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About Karan Madhok

The Elephant, the Dragon, and the Basketball

September 27, 2012

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A long time ago, we were taught that things in China come in threes. So when we found out that Karan Madhok (one) loves hoops, (two) ranks Bite-a-Pita close to the top of Beijing foreign restaurant power rankings, and (three) runs an English-language blog covering one of the biggest markets in Asia, we naturally felt it was our obligation to get him on NiuBBall. 

Madhok, who’s written for NBA.com and SLAM among others, is the unquestioned go-to-guy for all things basketball in India and his blog, Hoopistani, is required reading for anybody who’s into ball in Asia. Now based in Beijing, KM will have his eye on China — good for us because now his words can appear on this blog. Enjoy, everybody.

Friends and foes, brothers and rivals.

China and India are two sides of the same magnet, forever connected yet forever repelling from each other. They are the world’s first and second largest populations. Each boasts of a civilization that is more than 5000 years old. Each is a country rich in culture, heritage, and personality. They are Feng Shui and Vastu Shastra. They are Tai Chi and Yoga. They are the Great Wall and the Taj Mahal. In recent years, they have been two of the fastest rising economies in the world. They are respectively the world’s largest communist and largest democratic nations.

They are neighbours.

Both China and India in drastically different ways have become global economic powerhouses and have rightfully garnered serious attention from investors all across the globe. No matter the hardships back home, the Indian Elephant and the Chinese Dragon are here, and they are here to stay.

And as the world’s two largest markets, both China and India have received special attention from the NBA and its commissioner, David Stern, in recent years. Stern has made no secret of the fact that he has been looking to expand the NBA’s worldwide brand, and the world’s two largest populations will be his major vehicle to carry out these ambitions. China has already more than compensated in their part of the bargain, accepting basketball as the nationís most popular sport, seeing the rise of a well-oiled machine in the CBA, and seeing their national squad rise to participate (but not always competitively) against the worldís best. In China, basketball became much, much more than just the NBA — it became a lifestyle and a mainstream obsession.

But the in Elephant India, basketball has found an animal far tougher to tame to accept its ways. Sport in mainstream India means one word and one word alone: Cricket. Indians eat, sleep, drink, laugh, cry, obsess, and fully live embroiled in Cricket. The game is found in the country’s every nook and cranny. Like China, traditional Indian parents may still preach academics over sport, but for those who do have the courage and talent to seek out their sporting dreams, the overwhelming majority thinks just cricket, cricket, and cricket.

It’s no wonder than that while India’s Cricket national team are world champions, the same country can’t field a basketball squad good enough to beat Syria. While India’s professional cricket league (IPL) is catching up to the NBA and English Premier League football as one of the most lucrative in the world, the country’s best basketball players are still only semi-professionals since a pro basketball league is still a long way away from realisation.

In Asian basketball competitions, China dominates the way that the USA dominates the world stage. A loss for China at any Asian level is sacrilege and anything other than first place is considered a failure. India has comparatively far humbler ambitions: While India does get to play the bully against its South Asian neighbours (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives), they are often the whipping boys themselves when they face Asia’s best in Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei, or China. Although results have been slowly improving in recent years, India is still struggling mightily to break even the top eight in any Asian men’s competition.

I’m born and bred in India, and have been writing about basketball in India for my blog for nearly three years, a period in which I also worked as the communications head for the Basketball Federation of India (BFI). Less than two months ago, my life took me in a slight tangent and I found myself shifting base from New Delhi to Beijing: not the biggest shift geographically and culturally, but a whole new world and lifestyle in many other ways.

Now in China, I’m getting the opportunity to view first-hand the hysteria of hoops and the influence that the game has had across the country. There are several lessons to be learnt for the Indian hoops observer. In many ways, China is the hoops model that India, like every other Asian country, would like to emulate. Unlike other Asian countries, India has the population, the market, and thus the potential heavy interest of investors to make it up.

But as anyone who has dealt with business in each of the two nations perhaps already knows, there are vast differences between China and India. China is structured, almost too structured some would say, leaving little room for creative basketball minds and talents (on and off the floor) to thrive. India is almost the exact opposite, lacking any sort of consistent structure and thus a lot of basketball operations in the country are a few steps below the Western standard of professionalism. The growth of basketball in India is further hampered by poor infrastructure, slow bureaucracy, and just the general lack of interest, due to other ëcricketingí distractions.

Although it may not be able to match the quality of Chinese basketball or the sheer number of fans in the country, India does have a lot of potential. India’s private sector has been a growing attraction for investors, and these include investors who are ready to help the sport grow independently of the support (or the harassment) of the government. Case in point: IMG Worldwide, a leading global sports/media management company, signed a deal with India’s richest conglomerate company, Reliance, to sponsor the growth of different Indian sports. IMG-Reliance became sponsors of the Basketball Federation of India two years ago and have been slowly charting out plans to improve both the status of the game and the quality of the national teams. If China got their big boost in basketball nearly 20 years ago with the inception of the CBA, Indiaís big boost has belatedly arrived now.

Popularity of Chinese basketball skyrocketed when Yao Ming was selected first in the 2002 NBA draft and went on to become a superstar player. No player in India (or for that matter, China) in the near future has the capacity to match Yao’s talent, but Indian fans have been pinning their hopes on their own idols who could one day help popularise the sport back home. Chief among them is 16-year-old Satnam Singh Bhamara, a teenager born and bred in a small Indian village who grew to be 7-foot tall and develop into a star young player for India. Bhamara is still only a high-schooler, but as he trains and improves his game at the IMG Academy in Florida, all eyes will be upon the young giant to take the next big step for Indian hoops.

Meanwhile, the NBA, who already have several offices and a well-run operation in China, have expanded their outreach into India in recent years. The NBA has been running several grassroots programmes in India since 2010 and opened their first India office earlier this year. They have been able to work closely with India’s best players, coaches, and basketball administrators in this period and have genuinely impacted the increase of basketball following amongst young Indians with their multi-city competitions and events.

These are two countries with vastly different basketball aims: China dreams of being counted amongst the best teams in the world while India aims to move up the ladder in Asia first.

These are exciting times for the future of the accumulated 2.6 billion people in the two countries, and also for the fraction of those billions who eat, sleep, and live basketball. I’m just glad to find myself somewhere in the middle of it.

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