Sports

Reminiscing of a bygone basketball era

by Francis D. Almeida
The names of Judge Victor Wijeratnam and US economist John Exter may not ring a ball in the minds of basketballers of today. Yet they were the giants who placed basketball on a firm pedestal fifty years ago, from which we derive so much three even now.

John Exter was the World Bank expert, commissioned to establish the Central Bank of Ceylon and to set-up a viable monetary system in the country. Any student of economics knows this. But his contribution to the birth of an apex body for the game in 1954, is unknown. Ceylon Basketball Association which later became Ceylon Basketball Federation with its affiliation with the world body FIBA in 1964, was the brain child of John Exter. Now it is known as Sri Lanka Basketball Federation — SLBF.

Similarly Judge Victor Wijeratnam was also instrumental in the formation of Colombo Basketball Association in the fifties. What’s more, he was the force behind well organised tournaments in Colombo. Central YMCA was the nerve centre for all cager activities in Colombo, during that era.

Central YMCA here set the trend by conducting the Annual Cammack Cup Tournament for YMCA organisations spread across the country. Incidentally it was Walter Cammack, the YMCA Director of physical education from California in Colombo who introduced the game to the country in 1916. Besides, basketball, the ideal game for the modern man and woman was invented by another YMCA physical education director, James Naismith in Syringfield USA in 1891. With the YMCA transforming itself gradually to a refuge for senior citizens, a hectic sport such as basketball and the Cammack Cup has been relegated to oblivion. YMCA in Sri Lanka is no longer association with basketball now. Sports enthusiasts of yester years would remember Exter Shield inter club championship for western province teams. What a marvellous feast of glamour basketball was dished out yearly in the good old days!

So was the Victor Wijeratnam knock-out championship. Old Bens, Orients, Army, YMCA regularly displayed a dazzling and entertaining game. Then YMCA Moratuwa (at times changing its identity as old Sebastianites) under the leadership of gutty player Elmo Jayawardena entered the fray to stake their claim for top honours.

Soon came a host of teams representing various playgrounds of the Colombo Municipality including Vystwyke in Mattakkuliya. With the active Western Province Basketball Association ceasing to exist, all these tournaments as well as several teams too disappeared. Around this time, in the early seventies, the vigorous "playground movement" also set-up by Walter Cammack to help children of poor working class families in Colombo too simply faded away leaving behind remnants of dilapidated courts.

In the mid sixties the "peace corps" from USA was active in Sri Lanka and one of them coached the "Orients Basketball Club". Around this period the Benedictines, both young and old, were in the forefront of the game. Their coach, the versatile Ram Sunderalingam had his own tournament for the Pioneer Shield which was played in the temporarily flood lit court near the school pavilion. One such finals saw the Peace Corps pitted against the talented Old Bens team which included Asia’s Best Shooter Percy Perera. Next day, Daily Mirror of which Premnath Moraes was the sports editor carried this headline: "Basket Brawl at which Old Bens triumph". A more intense controversial exchange of articles between Moraes, who was also an active official of WPBA and Fennel a peace corps player ensued. Those were the days when the English dailies carried full reportage, complete with photographs of the previous evenings matches. Not only basketball but also journalism too despite the lack of its present day hi—tech was having its haydays.

How did such a vibrant body as Western Province Basketball Association WPBA cease to be? In the eighties the Sports Ministry decreed that Provincial Associations give way to District Associations with full representative status at the Basketball’s controlling body — Sri Lanka Basketball Federation, SLBF. Thus WPBA was split to produce Colombo, Kalutara and Gampaha district Basketball Associations. Earlier the Defence Services Basketball Association had to be divided into Army, Navy and Air Force Basketball Associations. Unfortunately, devolution in basketball did not augur well for club level development of the game despite the big title, some associations were primarily concerned with a single school or club, but with big say in the affairs of the Federation.

When one recalls the activities of Western Province Basketball Association WPBA in the days gone by, some names strike-out Captain George, Wise, Nawas, Mahadevan, Naufel, Sundarlingam, Trevine David, Jansz, Ananda, Nagalingam, Kanagaratnam come to the fore. Besides local tournaments they were also instrumental in conducting the quadrangular championship involving India, Pakistan, Iran and Sri Lanka as well as the invitation Tournament involving the Defence Services, Railways and state teams from India. Originally these crowd pulling tournaments were held at the Army Courts at Galle Face (where the Galadari Hotel is now situated), with Captain George shouldering major burden. Thereafter, the venue became the Depot Police with IP Ranawanna, Amath and Ponnambalam toiling tirelessly. There used to be also an annual Indo-Lanka dual for junior players for Kalimuththu Memorial Trophy alternatively in India and Sri Lanka.

Now all these tournaments are things of the past — nice to read about. Merely reading about are also reports of the so—called South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) currently in existence dishing out names of office — bearers but hardly anything of worth.

The story of Colombo District Basketball Association too produces mixed feelings. It used to be an active body in the early eighties. In the nineties it went into a deep hibernation. No noisy wake-up calls could stir it. Frustrated, some veterans organised an unofficial association for Colombo and a federation at a national level. Much publicized, and glamour-filled tournaments got under way at Otters Club in late fifties and at the turn of the century.

Thankfully, the official associations for basketball in the Colombo district is alive and kicking today with a well organised tournament titled "Colombo Super League" with over 30 teams in the men’s and women’s category, paving the way for a new resurgence.

With an active Schools Basketball Association running over 15 tournaments yearly and the well organised Mercantile and Police Basketball Association emerging strongly with their once famous Depot Cup tournament, the coming colours for the game are promising. The time is right to have a fresh jump ball to restart the affairs of the game, to strengthen it both qualitatively and quantitatively.


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