In the capital city of Serbia – Belgrade – by the city’s largest flea market in Buvljak, on the Yuri Gagarin Street named after the Soviet pilot to become the first human in space, basketball coach Zoran Visic lived surrounded by an unexpected Indian influence, sandwiched between the Nehruova street on the West and the Gandijieva street on the East.
Because of warm relations between India and Yugoslavia in the past, the two streets in Belgrade were named after two of the most important champions of Indian freedom. When Yugoslavia broke into Serbia and Montenegro in the early 90’s, busts of Nehru and Gandhi found their way on to the famous Belgrade streets. By the time Serbia became a separate republic in 2006, Visic was already intrigued and enamoured by a calling to India.
It took a further decade, but that calling finally came in 2017 when Visic was offered a job to coach India’s Women’s Senior National Basketball Team. With Indian basketball’s biggest challenge – the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup being hosted by India this year in Bengaluru – lurking in the horizon, the Serbian head coach didn’t waste any time to accept the offer.
“The Basketball Federation of India [BFI] called me and invited me to become the national team coach,” Visic told The Field in a phone interview from Bengaluru earlier this week. “It did not take a long time to decide. I’m from Serbia and I know that Serbia, Yugoslavia, India, have all had friendly relations. I have always been curious about India: in Belgrade, I live in an area between Nehru and Gandhi streets, named after two people who made India famous. For me, this meant a lot!”
“I want to improve the level of Indian basketball and put it on the highest level.” Visic (61) is the first foreign coach with the national team since the departure of Spaniard Francisco Garcia in 2015. He 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, over the past 22 years. Now, he will get a chance to continue his basketball journey in a starkly different basketball environment.
Forget the friendly political relations between the two regions of the past: on the court, the history of basketball between Serbia and India couldn’t be more different. Ranked 9th in the world, Serbia have been one of the most competitive and successful teams worldwide in recent years, winning gold at the EuroBasket Women tournament in 2015 and bronze at the basketball tournament at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. India, meanwhile, are ranked 40th and have never won a major international medal. India’s finest performance came at the 2013 edition of the FIBA Asia Championship, coach Garcia led the team to a best-ever fifth-place finish. Two years later, however, India lost every game at the same tournament and were relegated down from the higher pool of teams.
Held from July 23 – 29, the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup will be the biggest date on India’s basketball calendar this year, and it will mark the first time India will host a major continental basketball championship since the same tournament was held in Chennai back in 2009. The 2017 edition of the cup, set to be held at the Sri Kantaveera Stadium in Bengaluru, will be the first to incorporate top teams from the Oceania region, too. Playing on home soil, India will be hoping for extra motivation to rise back up the ranks of Asian basketball.
It is with this mission that the BFI hired Visic this summer. Visic took over Team India at the national camp from June 1 and will serve his contract until the end of the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup. Before the Cup itself, Visic and the squad will get a chance to play in preparatory games as they will also participate in the William Jones Cup in Taiwan from July 5-9.
“Of course, this is a challenge for every coach,” said Visic, a few weeks into his camp with the top players in the nation. “I think I can help a lot with my experience. It is a bit difficult to compare basketball in Serbia and in India, but the players from India, they have a similar mentality. I’m very proud of our girls here: they are very disciplined and hardworking and have worked lots with the Indian coaches Shiba Maggon and Paramdeep Singh before I arrived here.”
Although incorporating his leadership skills and experience with the Indian coaches should definitely assist the national team, it is still a pity that the BFI waited so late – less than two months before the championship – to bring in a new coach. Every coach has a different philosophy and system, and to truly make a change in the basketball programme, the coach` needs to understand the structure of the sport, recruiting, facilities, and other options thoroughly. But due to the time limitations, Visic will have to make do with the probables currently available in camp, and his current focus will be limited exclusively to the big tournament
Visic also admits that the big challenge for India before the FIBA Asia Cup is going to be the team’s relative inexperience. Unlike a lot of foreign nations participating in the tournament, India doesn’t have a professional league for women at home to provide the players with more elite-level match practice. Since the 2015 tournament, India’s women’s national team has seen very little action as a unit.
