Ask students in the Valley about their favourite sport and chances are you won't hear cricket or soccer. Basketball has caught the imagination of the urban youth like never before.
Basketball actually came into Nepal about 30 years ago, but it has flourished only in the last 10 years, making it a relatively new sport. As with cricket, the popularity of basketball has gone hand in hand with the spread of cable TV. American basketball team t-shirts and legends like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson became the new icons in the early 1990s.
The popularity of the game can be measured by the number of tournaments held in Kathmandu. Last year saw unprecedented rise in tourneys: two or three inter-college competitions every month with more than two dozen teams participating. Recently, the Nepal Basket Association (NeBA) held its National Basket Championship, and before that one concluded another hosted by Don Bosco had begun.
Helga Rana Rayamajhi, NeBA member, says, "We must thank schools which have done a tremendous job in popularising this game, they created the base." At Kathmandu University, everybody loves basketball. Student Anuroop Manandhar (who is 6ft 4in) says, "It's fast-paced and you're totally involved while playing."
Last year 10 schools had basketball tournaments in almost all categories. Ramesh Silwal of Himalayan White House College says, "We don't have enough space for football or cricket but a basketball court doesn't need a large area which is why it got priority." In a city where land is scarce, this factor has certainly helped the game.
A few years ago, Lincoln School, St Xavier's and Budhanilkantha were among the top three in all tournament finals. Now Gyanodaya, Himalayan White House, Prime College, Bhanubhakta School, Apex College as well as Godavari Alumni Association have been promoting the game. After Gyanodaya Balbatika included basketball in its yearly sports program, Gyan Carnival, in 1994, other schools have followed suit.
NeBA and Gyanodaya are jointly organising the Gyan Carnival as a national level event. PABSON, Rhododendron International Boarding School, Milan Vidhya Mandir, Reliance International Academy, and Trungram International Academy have all had their first tournaments.
In 2003, the RIBS boys school team ruled, winning six titles including the 10th Gyan Carnival and PABSON Crown Prince Birthday Cup. Gyanodaya and the Alphas proved themselves strongest among the girls' school teams.
Basketball has undergone a cultural transformation in Nepal. Once a game thought to be exclusively for 'rich kids', it is now becoming popular in urban areas outside Kathmandu as well. At the recently concluded national championships there were five teams from outside the Valley, and Dharan hosted the Eastern Region Inter-school tournament. Rayamajhi says: "We're trying to promote the game in other parts of Nepal and five new district associations are going to be formed in near future."
The story of Nepali teams in international tourneys is not as encouraging. The squad that went to the Middle Asia
zone qualifying round of the Asian Basketball Championship returned with their confidence shattered after coming in fifth in the five-nation league. The national team finished third at the inaugural SAARC Men's Basketball Championship in 2001. We are moving forward, but not fast enough.
Another major drawback for Nepali players is their height. NBA has recently started free training for players taller than 6ft 2in. Five players have already joined and all of them are from outside the Valley. They also hired US coach Bill Warner for the SAF Championship. Enthusiasts believe it is just a matter of time and effort before Nepal is a force in international basketball, especially with the new crop of dedicated players. Bijendra Maharjan, captain of the national team, says, "It may take 20-30 years but we should start now."