The legend – in India to hold basketball clinic – told this correspondent of his troubled childhood, relationship with Tim Duncan. Excerpts..
What made you interested in India?
A part of it is the challenge, to bring about a change. I’ve an opportunity to do something different, there are lot of kids who are athletic. There are avenues for basketball here, National Basketball Association (NBA) is all about trying for the better.
In India, not many players show interest in being a stopper – where you have been great – so what do you think should be done to change their mentality. Basketball is a physical game too, how hard do they have to train?
Conditions play a role too. One needs to make sure he has the best conditions when training. A lot of times there are guys who don’t like extra running or things of that kind. So, you build up a stamina and ensure it is not a pain, it should be pleasure. The players need to understand that in order to win championships, they need to learn to defend. You can win games attacking, but that’s not enough to win championships.
Tell us about the time you spent with San Antonio Spurs, with Tim Duncan.
Tim is a selfless individual, he played for the team. He wanted to make sure whatever you do, do that with the best of your abilities so you can win. There are situations when people pull one another but he never played the tough guy. I’m still very close to him.
He was also known for his sense of humour..
Yes, and that too, during matches. His jokes weren’t funny. Once, during a game, he came and told me that a carrot crunches when you are eating it. I realised he used to say these things to keep the pressure off. But he needs to come up with better jokes than that.
Gregg Popovich commented last year that you could not dribble or pass, what was your reaction? Was he serious or was it sarcasm from his side? It is difficult to read him.
Pop knows me. Everytime he says something to the media and my name is included, people ask questions. But you know why he says that? It is because I am his favourite player and not Tim Duncan, he still talks about me. (laughs)
You were disliked by many in your career, did you sit down and analyse why and whether you were going wrong somewhere?
Many disliked me because of my playing style, I was aggressive. But that’s fine. I had to struggle a lot to reach where I did. It bothered me early on but I quickly realised that people will have some opinion or the other and I should not allow anybody to dictate the way I play.
You’d a troubled childhood, how did you overcome that and ended up being in NBA?
I think everybody has a story, but mine was a little different. My mother was a drug addict and my father was an alcoholic. That was my reality. When you have a reality, it is what it is. I couldn’t sit back and complain, “poor me, poor me.”
How did you cope up with that as a child? Is it true that your mother – in order to feed herself drugs – sold off the television from the house?
It is true. At an early age, I understood that life is not necessarily fair. Sports kept me going. It helped me with my education too. I didn’t know I would become an NBA player but I’m thankful that basketball gave me the learning. I saw the world. It helped me live the way I do.
Who do you think is the current best player in NBA?
There was a time when Kobe Bryant ruled the roost. But now he is old. I would say it is LeBron James now.
Are you aware of the premiere-league format in cricket and football in India? Do you think basketball leagues in the same way can draw more attention and invite more to take up the sport?
I watched a bit of cricket on Sunday, India versus Sri Lanka, but I still don’t understand. Then, I saw the football match too, all I can say is that the guys were sweating a lot. (laughs). League in Basketball can make India the destination. You have a basketball league in China, you can definitely have it here. India is a beautiful country. You just need the correct infrastructure.
NBA Champion: 2003, 2005, 2007
Retired with San Antonio Spurs (2001-2009)