In 2004, the critically acclaimed Hindi movie Swades (‘My Land’) was released, which told the romanticized story of an Indian immigrant in the US, played by superstar Shah Rukh Khan. In the film, Khan has a successful career at NASA but constantly feels the pull of his ancestral land and the desire to do something for his country.
He comes back to India to re-establish relations with his Kaveri Amma— the mother substitute who nurtured him in his initial years through great personal sacrifice and courage. Along the way, Khan goes on to revamp his ancestral village, bringing electricity and running water, where previously the day used to end at the first sign of dusk, when near total darkness covered the houses and trees.
He finds his love interest in the form of a gorgeous primary school teacher, who just happens to be single, eager, and staying with his beloved nanny. Like most Indian movies, this one too has a happy ending. Khan wins over his village, his girl and his nanny and decides to return to India permanently. The country’s faith in him is restored and his conscience is in the clear. Roll credits.
The scene has shifted to Jammu & Kashmir, the northern most state of India. This is real life now, filled with real people and their problems, with no pretty Indian girl waiting for her NRI prince charming. The hero here goes by the name of Shahid Ahmad Bhat.
The storyline is similar to the one in Swades with slight variations. Here, Kashmiri born parents migrate to the US in the 1970s in search of better lives. Their son grows up happy and contented, a tall dashing man of considerable physical prowess. He has an innate interest in basketball, a common sport of choice in the USA but a surprising selection made by the youngster from the land of Chinar trees and houseboats.
Jammu & Kashmir is a region with no known sports pedigree to boast of, barring a steady supply of willows for the rest of the cricketing world, across India and abroad. “J&K is probably the weakest state in India when it comes to basketball,” says Shahid. This piece of statistic is particularly depressing, considering that the Indian Senior men’s basketball team itself, composed of players from almost every other State apart from J&K, currently languishes at 58 in the world rankings.
This is well below the likes of Tunisia (22), Nigeria (17) and Iran (20) — smaller nations beset by internal strife and international sanctions, yet managing to put competitive teams on the floor.
Living the American dream
After representing his high school and college, Shahid joined Central Missouri State University and later, transferred to the University of Kansas, a college that has produced more NBA players than any other American University, outside of Kentucky (20), Duke (18) and North Carolina (17).
While at Kansas, Shahid got the opportunity to play with and against many current NBA greats, notably Paul Pierce and Tyron Lue in various summer leagues. He knew by then that he could play with the best. He had understood enough about the game to feel the desire to teach others and inculcate them into basketball.
He coached for four years at Barstow School of Kansas City, and for two years for an AAU team. His life seemed set. A lifetime spent in coaching the game he loves, along the way, maybe a marriage, a house and a couple of kids. What better way to live out the American dream?
All this while, he kept abreast of the happenings in his beloved homeland. Kashmir stays in the local and international media for all the wrong reasons. Sport is the last thing on the minds of Kashmiris, who for decades have been torn apart by oppression, violence and instability.
In 2009, Shahid made a trip to Kashmir with his family. It seemed but natural for him to wonder about the state of basketball in India: Who were the best Indian players? What facilities did Indian players enjoy? What about basketball infrastructure in his very own Kashmir?
Around the same time, J.D. Walsh, the globetrotting basketball coach and instructor had been touring India. One of his many camps was at Srinagar, the capital city of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. J.D., along with former player Jayasankar Menon — one of the greatest Indian basketball talents from the Southern Indian State of Kerala, and the first Indian to make it to the Asian All Star roster— landed in Srinagar for the camp, and Shahid jumped at the opportunity to volunteer.
Srinagar Summer Basketball League
This stint so moved him, that months later, Shahid returned to Kashmir, determined to transform his home state by teaching them the game he loved.
“I went from one high school to another, and in 2011, I decided that Delhi Public School, Srinagar, would be the venue of my summer league.”
