Sho(r)t in the darkWhen Prince Pal Singh, India’s 6’7” tall centre, slammed a towering dunk over his Nepali counterpart in the recently-concluded SABA U-16 Boys’ Basketball Tournament, it showcased more than just the power and prowess of an individual athlete.
When Prince Pal Singh, India’s 6’7” tall centre, slammed a towering dunk over his Nepali counterpart in the recently-concluded SABA U-16 Boys’ Basketball Tournament, it showcased more than just the power and prowess of an individual athlete. The dunk symbolised India’s total domination over the sport in South Asia since regional competitions began 15 years ago. In that time, India has swept tournaments at all age-groups, barring one no show at the 2013 SABA Mens’ Basketball Tournament and a defeat at the hands of Afghanistan at the 2010 South Asian Games final. Afghanistan has since then joined the Mid Asia region—playing against the likes of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—in search of stiffer opposition.
In the same time period, Nepal has continued to play a distant third fiddle to India and Bangladesh, with its best showing a second-place finish in the U-18 FIBA Asia Qualifying—a tourney competed by just four teams. This comes despite the fact that basketball continues to remain one of the most popular sports in the country—its popularity on par with cricket and football—with over 50 inter-school and college competitions held each year. Spurred on by the popularity of the NBA, the sport has flourished particularly in the country’s urban clusters. But when it comes to regional tournaments, Nepal invariably flatters to deceive.
Much of Nepal’s lacklustre showing in the regional arena is often attributed to the short stature and the lack of physicality of its players. The Indian U-16 squad, for instance, included eight players who were six feet or taller. The tallest of the lot, Prince Pal, scored a whopping 45 points in the 106-39 drubbing against Nepal, with most of his baskets coming from rebounds. Nepal, on the other hand, didn’t have a single offensive rebound in their entire game and relied heavily on outlet passes or hurried three-pointers. Getting close to the Indian players almost always meant getting dispossessed, or worse, having their shots swatted away.
The Nepali squad, in comparison, had only one player who was six feet tall. And that player, Nikhil Dangol, had been playing basketball for only a year before hastily being recruited into the side.
“The problem was we didn’t have enough players to form a competitive squad for the tournament,” admits Rabindra Maharjan, the U-16 coach, “Nikhil has not played much of basketball but we thought we could take advantage of his height.”
Maharjan himself enjoyed a decent career in the Nepali colours and was part of the national squad that competed in the first edition of the Senior Men’s SABA Championship in Guwahati, India (2002). Having played for Nepal for a decade before transitioning into coaching, he pegs Nepal’s stunted development not just on the lack of physical prowess but also the abject absence of a domestic league setup for the sport.
“Most of the players in the current U-16 squad have come from a talent hunt programmes organised by the Nepal Basketball Association (NeBA). Once they finish this tournament, they will go home and wait for another call-up. What they need is a proper system that continually grooms and develops them. Let’s not forget these kids are all 15 or 16, they still have time to fully hone their potential. But that is what we are missing,” he says, lamenting the fact that the country continues to rely on competitions held in colleges in the Capital for the development of basketballing talent.
The powers that be
The long-serving Nepal Basketball Association President, Lama Tendi Sherpa, has been at the helm of the sport’s governing body since 2005. Yet, his 12-year tenure has yielded little to no tangible outcomes.
When contacted about NeBA’s inability to decentralise the game beyond the Capital, Sherpa merely played lip service.
“Yes, we are not satisfied that the game is so centralised but we are working on it,” he said, “There are some places like Myagdi, Ghandruk, Pokhara, Dharan or Biratnagar where basketball is played but we are not able to bring in players with good physique. Now, we are planning to travel to the Tarai where we want to set up at least a board and a ring in open spaces so that the sport can begin to take root.”
Sherpa’s proposal looks viable on paper. Taking basketball beyond the country’s urban centres would be a welcome move, and the Tarai belt has been known to produce some of Nepal’s top athletes. But the president had made similar claims in a conversation with the Post in 2015, yet no groundwork has been laid in the two years since.
This comes despite the fact that Sherpa is one of the most powerful figures not just in basketball but also Nepali sports at large. As the vice-president of the National Sports Council—the country’s supreme sporting body—and the general secretary of the Nepal Olympic Committee, he holds tremendous sway over how the nation’s resources are funnelled. Yet, apart from the conception of the National Basketball Academy in Budhanilkantha, the president has little else to show for his decade-long stint at the helm.
The academy, which was first conceived five years ago, is yet to be completed. It doesn’t even have a basketball court yet.
A world apart
Babu Davis, the assistant coach of the Indian U-16 team that returned home from Kathmandu with the winner’s trophy this week, confirmed that India came to the tournament after a thorough selection process that whittled down the squad of 12 from a pool of thousands of prospective players.
“First, we have an open selection tournament in different schools in different districts. The selected players then compete for the State Championships which is then followed by the National Championships. There on, a select few make it to the closed camp from where the final 12 are selected. I don’t have exact numbers, but when the process began there were more than 10,000 players competing for selection,” Davis said.
In May this year, India also established its first ever National Basketball Association (NBA) Academy in Delhi—a facility supported by the eponymous NBA of the United States. Two players of the U-16 squad were drafted from the academy.
In a stark contrast, Nepal’s selection process was a hastily put together affair that underlined just how dysfunctional the governance over the sport really is. Two months before the U-16 tournament started, NeBA called up 65 players through coaches and schools, before cutting short the squad to 40 in two days. In three weeks’ time, the final 12 had been picked.
This has been the norm, not an exception, in the selection process for all age-groups that Nepal competes in and without a proper domestic league structure, Nepali basketball looks set to continue to remain a closed-door affair that is more a tool for the promotion of schools and colleges than a reflection of the nation’s true sporting potential. Furthermore, with India dominating the region, Nepal’s basketball aspirations will most certainly remain confined to its South Asian boundary for the foreseeable future.
Coach Maharjan, who holds a diploma in Sports Management from Germany, however, insists that the nation needs to remain positive, despite the bleak outlook.
“We need proper planning and execution. To implement that plan, we need to generate funds as well as the will power,” says the 40-year who initiated the short-lived National League in 2014. “It’s still not too late. There is genuine interest in basketball in Nepal; we just need the foresight to capitalise on it.” v