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How did India play at the 1980 Summer Olympics?
NEW DEHLI (India) - Only eight nations have over 20 FIBA Asia Cup appearances and India stands proud as one of them. The Tiranga has a total of 25 appearances in Asia's continental competition. However, India basketball has not had the chance to be showcased at the world level - save for that one time where the India men’s basketball team played at the Summer Olympics in 1980.
"Entering in the main basketball arena in our first game against mighty [Soviet Union] was like a dream," - Hanuman Singh
Basketball at the Summer Olympics is one of the biggest basketball competitions right there along with the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Only the best of the best in the entire world make their way through to this final stage to face each other and determine who the best basketball national team is for the next cycle.
In 1980, India were among one of those teams in Moscow.
"[It was] a lifetime opportunity," said captain and floor general of that India national team, Paramjit Singh. "[I felt] I must practice hard and play to my best because it was unlikely that India will play in the Olympics again. I had to use the opportunity well."
A political event-triggered USA to withdraw their athletes, causing a chain of reaction among other nations to step back as well. The nations that withdrew included China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Their nations had finished first through fourth at FIBA Asia Cup 1979 (ABC Championship back then) which was a direct qualifier for the 1980 Olympics.
This left the lone spot for an Asian nation at the Olympics to the fifth-placed team, India!
India were consistent throughout the 60s to the 80s at the FIBA Asia Cup, highlighted by their fourth-place finish in 1975 (Their highest so far). Four years later, they secured a fifth-place finish on the final day of the competition, December 12.
India had already suffered four straight losses against the top four teams, and It was going to come down to a clash with Pakistan to end the competition on a high note. Holding on to a five-point lead that they had built up in the first half, India came away with a 91-86 win.
At the time, finishing fifth at the FIBA Asia Cup was nothing more than a consolation prize. Little did they know that it would result in India basketball making their first, and so far only, Olympics appearance.
"Entering in the main basketball arena in our first game against mighty [Soviet Union] was like a dream," Singh said. "I was proud of representing India basketball in their first-ever Olympics."
"The most memorable moment [for me] was playing as the starting five in the very first game in Olympics and scoring the first basket."
Paramjit Singh was the main guard whose primary role was to set plays and create an opening for teammates and score whenever he got the opportunity. Alongside him on India’s historic squad at the Olympics included Parvez Irani, Ajmer Singh, Tarlok Singh Sandhu, Paramdip Singh, Shyam Radhey, Baldev Singh, Dilip Gurumurthy, Amarnath Nagarajan, Jorawar Singh, Hanuman Rathore, and Harbhajan Singh.
Ajmer led the team in scoring with 21.3 points per game, also good for 8th in the entire competition. He had a shootout with leading scorer, Ian Davies of Australia, where Ajmer matched 25 to Davies’ 36 points. His tournament-high of 35 points against Czechoslovakia was the second-most among all players in the competition.
They put up a fight, standing tall and talented side by side with some of the best. The back of their jersey proudly read भारत (Bharat) which directly translates to India, who they were representing.
"In the last game against Australia, we played our best. We were leading at halftime, but we lost due to lack of big match experience. I was proud that our game was appreciated by the coaches and officials of other teams," Singh added.
Singh says that India national team learned a lot from the Olympics that improved their level of play from ball rotation to defense. However, that was not their key takeaway.
"Most importantly, [we learned about[self-confidence. If you believe in yourself, you will definitely excel on the court."
India eventually went winless at the 1980 Olympics. However, for them to have been there and played with the likes of Davies and Brazilian legend Oscar Schmidt can be considered a win of its own.