Aelian enters the fray to lift basketball | Sunday Observer

Aelian enters the fray to lift basketball

8 August, 2021
Aelian Gunawardene talks to budding basketball players (Pics by Sudath Malaweera)
Aelian Gunawardene talks to budding basketball players (Pics by Sudath Malaweera)

The sport of basketball is competed at an intense speed and has gained immense popularity to be listed among the top five sports in the World. But the situation in Sri Lanka is vice versa and unfortunately it has been sidelined as an orphan, without any active progress.

Aelian Gunawardene

Those who intend to serve in the governing body are merely power hungry rather than developing the game with a proper executed plan. Over the past few years it has been a barren sheet with regard to activities and tournaments which ultimately placed the sport in disarray.

Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa too was very concerned over the basketball association and finally, the aspirations of the stakeholders and basketball loving public were fulfilled as a gigantic and a visionary leader Aelian Gunawardene volunteered to take over the task to rejuvenate this organization.

Aelian, himself was a profound basketball player who hailed from S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. A top professional businessman in the Mercantile sector who is the founder of JAT Holdings and currently serving as its Managing Director, showed his willingness to take over as the sport’s head to lift the standard of the game to great heights.

Aelian was fully focused and pumped up for the task with the assistance of his colleagues and disclosed his plans to the Sunday Observer.

Excerpts of the interview with Aelian Gunawardene:

Q: We know you have driven a company to great heights listed in the local stock market. But your new assignment is a different one. How can you manage to spare time for basketball?

A: I am blessed with a fantastic team at JAT, led very efficiently by our CEO, which allows me a bit of time to invest in a sport that I am very passionate about. We also have a similar setup in place for Sri Lanka Basketball. Our CEO Asanga Amaratunga is a past President of the SLBF and has the knowledge and experience to run the FIBA Plus program that Sri Lanka Basketball has approved in our medium term plan to improve the state of basketball in our country. We also have a great Senior Vice President, seven Vice Presidents, a dedicated Secretary General and an Exco. Now it is a matter of getting these teams to work towards one goal as a united Federation.

Q: As all are aware basketball at present is in a pathetic state. How confident are you that you will be able to put things back on track?

A: Basketball is in a stage of transition. It is unfortunate that all sports have suffered in Sri Lanka due to the inability to hold local competitions. We have requested the Ministries of Sport, Health and Education for clear guidelines so that we could start with our plans immediately. I have obtained tremendous support from the Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, DG Sports Amal Edirisooriya and the Sports Council and also the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army and his office to conduct my duties so far and look forward to the other Ministries also assisting us where possible.

I have no doubts that we would make a significant improvement to the system. We are a new team at Sri Lanka Basketball and are looking forward and not concerned about the past.

Q: The grass route level are the schools. But it is evident that hardly any tournament has been conducted in the past two years. What are your plans to address this area?

A: As mentioned we have requested the Health and Education Ministries to grant us the approval to play basketball at school level and even restart the under 13 tournaments as we did in the past. On receipt of this approval we would launch a new academy structure for school kids. Everyone involved understands the importance of these tournaments going ahead and are working together to achieve this.

Q: The talk in basketball circles is that even now there are some corrupt people serving in the system. What do you think about them?

A: I do not wish to comment on rumours or speculation. However, I can assure you that we are putting in multiple processes in place to improve areas such as player selection, training, tournaments and management. We have also taken steps to ensure financial accountability such as having EY appointed as auditors to the SLBF. Most selection related issues were exacerbated due to the Covid situation and the lack of time to run the correct processes. However we are confident that we will be able to overcome these issues in the future by improving the system and making things transparent. We have also introduced a code of conduct which will be signed by all coaches, referees, players and the Sri Lanka Basketball Executive Committee.

Q: The Sports Minister and the basketball fraternity have hopes that you are the right choice to perform a job and transform the game to next level. Are you capable of delivering it”

A: As the Founder and Managing Director of JAT which is a Company that we just listed on the Sri Lanka Stock market last month, I believe that I am up to the task of transforming Sri Lanka Basketball. However, one is only as good as one’s team. I am therefore very conscious of making sure that we have the right team with the right attitude and dedication in place. FIBA International too has come on board to back us as they are happy to see that we are putting our house in order.

