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"If they start a professional league here, that would be a very good thing," says national team veteran Vishesh Bhriguvanshi. "If we get a chance to play against better players from the outside, we can improve." The influx of money from IMG offers promise; it allowed the team to hire Natt in November 2011. Former Duke assistant Pete Gaudet then came over to coach the women's team, which is ranked No. 40 in the world.
The coaches' problems began with the baskets at the national teams' practice facility, which weren't regulation height. "It didn't matter to them [that they were] shooting on eight-foot baskets," Natt says. He also noted the players' lack of strength; only a few days before Natt was hired, a strength coach—Zak Penwell, a former UConn football walk-on—had been hired through the combined efforts of IMG, the NBA and the BFI.
Penwell eventually designed and built a resplendent basketball-specific training center, which he says is the first of its kind in India. (Ninety percent of the equipment, including power racks for athletes more than 7 feet tall, was custom-made or imported from the U.S., U.K. and Australia.) But Penwell's best work came before that, outside the weight room. One quarter to one third of the players initially couldn't practice because they were sick, so Penwell held sessions on what he calls "basic germ theory." He taught players the importance of washing their hands with soap. "My biggest victory of the first year," Penwell says, "was getting guys on the court."
The conditions at the national team's indoor practice gym, near Gandhi Stadium in New Delhi, made frequent handwashing essential. There were so many pigeons under the roof that Natt was frequently hit in the head with bird droppings. "Don't look up with your mouth open," he says.
"Pigeons owned the building," says Gaudet, and the coaches were unable to find cleaning crews to adequately address the mess. Scott Flemming, who succeeded Natt as Indian national coach in November 2012, says pigeon poop is no longer a problem. But he says the facility was so dirty when he arrived that he gave the janitors mopping lessons.
In monsoon season the players also needed to apply bug spray before practices. Sometimes it didn't matter; at times the cloud of insects was so thick, Natt says, that he had to cancel practice. "The players were running down the court," he says, "and they couldn't see."
Neither Natt nor Gaudet fulfilled his entire two-year commitment, for reasons ranging from reluctance to bring their families over to frustrations with seemingly simple but intractable problems such as keeping the court floor clean. (Natt also got a serious case of Delhi Belly and lost more than 40 pounds.)
Before coming to India, Flemming was the basketball coach and athletic director at Mount Vernon (Ohio) Nazarene University, an NAIA Division II school where he won 397 games, and an assistant for the Texas Legends of the NBA D-League. He says he's committed to staying the full two years in India and appreciates how much Natt did to make his job easier. When SI visited an Indian team practice recently, the pigeons had been cleared out, but the practice floor was still warped and had more dead spots than the old Boston Garden. Duct tape holds the hardwood together in some places, and Penwell walks the floor before every practice to make sure nothing is jutting out.
The first step for the new coach? A hard reset on the players' mentality. During his college coaching days Flemming ran a drill in which he had players knock him down as he took a charge. Flemming often picked a player pining for playing time who would take out his frustrations in the drill. With the Indian team, Flemming doubts he can run the drill. Players show such extreme respect for coaches that they never question his demands, but they don't yet have toughness inculcated into them. "I'm not sure I could find any of the Indian players who would be willing to run me over," he says.
As for the level of play, the Indian team would struggle in the middling America East Conference, against teams such as Maine, Hartford and Vermont. In Delhi, Flemming found a mix of Division I--caliber players who need constant goading to play hard and be aggressive at all times. "I feel like I'm in Hoosiers, giving them a speech every day," says Flemming. "What a lot of these guys are missing is confidence."