“Experience is something that this team misses,” said Visic. “The result in 2015 exactly showed this. “It is a very short time [before the tournament]. You cannot do a lot in eight weeks. I’m expecting a lot from the William Jones Cup in Chinese Taipei – not thinking about results since we’re playing strong teams like Japan, China, Chinese Taipei, and New Zealand – but I expect to go over there for the experience. India has no league and we miss out on the strong competitions that other countries get.”
Before the tournament begins, Visic is also hoping that India will get to organise friendly games against some of the teams that will arrive early, like Japan and Australia.
Japan are the reigning champions of Asia, and Australia are the best team from the Oceania region, and those two, along with other Division A teams like China, Korea, and Chinese Taipei will be the favourites at the FIBA Asia Women’s Cup. India, playing in the relegated Division B, have no chance of lifting the crown this year, but will be battling to win Division B and be promoted back to Division A for the Cup’s next iteration.
India have been drawn in Division B’s Group A, along with southern neighbour Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan. The group’s fourth team – American Samoa – have withdrawn from the tournament. Recent history and rankings suggest that India should be able to top their group easily, but are likely to be challenged for Division B glory by either Lebanon or Kazakhstan from Group B.
“We can try to do our best,” Visic said, “I’m looking now to make very competitive team to be ready to fight with the best teams from Asia. I’m an optimist – I think we can get good results.”
India had sent one of their youngest-ever international teams to the 2015 tournament; now, several of those young players have gained a little more experience, but overall, it is still a youthful squad. Leading from the front is India’s captain and most-experienced current player, Tamil Nadu’s Anitha Paul Durai (32) who has been extremely successful with Indian Railways at the domestic level and even played professionally for a brief period in Thailand. The other veteran in the squad is Delhi’s Raspreet Singh (28), an explosive scorer who has been in the mix with the national team for a decade.
The rest of the team is in their early 20s, many of whom have been playing for India in international tournaments from their teens. India’s finest current player by most accounts is Kerala’s Jeena Scaria (23), who was the team’s leading scorer at the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship and recently helped Kerala win the Senior National Championship in Puducherry. Other players to watch for Team India will include point guard Kavita Akula, the first Indian to earn full basketball scholarship at an NCAA Division 1 college in the United States, Poonam Chaturvedi, who at 6-foot-9 is the tallest women basketball player in the country, Shireen Limaye, Bhandavya Mahesha, Poojamol Subashmon, Barkha Sonkar, and more.
“This is a young team” said Visic, “a team, in my opinion, with a good future. That is why it will be good right now to qualify for the ‘A’ division, and later when these players are 27-28, they will be really very good.”
“Our team is very fast, very quick, and they are very good athletes. So, we can work with this positive and to try as much as possible to cover the ‘negative’ part – our inexperience.”
Visic’s preceding foreign coach for India’s Women’s squad was the Spaniard Francisco Garcia, who initially came to India to lead the team in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship and stuck around for almost two more years, including a brief return for the same championship in 2015. For now, Visic’s contract in India is just until the end of July; the BFI has said that his term may be extended if mutually agreed by both parties.
“I’m open,” Visic said about the future. “I hope I can make the federation and Indian people happy and help the team qualify for Division A. I want to finish this cup first and talk about the future later.”
Whether or not Visic will continue his India adventure is likely to depend on the team’s performances over the next month and his experience on and off the court going forward. Visic has a positive attitude towards India, from the political friendships between his home nation and the adopted one, to the basketball potential here.
But hiring an accomplished foreign coach for India shouldn’t be simply a one-tournament job: India needs a long-term plan, leadership to help guide a complete construction of the sport from the grassroots to the biggest international challenges. With this young Indian team hoping to peak to their full potential in a few years, it would be imperative for there to be more consistency going forward in India’s basketball infrastructure.
Karan Madhok is a freelance writer on basketball and tweets @Hoopistani.