|- Karan Madhok
Next to a dusty yet busy basketball court at the Bal Bharti School (Karol Bagh) in New Delhi, a bunch of young adolescents warm up enthusiastically to the beats of rap music from the PA system nearby. The song playing is perhaps rapper Eminem's most motivated moment on wax, the inspirational ‘Lose Yourself' from his move 8 Mile.
"You only get one shot, do now miss a chance to blow, cuz opportunity comes once in a lifetime."
The fact that hip-hop music and basketball have been forever brothers-in-arms isn't exactly breaking news; where there is a strong basketball culture, there seems to be a strong musical culture. Earlier this year, when the Sub-Jr. Nationals were taking place in Kangra, even the little mountain town reverberated with hip-hop beats on the loud-speakers. Any student present at the IMG-Reliance School Basketball league in Delhi would swear that not one game passed without a rap-musical break during a timeout.
Basketball is one of most competitive sports in the world, and perhaps, it is this competitive culture, where you face off your opponent not just to participate but to dominate, which helps the synchronicity of aggressive hip-hop with the game.
With the first season of Mahindra's NBA Challenge taking place in New Delhi this year, a competitive spark and will to perform has been found in the young hoopsters, spreading across the nation's capital, and beyond, like wildfire.
The Mahindra NBA Challenge, a multi-city, community-based, basketball league, was held in India for its first season last year in Mumbai, Bangalore, and Ludhiana. New Delhi basketball players may have felt a little short-changed with the deal, unable to find a similar outlet for their passion for the game. So for its second season, the NBA gave the masses what it wanted, and in mid-November, the U-18 edition of the league tipped off in New Delhi.
"The response we have been getting in Delhi has been overwhelming," says Troy Justice, NBA-India's Director of Basketball Operations, "The players are really passionate, too. We set around an 80-team limit for the registration for this league, and even after all the slots became full, we kept on getting requests for nearly twice as many participants. It is so busy here that every weekend we are playing game after game all day in our various venues (Bal Bharti School and DPS-RK Puram). And people say that basketball isn't popular in India!"
In the U-18 edition of the league, there have been further divisions into sections of Junior (U18), Youth (16), and for the first time, Sub-Junior (U14). Justice is most excited about the youngest participants, the sub-juniors, who are getting a taste of competitive basketball action early into their development.
"I have had a great experience when working with the sub-juniors," Justice adds, "Those are some of my favourite games to watch, since these youngsters truly represent the future of Indian basketball."
The sub-juniors participating have also been happy about this opportunity. "The tournament has been really good so far," says 13-year-old Taksh Sharma from Mount Carmel School (Dwarka), "I have been playing basketball for one year, and I'm happy that this league has come to Delhi."
Justice has been impressed by the talent he has been overseeing in Delhi. "I can tell that the players in Delhi have received good coaching," he says, "There are many here with very high basketball IQ. Many of them, even at a young age, seem refined and experienced."
One of Justice's favourite squads is a team from Jammu, whose story is a true inspiration for hoop-heads: The Jammu squad, a group of close friends, travel 12 hours every weekend to New Delhi to take part in the league. And at the end of the day, they take another 12 hours to get back home in time for school on Monday!
As of now, Justice is dividing his time between Delhi and Mumbai every alternate weekend. The U-18 Mahindra NBA Challenge tipped off in Mumbai simultaneously with Delhi. In mid-January, both cities will host the senior, open version of the league.
The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) has also been actively involved in assisting the NBA with the implementation of these leagues. Justice has commended the professional attitude of the referees who have been assisting him, and especially for Indian basketball's youth brigade, the trio of Shiba Maggon, Divya Singh, and Yuvika Sharma, who have assisted the NBA in various management issues.
A legendary Indian player, coach, and referee, Shiba has stated that being a part of this league has taught her a lot more about basketball "off the court." "This has been a great learning experience for me," she says, "The kids in Delhi are very enthusiastic about what has been happening, and I can see improvement in their game every week."
Shiba has added that this improvement was especially visible amongst the sub-juniors, the youngest in action, as they are truly beginning to understand the spirit of basketball.
Both the Delhi and Mumbai leagues are now entering their final stages. On Thursday, December 16, DPS Vasant Kunj will host the All-Star games for all the different divisions (boys and girls for sub-juniors, youth, and juniors). The best of North Delhi and South Delhi will battle it out on the basketball court. The league will move to the Semi-Finals at DPS Vasant Kunj on Friday, and finally, the Finals, starting on 3 PM at the same venue on Saturday afternoon. A shooting contest will also be held between the games to top off the hoop festivities.
The All-Star Games and Finals for Mumbai will be held over this week, too.
With the success of this first-time event in Delhi, Justice is already looking ahead, hoping to smooth out all the creases for the future. "Right now, our biggest problem was a good problem – that there was too much interest!" he says, "As the NBA grows in India, this programme will grow bigger, too. Although the current infrastructure that we have cannot accommodate any more teams, we are looking to expand in the future and allow more and more players to play basketball.
For now, the participants in the Delhi league will be focused on their last few games: the All Star game, the semis, and the Final. This is their opportunity, their shot at basketball success, the time when the rap music blares and motivates them to dominate.
But more than anything, this is their one shot to just go out and play ball. Delhi and Mumbai have gotten their taste of the NBA Challenge, and the leagues in Bangalore, Ludhiana, and first-timers Chennai won't be too far behind over this year.