Who’s Running This? Hoops India!
In the cricket crazy country of India, Hoops India has been at the forefront of increasing the awareness, development, and excitement of the ‘other’ sport in India…the sport of basketball.
Whether developing basketball-related content for TV and Film, or hosting innovative and high quality training camps and skill competitions, Hoops India has been injecting new energy, programs, and leadership into a sport that has become increasingly popular around the world, and has a seemingly enormous potential for growth in India.
Neel Pahlajani, 27, is the president of Hoops India Inc. Interview by Jasmine Morales
TRUESTAR: What inspired you to organize basketball events and camps in India?
NEEL PAHLAJANI: Basketball has quickly become one of the more popular and developed sports globally. Amongst my peers in the US, we always questioned why no Indians, or even people of Indian-origin, were playing professionally or competing at world class levels. Since we are under-represented, it gives the impression that Indians are less fit, less coordinated, non-athletic, apathetic, or too short to compete. Those things couldn’t be further from the truth.
Hoops India is our response to this issue. We wanted to stop talking about the lack of players and the lack of the development of the sport, and do our part at the grass roots level, to provide high quality training, structure, and excitement to the game in India.
With close to 20% of the world’s population, you see Indians in India in all shapes and sizes, and with a wide array of innate abilities. Hoops India will do our part to inspire them to play and give them outlets to compete and improve.
TS: How passionate are the people in India about basketball?
NP: Indians are passionate people by nature. With Hoops India, we took a few initial steps to inject some excitement into the game, and across the board Indians of all ages have responded with the utmost dedication, support, and genuine enthusiasm.
The young kids ask tons of questions, they want to learn. It’s hot, it’s humid, the rims are banged up, the floors are uneven. But still they play for hours. They practice and genuinely want to learn and get better. The more they learn, the more they want to learn. They are focused, grinning with excitement, and embracing the opportunity play a sport in addition to cricket.
TS: Do you think it is as popular in India as the US?
NP: Absolutely not. Most communities in the USA have leagues for kids to join, there are public basketball courts in most parks, and private hoops in many driveways. Local governments and private sponsors invest in the promotion and development of the sport, making it possible to train and hire coaches in schools, and develop leagues and camps for every age group and skill level.
Additionally, the NBA and NCAA games are played at such a high level, and are broadcast on TV and the Internet to millions of people, so the players attain hero status and become a source of inspiration to kids.
On the contrary, the best basketball players in India work 2 jobs to feed their families. In India, they don’t have little leagues, they dont have professional leagues. Most kids dont have any Indian basketball heros to look up to, or see any high quality, exciting games being played in their communities.
There are more pressing issues in India, like basic health, education, and civil rights. But I think sports can help with those issues, and I do see that a change is coming. Proper courts are being built, and coaches are being trained. We’ve found that corporations and TV networks are now also recognizing the power of this sport and its ability to reach the young market in new and exciting ways. With the Internet and Satellite broadcasting, the youth are getting more exposed to the sport, and they are slowly gaining power and strength in numbers. The use of multimedia to showcase and promote the game is essential. It’s a sport that is intertwined with rhythm and music, and the culture and lifestyle is very ‘cool’ by nature. Lots of stars in India play basketball. Folks like Shahrukh Khan and Dino Morea play recreationally in Mumbai, and I know that Rannvijay, Neetu Chandra, and many others have played in college. It’s just a fun sport!
With Hoops India, we’d not only like to see more of that celebrity, media, and corporate support, but we need it!
TS: Do they have favorite basketball players in the NBA?
NP: They do. With Hoops India we are showcasing the talent and charisma of Indian players, but the comparisons to the NBA players are inevitable. They like Allen Iverson. He’s a relatively small guard who has always played with a lot of energy. I think they relate to that. Aside from his skills, he plays and carries himself with a lot of style, honesty, and charisma. He plays every game like it’s his last. Watching Allen Iverson play will make someone who knows nothing about the game want to bounce a ball.
As of earlier this year he had an endorsement deal with Reebok in India, so that obviously helps to get his image out to the public. His posters are hanging in many of their retail stores. They also like Kobe and KG and even T-Mac, but I kept coming across folks who connected and emulated AI’s game the most.
