Indian basketball team: A topsy-turvy trail

Having risen as one of the best in Asia during its early days, the Indian basketball team is eyeing to regain lost ground.

8 min By Naveen Peter
India basketball team, FIBA
(Picture by FIBA)

It might not be as popular as cricket, football or hockey, but basketball has found a place in India’s sporting ecosystem.

Part of the sporting culture at schools and colleges, basketball has also thrown up some surprises at the biggest stage in the past.

Be it Satnam Singh, a towering, strong centre from a remote village of Punjab, becoming the first-ever Indian to be drafted into the rich and glamorous world of NBA or the Indian basketball team winning at the Asian level, the country always had something to look forward to.

Indian history of basketball

Introduced by T Ducan Patton, a missionary from the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in the 1890s, the game took its time to spread in India. And it was not until 1934 that the first national basketball championships were held in New Delhi.

While annual competitions soon became a regular affair, basketball was largely controlled by the YMCA in the initial years.

Post-independence, however, a national body - the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) - was established in 1950. It was upon BFI to popularise the game across the country.

Satnam Singh is the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA.
Satnam Singh is the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA. (Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

The domestic competitions soon paved the way for the formation of the first men's Indian basketball team which participated in the 1965 Asian Basketball Championships, a biennial continental meet, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

India's performance in the group stage and the classification matches, which included handsome wins over Singapore, Hong Kong and South Vietnam, took many by surprise.

The legend of Khushi Ram

Leading this charge was Khushi Ram, a Haryana-born pivot. He led the men’s national team from 1965 to 1970 and earned himself the moniker of ‘The Scoring Machine of Asia’ for his ability to score baskets in bulk.

Khushi Ram emerged as the leader of the fledgling Indian team and one of his best moments came in 1970 when the national team lined up against hoopsters from University of Illinois.

Though the Americans - known for their speed and athleticism - dominated the match, the 6’4” Khushi Ram was in his zone as he made the visitors sweat with his skill and dexterity.

“Khushi Ram might have not helped with too many assists but he fed hell into rivals and was easily Asia's best pivot at that time,” the then coach of the men’s basketball team, Gulam Abbas Moontasir, said about his best player.

Khushi Ram made his international debut in 1964 and led India in the 1965 Asian Basketball Championships, where his prolific scoring came to the fore. He ended up as the highest scorer of the tournament in 1965 and 1969.

At an invitational meet in 1970 in the Philippines, Khushi Ram finished as the highest scorer again and was declared Most Valuable Player.

Lauro Mumar, twice Asian Games champion and a world championship bronze medallist, was the coach of the Philippines at the time. The performance of the Indian basketball player prompted him to say that they would “conquer the world” with him in the side.

“On a day when Khushi Ram was said to have played badly, he still had 30 points on the score sheet,” Moontasir told the Indian Express.

Even after Khushi Ram's retirement, the Indian basketball team continued its rise at the continental stage in the coming years.

India's biggest moment came at the 1975 Asian Championships. A fourth-place finish behind South Korea, Japan and the eventual champions China was India's best show.

With the likes of Ajmer Singh, Hanuman Singh and Radhey Shyam taking over the mantle, the team was in good hands as it made its debut at the Olympics in 1980.

Indian basketball in Olympics

Heading into its first-ever Olympics at Moscow 1980, the Indian basketball team - led by Paramjit Singh - was upbeat of making an impression at the biggest stage.

“[It was] a lifetime opportunity,” Paramjit Singh told the FIBA website. “[I felt] I must play to my best because it was unlikely that India will play in the Olympics again.”

India had qualified for the Summer Games after several countries had pulled out of the Moscow event for political reasons. But grouped alongside hosts Soviet Union, Brazil and Czechoslovakia, India fell short of registering a single win to end 12th.

Despite the defeats at the hands of high-quality opponents from across the world, India took away a lot of positives from the Moscow Games.

"Entering in the main basketball arena in our first game against mighty [Soviet Union] was like a dream," Paramjit Singh recalled. "I was proud of representing India basketball in their first-ever Olympics."

