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Basketball and India

Journey to the heart of Indian basketball

Coach JD Walsh in Mumbai
(JD Walsh)

Basketball culture in India, in 2019, is connected better than ever before, thanks to social media, the growing presence of the NBA in the country, and the success of Indian players abroad. But of course, this wasn't always the case: before social media became ubiquitous, most young Indian players and interested coaches had little connect with the 'larger' hoops family in the country, except for the annual state and national tournaments, organised by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) or their various state federations.

But a disconnect of the game didn't mean that the game was absent: in every pocket of the country, grassroots interest for basketball was already growing. In some places, basketball had already been a decades-old tradition.

The federation itself had been active since the 1930s! The national team by then had already taken part in the Olympic games, dozens of Asian championships, and India had produced players who had gotten some recognition abroad, all before the cusp of the NBA's arrival in the country, and the explosion of online connectivity.

It was right before these years, the time of this 'tipping point' of basketball's growth, that American basketball coach and former member of the University of Maryland basketball team JD Walsh began to visit India to coach the game.

His JDBasketball School - which had begun in New York in 1998-had already expanded worldwide to camps in China, Dominican Republic, Italy, Qatar, Taiwan, and Israel. But it was a call to India in 2007 that altered the course of Walsh's plans, and then set him on a course for an adventure to find passionate basketball lovers across the breadth of the country.

Walsh, who now lives back in his native New York and does colour commentary for the New York Tech basketball team, took time to recall his hoop adventures around India, and what he hopes to see for the growth of the future of Indian basketball.

How the India-connect began…

I was coaching in China at the time, doing a lot of work with the Chinese Basketball Association. Out of nowhere, I got an email from [an event manager] in Pune, inviting me to India. At the very same time, I was introduced to a friend who was on the board of an orphanage in Kashmir.

At that time, I had done a lot of NGO work and high-level skills programming with Palestinian kids and other kids in conflict zones, so I was very interested. I started planning my first visit in November 2006 and came in 2007.

First impressions…

Before I got on the plane, I googled 'India basketball' and nothing would come up. A country of a billion people, and there was nothing on the web! I didn't know anything back then, if people played basketball, at what level.

In Pune, we had to hold the camp early in the morning because it was so hot and we were using an outdoor court. But I was impressed by how well organised the programme was-all the players and coaches were ready to go. I got the good 'India hospitality' there, and it was my first indoctrination with what we know as the 'Indian heart'. The programme went very smoothly. The players were talented but still very raw.

Then I went to Kashmir. It was such a unique place. Everyone tells you about how beautiful it is, and yes, it was just that. It was a completely different basketball programme, where I was working with orphan children, those in social rehabilitation. It was different from Pune, where we had focused on more high-level stuff. I connected with India's former national captain Jayasankar Menon, who came up to Srinagar and did a great job coaching the kids. The whole experience was such a stark contrast to Pune.

A six-year run

I fell in love with India straight away. There was so much opportunity to do everything. There was so much hunger here in the coaches and the players. Around that time, the game in US game was starting to become very corporate. I started to come back more often.

I got connected with the BFI, got to meet all the people in India at that time who were leading the charge of basketball. A lot of people started inviting me back, and from then, I really started getting overtures from all over the country. It was a six-year run when I was always traveling.

In 2009 and 2010, I co-partnered with George Mason University to win a US Department State International Sports Programming Initiative, a two-year grant to promote cross-cultural goodwill and ambassadorship between the US and India.

I saw almost all of the country-except the Taj Mahal and Goa! I was always working, never had time to travel. Around the time, the NBA came into India in a big way, and the BFI made a deal with IMG-Reliance, and all of this helped to grow and spread the game.

Indian basketball memories…

There are so, so many good memories. For my first few years, the heart and soul of Indian basketball was in Chennai. I did a camp in Mizoram, and they're basketball crazy up there! And ever since then they've started a pro-league up there, and that blows me away.

I've met so many diverse people in India, all of whom really love basketball. I worked out with the national team in Bangalore and Delhi. In Mumbai, which is a city like New York that has a lot going on, it's a worldly city where they were very familiar with the NBA.

The pick-up games there were amazing. In Kerala, working out with young Muslim women was an incredible experience. They played in their full burkha while they dribbled and shot from distance!

I was doing a clinic in Kerala, and an elephant came in and dunked a basketball… that was kind of unexpected! It was pre-social media, otherwise, I would have definitely filmed it.

There was so much happening that was so unexpected. I just grew and learned from the experience… The passion and energy of the people in basketball in India made a strong impression on me.

Growth of Indian Basketball

I think the base of the talent is already there. The coaches in various basketball associations, in Maharashtra or Karnataka or wherever, have been working on this stuff for a long time. Maybe their level was a little different at that time, but they've improved their own skills just by watching the game online. Now they have to take the next level.

That's one of the things I was working on in India with the BFI: a programme to teach the coaches.

But basketball is definitely rising in India, and I would say that social media has a lot to do with it. Now players can get recognition. Back in 2007-08, there just weren't that many avenues. Now there's more reason and incentive for players to improve.

On the future of Indian basketball…

I'm still waiting for that ball-handler to come out of India that can be the best the world. Because for ball-handling, all you need is a ball… and a floor. So, I'm waiting for that kid that can blow the world away with his ball-handling tricks.

The game of basketball globally is getting better and better, and I think India can take its place up there. A lot of it has to do with the basketball talent in India. But it's also to do with the human-resource talent, which teaches what it takes to be a good teammate from the Indian value system, that 'Indian heart'!

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