Compare this to the Tamil Nadu state team’s achievements in cricket and football Nationals — Ranji Trophy and Santosh Trophy — and you will know the significance of the performance. While the TN men’s team, with the best infrastructure at its disposal, has won the Ranji Trophy only twice, the men’s football team is still awaiting its first Santosh Trophy triumph.
It’s true that we see the odd game of basketball being played, but it isn’t exactly a big spectator sport in this part of the world. Popular interest has generally been restricted to the early-morning dose of NBA on TV or a documentary web series like ‘The Last Dance’, but the TN team’s domination of the national circuit has eluded the limelight over the years.
There has been a bloody-mindedness about the Tamil Nadu basketball team since the early 1990s. They clinched their first title in 1992, repeated it in 1996 and then became a significant force at the turn of the millennium. Though TN’s basketball players aren’t household names, the discipline never got a step-motherly treatment in schools or companies despite the overwhelming popularity of cricket.
Over the years, a mix of home-grown talent and players from other states have driven the sport in Tamil Nadu. Former India internationals C Jayashankar Menon, S Robinson, C V Sunny — the present state coach — are among the many prominent names who moved to Tamil Nadu to further their goals in the sport. From its own stable, Tamil Nadu has produced quality players such as late A N Dyaneswaran, who excelled in the 1960s and 1970s as a player before turning administrator. The likes of Shabeer Ahmed and Moses Jeevananth kept the flag flying high for the state in domestic and international tournaments.
Sunny, former Indian captain-turnedcoach, feels that basketball has received support from various quarters. “The entire ecosystem favoured basketball in Tamil Nadu. From corporates coming forward with job offers for basketball players to schools and colleges promoting the sport by building courts. There was also a lot of awareness about basketball from the crowd and it motivated many to take up the sport,” Sunny told TOI.
Jayashankar, who moved to Chennai in 1987 to work for Southern Railway before shifting to Indian Bank, recalled how crowds would get behind the players even in the interiors of TN. “In places such as Tuticorin, people would throng the arenas to watch us play. If we did well, the crowd would appreciate and whenever there were errors — they would give their inputs on how to get better,” recalled Jayashankar, who became India’s first Asia all-star back in 1997. He feels a professional basketball league can take the game to the next level. “If we have a professional league, the standard of basketball will go up as our players will get a lot of exposure,” he said.
Skill and determination ensured victory this time, said TNBA president Aadhav Arjuna. “We knew that teams such as Punjab had the advantage of taller players. While our players weren’t as tall as some of the other teams, we focused on shoring up our defence skills and raising our physical fitness,” Arjuna said. The result was that other teams failed to put up with the speed of shooting of the TN team and the hosts notched up one win after another. While the men’s team have been ruling the roost, the TN women’s team, which bagged the bronze at the senior nationals in Chennai this month, will snatch up the title soon, believes Arjuna.
The tradition of basketball coupled with strong performances by the men’s team have shown youngsters that it can be a lucrative career. This time it was starstudded finals, with cheering crowds, social media campaigns and Kollywood actor Vijay Sethupathi roped in as brand ambassador. “It is important to market basketball to reach a wider audience,” said Arjuna. For aspiring youngesters like 13-year-old Senthil Kumar it was a recognition of the sport of choice that he had taken up. “During the finals, the stadium was packed. It was such a festive atmosphere. I was surprised to know basketball had so many fans,” said the Class VII student.
Looking forward, Arjuna wants to build a pipeline of talent. “The coming weeks will see TNBA conducting tournaments in the junior category (U-14, U-16) to pick up young talent, who will be trained by coaches from Serbia,” he said.