Punjab's Talwinder Singh in dunking

I may call myself a die-hard basketball junkie now, but when I was a kid, I wanted to grow up and be Sachin Tendulkar.

I wasn’t good at cricket, but I played it a lot because everyone I knew played cricket. From the grassy fields of my school to the concrete gullie behind my house, we made everything our little pitch. Cricket was the sport, everything else was the alternative.

I had Sachin posters gracing the walls of my bedroom and Sachin’s face on my pencil-box for school. Like most casual fans of the sport in India, I only paid attention to cricket scores when Sachin was playing and turned off the moment he got out. Even as I grew older and lost interest in cricket, I could never switch off my fandom for the man we call ‘God’. I screamed with my friends when Sachin scored 200 against South Africa. I celebrated when his teammates hoisted him on their shoulders when they won the World Cup. I shed a tear watching his farewell speech.

It’s no secret that kids look up to athletes, and most of us – if we were sports fan growing up – were inspired by an athlete as a role model, whether it was Jordan or Ronaldo, Federer or Kobe. But if you were Indian, with a few exceptions it’s more than likely that the athlete was a cricketer. If not Sachin, it was Dhoni, or Ganguly, or Dravid, or one of the countless others.

Ever since cricket went from being a pastime to a religion in the early-to-mid-80s, India has rarely been able to produce idols in any other sport. Blame it on the lack of media attention, on the dysfunction of sporting bodies behind other athletes, or simply, a lack of success at the international level.

Although overshadowed by cricket, there have definitely been success stories to motivate and inspire across most other Indian sports. Over the last three decades, the likes of Leander Paes, Viswanathan Anand, Abhinav Bindra, Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, Mahesh Bhupati, Dhanraj Pillai, Bhaichung Bhutia, PT Usha, Mary Kom, Anju Bobby George, Saina Nehwal, and many more have garnered national and international success and fame. While their respective sports might not make the Times of India front pages or spike TRPs on Indian sports channels as much as cricket, these sportsmen and women have at least charted a path to follow for aspiring young ‘alternative’ sportsmen and women.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find the same type of role model in basketball. The mainstream public in the country won’t be paying attention until an Indian player makes a mark at the international stage, to stand among the best in the world and hold his own. Outside of the niche basketball circles, the names of most of India’s finest basketball talents are unknown. The closest a truly famous person came to dribbling a basketball in India was back when Shahrukh Khan was playing trap-defense on a sari-clad Kajol in ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’.

But if you ask among those niche basketball circles in India, you will hear several names. You will hear of past greats like Ajmer Singh or Ram Kumar. You will be schooled on dominant players like Jayasankar Menon or Sozhasingarayer Robinson. You will catch up with those headlining the scenes in the present day, like Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, the explosive TJ Sahi, the Singh Sisters from Varanasi, or Anitha Paul Durai.

But the name you’re likely to hear more than any other is of the great Geethu Anna Jose. Jose has been the most dominant player in India for the last decade and is perhaps one of the greatest players we’ve ever had. She was the first Indian to play professionally in Australia, enjoyed a professional stint in Thailand, and was even given a trial by three WNBA teams in 2011. Domestically, the Kerala-born superstar has dominated nearly every tournament she took part in. She has been the lynchpin of India’s national women’s team and the only Indian player to match the talent and output of Asia’s finest.

Jose’s successes over the past decades brought her and her sport some much-needed attention, but her popularity never reached out to the masses like it deserved to. Jose has been a role model to serious basketball players in India, but to the common man or woman, she’s just another woman who could pass by any Indian airport or shopping mall without anyone raising an eyebrow in recognition, unless the eyebrow is being raised to remark on her height.

Indian basketball needs celebrities. We need our best players to be recognized on the street. We need fans to request photos with them. We need their accomplishments to be celebrated nationwide.

But for that to happen, our best players need to have some accomplishments first. The never-ending cycle of bad results leading to less exposure leading to loss of interest from young players and lack of funding and then to more bad results has continued for decades. The only way out of this ruthless cycle is an anomaly, a tangent of talent that can ignite national interest in the sport.

Luckily, when a country has over 1.2 billion people, that tangent might not be too far away. The challenge is to find it and nurture it so it can blossom into its full potential.