Q: By now you would have done a feasibility study on the system. Where do you think things have gone wrong?

A: I believe that while most involved in the sport had good intentions, they worked in different silos, which obviously causes disconnect. SLBF did not also have specific, measurable and achievable goals set, which we are doing.

Q: What are your immediate, mid and long term plans to rejuvenate the game?

A: FIBA International together with our Exco have drawn up a detailed plan called the FIBA Plus program, which includes Good Governance, Administration, Income Generation and Growing the Game in Sri Lanka. Running this successfully is our mid-term plan. We unfortunately do not have a home court for Sri Lanka Basketball nor do we have the right facilities. We have arranged to get all this done within the next few months. The DG of Sports Amal Edirisooriya and the Sports Council headed by Mahela Jayawardena have been inspirational and extremely supportive, which I am so grateful for. Further, Yaswant Muttetuwegama and Kasturi Wilson both National basketball players who are on the Sports Council, have also supported me tremendously.

We have interviewed several Foreign Technical Directors out of which we would select the best candidate and make sure he improves the Coaching, Strength and Skill aspects and bring in Technology to the sport of basketball. World sport today is very different to what it was five years ago and we in Sri Lanka need to move with the times and adopt Technology which we will bring in.

Q: We know that there is a big need for funds to run the game. How will you manage to overcome this situation?

A: Unfortunately, only a few Sri Lankan companies back sport in general. It is the same few companies such as Dialog, MAS, Brandix, SLT and JAT that have done so in the past. However we are confident that with the right people managing basketball that there will be several other individuals and companies volunteering to support us. I have already got a few calls offering support and together with the assistance of the Ministry of Sports and FIBA, we can achieve the budgets we have set out. I am also very pleased to see how our Vice Presidents in charge of different aspects of the game have put their hands up and finances to help the sport and develop it. A special mention should go out to Dr. Gehan De Soysa in charge of 3x3 Basketball and Ashok Jeyakumar in charge of District development.

Q: What are your plans to resume the local tournament?

A: I am currently working with the rest of the SLBF team to develop an in-depth plan to resume local tournaments.

Q: Right now you don’t have a permanent sponsor, court and an office to run your own tournaments and activities. Do you have any plans to overcome this issue?

A: We are thankful to SLT Mobitel for confirming that they would act as one of our sponsors. We have also spoken to several other organisations and individuals who have a passion for the sport who have readily confirmed that they would come on board to assist us with sponsorships. Needless to say, JAT Holdings will be a significant sponsor of Sri Lanka Basketball as well. Under the FIBA Plus program, one of the four aspects is Administration and to do this effectively, SLBF is redoing our office and has hired a CEO and two assistants to run the program. Further, SLBF would also appoint a District Coordinator per district to work with the development committee and the CEO.

Q: What do you think about the talent in the country and where are we lacking?

A: While Sri Lankans by nature are smaller than players in some countries that produce taller and larger players, we possess the speed that is required for the game. I feel with our Foreign Technical Director coming in we would be in a position to improve our shooting and make use of the size we have and also attract better talent to the sport. We have a great community of young players who are ready to put in the time and effort to improve not just their skills but their physique to be able to compete at an international level.

Q: What are your plans to take the game to rural areas and island wide?

A: We have a detailed program under the CEO and the Vice President in charge of district development to grow the game by improving baseball at school and club levels in all districts of the country.

Q: Do you have any specific vision for the upliftment of the game?

A: I want to inculcate the love for the game in our young players. We believe with the FIBA Plus program all aspects of the sport will be improved, not just player performance and management.

Q: Finally, what is your message you would like to send out to the stakeholders and to the basketball loving public?

A: It is with humility and honour that I have taken the role of President of Sri Lanka Basketball and intend to improve the perception of the sport in Sri Lanka. It is one of the most popular games in the world and one that we need to expand in our country.

I assure all basketball loving Sri Lankans based locally and abroad that we would do our very best to produce the best teams Sri Lanka can showcase and look forward to your support. We invite any Sri Lankan who feels they could either contribute by playing for the country or in any other form even though they live abroad to contact us and express their willingness to join. I want to tell them please do not hesitate to call or write to me if you would like to discuss any matter in relation to the game.