Catch the kids or let basketball stay in limbo | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Catch the kids or let basketball stay in limbo

22 August, 2021
Sugath Theverapperuma
Sugath Theverapperuma

Former bronze medal-winning captain Sugath Theverapperuma warns all talk and no action can make plans for progress just a pipe dream:

Former Sri Lanka basketball player Sugath Theverapperuma is one of the few exponents who got into the sport by chance and then realised that he had the potential to represent his country.

Now a retired player he feels a new era could dawn for basketball after many years of the sport languishing without a proper godfather to take it forward in a highly advanced and competitive period with the entry of Aelian Gunawardena as the new head of Sri Lanka Basketball.

But Theverapperuma is also aware that unless a long term strategy is drawn up, a new style is adopted to compete at international level, focus on kids basketball and indoor basketball infrastructure, it will be just a pipe dream to think Sri Lanka can be a top competitive team.

Excerpts of an interview Theverapperuma had with the Sunday Observer:

Q: How did you get into basketball and who influenced you ?

I would say 1980 was the turning point of my sporting career, when

St. Joseph’s College enlisted a new basketball coach and another great personality Francis Almeida. I joined basketball practices under Francis Almeida as my best friend was playing basketball. And to my surprise, on my first day with Francis Almeida he discovered that I had the true potential to play for Sri Lanka one day.

That changed my whole attitude towards the sport, and from the very next day as a 14 year old kid I was on the court with a big dream, to play for the Sri Lanka team and there was no turning back. By the time I reached 17 years I represented the Sri Lanka youth under 19 team which toured South Korea and at the age 18 years I succeeded with a place in the Sri Lanka team which took part in the Asian Basketball Championships in Malaysia.

So I thank Francis Almeida for identifying my potential at a very young age and convincing me and guiding me towards achieving that dream.

Q: How were facilities those days compared to now and why has our standard declined?

We had very basic facilities in the 1980s, outdoor tarmac courts, outdoor balls, wooden back boards and the only shoes we had were locally manufactured. We had very limited access to any basketball related material from outside Sri Lanka. But by the 1990s infrastructure improved with the Sugathadasa indoor stadium built in 1990 and the Maharagama Youth Centre. But we were lucky to have committed coaches as well as players who were so passionate about basketball.

We had great players from Batticaloa, Kandy and Colombo who were a treat to watch. Main reason for the failure to improve our standard was not having a long term vision and a long term plan to promote the game by the administrators as well as clubs. As opposed to this approach by our administrators, other regional countries were working hard to bridge the gap they had with top regional basketball playing nations and most such countries succeeded in improving their standard and we remained to be at a low ebb.

Q: After 1991 Sri Lanka has not won a single tournament and gradually the standard has declined drastically. What is the reason behind this?

During my time, we took part in three SAF Games basketball tournaments, in 1989 in Kolkata, 1991 SAF Games in Colombo where I captained the team and in 1993 in India and we managed to secure third place in all the three Games competing closely with the Gold medallist Indian team and the Silver medallist Pakistan team.

We used to beat the Bangladesh team comfortably. Unfortunately, things have changed since then at senior team level as we have not been able to put in place a plan to uplift the game. We have a greater number of schools playing basketball now, and more people actively playing basketball but without any long term strategy, plan or structure. Basketball standards will not improve this way. We need to take a medium to long term view, adopt a game strategy that is suited for us and implement it from grass root level.

Q: After football, the second most popular game in the world is said to be basketball. Do we have the anticipated skill levels to reach the pinnacle of the game ?

Over the last 30 years with the American influence, basketball has become a spectacular spectator sport. Popularity of the game has developed rapidly and spread globally. I think we have been largely left out of this growth due to the way the administrators of the game handled it.

I believe that Sri Lankan kids and the youth have the true potential to match the leading nations if the infrastructure, training and competitive exposure is available for them through a proper structure and if we could start kids programs at a very early age.

