Say hello to the new breed of Indian ballers, who are not afraid to take flight and are raring to lift India to greater heights on the international stage.
Name: Ranbir Singh Virdi
Teammates call you… Vadda. This is a nickname that has stuck with me since childhood. I have a younger brother Jasjeet, who looks just like me and also plays basketball. The only difference is that I am a couple of inches taller. So to distinguish me from my brother, my teammates started calling me “Vadda” (Punjabi variant for the Hindi word ‘Bada’ or ‘big’).
Height: 188 cms/ 6ft 2’’
Hometown: Kotkapura, Punjab.
First time you held a basketball in your hand (age + occasion): The first time I played was when I was 10-11 years old. I was amazed at the way the older players were able to score from so far off and make it look so easy. In my mind I started thinking, “Haan yaar..mujhe bhi ye karna hain!” (I want to play like them as well).
Basketball journey: I did my initial schooling, from nursery to sixth, at the Gandhi Model Senior Secondary School (SSS), Kotkapura. After that I studied at Ashoka Model SSS and Rishi Model SSS. In 11th and 12th, I moved to the Jalandhar Sports School. In 12th standard in a match between our Jalandhar team and Punjab Police, I played really well and was asked to tryout for Punjab Police.
I have been playing with Punjab Police since March 2011. I represented Punjab at two senior national tournaments. In the Chennai nationals in 2011, we were the champions. In the 2012 Championships in Ludhiana, we were the runners up.
I got my big break into the Indian team earlier this year at the FIBA Asia 3 on 3 Championships in Doha, where we made it to the quarterfinals. I am currently on the Indian Senior Men’s team which has qualified for the FIBA Asia Championships to be held in August 2013.
If not basketball, then what? I would probably have become an engineer. My cousin has studied mechanical engineering and I liked helping him with his projects.
Support system (family- whether they played & how they supported you): My father Sardar Ranjit Singh was an international basketball player and my mother Jasbir Kaur played professional hockey. She tours even now at the 50+ veteran tournaments and has travelled twice to Singapore and Malaysia. My younger brother Jasjeet Singh has started playing basketball at the university level.
First Coach: SS Sandhu. I have always been very athletic. My jump is god gifted. In 7th standard I was playing basketball. My height then was 5’6-7’’ and I could easily touch the ring. Coach Sandhu had come to the court, noticed me play and called me over. He asked about my family and I told him about my father. He said he knew him well and told me to start coming daily for training. He taught me all the fundamentals, which I use till this day. Whenever I turned up late, he used to punish me by sitting me out and making me watch the others instead.
Signature move (favourite move): Drive in and Dunks! I love being in a one-on-one situation and beating my defender off the dribble and driving to the basket.
How do you train for this move: It’s actually all about staying true to the fundamentals that you learn as a child. This is what will hold you in good stead at the senior level as well.Training regimen: In our off season, our Punjab Coach Gurkirpal Singh has us training six days a week, with Sunday beingour rest day. We have both morning and evening sessions. Three of the morning sessions are dedicated to weight training in the gym and the other three mornings are for stamina training, which includes hill running. The evening sessions are for skill development and we might also play one or two games a week. During tournaments, we do less gymming and focus on maintaining our stamina.
Mindset in training and in games: In matches, when both teams are even, then a little anger helps you gain an edge. This is also true in the gym, where the idea is to push yourself really hard.
Do you listen to music while you train? I noticed you at the Ramu Memorial Tournament before the match against Karnataka where you were tinkering with the DJ console.
Music is an important part of my pregame rituals. I wear my headphones and music helps me relax before a game. I don’t want to overthink. I try to distract myself, since we have already finalised our strategies beforehand. My favourite pregame song is Akon’s I wanna love you. You wouldn’t believe it but I’ve listened to this song at least 30,000 to 40,000 times! I also listen to Lehmber Hussainpuri, a popular Punjabi pop singer.
Strengths and weaknesses: Basketball is one of those games where you can spend your whole life learning. My focus now is on weight training. At the international level, you have teams like China, Japan and Korea where each player is equal in size to two of our players! As Michael Jordan says, “Even a senior can learn from juniors.” It all comes down to your mindset and how much you are open to learning.
All this attention on cricket. Is it fair?
“Yaar mujhe itna gussa aata hain!” (Man, I get so angry sometimes). Whatever channel you turn on, it’s only cricket, cricket, cricket. The kind of facilities cricketers enjoy is unbelievable. If you come and watch any of our training sessions and see the amount of work we do, you will say “aapko to sazaa ho gayi hain” (you have been punished).
Please don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying cricketers don’t work hard or that they don’t deserve the attention. But the point is that since all television and media broadcasts are dominated by the faces of MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar, parents see only cricketers and insist that their children take up only cricket. There are other sports as well, you know!
Punjab has a history of legendary Indian players. Does this put more pressure on you, or act as motivation?
