The four-member Chennai Taxes team that emerged the winner among 400-odd teams in the NBA 3X Challenge is just a step away from competing in the FIBA 3x3 World Championships

When one thinks about the pinnacle of world basketball, the National Basketball Association (NBA) league invariably comes to mind. Its pre-eminence is such that players, young and old, across countries, awed by the Kobe Bryants, Lebron Jameses, Shaquille O’Neals and the Yao Mings, harbour that one wish of getting somewhere near it.

So when NBA came calling on the country, last September, with its first ever NBA 3X challenge, a 3-on-3 event, the response was stupendous. Close to 15,000 people gathered on the Chennai beach, eager to participate. According to Troy Justice, senior director, Basketball Operations, India, they had to ‘have a waitlist’.

Doing Chennai proud

Among those thousands were four boys, P. Akilan and P.N. Bopanna (both from Income Tax) R. Ramakrishnan (Customs) and C. Seenivasan (ICF) who formed the Chennai Taxes team. The foursome fought off competition at home and progressed to the national finals where they overcame hoopsters from Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai to emerge the champions in the 400-team strong event.

“It was great,” says Akilan. “This was our first participation in 3X. We were very happy. Just before the final we came to know that the winning team would be sent to participate in the World Tour in Tokyo. So we were all the more pumped up.”

However, at the outset, the format was new to them. With just 10 minutes of match time as against the regular four quarters of 15 minutes each, the least the game demanded was superior pace.

“It’s a lot faster,” says Justice. “If in the regular format a player has to run up and down at least five times to even get a touch on the ball, here one needs to be involved throughout.”

Bridging the gap

This gap between the formats was bridged with some help from Ramakrishnan who had had a brush with it having represented the national side five years ago. “I helped them initially,” he says. “So the transition was smooth and the initial hiccups were avoided.”

Having done this, they practised in earnest. The format let the players pick up the skills rather fast as they had more time with the ball which, according to Justice, is ‘key for player development’.

They went into the competition “with an intention to win but not with great expectations”. However, the script played out differently. They now stand one step away from the FIBA 3x3 World Championships. A tournament victory in the coming week at the FIBA 3x3 World Tour — which seems a daunting task with teams from Iran, Japan and Russia set to take part — will guarantee them a place in the Worlds.

The icing on the cake came when Akilan and Bopanna won the ‘skills competition’ and earned themselves a trip to the NBA-All Star 2013 in Houston. “It was an experience of a lifetime,” says Bopanna. “Not many can even dream of it. To meet players such as Kobe Bryant and Lebron James and actually play with them was wonderful.”

All this has made the bunch of 23-year-olds richer in experience as they step out for their first professional overseas trip. Some words of encouragement from Justice seem timely. “They are a very well-balanced team. They are talented players. They wouldn’t have won the challenge otherwise. To have done it amid a pool of 400-odd teams is quite an accomplishment. Our support is always with them and we wish them all the best.”

Now they can go into the competition with an intention to win but with added expectations.