Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

We are India! A look at India's National Team in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships

Scott Flemming: Games sure like this help but it sure would help a lot more if we won. I feel like we’re taking some small steps forward. I get impatient some  times because I want to take some big ones but that’s how it is.

We are India
A look at one of the most perplexing teams in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships
by rick olivares

“We are India.”
At the 3:42 mark of the first period, Jogi Singh found himself alone at the top of the key. Japanese guard Kosuke Kanamaru was mindful of the penetration so he sagged down a bit towards the lane. Indian forward-center Yadwinder Singh passed the ball out to Jogi and the point guard threw up a three-pointer. Bang! It was 15-9, India.

Seconds later, Amyjot Singh pulled down the rebound, and for a man of his size and awkwardness, he drove towards the basket for an improbable coast-to-coast layup.

Japan sued for time.

The Indian squad rushed to their bench to low and high fives from teammates and their coaches.

Head coach Scott Flemming looked at his team square. “See what we can accomplish together? We’re passing the ball. Looking for open teammates. We’re attacking and defending as one. See what we can accomplish? We’re all in this together!”

Wednesday night, during the team dinner before India’s classification match against Japan, Flemming’s wife Chaun (pronounced ‘Shawn’) marveled at the sight before her. Here was India’s national basketball team. A team as disparate as one can be. An American head coach and a team made up of Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians all sharing a meal. All talking. All smiling. And having a good time. “It’s not been a problem at all,” said Chaun of the team’s diversity. “We have great young men. We talk about those subjects but it has not been a negative thing at all.”

“This is sports. This is our team,” emphasized Flemming to his team that was all ears. “We only have room for wins and honor for ourselves and our country. Nothing more. No politics. No religion. We are India.”

“India!” chorused the team as they headed back into the fray.

Pratham Singh guarding JR Sakuragi
“Don’t be afraid!”
With about two minutes left in the first period, Japan head coach Kimikazu Suzuki sent in naturalized player JR Sakuragi.

There have been rumors of discord within Japan’s locker room. One player asked to go home as his wife gave birth but was disallowed. Another wanted to just go home. Some blamed the coaches and management for allowing the discord to escalate.

Sakuragi has looked disinterested since the loss to the Philippines. On this day, he whined and complained against the physicality of the Indians (more to their awkwardness than anything). But he also showed glimpses of his talent.

With 19 seconds to play in the first period, he issued a perfect behind the back bounce pass to Makoto Hiejima on a backdoor cut that trimmed Japan’s deficit to nine, 25-16.

Yet at one point, a disgusted Sakuragi threw Indian counterpart Pratham Singh to the floor. There was no call. On Japan’s next offensive, Pratham is whistled for a foul. The Indian shot a 'what-did-I-do' look at the referee.

“He was the one who pushed me!”

Pratham returned to the bench. Flemming gave him a low five and said, “He’s just frustrated. Don’t let him get to you. Don’t be afraid.”

Nine months ago, Flemming was in Dallas, Texas working with the NBA Mavericks’ D-League team, the Texas Legends, when he got the offer to become the head coach in India. Flemming has been in the coaching profession for 29 years mostly in the as an assistant to Don Nelson and Del Harris. He’s had a few coaching stints abroad but never half way around the world and never with anything like this.

When he saw the contract offer from India, there was nothing stipulated in it that he didn’t like. “It was a new culture. I had a whole new set of challenges and it didn’t look like it was going to be easy because Cricket is the national sport,” Flemming recalled. “I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision but I was at ease with it. It was what I should do with my career at this point. My family was on board with it. We weren’t afraid at all. It was an easy decision to make.”

“Every day there is something new to discover in India. For example, when I call for a water break, I expect a glass of water or some Gatorade, but instead, I am handed some tea! Imagine that.”

“Troy Justice, who is with the NBA and is based in India, and I talk about it all the time. And I’m used to seeing cars on the road. Here’s seeing elephants and camels on the road is pretty much normal. I never saw that in Dallas, Texas.”

“But these young men – some are bit older – are all eager to learn. But I am learning about myself and about them as well.”

During one timeout, Jogi Singh returned the bench offering an apology, “My bad,” he said.

“Jogi,” replied Flemming while looking at his point guard in the eye. “Don’t always say, ‘my bad’. If you make a mistake, don’t do it again. We need you in this game.”

“Are you ready to win this game?”
With three minutes and 11 seconds left in the third period, India called time out. Japan went on a 19-7 run to cut the deficit to two, 48-46, after a Daiki Tanaka layup.

The Indian squad looked bewildered. They had led by as much as 17 points on terrific shooting and hustle. But foul trouble, poor execution, and inexperience saw the lead shrink rapidly. India lost point guard Sambhaji Kadam in their second match of the tournament (a 89-65 win over Thailand) and Jogi and at times Bhriguvanshi have alternated as court general. Jogi had done well early in the game but was now lost.

With his team looking on for answers, India head coach Scott William Flemming looked at his team and grinned. “Hey,” he said with contagious optimism. “We’re still up by two. You ready to win this game?”

Going back into the game, forward-center Amjyot Singh picked off a pass from Hiejima. India quickly switched to a fastbreak with swingman Vishesh Bhriguvanshi leading the break. Only Sakuragi had gone back on defense. Bhriguvanshi picked out Amjyot on the right but the tall Indian missed the layup due to Sakuragi’s defense. But Briguvanshi pulled down the offensive rebound and stuck it back in for a twinner, 50-46, India.

The Indian bench erupted in cheers as led its physiologist Naved Hamed.

However, with 3:21 left to play, Sakuragi scored underneath for a 61-59 lead. It was Japan’s first taste of the lead all game long. Then after a missed three-point attempt, Japan’s Naoto Tsuji showed India how it is done as he buried a trifecta of his own. After a botched play, Sakuragi threw a touchdown pass the length of the floor to Tsuji for an uncontested lay-up. The lead was six and India’s backs were broken; losing 73-64.

After the match, Flemming remained hopeful. “We’re trying to take some steps forward. We haven’t been strong at the international level for years. Games sure like this help but it sure would help a lot more if we won. I feel like we’re taking some small steps forward. I get impatient some  times because I want to take some big ones but that’s how it is.”

Reflected Flemming: “Coaching in India is certainly is different from what I am used to. I feel like I am coaching really young kids with regards to fundamentals. A lot has to do with player development. But it’s not such a bad thing. I am a part of something important to a country of millions and millions of people.”

“My eyes have been opened here. Almost every team has a naturalized player except like powerhouses like China and Iran. I am sure I have enough contacts to bring some over. The rules have opened up so maybe we can do that in India.”

“We’ve taken some tough losses on the chin as disappointing as it is if I get away from it far enough I will see this as a confidence booster. We led a team that is ranked some 25 places ahead of us. We were winning for 37 minutes. Unfortunately, the game is played for 40 minutes.”


Here is an article I wrote about five years ago on India's Young Cagers

Forward Amjyot Singh

Forward Vishesh Bhriguvanshi

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