The city of Kolkata is no stranger to sporting greatness. Eyes still light up in the coffee houses and bars of the city at any mention of the great Pele’s visit with the New York Cosmos side in 1977; it is recounted with gleam in eyes how Mohun Bagan’s goalkeeper Sibaji Banerjee had leapt in the air in the closing stages of the match to snatch the ball away from a volleying Pele’s feet to deny him a goal and keep the score at 2-2.
Notwithstanding the fact that India hardly figured on the footballing map of the world, approximately 20,000 people had braved the rain and turned up at the Kolkata airport for a glimpse of the Brazilian that day, and 75,000 people had turned up for the match at the Eden Gardens.
Three and a half decades later, when another luminary from the same sport, Lionel Messi, visited the city with the Argentine national side, there was similar frenzy. Traffic came to a standstill for a day, the number of people with blue streaks on faces or shirts increased exponentially as one neared the stadium, and at the gates of the hotel where the Argentines were put up, people were climbing on top of each other. Kolkata takes its sporting legends seriously.
However, when in November 1998, one sporting luminary played a whole tournament in Kolkata, displaying sparkling form and leading his team to the crown, there was no hold-up in traffic. Records of the visit that can be found are few and sketchy, but there is no doubt that this tournament came at a crucial juncture of this legendary player’s then-fledgling career.
For years afterwards, this player refers to the final of this Kolkata tournament as being the most memorable match of his life.
Eighth wonder of world, unrecognised in India
The player in question is Yao Ming – one of the greatest players in the history of basketball, the fourth tallest professional in the NBA, and possibly the most recognisable athlete from our continent.
Yao Ming’s prodigious height had made waves in his native China and by 1998, the 17-year-old had attracted scouts from NBA who wanted to verify reports of a 7’5’’ Chinese centre who seemed to be the next big thing in the sport. Yao was taken along by Nike to the USA for a series of training camps, where the legendary Michael Jordan had been so impressed that he had picked up the phone to arrange a professional contract for the Chinese teenager in America.
It would be four more years before Yao would finally manage to seal the deal to move to the USA, but the impact he had made on that visit was marked – an article in the Indianapolis Star from July 1998 gushes, “His name is Yao Ming, and on the basketball court he is the eighth wonder of the world. He is only 17 years old, but compared with other young basketball players, he stands out as a crane among chickens.”
Later the same year, Yao Ming travelled with the U-18 Chinese national team to participate in the Asian Basketball Championship, to be hosted at the Netaji Indoor Stadium. Yao’s fame may have travelled across to the USA, but in India, there was no similar recognition. China, starting out as defending champions but unbothered by any fanfare, lost only the second match of their campaign to Lebanon, but bounced back the very next day with a 115-42 trouncing of Hong Kong.
As hosts India, led by the charismatic S Robinson, exited the tournament at the group stages, China marched on, set for a collision course with Qatar in the final, who had maintained a winning streak till then.
Most memorable match from pre-NBA days
The curious structure in which sports are organised in China sets their country’s athletes apart from the others in how they think while in action. Yao’s parents were ‘brought together’ by the authorities in marriage during the sixties because they had been the tallest man and woman respectively in Shanghai.
When the Chinese Basketball Association was formed in the 90s, individual statistics for scoring and rebounding were not recorded. When Yao was asked in the USA to recount his favourite match, his answer was in keeping with this Chinese tradition of putting the team above self – “When our national team won the Asian junior championship in ‘98. We beat Qatar, and I had 17 blocks.”
China beat Qatar 59-45 to defend their U-18 crown, and unsurprisingly, Yao Ming was named the MVP of the tournament. When Grammy-winning band Mumford and Sons had toured Kolkata in 2009, before their days of recognition, a handful of people had turned up at their show and a woman had reportedly shouted at them to go home. Nobody had shouted at Yao Ming to go home, but the silence at the award ceremony must have been equally deafening.
Major basketball international tournaments in India are few and far between, but 2017 is a rare year – India have been awarded hosting rights of the 1st FIBA Asia Women’s Cup and the 5th FIBA Asia U-16 Championship for Women.
Presumably, there will be scant interest in these events, but when the U-17 Football World Cup comes around later in the year, the babus of Bengal may be expected to march to the Salt Lake Stadium, training their eyes to spot in the tiniest nuance of movement or shot placement the next Pele or the next Messi.Published 03 Feb 2017, 19:24 IST