At a height of 7 ft and potential offers from the NBA, Amritpal Singh isn’t just standing tall but is an outstanding basketball player who initially took to the sport just to earn a livelihood.
“I’m speaking to you from a khét (field)”, Amritpal Singh tells this incredulous reporter. The 22-year-old starting centre on the Indian senior national team seems surprisingly blasé about his remarkable basketball journey. Born in the tiny village of Fatua near Amritsar, Amritpal Singh or ‘Amrit Mann’ as he is also known, had never heard of basketball until as recently as 2009. “I used to play kabaddi, that’s the only real sport in most villages.” Amritpal comes from a family of farmers. “We grow everything from géhu (wheat), chaawal (rice) and sabziyaan (vegetables),” he tells me happily.
Amritpal was always tall for his age. His parents are of above average height— father stands at 6 ft and his mother is 5 ft 7 inches— but this still doesn’t adequately explain his athletic 7 ft frame, which he takes great pride in. “Some newspapers wrongly printed my height as 6 ft 11 inches. My grandfather and uncle are taller, around 6 ft 2 inches.”
The very same uncle, as it turns out, is also one of the few in his family to be formally educated. “In December 2009, my uncle, who is a principal in a sarkaari (government) school in Ludhiana, noticed my rapid growth. He had heard about basketball, and how tall people might be good at it. He called me over to Ludhiana to meet the basketball coach of Punjab Police Academy, Mr Bhupinder Singh.” Through Coach Bhupinder, along with Canadian Coach David John who had come down from Vancouver for a coaching camp-cum-clinic, Amritpal learned the basics of the game. After two months, in March 2010, he transferred to the Ludhiana Basketball Academy.
The Ludhiana Basketball Academy is Punjab’s first training centre dedicated exclusively to basketball. Inaugurated in 2003, it was made possible through funding by one of Punjab’s many prosperous emigrants settled in the UK. As stated plainly on the Punjab Basketball Association website, the main objective of the academy is to “develop tall, talented basketball players of young age (14 to 18 years) from Punjab and neighbouring states into international level players.” Amritpal fit this category to the tee. Spurred by the academy’s resident coach, the legendary late Sankaran Subramanium and inspirational India seniors like Jagdeep Singh Bains and Yadwinder Singh, Amritpal’s skills developed at a frenetic pace. “The only reason I started playing basketball was that like many other youngsters, I was told it would land me a job. What initially began as a means to secure a livelihood slowly turned into an obsession.”
Within a year and a half of picking up a basketball for the first time, Amritpal was already being considered among India’s finest young talents. He was selected to the senior Indian men’s team for the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship in Wuhan, China. “I had never even played in any junior international tournament before this. My only experience prior to the Asian Championship was playing for Punjab in the senior nationals in 2010.”
Soon after his return, he got an offer to join domestic powerhouse ONGC, Dehradun on a sports quota. ONGC is like the Real Madrid of Indian basketball clubs. Their ability to pay a higher salary allows them the pick of the Indian players that includes current India captain Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, former India internationals Riyazuddin, Murali Krishna, Trideep Rai, Shabeer Ahamed and a host of other stars. “I just followed the advice of all my seniors at ONGC and kept improving my game.”
His work didn’t go unnoticed and even came to the attention of David Stern, the top honcho of the world’s most famous basketball league, the National Basketball Association (NBA). Amritpal was invited to meet Commissioner Stern during his visit to Mumbai in April this year as part of NBA’s attempt to give the American sport a global reach.
Amritpal, though, is in no hurry to look Westwards as his plate is full with national commitments. In August this year, he played considerable minutes in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship in Manila, Philippines. He was part of a young Indian side that included fellow Punjabi beanpoles Amjyot Singh (6 ft 11 inches & 22 years of age) and Satnam Singh Bhamara (7 ft 1 inch & 17 years of age), also products of the Ludhiana Basketball Academy. India finished 11th out of 15 teams, an improvement over the last edition in 2011, where it ended 14th.
Led by Amritpal, the Indian men’s team looks to be in safe (and large) hands. “From what my seniors tell me, there’s more camaraderie in the team now.” Regarding his own personal journey, he is nowhere close to being satisfied. “My story has only just begun. I’m open to new experiences and ever willing to adjust according to my environment. I plan to play as long as possible, jab tak hain jaan (as long as there is life in me),” he signs off.
This feature was originally published in The Alternative Magazine as part of the Spocial Revolution series. Here’s the link to the original post: http://thealternative.in/inclusivity/amritpal-singh-indian-basketballs-cinderella-man/