yearning for.

“The league is a huge deal,” Padmanabhan, who plays for the Hyderabad Sky, said, “It’s a well overdue platform for Indians who aspire to play or be involved in basketball. For me, personally, it provides an avenue to pursue in terms professional sports. These are very exciting times for the basketball scene in India.”

“The standard of basketball has been good so far,” he added, “The more India can be influenced by the international frontrunners and leaders in the sport, the better. The seeds are being planted for the UBA to be an internationally respected league.”

Several well-known names, young and old, domestic and international, have been attached to the league this season, giving it a higher profile among the media and garnering interest among India’s basketball fraternity.

These include India internationals Gurvinder Singh Gill, Narender Grewal, Vinay Kaushik, and Joginder Singh, the talented Nigerian guard Chukwunanu Agu, up-and-coming players Ranbir Singh, Ashiv Jain, and Sanjeev Kumar, and former international Jagdeep Singh Bains, among others.

Veteran basketball coaches like Prasanna Jayasankar, Shiba Maggon, and PC Antony have also brought in their hoops knowledge to the league to elevate the level of play for the second season. Former international player, Norman Isaac of the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), is the Technical Commissioner of the League.

One of the exciting young talents who joined UBA’s Mumbai Challengers this season was Prudhvi Reddy. Born in a small village in Andhra Pradesh, Reddy dreamt ambitious hoop dreams, and then, broke the mould by actually finding a way to chase them.

His dream of basketball excellence took him to the Europe Basketball Academy in Barcelona, the Christian Life Center Academy in Texas, and to India’s youth and junior national teams.

And it was back in India – like Padmanabhan – where the 19-year-old Reddy found the next step of his career with the UBA. The Challengers – a team of veteran stars – made Reddy, one of the youngest players in the tournament, their third pick.

“For me especially, this league is best place to showcase and let the whole nation know who I am and what my capabilities are,” Reddy told me, “I'm really excited to play this league because I feel the competition level is good. I would say the future of Indian pro basketball looks great in the long run because we get a chance to keep getting better.”

“After playing abroad I feel the standard [of the league] is close to the international level,” Reddy said, “The games are played live and we as players are treated as professionals. The live telecast of the games is the best part!”

*

As Reddy suggested, live telecast of the league has indeed been one of the major ways to bring credibility to the new venture and harness fans’ interest. Ten Network channels Ten Sports, Ten Action, and Ten HD have the rights to show the second season of the UBA Basketball League live in India, the first time that a private channel (as opposed to the government-backed Doordarshan or DD Sports) is showing live domestic basketball in the country.

Ten Network channels will be broadcasting matches of the second season

Players in the league are able to find pride that their work is being appreciated and young basketball players are finally able to find inspiration and role models on the top players on screen.

Dividing the teams between franchises from Indian cities helps, too. There is nothing like good friendly competition among different regions in the country. This can help further build a fan-base, create rivalries, and strengthen the relationship between the team and its ‘home’ city.

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Of course, the UBA Basketball League is still a work in process, a piece of clay being moulded to fit around the requirements and possibilities in the Indian market. One of the major next steps will be to expand the format to mirror a bigger, broader league.

From the first season to the second, the league has moved to two cities; in the future, the ideal solution will be for it to be held in a home-and-away style in each of the participating cities. Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Pune all have decent basketball stadiums and growing interest among the youth in the sport.

If the UBA is able to bring its league with regular games in all of these cities, they will be able to stir the new basketball audience around India.

With expanded ‘home’ bases, the hope is that the league will get longer, too, with more games spread across a larger span of time. This will keep high-level league basketball close to India’s mainstream news cycle for a longer period, and with a bigger stage, raise the stakes further at securing the title.

Expanding the league’s length will also ensure that the players employed by the league are employed for a longer time, and thus, can earn more regularly off of basketball instead of their other professions.

Finally, interest and credibility for the UBA League will peak once the talent peaks. Although there is a deeper talent pool participating in the league’s second season, many of India’s finest basketball players still haven’t opted to join in.

Several veteran regular India internationals, such as Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Yadwinder Singh, Arvind Arumugam, Trideep Rai, and more are still not part of the league yet, devoted to their clubs/units (like ONGC).

Others, like Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh, have taken their talents to Japan, while Palpreet Singh is devoted to the ACG NBA Jump programme. It doesn’t yet make sense of these players to sacrifice their employment for a short-term basketball league, but if the financial incentives, timing, and the potential of making basketball a full career can work of them, expect more of these star players to take the UBA plunge in the future.

Like many of India’s other professional sports leagues, Indian basketball could use an infusion of international talents, too. Nigeria’s Agu and the Indian-Australian Padmanabhan are some of few foreign players in the UBA League so far.

Incorporating more would bring greater excitement to the league and help India’s players learn from those with international experience. As the league’s profile grows, watch this space for more foreign players – particularly those of Indian descent – turning their attention towards India like Padmanabhan did.

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But there is a question that silently hovers behind the optimism of this new league, mentioned only within inner circles, pencilled in as a future threat to the league’s further expansion: What about the BFI?

The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) have been India’s governing and organizing body of basketball for the past eight decades. They have held India’s state and national tournaments, chosen our national teams, and have been plotting their own professional league in partnership with their sponsors – IMG Reliance – for years.

While the BFI waited, postponed, and struggled with their own organizational issues, UBA swooped in and launched their small pro league before them.

The BFI’s biggest threat has been itself. Last year, the federation broke into two competing executive committees, with two competing presidents and general-secretaries, each one claiming to be the ‘rightful’ face of the BFI. With conflict that has since expanded to FIBA, the Indian Olympic Association, and the Government of India, itself, plans for the BFI league have been relegated to the waiting list.

Which is a pity. The BFI has deep relations into every Indian state, and each state federation stretches its tentacles out to nearly every Indian district. This expansive framework would’ve been the perfect building block for which to build upon that idealistic, national professional basketball league, something that truly mirrors Cricket’s IPL or Football’s ISL.

For now, however, BFI’s loss is UBA’s gain. Sports is an open market, and if the BFI couldn’t do enough in time to give Indian basketball players a professional option, then someone else had to get the get such a league kick-started. The UBA League isn’t what we envisioned, but it’s a new vision better than anything we had before.

It’s time to break out of the same rut, to take another chance.

It’s time to end game, stop, restart, and try again. 

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