Mumbai runs fast.
There is a certain contradiction to that statement. This is, after all, the city with some of the most-notorious traffic jams in the world, with the breezy walks across the Marine Drive promenade, with the monsoon showers that bring all travel to an uncertain halt.
No, Mumbai's speed is more often a psychological sensation than a physical one. It's the speed of catching the morning commute, the pace of professional competition, the way real estate prices escalate, the speed of innovation, of art, of technology, of sports. It's the pace with which breakfast vada-pavs are quickly distributed, of the taxi-wallahs flipping on their metres without debate, of hordes rushing to catch the Local at CST, of the newest Bollywood starlet replacing the old, of business ventured launched, contracts signed, projects executed.
It's the speed of life.
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That particular speed translates on the basketball court, too. The 'Maximum City' becomes the 'Fastbreak City', where players are known to push the offense, stride quickly back-and-forth, up and down the floor, and use their skills and technique to overpower their opponents.
Through its unique basketball history, Mumbai has been one of the country's centrifugal forces in pushing hoops culture. In early October, the metropolis will make basketball history in a new way, as the city's NSCI Dome in Worli will host the first ever NBA preseason games in India. As we step forward to the NBA India Games on October 4-5, featuring the Indiana Pacers and the Sacramento Kings, the city and some of its eminent basketball philosophies are ready to add another quick stride forward for the sport.
"Basketball is important to Mumbai; it has always been played here," said Noor Khan. "For us, basketball is all there is. It has so many good qualities for physical health and more. The game has been played here for so many years, and that craze still continues. In our area especially, people still play basketball because of the inspiration they've got from so many of our elders."
Above: Panomeric view of Nagpada
Khan is the secretary of the Nagpada Basketball Association, the Bambaiya version of the NBA. In the Nagpada neighbourhood of Mumbai stands one of Mumbai's most-storied basketball courts: the Late Bachookhan Municipal Playground. It is here that, on any given night, you are likely to find the city's fastbreaks in perfect execution. It is the court that has produced some of the greatest players from the city.
Across the road from Nagpada, less than a two-minute walk away from the Bachookhan Ground, is the Mastan neighbourhood, and their own famous Mastan YMCA court. This is a larger space, and because of the close vicinity of the two basketball communities, a heated rivalry has grown between teams of the two courts over several decades.
The Mastan YMCA court is part of the larger network of YMCA's around Mumbai which have had an indelible part in Mumbai's basketball culture. Basketball was introduced to Mumbai by the YMCAs in the 40s. Abbas Moontasir, the "Dada" of Mumbai basketball, an Arjuna Awardee who lives down the road from Nagpada where he honed his game to become a national star, recalls how the game grew in the region even before his time.
"The passion for the game started in these neighbourhoods. The Americans brought the game through the YMCA and were always playing. There was a man named Mr. Longfellow who started teaching the game to locals. Earlier, the youngsters used to play volleyball, and then, they switched to basketball."
Above: YMCA Mastan
One of the biggest local proponents of the game was Bachhoo Khan, first a volleyball coach, and then an important organiser in the Nagpada hoops scene. He has since been memoralised with the name on the park where he organised and played the game.
"He produced a lot of great players in Nagpada," said Vinod Muthukumar, one of the most connected basketball minds in the city. "Including players like Moontasir. Gulam Rassool, Afzal Khan, Jafar Moontasir… all the prominent players from that side of town."
Muthukumar, a Mumbai native, represented Maharashtra in several under-age Nationals and has since been involved in commentating and hosting various basketball events around the state. He has been a member of the Maharashtra State Basketball Association (MSBA) and eventually set up the Elevate Basketball Academy.
Muthukumar added that, in the early decades of India's independence, the game became a major part of the Mumbai lifestyle.
"In the 60s and 70s, basketball was a great source of employment," said Muthukumar. "That's why it became popular. There used to be Western Railway, Central Railway, Customs, SBI, and so many organisations who would give government jobs in the sports quota, and especially in basketball. It became a source of livelihood for a lot of people. During those times, even cricket wasn't as popular. Basketball helped turn around a lot of lives. So, club basketball also became very prominent, and so did basketball in schools and colleges."
"It was also a great source of camaraderie," adds Muthukummar. "They used to have local 'bet' matches with each other on mud courts, sometimes without shoes… People from the neighbourhoods would sit by the walls and watch-those games weren't even advertised. They cared just about the local-level competition. It brought out the brotherhood among the basketball community. People didn't play for a cash prize; it was more about their bragging rights!"
There have been several trademark moments at these courts. Fresh out of his NBA title in 2010, Spanish legend Pau Gasol showcased his skills at the Mastan YMCA and threw down a memorable, thunderous dunk. A year later, electrifying guard TJ "Air India" Sahi awed all onlookers with an iconic dunk, jumping over a Mumbai kaali-peeli taxi.
In 2013, close to his retirement, the NBA's former commissioner David Stern visited the Mastan YMCA courts in Mumbai for an NBA Cares event and to promote the game's growth in the city. A year later, the next commissioner-Adam Silver-visited Mumbai with Sacramento Kings' owner Vivek Ranadive and former player Vlade Divac, who would go on to become the team's GM.
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While the aforementioned courts in Nagpada and Mastan are some of those with an intense rivalry over these bragging rights, there are several other neighbourhoods in Mumbai-many affiliated with the YMCA-where elite-level basketball has been played for decades, including the Indian Gymkhana (Matunga), SAISA (Bandra), Bombay YMCA (Chembur), Central YMCA (Colaba), Ghatkopar YMCA, and more.
