A tall bald foreign male can be seen at almost every major basketball related event in India— intently watching proceedings, conducting training sessions or else signing autographs. He is ubiquitous— a messiah of the hardwood— considered by many Indians as the real face of the NBA— not Kobe, Lebron or Dwight. Who is this man you ask? He is none other than Troy Justice, the director of NBA operations in India.
Earlier this year, during the finale of the hugely successful 61st National Basketball Championships at Talkatora Stadium in Delhi, I had the chance to have a long chat with him. A lot has happened on the basketball front since then— with lockouts, Mahindra NBA Challenges across 5 cities and the recently concluded NBA Jam. Troy Justice remains as busy as ever. Here’s his take on basketball, NBA exhibition games in India, butter chicken in Ludhiana and a lot more…
Q: Its Christmas and New Year break. Don’t you miss being with your family?
Troy: I didn’t want to miss the nationals. The travel is tiring yes, but it’s totally worth it. These are my first nationals, so I’m obviously excited to meet the players individually and as a team. It gives me a chance to assess.
Q: So what is your assessment?
Troy: Two areas present the most opportunity for growth 1) Strength and conditioning across the board and, 2) fundamentals of individual and team defense: You know…How quickly they close out, hedging screens…that kind of stuff. And in these games that I have seen, Railways seem to be doing a great job in the above two areas, that’s why they are winning (Railways men ended up winning the National Championships for the 3rd straight time).
Q: I spoke to Anitha Pauldurai and she was telling me about her various knee injuries and surgeries, most of which are caused because of having to train on cement courts. In fact, the top ranked Indian Railways teams, both men and women, train on cement courts in Lucknow. What is the NBA doing for infrastructure development?
Troy: As representatives of the NBA, we have also been assisting the BFI in infrastructure development. We have refurbished 4 outdoor courts. Two in Chennai and two in Bombay. Refurbished outdoor courts are much cheaper than indoor wooden courts, and less impactful on the joints. They are also more durable.
Q: How much does this refurbishment cost? What material is it (in case others wish to take up the same)?
Troy: 15,000 dollars. It is the same material as the one used for tennis hardcourts like the US Open.
Troy: Satnam is doing well. Learning to get used to the food and picking up English.
Q: Isn’t it already too late for the current senior players to make it to the NBA? Do you have a cut off line in terms of who you work with? In other words, is your focus only on the younger generation of stars or are senior players benefiting as well?
Troy: 12 years to seniors, we work with everybody. So no line. We are looking at everything. I personally have worked with national players. Amrit Paul wasn’t in the Punjab team. Now he is. So here is a 24-25 year old who benefited. But yes, the future of the game is in the hands of the 12-13 yr olds of today.
Q: Tell us about the Mahindra NBA challenge. What’s new in the Mahindra NBA Challenge this year?
Troy: In India, the current structure is tournaments. Mahindra NBA Challenge is a league system where everybody plays for 8 weeks. We also select “All Stars” at the end of it.
This year is a lot different. From 3 cities, we are up to 5 cities. From 2500 players taking part, we now have 6000 players. We are training 600 coaches this year compared to 240 last year. To sum it up there is a focus on both player and coaching development. We are showing 100% growth every year. By next year we hope to expand to 10 cities and in two years expand to every big city.
Q: In the US, there are three big leagues, basketball (i.e. the NBA), American football (NFL) and baseball (MLB). The NBA seems to be the only league eager to expand and gain popularity around the world. Why do you think that is?
Troy: Many reasons. 1) Basketball is a global sport. American football isn’t. 2) India is the ideal place for the NBA to expand. Half the population is under 25. 3) There are talented athletes. 4) The current basketball community is so passionate. 5) Basketball is inexpensive. You just need a ball and a hoop.
Q: Is that really true? About basketball being an inexpensive sport? Heidi Ueberroth, NBA’s President of Global Marketing Partnerships and International Business Operations thinks otherwise. Look at the price of decent basketball shoes (basic basketball shoes from nike/adidas/reebok cost Rs 3000/- compared to football studs which you would get for half the price)…
Troy: Basketball becomes expensive once you decide to go pro. Then you need the best facilities, equipment and infrastructure. It is an inexpensive option when you initially start playing. I admit price of basketball shoes in India is a barrier. You get shoes for much cheaper in the US. But then Adidas is expanding their line.
