In Asian kingdom, basketball rules

Updated: 2013-11-10 07:59

By Gardiner Harris(The New York Times)

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THIMPHU, Bhutan - With seconds left in the game, the queen of Bhutan took two dribbles and three long strides before putting up a royal layup.

Queen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck's final basket was just one of 17 she made in a friendly game of basketball recently with nine other women. Here, it is the game of kings and queens.

Indeed, the 23-year-old queen, who plays almost every day, is surprisingly good. The royal set shot is as sweet as honeyed ghee, and the royal dribble as poised as a monk in meditation. Her statistics in that game: 34 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists. (Perhaps it helped that the Bhutanese custom forbidding citizens from touching a royal without an invitation seems to extend to the basketball court.)

"If I had known you'd be counting, I would have played harder," she said with a laugh. The queen's husband, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, his brother and two half-brothers also play regularly. But after decades of being a largely royal preserve, basketball here is about to have its breakout moment.

A South Korean coach has been hired to put together a national team that many hope will someday challenge its neighbors for bragging rights in South Asia and beyond. Bhutan has tried many times to win an international game but, except for a single victory in a three-on-three tournament, has never succeeded.

Bhutan's main problem is height. Few in this nation of 742,000 are taller than 1.8 meters. The queen is 1.65 meters, and her husband and brothers-in-law are not much taller. Dunking is rare.

"And I don't think our backboards are strong enough to take a lot of dunking," said Paljor Dorji, 70, who learned basketball from Canadian Jesuits at a boarding school in Darjeeling, India. He is widely credited with bringing the sport to Bhutan and instilling a passion for it in the royal family.

In Asian kingdom, basketball rules

There is a saying in basketball that height cannot be taught, and Kiyong Kim, the new national team coach, said he does not intend to try. "In order to cover the height problem, I'm trying to get them into a faster style of play," Mr. Kim said. "We need stronger defense and better fast breaks."

Bhutanese royalty is known more for enthusiastic shooting than vigorous defense. Bhutan's fourth king, 57-year-old Jigme Singye Wangchuck, now retired and referred to as K4, plays daily (Mr. Dorji instilled a passion for the game in the king when he was a teenager) and is rumored to have made 65 3-pointers in a game. No one seems to know how many shots he missed in that mythic match, as security guards shoo away the curious when K4 plays.

The present king, known as K5, can shoot jumpers with both hands, and the royal drive to the basket is said to be like a freight train's. But defense? Not in his tool kit, several players said.

Queen Wangchuck said that she has been playing basketball since she was 9 "and I haven't stopped since. For me now, basketball is a great way of meeting girls and interacting with them in an informal way," she said.

Then a courtier who had just tried to block her majesty's shot opened the door of the royal Toyota Prius and bowed as the queen got in and was driven away.

The New York Times

In Asian kingdom, basketball rules

(China Daily 11/10/2013 page10)