Bengaluru was all set to go. Over a dozen of the top youth basketball teams from around the continent had flown into India’s Silicon Valley with hopes to becoming the top of the pack at the city’s Sree Kantaveera Stadium. India’s own Under-16 squad were offered the services of experienced Serbian head coach Zoran Visic and assistance from senior captain Anitha Paul Durai to lead their charge. The path to success wasn’t going to be easy, but Visic — with decades of international coaching experience under his belt — at least had a roadmap in mind.
And then, those roads flooded.
In October, Bengaluru was hit with some of the worst rains in over a century, flooding the city’s crumbling urban infrastructure and seeping out the drainage system. The rains effected traffic, electricity, and mobile connectivity, and in the worst case, its resultant flooding led to a number of deaths.
By the time Visic and his team returned from a month-long training stint in Gandhinagar to Bengaluru to get acclimatised to the courts, the famous Sree Kantaveera was damaged.
Earlier this year, the stadium had hosted Asia’s premier’s women’s basketball tournament — the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup — where a Visic-led Team India won promotion to Division A in front of cheering fans. With experience of hosting and performing at a tournament of this stature, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) turned their attention to the next set of challenges: to host the Under-16 version of the FIBA Asia Championship in late October, and to hope that India’s youth squad — just like the seniors Basketball Federation of India would win back promotion to the elite division too.
But for Visic, replicating the success of the seniors with the youth squad was going to be a more complicated affair. The youngsters lacked high-level experience, conditioning, and time to develop team chemistry. By the time the floods hit Bengaluru, the team seemed slated for misfortune.
Visic, however, was a steady presence over the team. He may not have faced these exact circumstances before, but he has garnered enough experience over the past 22 years to adapt to new basketball environments. The 61-year-old from Belgrade has been the head coach of Yugoslavia’s women’s national team, Serbian junior national team, and has coached professionally in Serbia, Russia, Singapore, Romania, and most recently, in Lebanon in the past two decades.
Visic was appointed head coach of India’s women’s senior national team in June, and at July’s FIBA Asia Cup, helped India win the (secondary) Division B of the competition. To maintain continuity, the BFI appointed him Head Coach of the U-16s too.
Eventually, the water was swept away, and when the basketball began, Visic’s youth army did damage in Bengaluru the same way the seniors had. With many encouraging performances, India dominated the second-tier of the competition, winning all of their games in comfortable fashion and securing a qualification to Division A in front of their home fans.
“I’m very proud because our team was among the youngest at the tournament,” Visic said, reflecting on India’s triumphs. “We have three 15-year-olds, two 14-year-olds, and one girl who was only 13 at the time of the tournament. These girls will improve so much with experience as they grow.”
India defeated Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Iran in the group stage in dominant fashion, and showed little hesitation in the semi-final to bring down the bigger Kazakhstan squad. In the Division B final, like they had been all tournament, India were dominant from the start, holding their opponents Malaysia to just three points in the first quarter and holding a 32-24 halftime lead. Another spurt in the third and some tenacious defensive work helped India close the game out with a 64-48 win.
“We got stronger with every game,” said Visic. “And I got the opportunity to play all 12 players in all five games we played, including semi-final and final. We played really good defence in the semi and the final, got lots of easy fast-break points, and grabbed lots of rebounds. We even managed to outrebound Kazakhstan, who were a much bigger team.”
Part of India’s strategy was ensuring a fast start to put a stamp on the game as early as possible. “It was very important, how we opened the games,” said Visic. “It’s much better if you open on right way. The other team needs to know that you’re ready and motivated.”
Visic admits that, in the preparatory run-up to the tournament, India’s chances looked shaky.
“There were a lot of problems. We didn’t get to have scrimmage in preparation and only played three practice games before the tournament. Then, there was the flooding in the stadium. The girls arrived in camp with some early bad habits,” Visic added. “Sometimes, it’s better to know nothing than to know the wrong thing. Many of them didn’t know how to play off the ball and many were making traveling violations every time they drove in to the basket.”
“But they improved quickly,” Visic added. “All of them improved. I saw in them that the future of Indian women’s basketball will be okay.”
The biggest star to emerge for India from this championship was Uttar Pradesh girl Vaishnavi Yadav. After making a name for herself at the Youth Nationals for Uttar Pradesh earlier this year, Yadav enjoyed her major international breakthrough in front of an eager home crowd. She finished the tournament as Division B’s leader in points (20.4 ppg) and joint leader, with another Indian Neha Karwa, in assists (6.2). Yadav was also India’s second-best player on the boards, grabbing 8.8 rebounds per contest.
The team’s captain Pushpa Senthil Kumar was also a major force in the post, finishing as the division’s second-best rebounder (13.2 rpg). Karwa was a steady presence for India all tournament, and could be a guard to watch for the future.
Visic however, believed in celebrating the unit instead of singling out any individual performers.“I’m not talking about individuals: basketball is a collective sport. Of course, every group has its best players, but this is not important. What is important is for the players to have a connection, how they play together.”
“When I coached the senior team, so many different players — Anitha [Paul Durai], Jeena [Scaria], Shireen [Limaye], and Raspreet [Sidhu] — all played well. It was the same here. If one girl stepped up in one game, it was another in the second. When you have the philosophy to play as a team, only then the individuals will shine. I want to take the best qualities of each player. All of them are very important for the team, even the ones that played only four or five minutes. The Federation selected a good team and we could see that from the result.”
India’s success has ensured that they will now be thrust in the league of elites, the competition’s Division A, in the next iteration of this tournament in 2019. This year in Bengaluru, Australia — participating in the Asian division for the first time — took home the gold medal, while Japan, China, and New Zealand put up some impressive performances too. India’s mission will be not just to survive in Division A, but to ensure that they play at a higher level even against the top teams.
“We have to improve our fundamentals and practice in a proper way for the future,” said Visic. “We are different from all these Asian teams: Australia are tall and strong, Japan are smaller and quick. But our players understand the game and can improve tactically, not just physically. I hope we can survive in this higher division, that is the most important thing. It was easy to go in, but staying in and improving as much as possible will be the next challenge.”
As he has coached both the women’s teams in the lower divisions, Visic has enjoyed a perfect, unblemished record as coach in India. But for the Serbian, these success stories are only the first steps. The basketball calendar never stops. India will now prepare for Commonwealth Games in April, the next iteration of the Asian Games, and the FIBA Asia U-18 Championship for women.
India are going to be challenged by many higher-ranked teams in these tournaments, but if Visic continues to be involved with the national women’s structure, there will be hope for continuity and growth — and perhaps, another impressive leap forward.