Veselin Matic had India beat.
Or to put it more precisely, Matic — the experienced Serbian basketball coach — sat on the opposite end of the bench, leading an upstart team from Syria to a shocking win against India, 74-57. This was his first taste of being in India, in November 2017, during the preliminary round match of the FIBA World Cup qualifiers in Bengaluru.
Seven months later, as the qualifiers came to a close with the last legs of matches, Matic’s Syria did it again, beating India 81-76, this time on Syria’s make-shift ‘home’ stadium in Zouk Mikael (Lebanon). The defeat relegated India to the bottom of their qualifiers group and Syria into the next round.
But even in the triumphs, Matic saw something in his competition. Indian basketball has had its ebbs and flows over the past decade, but the potential of this large country in one of the world’s most-popular sports remained undeniable.
Alas, in recent years, the potential has been far from realised. The losses against Syria have been part of one of the worst losing streaks in India’s men’s basketball. Over the stretch of the past two-three years, India suffered serious injuries to star players like Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and Amritpal Singh, saw other stars like Amjyot Singh and Palpreet Singh Brar face year-long suspensions for alleged indiscipline, faced a shortage of talented backups (especially in the perimeter positions) against top Asian sides, and struggle with administrative drama back home as opposing executive committees challenged each other to steer the country’s basketball federation.
The Basketball Federation of India’s (BFI) internal dramas have since subsided. And when the BFI and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) approached Matic with an offer to be the helm of India’s men’s basketball programme, the coach agreed.
“I know about the Indian team,” he told this correspondent in an exclusive phone interview from his hometown of Belgrade in Serbia last week. “I know about the problems they’ve faced — and I like this team.”
Matic will make his return to India this week in a new role, as the head coach of the men’s national team, and will immediately be thrust into action. He will first head to Coimbatore to observe the U16 National Basketball Championship, and then will be handed a 3x3 squad to marshal to the 2019 FIBA Asia 3x3 Cup in Changsha, China.
Matic’s addition to basketball programme has given a double-Serb flavour to Indian hoops. He will join his old Serbian colleague Zoran Visic, who has been in India for the past few years as the head coach of the country’s women’s team. Visic temporarily even coached India’s men and back home in Serbia has taken part in coaching clinics in partnership with Matic.
Matic (58) is a veteran of European and Asian basketball and arrives in India with a wealth of successful international experience. Originally from Belgrade, Matic spent his professional playing career as a guard for the Serbian club OKK Beogard, and was undrafted when he applied for the 1982 NBA Draft. After retirement in 1988, Matic turned his attention to coaching, starting with his team Beogard. Over the next few decades, he held coaching roles for clubs in Germany, Poland, Estonia, Lebanon, and more, while also becoming a part of the national basketball coaching/scouting structure of the former Yugoslavia and the Polish national team. He was an assistant coach for Yugoslavia's squads that won the 2001 EuroBasket and the 2002 World Championship.
Matic served as the head coach of Iran's national team from 2009-2011, and during this stretch bagged the gold medal at the 2009 FIBA Asia Cup and bronze at the 2010 Asian Games. He served brief stretches as the head coach of Lebanon, and most recently, of Syria. Since 2012, he has been an official FIBA scout for the FIBA Men World Championships.
For now, Matic has signed a one-year deal to coach India, but he says both sides will be open to an extension if they see fit.
Despite India’s national team’s failures in recent years, there have been signs of individual growth, especially in international experience. India’s first NBA draft pick Satnam Singh is currently playing professionally in Canada’s National Basketball League. Amjyot Singh recently finished his second season in the NBA G-League. Amritpal Singh played pro in Australia’s NBL. Young guys like Princepal Singh have trained with top prospects at NBA’s global academies. And more young players are training at a higher athletic level back home than ever before.
Matic’s job would be to integrate this paheli of Indian talent into a working, synchronised unit. He addressed Team India’s continuing issues, highlighted their exciting potential, and laid out his vision for the job ahead in a freewheeling interview. Below is a text (edited for clarity and structure) of our conversation:
Tell me how the opportunity to work for Team India first presented itself. Did you have an eye on the team for a while or was it a surprise?
I was contacted by SAI (Sports Authority of India) and was told that the BFI (Basketball Federation of India) had recommended me for this job. I wasn’t surprised because I had been waiting for an offer. I know about the Indian team, I like this team, and I know the problems they’ve faced.
India had been on my mind as far back as 2015 when I was coaching Lebanon. I knew a lot about the country because of friends who are in FIBA, and because of FIBA’s efforts in developing basketball in India. Now, basketball in India is starting to become a much more famous sport than before. Lots of people know about basketball when you go on social media… You can find so many interesting things happening in India.
My contract is for one year, and we’ll see where we go from there. My opinion is that our goal needs to be the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup. India’s national team needs to be focused and play in the top level of basketball.
You played India twice in the FIBA World Cup qualifiers while coaching Syria. Despite the odds, Syria shocked India in Bengaluru, and then beat them away from home, too. What did you learn about Team India when facing them? What positives of India would you like to build on? Where do you think the team is in need of improvement?