His work had just begun. “I was basically on my own. The only marketing that I could manage was a Facebook page and word of mouth.” As it turned out, that was all the publicity needed. In a state starved of opportunities for its youngsters, in sports or otherwise, ten teams registered for the inaugural edition of the ambitiously named Srinagar Kashmir Basketball Association (SKBA) Summer Classic Basketball Tournament.
Finally, Shahid had the chance to assess the quality of his Kashmiri peers. “The talent was limited, but before this tournament, there was no basketball in Kashmir.”
He dug deeper, encountering a series of stumbling blocks along the way. “After about two to three weeks of the summer league we were asked by the school authorities to stop.” This would not have surprised other young Indians, who are very well used to having sports initiatives nipped in the bud by school and college authorities, where the focus is solely and wholly on academics. But to Shahid, this blow was hard to handle.
“They told me that they didn’t want students from other schools and colleges to use the DPS Courts.” Shahid had long since completed his recce of the courts in Srinagar. He knew that DPS, Srinagar had one of the few functional indoor basketball courts in the entire state.
“Courts in Kashmir are non existent. Outside of the High Schools, for which entry is limited for the students of that particular school, there is only one basketball court in all of Srinagar, belonging to the local Islamia college, which is open to all those who want to play. That one though is extremely dilapidated. The rim hangs loose from the boards and there are large cracks on the cement court.”
He managed to convince the school authorities to let him complete the league but was booted out immediately after. “I didn’t earn any money from the Kashmir league. There were only five to six serious young players.”
The domino effect of poor basketball infrastructure in school, absence of coaches and the consequent presence of players with no technique or skills can be seen at the senior level as well. In the senior nationals, the highest level of basketball competition in India, consisting of teams from all the constituent states, Jammu & Kashmir languishes in the second division.
“The J&K team itself consists of a majority of players from Jammu Police, most in their 40s,” Shahid says. “There is also the problem of skewed representation in favour of Jammu players in the State squad, with virtually no player from the Kashmir region to have played for the State.”
As a state, Jammu & Kashmir comprises three regions, the northern most Kashmir Valley, the Southern Jammu, and Ladakh, to the South East. Geographical and administrative difficulties restrict the entry of players from remote locations to tryout for the state team.
“The Jammu and Kashmir Basketball Association which is the recognized federation in charge of development of basketball in the State, is head quartered in Jammu which is a 10 hour drive from Srinagar. This makes regular accessibility to training camps and tryouts impossible for the handful of talented players from Kashmir. There has been no Basketball Federation of India or JKBA organized event in Kashmir in the last 20 years. Not even a single J&K player has ever represented the national team in India’s history. As for the J&K girls’ team, they are definitely at the bottom struggling to score even six to eight points.”
F23BC – Setting up a professional ball club
The painful assessment of the standard of basketball in J&K complete, Shahid turned his attention to the national capital of Delhi.
“In 2012, I contacted TJ Sahi (an electrifying yet eccentric point guard from the northwestern State of Punjab who keeps moving in and out of the Indian squad). I told him that I want to put up a team to compete with other domestic clubs such as Punjab Police and ONGC. He joined me in Delhi and we began the process of setting up a professional team which came to be named ‘Formula 23 Basketball Club’ or F23BC.”
The idea was to bring together under one roof, the top five to six basketball talents in the country and take part in all sorts of tournaments in India and abroad. “There are a number of top quality players of Indian origin in the US. I wanted to bring them to India and start an International club of Indian origin players who would be paid to play.”
This ambitious plan stuttered and failed. “We got as far as practicing and tryouts. Since this club is not affiliated to the Basketball Federation of India, our application to take part in important national tournaments was rejected.”
Despite the setback, Shahid is optimistic about contributing to Indian basketball. “I do not want to give up on the idea of a club just yet. I’m an independent person, a tourist basically. I want to be honest (about the condition of basketball in India), but, at the same time, I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes.”
In April 2013, Shahid Ahmad Bhat returned to Srinagar, India for two months, and worked with kids across age groups. He continues to be on the lookout for collegiate and pro talent in and around Delhi to restart his basketball club.
An abridged version of this feature, published in the September Issue of The Caravan Magazine, can be found here.