While being at the Olympics was an experience in itself, India's performance against Senegal, and later, the game against a considerably stronger Australia side showed what the Indian team was capable of on its day.

The Indians, at one stage, even led the Aussies with Ajmer Singh leading the scoring. He finished the competition with the eighth-best scoring average while Radhey Shyam too enjoyed a fine outing.

However, with just the national championships and the Federation Cup as only two major domestic meets in a year, Indian players also found it hard to keep pace with an ever-developing sport.

The following years saw India continue their efforts to challenge the Asian order at the continental tournaments. But with heavyweights like China, South Korea and Iran in the mix, Indian hoopsters found the going tough.

India's best performance during this period was a fifth-place finish at the 1981 Asian championships in Kolkata.

However, the advent of the NBA in India at the turn of the century has seen basketball find a new fanbase in the country.

NBA in India and the way forward

Since the early 2000s, the NBA coverage had been sporadic in India. But this changed in 2012 when the premier American league, with an eye on expanding their market in India, cracked a broadcast deal to provide unrestricted coverage throughout the season.

Apart from bringing the American game to the South Asian nation, the NBA has also worked on improving the standard of basketball in India.

An NBA academy in New Delhi today caters to the needs of the next generation hoopsters who are provided with fully-funded scholarships along with an opportunity to have a crack at the big league in future.

While youngsters like Sanjana Ramesh, Vaishnavi Yadav, Jagshaan Bir Singh and Aashay Verma have graduated from this academy various college teams -- including the ones in the NCAA -- in the USA, the biggest draw has been Princepal Singh, a six-foot-10-inch power forward, who joined the NBA G-League’s Ignite team featuring other elite prospects from across the world in 2020.

After making a handful of appearances in the G-League, Princepal Singh took yet another giant step forward after he was drafted in by Sacramento Kings to play in the Summer League - an off-season competition organised by the NBA, where teams try out different players, especially youngsters, instead of their regular line-ups.

Princepal Singh helped his team win the Summer League, thus becoming the first Indian in history to be part of a championship roster at any level of the NBA.

These changes, however, have not yet impacted the fortunes of the national teams.

For lack of opportunities, gifted hoopsters like Amjyot Singh Gill, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Amritpal Singh prefer to ply their trade in foreign leagues, leaving Indian basketball struggling.

Princepal Singh is the first Indian to be part of a championship roster at any level of the NBA.
Princepal Singh is the first Indian to be part of a championship roster at any level of the NBA. (Sacramento Kings)

The Indian men have continued to maintain their status quo at the continental stage with regular participation at the Asian Championships. But with wins hard to come by, they have not found a way to take their game to the next level just yet.

Indian women’s basketball team

The Indian women’s basketball team, however, has shown some steady progress over the past decade, managing to break into the top league at the Asian level.

Leading this rise has been the likes of the Singh Sisters (Divya, Prashanti, Akanksha and Pratima), Anitha Pauldurai, Jeena Skaria, Shireen Limaye, Stephy Nixon.

The team has managed to make its way to big-ticket events like the Commonwealth Games in 2006 and 2018, and the Asian Games in 2010, 2014 and 2018 but success in these tournaments have evaded them.

The women’s team triumphed in Division B of the FIBA Asia Cup in 2017 with Anitha Pauldurai hailing it as a “new beginning for women's basketball in India” but the joy was short-lived. Promoted to Division A, India lost all their matches in the FIBA Asia Cup in 2019.

The Indian women’s basketball team has been a regular at major continental events.
The Indian women’s basketball team has been a regular at major continental events. (2018 Getty Image)

With the experienced Serbian Zoran Višić as the head coach, one can expect the Indian women’s basketball team to challenge the best in the coming years.

“I think I can help a lot with my experience,” Višić told the Scroll website. “It is a bit difficult to compare basketball in Serbia and in India, but the players from India have a similar mentality.

“I’m very proud of our girls here: they are very disciplined and hardworking,” he observed.

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