We (Syria) beat India because of India’s unorganised ways. They never had a fully-organised team. Physically, the Indian team wasn't ready. Our aggression was our key factor on court.
India have many quality players, such as Amjyot, who played in the G-League. I remember him from the FIBA Asia Championship in 2015 where he was one of their best players. I really enjoyed his game. Another player who is very important is their guard, Vishesh, but he was hurt.
But the main question was about the quality of India’s perimeter players, who weren’t very good. We won by pressing their ‘outside line’ in both games. One of the main things I’ll have to work on will be outside shooting and developing talent in the perimeter. Fortunately, Bhriguvanshi is back from injury now!
And I’ve also been in almost daily conversation with Satnam Singh, who is playing professionally in Canada. He has very good potential. It is important to have a good centre in Asia; with a good centre, you can play in any style.
There are also several players of Indian roots playing extremely well in the international 3x3 circuit. The Indian government doesn’t allow these foreign players to play for India. But we must find a way to get good players of Indian origin to play for the country! The Delhi 3BL team, for example, is ranked so high in the world. That is the type of quality that India needs.
The federation has also spoken to me about the 3x3 national team and supervising India’s U18 squad after that. I will supervise all the men’s teams and start clinics to help develop coaches in India. I want to work with the BFI to get into collaboration with the NBA, too, who have been doing a great job coaching kids in the Junior NBA programme.
India is a very big country, and you have to be organised. We must have a good control of our best talents. This has been my duty everywhere I’ve gone: I don’t want to let good talent get away.
The senior men's team has been on a painfully long losing streak in major international tournaments for the past few years. Are you daunted at all by the challenge of turning things around for the team?
One very important thing is that we have to challenge why our star players were suspended. India is not a basketball rich country. If you want to figure high in Asia, you have to find the motivation to organise and make a strong programme. That is one of the reasons why I’m in India: I’m motivated, and the federation is motivated because they gave me this job, this offer to develop the game.
We have to treat our players the right way, and the players will give back. If you set up a good training camp, organise it in a good way, the players will like to come and be ready to play for the national team. That is the beginning of success.
It will be very difficult. I can’t be a magic man, just say ‘abracadabra!’ and whoosh, we're champions of Asia! No, the reality is that India is somewhere between 13-25 in Asia. To beat better countries, we have to be better organised.
Women's basketball is doing very well in India. But among men, there is more competition. There are so many strong teams. We need to make most of India’s physical potential. Our players are good, many are in good age (their prime), and enough young players are ready. We need to think about how we will integrate young players and give them a chance to play. The duty between SAI and the federation is to prepare in the best way, so that the players will be proud to play for India.
You have varied coaching experiences, in Serbia, Germany, all over Europe, Iran (with whom you won 2009 ABC), Lebanon, Syria... Were you always looking towards Asia as a potential coaching destination, or did you just follow the journey as it came along?
Asia is a known situation for me; it’s better to be in a known situation than an unknown one.
Like other places, I don't know what problems I'll have here (in India). But I'm a fighter. I fight everywhere I go. I fight for the right of basketball. My motivation is to develop something. Before Syria, I took the best-possible coaching situation, never a bottom team. But I took the Syria job to see where I could take a team from the bottom. We ended up finishing 6th in the Asian Games and in the top 12 in the FIBA qualifiers. I’ve left them now, but I feel I’ve left them ready for the future.
I felt I did the same with Lebanon, this is now their top level. In Iran, I helped bring in a lot of young players who helped make them a top Asian team.
One of the best experiences of my career was winning the U16 European championship with in 1997 as the assistant coach of Serbia. Internationally, the FIBA Asia Championship with Iran was probably the highlight!
China’s national team was a candidate for me also around 2012. India will be similar to China, a country with a lot of tall people and potential.
We don't have a league in India. But we have a national team, we have interest in the game in school. It will be a challenge for me to figure out how I will fight against my problems. I don't know these answers. But India has potential.
What do you hope to bring from all your experience now into Indian basketball?
Every coach, they need to have energy, enthusiasm, and have a vision. That is what I can do. Now, I have to find people to work together with me. You cannot do anything alone; you have to do it with a team. I think I have the support of SAI and BFI, their president, their secretary… Now, we need to find an assistant coach.
India, of course has a lot of potential, and now the NBA is providing interest and some grassroots structure. From your end, how do you hope to impact the Indian basketball scene and help transform the team into winners?
It’s very difficult to be among the top-ten teams in Asia, especially now that the two Oceania teams — Australia and New Zealand — are contenders too. What I want to achieve is that, after my time here, India will be ready to be in that top-ten.
But the most important thing is organisation, to be more focused like other sports, like football, here. India has to organise a basketball league for the sport to become as famous here as it is in China. The country has unbelievable potential, and we have to invest in sport the right way — and not just cricket.
Basketball is something modern, and it's pointing towards the modern world. As India develops and goes towards a new world, basketball will be a very important factor. This is one of the reasons why I came to India.
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Updated Date: May 12, 2019 22:29:05 IST