It’s tough because NBA games are rarely shown, and often only at 3AM in the morning, so its tough to follow one team or player consistently.
TS: How has basketball brought the Indian people together?
NP: This is the best part. In India people are still very much divided socially, economically, and religiously. People with money and connections in India live so much differently from everyone else. The two sides never ever interact on an equal level. But basketball, and sports in general, help even the playing fields and unite everyone. In our camps and workshops, we have Muslims, Hindus, and Christians, all playing on the same team… very happily.
Sports is also a way for kids to productively interact with one another, and learn lessons of leadership, networking, and competition, outside of the classroom environment.
TS: Do you think basketball has opened the door for other cultures to wanna get to know each other?
NP: I do think that basketball has done it’s part in bringing cultures together. Guys like Dikembe Mutombo and Manute Bol have used basketball to bring awareness to issues in their native communities and it has created positive change.
The Los Angeles Lakers, the 2009 NBA Champions, had players on their team from all around the world, and were communicating with one other in all sorts of languages on the court.
Guys like Josh Childress, Trajon Langdon and Brandon Jennings traveled out to Greece, Russia, and Italy to play in those leagues and integrate with those communities and cultures. I think they’ve set examples for young people in all industries, to step outside their comfort zone, and explore other countries and opportunities.
Now, of course that type of exposure can come from a variety of sources, but for a guy like me who is so entrenched in sports, it’s the players, teams and their associates who wind up having a significant impact on the things I get exposed to and interested in. Like for example, there’s a guy who the Sacramento Kings recently drafted who is from Israel. He recently said something about how the hummus in the USA is no good compared to the hummus in Israel. That sort of makes me curious about the food and culture in Israel, and almost makes me want to get out to Israel and see what I’m missing.
TS: Do you have any American players or people from different cultures involved in your organization?
NP: We are working with a few partners to bring international coaches and players to India and vice versa. It’s important because players and coaches in India need to be challenged by playing and competing against world class teams and players. Everyone knows this is important, but of course the challenge is that it needs to make sense for everyone financially.
The head coach of the Indian National Team is a Serb – Alexander Bucan. From what I hear, he a passionate man and doing a great job teaching the international game and it’s physical nature to the team in India. I hope he sticks with it, and I would encourage the government and team to support him with whatever he needs.
TS: Have many young Indian players traveled and played outside the country?
NP: Some players have been to China for competitions and camps. A handful of others have competed in Asian leagues and joined college basketball teams across the world.
TS: How much of a culture shock was it for them?
NP: It’s all new and maybe initially shocking, but across the board I think they’d all tell you that they love getting out of the country for a little while and exploring the world. I think the majority of young people in India are quick learners and can adapt well and survive and thrive in any environment. It’s great that basketball has given a select few that opportunity, but it’s just a start.
TS: What do you think about the rising diversity in the NBA? Do you think its long over due?
NP: The NBA game has gotten better by recruiting and investing in players from other countries. I mean the NBA has effectively monopolized the professional basketball market in the USA, so in order to expand they need to develop their brand in other countries. They’ve done a great job with that.
The NBA is full of brilliant people, and they have exceptional business strategies. 40+ countries are represented in the league, and it seems to be expanding every year. By investing in new countries, and seeing stars emerge from all areas of the world, they ultimately increase their revenue from broadcasting, merchandising, digital media, and sponsorships.
The NBA has always had international players, from Sabonis to Divac and many others. But I think the difference is that now the international players have become the best players on the court, and some of the most marketable as well. Guys like Dirk, Ginobilli, Hedo Turkolu, Tony Parker, Gasol, and of course Yao Ming are just a few who are now leaders of championship-caliber teams. They bring in new moves, a fresh new intensity, and a teamwork mentality to the game. Hey, even Kobe played ball in Italy as a young kid!
Indians are dedicated, strong, they jump high, they are coachable. You will see not only Indians from India, but also South Asians who grew up in the USA, UK, and other countries, start making a name for themselves at a world class level. They will be playing high quality basketball across the world in the next few years, and Hoops India will be there to support them!