Four years ago, India discovered one such ‘needle in a haystack’ in the form of a 7-footed 14-year-old phenom straight out of a non-descript village in Punjab. Satnam Singh Bhamara was discovered while dominating the Youth and Junior national tournaments for Punjab and immediately picked out by IMG Reliance to be sent for expert training at the IMG Academy in Florida. Bhamara has been there since, honing his skills, and occasionally returning to India to take part in the bigger national tournaments or represent the Senior National team. While he has developed into a solid big man with flashes of brilliance, many fear that even for him, the discovery of talent might’ve been too little too late.

There has also been a rising number of non-resident Indians from the US, Canada, or elsewhere who have started to rise within American college or High School ranks and have offered a ray of hope to Indians back home. While these players may not have Indian nationality, and thus, can’t contribute to the national teams in India, they have been able to instill the belief that basketball excellence has little to do with ones DNA or race and more to do with one’s opportunities, training regimes, and of course, dedication.

At the top of the totem pole of these Indian-origin talents right now is Canadian-Indian Sim Bhullar. A 21-year-old, 7-5 giant, Bhullar currently NCAA Division 1 college ball for New Mexico State, and even made some waves with his performances leading up to the NCAA national tournament last year. If Bhullar can continue to develop in the next few years, he could have an outside shot at the NBA.

In last month’s column, I spoke about how a professional basketball league in India – whenever it does get launched – could revolutionize the sport and propel its popularity into a much higher gear. The league would also be a platform to create basketball heroes and heroines, idols who fans can look up to and relate to at the same time. Of course, the dream of every hoop fan in the country is to see an Indian name don an NBA jersey or the captain of the Indian national team hoist up a FIBA international trophy. That day isn’t here yet, but we are indeed getting closer. And when that day becomes today, the vicious cycle of ineptitude might finally be broken, and Indian basketball players might enjoy the star status that they deserve.

Now here’s a story. Three years ago, Mumbai’s famous Mastan YMCA courts in the Nagpada area began to play host to what then became an annual tradition, the Indian Basketball All Star Weekend. In 2011, the event’s organizers first brought together the best men and women players in India to the outdoor court for the two-day event, which included a dunk contest, three-point shootouts, and All Star games.

If you don’t know, Nagpada is a mostly-Muslim minority neighbourhood in India’s financial capital, an overcrowded bustling area of slumdogs in the city of millionaires. This iconic basketball court is where some of the nation’s finest have honed their craft and where poor young children mingle with international-level players. Nagpada is known for its kebabs, its crowds, its chawls, and its basketball. The All Star Weekend events were free for anyone to attend, and hundreds of local fans – mostly kids – sat on the floor courtside cheering through the exciting two days.

I was there covering the event in its first year, and TJ Sahi, one of India’s most popular basketball players, was participating in the dunk contest and the All Star game. Sahi is an explosive point guard who earned the nickname ‘Air India’ for his incredible athleticism and successes for India and Punjab.

Some of the Indian stars were at the court early on the first night, and while they waited for the competitions to begin, Sahi sat in a far corner separated from the rest of the players but surrounded by a dozen local kids. He was signing autographs and giving dribbling tips to the kids, who looked up in awe with admiration and respect. About an hour later, Sahi’s celebrity status was etched in the kids’ memories forever: he channelled his inner Blake Griffin for a spectacular dunk over a kali-peeli Mumbai taxi to win the Dunk Contest.

What happened in Mumbai that night – like what happens in Indian basketball events around the country on most nights – was barely noticed by those who didn’t attend and barely reported to the outside world. But it made a mark on those who were there and convinced at least a few of those youngsters to grow up and become the next TJ Sahi.

It was just another small example of a basketball role model being born in India. The moment was an untamed and totally desi glimpse of the future. Hopefully we can have many more moments like it in the road ahead, and those Sachin and Dhoni posters are eventually replaced by Indian faces motivating the next generation on the basketball court.

 [KARAN MADHOK]

*Pic: TJ ‘Air India’ Sahi dunks over a taxi during a dunk contest as part of the 2011 Indian basketball All Star weekend at the Mastan YMCA Courts in Nagpada, Mumbai. Photo usage courtesy extended to Karan Madhok by the tournament organisors.

Karan Madhok
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