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As always, the women’s final was held first, a little bit earlier in the evening, before the prime-time crowds were expected to show up. Only a few of the other players, close friends, and some of the organizing officials sat through most of the game; looking around the arena, there were far more empty seats than occupied ones. As the game ended, anticipation arose for the men’s final which was to follow right after. Crowds doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. A calm arena had been turned into an energetic spectacle.

The scenes above don’t describe any one tournament – they are a glimpse of the sights and sounds at most sporting events. Throughout the sporting sphere in the country – and abroad, too – women who excel in popular sports like cricket, football, hockey, etc. are usually greeted with scarce attention from their Federations and scarcer crowds at their field of play.

Fortunately, for basketball in India, this is usually not the case. From the top level – where India’s best female players and national teams usually perform better than their male counterparts – to the grassroots – where young girls get an equal opportunity to shine as the boys – India’s women stand toe to toe with the men in the game.

For most of India – as it is in several other parts of the world – gender equality is still a work in progress. India still has a highly skewed child sex ratio (under age six) of 919 girls per 1000 boys. India stands 132nd out of 148 countries on the UNDP Gender Inequality Index. And women in several parts of India are at a disadvantage, facing limited access to resources, education, and are victims of gender-based violence. India has long been a patriarchal society where culture and custom has given social authority to men over women for thousands of years.

Perhaps it is because of these inequalities that, when given an opportunity, the discriminated gender has set out with a fire in their belly to prove a point and perform at a high level. For several years now, India’s women’s national basketball team has ranked much higher in the FIBA rankings than the men. While the men’s teams have struggled to break through to the top eight of recent Asian tournaments, India finished at an all time best fifth place in the FIBA Asia Championship for Women last year. While basketball fans in India and abroad have been desperately searching for India’s answer to Yao Ming – the first of our nation to make it to the NBA – the closest Indian in the big leagues has actually been a woman: Geethu Anna Jose. Jose has played professionally in Australia and Thailand and came close to securing a spot in a WNBA roster a few years ago. Among Indian basketball fans, the names of female players like Jose, Varanasi’s “Singh Sisters”, Anitha Paul Durai, the successful girls from Chhattisgarh, and the youth brigade out in Kerala are as popular as the best-known male players.

Credit must be given to the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) as well as the various State Federations in the country who have managed to keep men and women’s basketball at relatively equal footing even though many have suffered from overall inefficiencies in other areas. A few years ago, the BFI’s late CEO Harish Sharma mentioned that as the BFI works to take the game of basketball to the next level, they would also maintain gender equality. “We will focus equally on men and women,” he had said, “Basketball is a gender-friendly sport!”

Indeed, it is. Or, it almost is. Despite having equal standing in almost every way (close to the same number of male and female teams participate in Indian national tournaments annually), the women still receive a smaller participating or medal-winning fee than the men.

In his excellent review of Indian Basketball for Fountain Ink magazine earlier this year, Ekalavyas’ own Gopalakrishnan R. reported that, while men in India receive employment on the sports quota in various government services, public telecom, banks, police departments, railways, and more, the women really have nowhere to go but the Railways.

“So when the Indian Railway boasts of a virtually unbeaten run in the last 20 years at the Senior National Championship,” wrote Gopalakrishnan, “It is simply because it is one of the few establishments that hires women!”

That ‘virtually unbeaten’ run by the Indian Railways women was finally stalled this year by Chhattisgarh, the rising stars of India’s women’s basketball, who won the Senior Nationals Women’s gold and ended Railways’ decade-long hold of the title.

Sometimes, an unlikely basketball success story can be traced back to the efforts of one individual. For Chhattisgarh, that individual has been Rajesh Patel, the coach of all of Chhattisgarh’s female teams of the sub-junior, youth, junior, and senior levels. Patel recruits talented players with potential at a young age from tribal and other disadvantaged economic conditions to the Bhilai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh and then helps them reach that potential. Since the Chhattisgarh state was formed in 2000, Patel’s vision has come to reality, with the women winning gold at every level, and several of his protégés making their way to India’s National squad.

