Less than a year ago, #IndiaBasketball was trending on Twitter. The sport was all over the news, thanks in part to the senior men team’s memorable win over Asian powerhouse China, and to the controversial ban disallowing turbans for Sikh players. Prior to that, in late 2013, the women’s team recorded its first victory in the elite Level 1 in Asia, cementing its position as a top five side in the continent. Soon after, in 2014, the first all-India national championship of the Indian School and College Leagues was launched. On the international front, 7-ft 5-inch Canadian giant Gursimran (Sim) Bhullar became the first player of Indian origin to set foot in the American basketball league, the NBA. He was followed by Satnam Singh, a seven-footer from Punjab, declaring himself for the 2015 NBA Draft, another first for an Indian.
And then, the story of Indian basketball takes a different turn, just like the proverbial flame that is brightest before going out. An ongoing deadlock between two rival factions within the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) is threatening to reverse the considerable gains of the last year-and-a-half.
It started off with the outgoing BFI President R.S. Gill calling for an Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Bengaluru on March 27, 2015. This AGM announced the appointment of K Govindraj, president of Karnataka Basketball Association (KBA) and BFI senior vice-president, as the new BFI president. The AGM also passed a resolution abolishing the BFI CEO post held by Roopam Sharma. Ignoring the developments in Bengaluru, a parallel AGM was held in Pune the following day, where BJP MP Poonam Mahajan (also the president of the Maharashtra Basketball Association) and Sharma were appointed BFI’s president and secretary general, respectively.
The IMG-Reliance group, commercial partners of BFI, chose to freeze funding until the issue is resolved. With BFI unable to continuing paying salaries of its staff, a domino effect followed. The contracts of national women’s head coach Francisco Garcia and strength and conditioning coach Tommy Heffelfinger were either not renewed or abruptly terminated. Matters became worse when popular men’s head coach Scott Flemming, instrumental in India’s recent successes, put in his papers to take up a college assignment in the US.
“I really wished I would’ve had another chance to take it through another year, but it just worked out differently,” said Flemming in an exit interview, indicating that the uncertainty within BFI influenced his decision to leave.
With two governing bodies claiming ‘official’ status, the issue inevitably found its way to the court. Delhi High Court through orders dated March 26 and May 6, 2015 showed a leaning toward the Govindraj camp. It accepted that only the BFI president can announce AGMs. Subsequently, it refused to curtail the southern faction’s bid to gain control over BFI’s official website and registered office in Delhi.
News of infighting in Indian sporting federations, ironically, is not news, even when it leads to international derecognition. The Hockey Federation struggled with rival groups, the Indian Amateur Boxing Association was suspended by its international body over allegations of electoral rigging, and the country’s Olympic athletes couldn’t compete for months under the tricolour due to corruption charges against Indian Olympic Association (IOA) officials.
Politics goes where money flows, and until now the Indian basketball fraternity was untouched by the motivated interventions rampant in other federations. However, the entry of sports businesses such as IMG-Reliance and NBA over the last few years has, in no uncertain terms, led to politicking in order to cash in on the newfound riches.
Last week, the media cell of the KBA released an email from the International Basketball Federation, also known as FIBA. This letter recognises Govindraj as president and Chander Mukhi Sharma as secretary general of the new BFI governing body.
This FIBA intervention should catalyse proceedings in the Delhi High Court and persuade the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and the IOA to resolve this matter expeditiously.
We tried speaking to current Indian players, but they declined to comment fearing suspension, while simultaneously expressing hope that the FIBA approval would sort things out amicably. “Definitely the morale of the Indian basketball fraternity has been affected,” said Jayasankar Menon, a former Asian All-star player. “We have mooted an Indian Basketball Players Association with many former players on board.”
The best administrations are usually known by their work behind the scenes while the limelight stays on the players. When an administration works smoothly, it’s a well-oiled engine that makes no sound, so that the focus stays on the road ahead. For Indian basketball, some re-calibration is in order.
(Gopalakrishnan R is a Bengaluru-based independent writer and co-creator of Ekalavyas.com, a basketball news website)