During the Senior National Championships in Ludhiana in Dec 2012, there were a couple of posters outside the stadium of the former great players from Punjab, who were also Asia’s best players. I think it is great motivation for us when legends like Ram Kumar point out mistakes in our game. We feel that if they can achieve so much in their careers, so can we.
Coming to your professional team. You play for the Punjab Police. What is your designation and what are your work hours like? Doesn’t the work distract you from training and take away your practice time?
I don’t have to do any police duty. In three years, I haven’t even collected by uniform! My only job is to train hard at my craft, which is basketball. By designation, I’m a constable and will be promoted to the Havaldar rank soon. In my Punjab Police team, I have teammates who have been playing for the last 10-15 years. Many of them are married now. In some of the training sessions, they bring their young children over. It is really nice to see that. I would love to emulate these guys and play competitively for as long as possible. All my teammates motivate me to improve everyday.
You are one of the fittest players on the Indian national side. How do you maintain such a high level of energy throughout the four quarters? Most players showcase bursts of energy for small durations and slag off for the remaining time. Is your on-court productivity purely because of the hours spent in the gym?
Gymming isn’t the only reason. In fact, continuous gymming is also not good because your muscles get really bloated up and it reduces your stamina. A lot of my game is planned actually. You can still be in the game and manage to conserve energy. It comes down to strategy. At the senior level, it is not only physical strength but mental fortitude coupled with the ability to play with your teammates, that matters.
For example, I love playing with Amrit Pal Singh on the Punjab Police team. We play off each other. He is an excellent outside shooter. Whenever he is in form, I relax a little. At times, when the defense is aggressively guarding me after I have scored a few baskets, I lob it in to our post players and make them work down low. This gives me a bit of breathing room.Tell us about your 3 on 3 FIBA Asia experience. Happy? Disappointed?
It was an excellent experience. We made a few mistakes, especially against Saudi Arabia, to whom we lost in the quarterfinals. I got to know what my mistakes and strengths were. I also got to see the system there. Abroad, a 4 pm game will start at 4 pm, not 3:59, and not 4:01. Back home, we still have to deal with delayed starts.
I also liked the fact that despite being in Doha, the organisers took special care to ensure that Indian food was readily available, apart from other international cuisines for players from different Asian countries. In India, if the tournament is in Chennai, then you have no choice but to eat south Indian food!
Everybody in India is waiting for our first NBA player. You have played with the promising 7ft 1 inch phenom Satnam Singh on the Punjab side before. What’s your take on him? Will he make it to the top league in the world?
Satnam is in the USA on a full scholarship. He has access to the best training facilities. He has a platform from which he can launch himself into the NBA in the next 4-5 years. It is really up to him to make the most of it. You can serve food on a platter, but you still have to be the one to put it in your mouth.
Do you model your game after others? Do you follow the NBA, watch videos?
I do copy moves of certain players. I keep watching videos and add elements to my game.
Favourite international players (and why): My favourite NBA players are Lebron James and Russell Westbrook. I am astounded by Lebron’s god gifted talents. He is 6ft 8 inches and can shoot threes. I don’t know any Indian player who is 6ft 8 inches and can shoot threes like him. His physique, body and power are unmatched. I see some of his workouts where he is smiling through them. I try out the same myself and struggle!
Another player I love to watch is Russell Westbrook. He is very aggressive and is never ‘down’. Even when he gets blocked, he picks himself right back up and is not worried about it. What I like is that he is not just happy about making his shots, but is pleased about assisting his teammates.
Favourite Indian players (and why): Jagdeep Singh. He was my roommate for a year in Jalandhar. He is a really classy player, who takes no pressure. He gives ‘power’ to all his teammates. In terms of his skill set he plays like any other normal player, but you just know that when the game is on the line “hum jeet jayenge kyonki Jagdeep hain hamaare saath” (we will win because Jagdeep is with us). Another favourite of mine is point guard TJ Sahi.
Message to fans and other youngsters (tips): Work hard. If you are playing, then don’t waste your time fooling around and train sincerely. Also, nowadays, drugs and alcoholism is widespread. So stay away from this. Avoid steroids and medicines to build your body. These are short cuts that will do you no good in the long run. You can get all the nutrition you need from a normal diet.
Your personal motto/ life philosophy: I’m always happy, no matter what happens. My teammates know that I am the most “mazaakiya” (fun) guy on the squad. Whenever I’m away from the practice sessions, they call me up and tell me that the practices are boring without me! In my mind, I know that I have areas to improve. Even I have problems, but I never show it externally. When I lose a game, I take a couple of moments to recover and then I pull myself together. Win or lose, at the end of the day it’s important to remember that it’s just a game.
This interview is part of the new ‘Know Your Stars’ column that profiles our most talented and active basketball players. Previous interviews from this series: Karnataka Captain Srinivas Naik, ONGC veteran Mohit Bhandari.