I have personally experienced this in Dubai where Sri Lankan kids do extremely well in kids basketball leagues in Dubai and also with the Jnr NBA basketball school in Dubai.

Q: Being a former national player and a captain what are the areas that we need to pay attention in developing the game ?

Firstly it’s the sports infrastructure. If kids and youth do not have a suitable playing arena to play and practice the sport will not improve. I can still remember my very first tour with the under 19 youth team to South Korea in 1984. We were amazed by the sports infrastructure that the kids of South Korea were enjoying at that time. Each school had an indoor multi sports hall with a wooden floor. We saw kids aged 10-12 playing very methodical and organised basketball from a very young age.

Secondly we need to concentrate on the younger generation, start from a very early age say from the age of eight years onwards. Catch them young. We have to remember that we will be competing against other sports when we want to attract kids to basketball. We need to ensure that we attract the stronger, faster, taller kids to basketball before other sports grab them. For this we need to give the kids and their parents an attractive and cool proposition. And we are lucky that basketball is a sport that can be cool, trendy and attractive to kids and youth. In terms of physical training, basketball is the best sport to get kids to be active, agile, fast and to develop quick reflexes

Q: We know in the last several decades the administration of the game too had fallen to a low level. What do you think is the reason behind this?

Yes, this is a very sad state of affairs. Basketball administration was handled by a handful of people throughout the last two to three decades and we have to accept the fact that they have failed to deliver. In recent times we heard more serious issues. As a community we know most of these administrators personally. In order to take the game to the next level we need a leadership with a vision and lack of such leadership can drag us further down.

Q: Now that there is a new president and a Committee appointed do you think that these guys are capable of rejuvenating the game?

The basketball community is always very hopeful about any positive development. And I am happy to see a successful entrepreneur and a basketball enthusiast (Aelian Gunawardena) taking over the top spot. The new team has to have a long-term view to develop and promote the game. They will have to take tough and probably unpopular decisions to change the path we have taken over the last three decades.

Q: As a person who has lived oversees for quite some time, how would you compare the facilities found here?

If we talk about the basketball facilities and infrastructure then we have to go a very very long way from what we currently enjoy in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, nothing much has changed in basketball facilities in Sri Lanka over the last three decades. Our kids and youth still largely play in outdoor courts and I hear that even some national teams use outdoor (tarmac) courts.

We need to understand that basketball is an indoor sport, played on a wooden surface internationally. Probably basketball is the only major sport in Sri Lanka which does not enjoy internationally accepted playing facilities.

If we look at the other major team sports such as cricket, football, rugby and badminton, they are all played largely in similar international level playing surfaces. Now many schools have their own cricket, rugby and football grounds. We see so many indoor badminton courts, but basketball administrators as well as the basketball community have failed to fulfil this requirement for basketball.

Q: Are our coaches, referees and other technical staff knowledgeable enough to be on par with the developed countries?

I can only comment on coaches as I have been concentrating on this aspect for some time now. I was lucky to be exposed to basketball coaches in Dubai as my two sons were playing kids basketball leagues regularly. In my opinion we need to bring in foreign coaching expertise to bridge this ever-expanding gap in playing standards.

In 2018 and 2019 I invited a kids basketball coach from Serbia who conducted two camps in Colombo. The camps were successful and I learned that their expertise in basketball as a lifestyle is much more advance than ours. My opinion is that we need to bring in foreign expertise to guide and train our coaches

Q: What do you suggest we should do if we are to revamp the game locally and internationally?

Draw up a long term strategy, 10 years or 20 years, adopt a game style suitable for us to compete at international level, focus on kids basketball development to increase the playing base at grass rout level like kids leagues from a very young age and develop as many affordable and easily accessible multi sports indoor basketball infrastructure.

Q: Do you intend to contribute in anyway?

Yes, I have been doing the ground work to set up a company to help develop basketball infrastructure and manage and operate such a facility focusing on kids basketball development. We expect to open at least two such locations by December 2021. We are also looking at improving existing basketball facilities by partnering with institutions.