The Sixth Man (cont.)
From the view of American basketball coach Troy Justice, now the NBA's director of basketball operations for India. What did tall athletes do before basketball was invented? The sport has given an identity to many of those born to exceptional height. Today there are children who pray to grow tall so they can play better basketball.
What became of tall people before the 1891 invention of their sport? What would have become of Bill Russell or Larry Bird or Shaquille O'Neal in a world without basketball? Troy Justice is on the other side of the world investigating that question -- and he is influencing the answer.
"It's the perfect fit for [all the tall boys and girls in India]. It gives them the platform in which they can be a part of a great game and use their height. I'm finding all of these boys who are coming to train, and every one of them I've met loves the game and is hungry to learn. But they just don't know anything. They've never seen the game."
Now, suddenly, basketball is being introduced to their lives.
"There is a boy who is 6-foot-11 and 18 years old -- he's only been playing basketball for the past eight months," said Justice by phone from India. "He catches on so quickly and he has incredible potential. But he has so much to learn. He has all of the natural skill sets and tools, he's a very aggressive young man, but he just got off to a late start."
Justice, 44, first visited India in 1991 as coach of the touring Athletes In Action basketball team. Last February, he became the first (and only) NBA employee based in India. He is a basketball evangelist who has been charged with laying the groundwork for the NBA to reach its (unlikely) five-year goal of making basketball the second-most popular sport in the world's second-most populated country. There are 1.2 billion people in India, and so far, the minority that cares about basketball is passionate for it.
"Everyone in the [basketball] community is there because they love the game," Justice said. "They know the stats of these NBA guys, they know the players and the entire rosters, they know the standings, they stay updated on everything. They're wearing the jerseys and when they come up to me, all they want to talk about is their favorite NBA team and the players they watch."
The ultimate goal is to discover and develop the Yao Ming of India -- a dynamic star of India who will succeed in the NBA and serve as an example to help grow the sport back home. But who knows when that will happen? Justice is only beginning to make American colleges aware of the potential for young talent in India. Each day, he moves from city to city, overseeing the Mahindra NBA Challenge -- a community basketball league that has doubled to 6,000 players across five Indian cities over the last six months -- while running clinics of all kinds for boys and girls and adults as he lays the groundwork for the NBA to open an Indian office early next year.
"A lot of our Mahindra teams are YMCA club teams," said Justice, noting that the YMCA helped export basketball to India for scores of years before the NBA's arrival. "Most schools and university colleges have at least one court. Then you'll go around and see a court that's cracked and there will be weeds growing up in the court, and they'll be out there playing on it. I've seen hoops nailed up on a pole with no backboard. There are coaches who have basketball classes for children from age 4 all the way up to the seniors, and you'll see all of these man-made basketball hoops 6 feet, 7 feet, 8 feet tall for the younger kids to shoot at."
He dreams of being able to look back years from now and tell a story of how these few courts gave birth to a national sport. Someday, he hopes, it will be assumed -- fair or not -- that every tall person in India is a basketball player.
My early All-Star picks. Here's how it looks based on the results of the season's opening quarter:
C Dwight Howard
F Amar'e Stoudemire
F LeBron James
G Derrick Rose
G Rajon Rondo
C Al Horford
F Kevin Garnett
F Paul Pierce
F Danny Granger
G Dwyane Wade
G Joe Johnson
G Raymond Felton
C Tim Duncan
F Pau Gasol
F Kevin Durant
G Kobe Bryant
G Deron Williams
C Tyson Chandler
F Dirk Nowitzki
F Carmelo Anthony
F Kevin Love
G Russell Westbrook
G Chris Paul
G Manu Ginobili
It is much more difficult to narrow the options in the talent-rich West. I picked Gasol over Nowitzki because of the Lakers' across-the-board contributions, but it's a tight call. Love's extraordinary rebounding numbers prevail over his team's losing record. The last guard spot in the West goes to Ginobili, but it could just as easily belong to teammate Tony Parker. Tyson Chandler makes the team for his work at the defensive end, where he is doing almost as much to transform Dallas as Garnett did for the Celtics three years ago.
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