Some would say that his game reflects his personality: brash, energetic, in your face and always thoroughly entertaining. Talwinderjit Singh (‘TJ’) Sahi has lived and played on the edge. A little man in a big man’s game, 6ft 1 inch TJ has been a point guard on the senior national men’s team in the past.
A proud Punjabi ‘Jatt Sikh’ from Ludhiana, athleticism is his blood. His father Balwinder Singh Sahi was a national record holder in decathlon who insisted that his sons—TJ and elder Simon— follow in his footsteps and take up track and field. After their daily athletic training, they were told to “cool down” by playing cricket or football. But they found a brick basketball court near the track and started playing hoops instead. “There were a lot of NRI Punjabis who used to play basketball at Ludhiana University.
They used to talk in English, wear fancy clothes and play with a lot of style. Seeing their swagger, I got inspired and thought ‘why can’t I do the same’?”
Determined to be the best in the world, TJ would spend countless hours watching videos of NBA stars Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson on the internet. “Since they don’t show a lot of basketball on TV, I used to keep reminding my cousins and relatives who lived abroad to get basketball CDs for me whenever they come to India.”
The potential of both the Sahi brothers was noticed by a local coach. Soon, both of them would represent Punjab nationally at the junior level and miraculously make their senior Indian team debut at the identical age of 17! “It was a dream come true for me to play for India at the Asian Basketball Championship in Dubai in 2004. Since I was very young, I didn’t get to play much, but I learnt a lot by observing the best players in the world.”
While his elder brother would quit basketball and go to the US for a career in modelling, from 2004 to 2006, TJ would be one of the centrepieces of the Indian men’s team.
His success in Indian basketball realised, TJ now wished to pursue every basketball player’s ultimate dream: to go to the US and play in the National Basketball Association or ‘NBA’— the world’s most prestigious professional league. But things would soon start going downhill. “I got an offer to play on a full scholarship at a University in North Carolina. However, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) kept delaying in giving me an NOC (No Objection Certificate).”
TJ alleges petty jealousy and political influence within the BFI as reasons behind their attempts to stall his trip abroad. “In my playing career, I never once tried to influence my coaches to pick me on the team. I believe that your natural talent should speak for itself. The problem is that like Dhanraj Pillay in field hockey, I always speak the truth no matter the consequences. Maybe that’s why I’m targeted.”
Things would come to such a pass that TJ alleges that his family even received death threats. “When I had gone out to get my visa, some unknown thugs entered my house. They threatened my mother by putting a gun to her head and demanded that she hand over my passport. When I came back home, I found my mother on the ground—she had been hit on the head with the back of the revolver. My passport was burnt to ashes.”
Somehow, TJ managed to find his way to California, America and began playing in recreational leagues there. The fearless young lad from Punjab made an immediate impression and his high flying ways earned him the nickname “Air India.”
But just as he began his ascent, TJ’s life would again come crashing down. Within months of going to the US, he was forced to come back to India in 2008. “My father had passed away when I was still in my late teens. My mother, who was all alone, suffered a heart attack. I had to return permanently to take care of her.”
Putting behind his past animosity with the powers-that-be, for the next three years, TJ would make a comeback into the Punjab and Indian national teams. The highpoint undoubtedly would be winning the 2012 Senior National Championship held at Chennai, as part of the Punjab team.
His entertaining creativity couldn’t be contained within the basketball court. TJ has also sung and starred in a Punjabi pop music album, which includes two songs on his love for basketball!
For the last one year TJ has refused to play internationally. He claims this is because of the continued lack of support and poor facilities given to Indian players. “When I jump three feet in the air over bikes, cars and people to dunk the ball, I don’t do it because I enjoy it. That’s the only way I can let out my anger and frustration.”
Still only 27-years-old, TJ’s life story already resembles that of a happening movie script with him unabashedly playing the lead superstar. The climax is still to be written.