The Indian Gymkhana in Matunga has had an illustrious connection with the game. According to Muthukumar, it was the 'Sharma Brothers' who made the first major push of popularising the game there. It is here that one of the oldest tournaments in the city took birth: The Ramu Memorial Basketball Tournament (RMBT), which went from being an inner-city competition to eventually involving several of the best teams and players from around India.
Above: Indian Gymkhana in Matunga
Another memorable tournament in the city was the Savio Cup, which, like the RMBT, developed to becoming an All-India invitational event. It became a rite of passage for any great Indian player to showcase their skills at the Don Bosco School courts in Matunga at this event.
The RMBT and Savio Cup, alas, have been discontinued over the past few years. A number of other tournaments are regularly held or were previously held in Mumbai, including the Andher-YMCA Challenge, the Mastan League, the Bandra/Ghatkopar tournaments, and famously, Nagpada's "Monsoon League". Even on the wet outdoor courts in the city's ruthless monsoon season, young players come out to ball. The action is a bit slower, the ball splashes around more, but the game doesn't stop.
More recently, Mumbai hosted the finals of the RedBull Reign 3x3 basketball tournament. And later this year, a group of local celebrities will launch the StreetBall League in the city, bringing together talented players in a tournament with their remixed version of 3x3 hoops.
The new generation of players will be hoping to continue the traditions of the old. Over the years, a number of great players and coaches have emerged from Mumbai, including the great Moontasir, Shahid Qureshi, Afzal Khan, Abdul Hamid Khan, Ibrahim Lakdawala, Priya Subramanian, Clarence Clary Menezes, and more. Many of them went on to represent the national team or had a major cultural impact in their hometown.
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One of those great talents is Manisha Dange, a star for Maharashtra and former national player, who looked back fondly at the growth of basketball in the city.
"Our seniors were inspiration and motivation for us," said Dange. "Their motivation has helped the juniors come forward. We've had so many great coaches in Mumbai. There has no shortage of infrastructure. In other states, there might not be enough courts. There is not much space in Mumbai, but we have a lot of good outdoor courts. We also get sponsors easily here--fataak-se-to hold tournaments."
"Mumbai players, no doubt, are talented and very fast," she added. "Players are interested in playing the fast-break. And of course, there have been the 'Mumbaiyaa gunda' style [the local swagger of the city] and it has always been there since my childhood. It's a good thing for the game."
Moontasir also commented on the stylistic development of the game in his city. "Basketball in Mumbai and Maharashtra has always been more about ball-handling and movement. Those from the North in Punjab, Services, Haryana etc. played the power game. We in the South focused more on skill and dribbling."
"Back in the day, there were many basketball tournaments here," said Moontasir. "Unfortunately, from the last 25-30 years, no Mumbai player has made the India team. We aren't playing as well as we used to. Maybe the number of players has increased, but not the quality."
Dange, too, lamented the fact that some of the city's basketball dominance has been dimmed in recent decades. "The number of tournaments has come down now," she said. "It is nothing compared to before. There is no shortage of players in Mumbai, but they have diversions now: they don't continue with one activity with hard work as before."
"There need to be more camps here, and more involvement for the youth to improve the quality of players," said Dange.
Still, there is a lot to be positive about in the hoops culture in Mumbai. Every event-small or big-sees a big influx of fans. Young supporters love their local legends like they love Jordan or James. And in one of the world's most densely-populated cities, fans emerge from every strata of society.
It made sense for the country's financial capital to also be chosen by NBA to host its first office in India, opened in 2011. Ever since then, NBA India has operated chiefly out of the city, holding grassroots events and superstar visits.
For several years, Mumbai has seen large-scale participation from schoolkids in the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme. The first NBA Basketball School in the country was also opened in the city in Vile Parle West.
Now, a new milestone beckons for the city: the NBA India Games.
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But before we look forward, let's rewind back to the mid-50s, a time when Mr Longfellow's game was starting to become an addiction to the city's youth, when the YMCA's were spreading the gospel of basketball. It was around this period when Vivek Ranadive was born in Mumbai. The youngest of three children, Ranadive grew up in the Juhu area, and by age 16, was accepted into MIT.
Educational opportunity took Ranadive away from his hometown as a teenager. In the US, he began his software company, and eventually founded the successful TIBCO Software Inc., a business venture that made him a fortune.
Ranadive used some of that money to invest into his favourite sport, buying a minority stake of the Golden State Warriors first, and eventually, in 2013, becoming the majority owner of the Kings. He was-and remains-the first India-born majority owner in the NBA. Almost immediately, Ranadive declared his interest to bring the NBA back to the city that birthed him-back to Mumbai.
Soon, that dream will come true. Ranadive's Kings will face the Indiana Pacers at the NSCI Dome. Thanks to its native son, the city will continue its love affair with basketball.
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Long-time NBA and basketball fans in Mumbai can hardly believe that the league is coming to their doorstep.
"I had never imagined in my lifetime that an NBA game would be played in Mumbai," said Muthukumar "There were days when you would wake up at 5:30 in the morning and watch 1 game a week on TV… But watching a live game is a total different experience. As a Mumbaikar, I could've never imagined NBA stars here, in front of us!"
"I hope [the games] inspire lots of kids to come and play," Muthukumar added. "I hope it's a jumpstart for the city in terms of making the sport even more popular."
Mumbai runs fast-and the NBA has caught up. And finally, the Fastbreak City is ready to welcome some of the best basketball action in the world.
For more updates and stories on the NBA India Games 2019, you can follow NBA.com's page dedicated to the historic event.