Basketball’s blues

7 min read
28 Jul 2017
7 min read
2456 words
Basketball has become a huge sport at the school and college levels. But there needs to be more beyond just the college game

The basketball court in Bhanimandal, Lalitpur, was built 23 years ago. The cemented community court, featuring wooden backboards, has since been luring basketball enthusiasts, not just from the neighbourhood, but from farther afield. The court is in a dilapidated condition. The cemented floor is now pocked with potholes, the markings on the wooden boards have long faded, and the hoop shudders violently every time it comes in contact with the ball. Not to mention, one of the wooden boards doesn't even have a hoop, rendering the court fit only for half-court matches.

Nevertheless, many people still frequent the court on a daily basis. And most of these frequenters are school and college students bit by the basketball bug. They hurriedly make their way to the court each morning, hoping that the court hasn't already been occupied by other players, and even if it has, they wait their turn at the sidelines, itching to get on the court. The goings on at this court seem almost like a metaphor for the state of basketball in Nepal: there's no larger national system in place to support dedicated basketballers.

The game of basketball made its appearance in Nepal rather late, in the 1960s--around 70 years after the sport's invention in the US. Although nobody can be officially credited with bringing the game to Nepal, it is believed that American volunteers who had come here to establish mission-run schools, such as St Xavier's School and St Mary's School, got the ball rolling. Others say that it was the Nepalis serving in the British Army who learned to play the sport abroad and taught it to Nepalis.

But regardless of who brought the game to Nepal, there is no doubt that the game, over the last few decades, has been widely adopted by Nepalis, and countless matches and tournaments at various levels--mostly in schools and colleges--have been organised and played. Every school and college here seems to have at least one basketball court and team, and the sport has gone on to garner as much popularity as cricket and football among students, if not more.

But despite being such a widely played sport, the game of basketball doesn't have the national standing that cricket and football do. And despite today's college players' having become exceedingly skilful at the game, most can't exactly make careers out of basketball--unlike with cricketers and footballers.

No national presence

The Nepali cricket team routinely achieves commendable feats in the international arena and our footballers mostly do well in South Asian tournaments. In 2000, Nepal's under-19 cricket team stood eighth in the Under-19 World Cup, and the national cricket team has made it to the semifinals of the 2000 ACC Trophy. They've even participated in the ICC Trophy. In football, too, the national squad has been pretty successful in the South Asian Games. So far, they have bagged two gold, two silver and two bronze medals. Owing to such international performances, Nepal's cricket and football teams register in the national consciousness, especially when the teams play international matches. As for national tourneys, people at least keep up with Nepal's cricket and football leagues.

However, the same cannot be said for Nepal's professional basketballers. Most of the Nepali team's international matches feature giants from other countries passing the ball over the hapless outstretched arms of Nepali defenders, or the opponents' ruthlessly blocking Nepali attempts to shoot, and even dunking over Nepali players. The basic problem is this: the average height of our team members is about six feet, which is not quite good enough for five-on-five international ball.

No graduating from college to bigger leagues

But despite our dismal international performances, the gains made by basketball at the school and college level show no signs of slowing down. Inter-school and inter-college tournaments happen all year round, and the number of highly skilled basketball players schools in Nepal produce continues to grow. But college represents the limits. Beyond college, there is barely anything the game can offer our best players.

"We need leagues. Leagues play a huge role in the development of current players and they also provide an avenue for those players who want to turn professional," says Dinesh Chandra Nakarmi, head coach at National Sports Council.

Dinesh Chandra Nakarmi

"The Nepal Basketball Association (NeBA) recognises the difference that having a thriving league--like that in the Philippines, for example--can make in Nepal, and we have already begun taking steps towards creating the first-ever Nepali basketball league," says Narendra Thapa, Secretary General at NeBA. "The league will feature about six teams, and the league will go on for about three months. It might take a while, but when it does roll out, it will be a huge step forward for Nepali basketball."

“The club-level players of Kathmandu, too, are looking forward to a league,” says Ashish KC, a basketball player/coach/enthusiast and currently the ECA and CCA supervisor at Ace A Level. “We have clubs—such as GoldenGate, Nepal Army Club, among others—with highly skilled players, but they are having to make do with the occasional tournament. A league is what they require.”

The idea of creating a basketball league has many things going for it. Apart from providing current players with a possible vocation, say the planners, a league can also be used to generate plenty of advertisement revenue to keep the league thriving. "If the league features very skilful players, it can garner considerable viewership and attracting sponsors will be easier, too," says Nakarmi. The best college players of this generation should be up to the challenge. Basketball should also make for good television: as long as the court (preferably in an indoor gym with wooden flooring) looks decent enough, basketball games should render well on TV sets. Indeed, basketball games would be much easier on the eye than football and cricket matches played on dusty (or worse, waterlogged) pitches with balding tufts of grass.

