CHENNAI: Question: Apparently, you had told the players what they were playing wasn’t basketball? Answer: Think about it this way. When somebody new comes and asks the players to drive on the right-hand side after driving on the left-hand side for 100 years, it’s not going to be easy.
That was the view put forth by Serbia’s Milan Opacic, the Tamil Nadu basketball coach, when he was queried on the positive changes he had brought to the team. Opacic, who became the first foreigner to take charge of a state team in December, has helped create a winning story well ahead of schedule. TN triumphed over Services (94-86) in a ding-dong final that had enough energy to power a first-world city for a couple of nights. The lead changed hands 14 times.
The title will be vindication for many reasons, chief among them being the Tamil Nadu Basketball Association (TNBA) decided to go foreign to halt the team’s stagefright during big moments. They have been felled in the final three times in the last eight years (won in New Delhi in 2014 in that same period). Opacic, who has helped a string of Serbians realise their NBA dreams, was hired with that particular mandate. “Transform these perennial bridesmaids into grooms.” The first step was to put the team in a month-long camp, with two sessions every day.
Its seriousness wasn’t lost on the team — captain Raghuram MA told Express the camp finished six hours before the Nationals began on January 17. “We learned a lot of new things,” he said. “We were, maybe, doing a few things differently and the coach told the same things could be done more effectively in a different manner.”
Another thing played a big role. During the group stages, the heavy-hitters — P Akhilan, Prasanna Venkatesh and Rikin Pethani — were all given less than 30 minutes per match. Used to being on the court for longer irrespective of the nature of the encounter, the players did not understand it at first. There were even murmurs of discontent. Opacic then explained to them about the importance of arriving in peak condition for the knockout stages, something that was alien to these players.
The importance of that strategy paid dividends on Wednesday. During parts of the intense gruel, it looked like the hosts may have to be content with second place again. Opacic’s men began at 100 miles per hour but the visitors — thanks to their accuracy with three-pointers (10) — kept coming back. At the end of the third quarter, TN led 68-63. In the fourth, they had the legs to kick on and go for that one final push. Services, who finished third last time, couldn’t live with them and could only clap as TN became victors for a 10th time.