Kerala, Maharashtra, Delhi, and Tamil Nadu are also among the leaders of promoting women’s basketball on equal footing with the men. All these states – and several others who also have similar, successful models – have done a fine job of organizing tournaments with equal participation for both genders, a practice that has gone on to help produce top players from these states for the national squad. But once again, going back to Gopalakrishnan’s article mentioned above, opportunities for many women at the senior domestic level are few and far between.

At the international stage, India’s women have indeed been given the same opportunity to succeed as the men have. For the last few years, whenever a capable foreign coach has been hired for India’s national men’s teams (Bill Harris, Kenny Natt, Scott Flemming), the same has been done for the women (Tamika Raymond, Pete Gaudet, Francisco Garcia). Led by talents like Jose, the Sr women’s team finds themselves at 40th in the FIBA rankings (Men are currently 61st) and the Girls (U16) team are at 37th (Boys are 48th). India is now at fifth place among Women in Asia, behind only the unstoppable ‘big four’ of China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, and Japan. India’s women have been successful at FIBA Asia 3×3 competitions, too. While India’s male players have barely registered a blimp against the competition in Asia, Jose has been able to finish as Asia’s top scorer or be a part of All Tournament teams in recent FIBA Asia Championships.

India’s women do have a major advantage over the men when it comes to Asian tournaments: they have less competition. Higher-ranked nations in the men’s division like Iran, Jordan, and Qatar don’t field women’s basketball teams at all. India’s men have to play against tougher and larger number of opponents, and thus, struggle to emulate the success of the women.

Additionally, worldwide, women’s basketball is generally a lot more balanced than the counterparts in men. With the women’s game focusing on fundamentals and tactics a little more than athletic or physical ability, India’s women theoretically have had the chance to match closer to powerhouses around the world than the men do. While most Federations around the world have generally focused their attention on the men’s national sides, India’s efforts of keeping basketball ‘gender-friendly’ have helped the women stay competitive, participate in as many international tournaments as the men do, and receive the same level of coaching and physiotherapy.

At pretty much every level of the game, men’s basketball gets more attention and hype than the women. The NBA is more popular than the WNBA, FIBA’s Men’s Championships garner bigger crowds than FIBA women’s, and male players make more money and are given better sponsorships than their women counterparts. Considering this global gender imbalance, it isn’t shocking that the attention of fans and organizers in India is to find India’s Yao Ming or Wang Zhi Zhi and have an Indian player make it to the NBA.

But, it may well be more likely that the first Indian to make it to basketball’s biggest league will be a woman, and that big league will be the WNBA, rather than the NBA. Jose came agonizingly close when she earned tryouts with the Chicago Sky, Los Angeles Sparks, and San Antonio Silver Stars three years ago. If her successors are given the right opportunity, they could take one step further. Last month, India’s Women’s coach Francisco Garcia mentioned that young players like Kavita Akula, Poojamol KS, and Jeena PS all have the talent to play in professional leagues abroad. If, at an earlier age, India’s young stars are given the right guidance, training, and opportunity, we might finally find a talent to break through to the highest level of the game.

Let’s be real: Basketball is too minor an issue to solve India’s gender inequalities. But a basketball success story could add to the growing list of talented sportswomen in India, and become yet another small step away from the generations of patriarchy in the nation.

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[KARAN MADHOK]

 *Pic: The rising stars of the Chhattisgarh junior (u-18) women’s side coached by the legendary Rajesh Patel (standing far left). The side features young internationals Saranjeet Kaur (first from right), Kavita Akula (sixth from right), Sangeeta Kaur (sixth from right) and Riya Verma (seventh from right) among others. Since the formation of Chhattisgarh state in 2000, the junior women’s side has won 10 of the last 14 national championships.
Karan Madhok
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