Sambhaji Kadam is a member of the senior’s men national basketball team. A prominent member of the side for the last decade, he has been sidelined due to injury for over a year now. He made a ferocious comeback earlier this year, only to lose out again on a spot in the Indian team roster for the FIBA men’s Asian Basketball Championship currently underway in Wuhan, China. My first glimpse of him was during the finals of the national championships in Delhi, where he was a starting guard for the Services team which played against the Railways. The first quarter was a highlight reel for the point guard, with no look over the shoulder passes, crossovers and sublime 3s. That one particular no look pass cutting to the freethrow line and dishing it over the shoulder to his post teammate is etched in my memory, ala Penny Hardaway.
Now, as a new generation of Indian basketball prospects takes centre stage, Sambhaji reminds us that he is not done by any stretch of imagination, and will make a strong comeback to the Indian side. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: There are so many sports in India, why choose basketball?
SK: It’s a stylish game. Basketball involves activity from the nails to the hair. It demands calibre.
Q: When did you start playing basketball? What got you interested in sports generally?
SK: I was 12- 13 when I first played basketball. My father was a wrestler, so sports is in my blood. In fact, I was a national champion in wrestling at the under-13 level.
Q: So didn’t your father insist that you choose wrestling instead and not basketball?
SK: Yes, he forced me to take up wrestling as he felt that in an individual game I could do anything. From the age of 5-6 I was already doing 2km runs and skipping.
Q: Where are you from? What’s the secret behind your name?
SK: I am from Maharashtra from a small town called Miraj, which had just 1 court. “Sambhaji” was the eldest son and successor of the great Chatrapati Shivaji the legendary Maratha Warrior. That’s how I got my name.
Q: When did you play your first nationals and tell us about your first international game.
SK: My first nationals was in 1998 in Jaipur. I first represented India in 2001 against Bangladesh as part of the South Asian games held in Goa.
Q: Tell us about your current injury.
SK: It is a displacement injury in the groin along with a hamstring muscle tear.
Q: How did it happen?
SK: I was still playing even through injury, despite being advised 6 months bed rest.
Q: Isn’t that irresponsible?
SK: What to do? Sports ka keeda kaat gaya (the sports bug bit me)! I became restless. I can’t go without playing even for a week! I thought at least upper body ka kar le (that I could do upper body workouts). Even the physio was upset that I wasn’t following his advice. Foreign coaches, elders warned me that I could get bedridden. I was taken to the Sports Injury Centre (SIC) at the Safdarjung Hospital. That’s when I realized that my body had finally responded and due to the injury, more pressure was getting concentrated on my hamstring muscles, leading to wear and tear.
Q: What was the learning from all this?
SK: I have now realized that I should listen to my body more often. I have played through numerous injuries in the past. I have been carrying this injury for the past 1 year right from the last Asian Games in August 2010. But this time my body has finally responded.
Q: You are now a senior in the men’s side. What is your role in the team?
“Samba” in action
SK: I try to ensure that we stay together, that we become like a family. I keep reminding the guys that apni kamiyon ko hatao (we should remove our weaknesses). Earlier I used to underestimate myself. I used to think “How can we compete with these tall Chinese players?” Now I make sure that we don’t underestimate ourselves ever again. After all, even we are training just as hard and we are also at the end of the day representing our country.
Q: You are just 5 ft 9 inches. Doesn’t your lack of height ever bother you?
SK: Basketball is played position wise. I’m a point guard, and we have traditionally been the shortest players on the team. But yes, even compared to other point guards I am short!
Q: TJ Sahi is the other point guard in the Indian team. What camaraderie do the two of you share?
SK: TJ and I discuss a lot of things about training and otherwise. A point guard is the 2nd coach, so we are naturally expected to know the most about the game. So, we keep talking. I am still learning as much from the game today as I was earlier.
Q: You represent the Services team in the nationals. Tell me about Services. What is the system to get in?
SK: My maternal uncle was a Services national player. I used to play for a local club in Maharashtra. In local tournaments we used to play against the Bombay Engineering Group, Pune which is one of the many branches of the Army like Bangalore Engg. Group, Madras Engg. Group, Army Supply Core etc. After 12th I applied for sports quota in the Army and starting playing for BEG, Pune. That’s how my stint in the Services team began.
Q: What is your rank? Do you have to train or report to your employers every day? (India’s star Women players Geethu Anna Jose and Anitha Pauldurai are head TTEs in the Southern Railways and informed me that they have to report for work during off-season)
SK: I am a Subedar. No, I don’t have to report for duty. I just have to apply for leave when I take part in tournaments. When I joined, I had to undergo the mandatory 1 year training which included rifle shooting. But nowadays even in the off-season I only practice basketball.
It depends on your performance on the court as well. If you aren’t playing well or have been dropped from the squad then you have to go back to the Army training.
Q: How has your game evolved over the years? Can you still do those things on court which you could when you were 20?
SK: In the beginning I had speed, now I have gained experience and play according to the situation.
Q: You are 30 years old now. How long do you think you can continue to play at the highest level? Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
SK (laughs): Ideally I would like to keep playing till 38! I can’t predict the future. Right now my focus is on making a recovery and starting to train again. Maybe even start playing again in a week.
Q: Are you involved in any coaching camp for budding youngsters? Any advice to them?
Coach on the floor and off it: Sambhaji at a camp in Nagpur
SK: I have conducted coaching camps for juniors in Nashik, Nagpur and other places in Maharasthra. When it comes to advice, I would like to tell youngsters that today in basketball there is more money flowing into the game and the younger generation should take advantage of it. There is better accommodation, foreign coaches and regular training camps. It was only after 5 years in the senior team that I got my first foreign coaching staff.
I would like to thank Mr. Harish Sharma (Secretary General and CEO of BFI) for all his efforts. Hats off to him!
Q: Last question. Your most memorable game?
SK: Every game I ever played in.