The hype

"It was in the mid-90s that the basketball hype spread across schools and colleges," says KC. "The basketball court in Bhanimandal was built when I was in grade six, and my friend's father, who was a lahure, taught me to play the game. Back then, our training involved merely running for two hours a day and taking layups--that's all we did, because that's all we knew. We didn't know of the ball-handling drills and other training regimen that today's kids have such ready access to. Moreover, even our gameplay didn't have much to it. We didn't know what crossovers or fadeaways were. We didn't know about how big a difference the position of the wrist made while shooting. We didn't call plays. And every player would just try to score as much as possible. That's all we cared about because neither we nor the coaches knew any better. The players, and coaches, are so much more advanced today."

Helga Rana Rayamajhi

KC had always drawn inspiration from the likes of Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Magic Johnson. "Basketball players today, owing to YouTube and the internet, have all sorts of resources to not just provide them with inspiration, but also to help hone their skills," says KC. "You have channels that analyse and break down signature moves of NBA stars. You can mimic any player you want. Coaches, too, have access to strategies used by the world's best coaches. It's thus not surprising that today's crop of players are so much better those of yesteryears."

Why basketball has become the sport of choice at schools and colleges

Schools and colleges have long realised the merits of having a basketball programme for their students. With limited land and skyrocketing land prices, not every school here can afford to have lush, turfed football and cricket fields. In such cases, basketball courts have proven to be the best alternative.

"The shortest breaks from class have become an excuse for students, both boys and girls, to play a quick game of basketball," says Nakarmi. This is perhaps because of how easy it is to start a match. You can get a real game going just like that--all students have to do is just roll up their sleeves and hop onto the court. The same can't be said for cricket or football. Sure, you can take a few penalty kicks or practice some cricket strokes in your school uniform, but playing a proper match isn't as easy as it is in basketball. As for schools, having a basketball court means they get to flaunt the court in their school or college brochure.

Moreover, basketball has also been taken up by a considerable number of girls, a stark difference from how things were two or three decades ago. "It was very rare for women to play any outdoor sport when I was young," says Helga Rana Rayamajhi, currently the treasurer of the Women and Sports Commission at the Nepal Olympic Committee. Rayamajhi was an avid sportswoman who took part in not just basketball, but also volleyball and athletics--at a time when such activities were considered inappropriate for girls. "But times have obviously changed now, and it's great to see so many women basketballers emerge, and even participate in international games."

For schools and colleges, participating in basketball tournaments is the perfect opportunity for the institutions to get some free advertising, as winning schools routinely make headlines in national dailies' sports pages. "Because of the premium that schools have begun to place on their team's performance in inter-college/school basketball tournaments, colleges today provide scholarships to students with basketball skills," says Nakarmi. "In fact, NeBA, through its tie-ups with select colleges, provides scholarships to outstanding players."

Basketball after school and college

But what happens to these skilled players after they graduate? "Unfortunately, as of now, playing basketball can't really be taken up as a career," says Nakarmi. "Some do, however, become basketball coaches or sports teachers. That's why creating a league would be such a win-win for everyone. It would help our better players find a vocation and the league would help accelerate the all-round development of basketball even more."

3x3's promise

As opposed to how the Nepali national team have performed in five-on-five basketball tourneys, the 3x3 squad have been doing significantly better; 3x3 is a departure from five-a-side basketball on many levels, and outlined here are some of the main differences. To start with, only half a basketball court and one hoop are used, and each team consists of four players (three starters and one substitute). A game lasts 10 minutes, and the first team to score 21 points, or the team with the higher score at the end of 10 minutes, wins. 

Furthermore, what is popularly known as the three-point line in five-a-side basketball can no longer be called so--reason being the difference in the point system. A shot made from outside the arc equals two points, not three; similarly, shots made from inside the arc equal one point instead of two. Moreover, the shot clock in 3x3 sounds at 12 seconds. This reduction in the shot clock timing, coupled with the shortened match duration, fewer players on the court, and much more space for driving, culminates in a super-fast-paced game.

Nepal's men's 3x3 team currently ranks 32nd in Asia, while the women's team ranks 34th in Asia. And there's a reason behind Nepal's performing better in 3x3 than in five-on-five. "Five-on-five basketball and 3x3 are two completely different ball games," says Nakarmi. "When you play five-on-five, size makes a huge difference. And no matter how skilled you are individually, you can't do much by yourself. There's hardly any space and driving is much tougher when you play five-on-five. Moreover, the odds are almost always against Nepal when rebounding, and we all know how important rebounds are. When we're on offense, the defensive team usually gets the rebound, and the same goes for when we're on defense. It's difficult for us on either end of the court."

In 3x3, however, there's plenty of space, and individual skills matter more than size. "For our 3x3 team, we require players that can do everything--handle the ball, shoot, guard inside, guard the perimeter, rebound and make the game," says Nakarmi. "In five-on-five, you don't need players like that; you can have a very tall player who is really good at getting rebounds but isn't too good a ball handler. In 3x3, however, such a player is completely useless. Most of our players can play various positions, and we thus see a pretty good future for our 3x3 squad."

(Photos by Kausal Adhikari, Govinda Maharjan, Aayush Shrestha)