Q: I spoke to Geethu Anna Jose earlier. She doesn’t have an agent. Young promising big man Dishant Shah does his own recruitment pitches with US colleges. What are you doing for player management, so that promising Indian stars can focus on the game and not have to worry about other stuff?
Troy: We are doing what we can to provide exposure opportunities for players. About Dishant, it has to be rest assured that his experiences are similar to what any high school prospect goes through in the US. Even there, young prospects apply to colleges by themselves. I have been in touch with Dishant. We have talked about things like nutrition- what to eat and not to eat. I spent 2 hours with Dishant Shah in the gym.
The NBA is here as a long term commitment. We just got here. We sent film to WNBA of Geethu which secured her a tryout, making her the first Indian player to do so. (Later on it was revealed that she didn’t make the cut.)
I have also sent game tape of Dishant to a contact of mine in lower to mid division schools in the US. Because right now, it is more important for him to play than sit on the bench, which is what would happen if Dishant was in the first division.
Q: Apart from promoting basketball, the NBA is also about philanthropic efforts through its charity arm ‘NBA Cares’. What drives your organization?
Troy: Our mission statement is simple. We have 2 core values: 1) To be the greatest basketball league 2) A commitment to authentic caring.
We (The NBA) are at the point in time when we are seeing unprecedented growth. It is about people. If you take care of people, treat them right, you will succeed.
Q: Have you come to India before? What have your experiences been like?
Troy: I first came here in 1991. I played against the JP Mishra coached Indian team in 1994. I have seen a lot of change in 19 years—for the good.
What I really noticed in India is the strength of the family unit. Here the guest is the king. It’s my honour to be here. I have so many friends in India. The thing that surprised me is the food. It is so much better here!
Q: Now that you have broached this subject. Tell us about your culinary experiences. What are your favourite Indian foods?
Troy: I have had butter chicken in Ludhiana. Chicken in Assam. Mumbai seafood. Indian Chinese. Butter Nan and Dal. At Ramajayam’s house (President of Tamil Nadu Basketball federation), I ate off a Banana leaf!
Q: When is the NBA opening its office in India?
Troy: The destination is not decided. We haven’t settled yet. No time to sit still!
Q: Dwight has come to India. So has Pao Gasol and Brandon Jennings. But what about Kobe, Lebron or dare I say it- the GOAT- MJ? Any chance of them visiting India? Because this will really make basketball huge. The media would go into a frenzy…
Troy: I understand that Kobe is more popular. Who they are (the NBA stars who will visit India) we can’t predict. The schedules are demanding. Every player wants to come to India for many reasons. The whole world is looking at India and wondering “What’s gonna happen there.”
Q: Ok that answer doesn’t really help! Any chance of an NBA Exhibition game in India?
Troy: It is definitely part of our long term plans. We would first need a professional playing arena. It’s a timeline thing really.
Q: Indian players are extremely humble and approachable. They have no airs about them. This is also partly because basketball in India is in no way as popular as cricket, where cricketers are viewed as Gods. Aren’t you afraid that one day when basketball becomes widely popular, the players will lose their humility? That success would go to their heads?
Troy: The NBA is the most popular basketball league in the world and NBA players are down to earth and giving. Also WNBA players. But yes, it is hard. Accessibility becomes a problem. It is almost impossible to reach Kobe.
But fame doesn’t spoil the game. At the end of the day, it is a good thing. It benefits India. Look at Sachin. He is a Global Ambassador, yet he is so humble.
Q: Are NBA stars aware of their sizable fan following in India?
Troy: Yes, they are aware of the fan base in India. Howard thought he knew, but only after coming to India did he really get the full picture. Dino, Lara and Ranbir had come to the US for Laker Games, and they met Kobe. So Kobe is getting an idea as well.
Q: How important is height?
Troy: People ask me that often. Height is not necessary. I tell them “quickness beats height”.