“STAR OF THE DAY!” screamed the sports section of Times of India in an article dated January 28, 2014. The previous evening, India had played Angola in the basketball finals of the Lusofonia International Games in Goa. With Team India trailing 50-53 going into the fourth quarter, not many gave the hosts a chance to repeat their earlier league win over these formidable African rivals.
But India’s 5ft 9 inch point guard Joginder Singh Saharan was dying to prove the naysayers wrong. The Air Force man was just readying to take flight.
Growing up in Bamla village in Bhiwani, Haryana, Joginder wasn’t unfamiliar with the idea that sports can be a viable career option. The name ‘Bhiwani’ is synonymous with boxing, having come into prominence in 2008 when four boxers from the district represented India in the Beijing Olympics, including eventual bronze medal winner Vijender Singh.
“I was never interested in boxing. My father took me to the famous Bhiwani Boxing Club, but I left after a month, because by then I had already participated in my first mini (u-14) basketball nationals.” Joginder began dribbling the basketball in 1999 at the age of 11, simply as an excuse to meet his friends. “In villages, houses are far apart. So after school, instead of just sitting at home, a friend asked me to join him at our village basketball court.”
Local coach Srived Prakash was immediately impressed by Joginder’s abilities. “I used to dribble for hours at a time: going behind the back and between the legs. Seeing this, Coach Prakash announced then and there ‘Tu point guard hi banega (you will be a point guard someday).’” True to his coach’s predictions, Joginder represented the Haryana state team in various age categories from 2001 to 2006.
In 2007, at the behest of his friend and future India teammate Narender Grewal, Joginder attended selection tryouts for the Indian Air Force. “Back then my only goal was that basketball should get me a stable job, which it did.” At IAF, Narender and Joginder formed a dynamic guard duo that rejuvenated the side, transforming it into one of India’s top domestic teams.
Joginder’s life trajectory seemed set: play for the Indian Air Force as long as the body can hold up, and upon retirement join the IAF’s working cadre. Or at least that’s what he thought.
“One evening in early 2012, our IAF coach Jora Singh got a phone call inviting me to the Indian Senior Men’s selection camp. Apparently there was a shortage of point guards as Sambhaji Kadam was injured and TJ Sahi had left the team.”
An elated Joginder was soon wearing the India jersey. Happily, his long time friend and teammate Narender was also part of the national squad. “It made us very proud to be the first from our village to play for India in a sport in which we have been toiling since our childhood.”
Joginder continued working on all facets of his game, especially his dribbling and shooting. “When kids ask me on Facebook how to improve their shooting, I tell them bluntly: Instead of ‘asking’ just ‘shoot’! Practise is all there is to it. Practise at match speed and have a target in mind for each practise: that you will convert 100-150 three pointers and not leave the court before that.”
His work ethic earned him the trust of India’s Head Coach Scott Flemming. “He has given me the green light to shoot whenever I want. Coach always turns to me when the team needs scoring.” Nowhere was that need greater felt than on the night of January 27, 2014, in the all important gold medal match against Angola.
Three thousand odd Goan spectators sat at the edge of their seats inside the Dr Shyam Prasad Mukherjee Indoor Stadium in Taleigao, not far from Panaji. Going into the last quarter, India trailed Angola by three points.
The final ten minutes saw Joginder making it rain inside the stadium complex. He connected on five out of ten three pointers to take India to a historic 77-70 win, perhaps its first ever gold medal in a tournament featuring teams outside of Asia. In the post match press conference, Coach Scott anointed Joginder as India’s “Mr Big Shot”, who can be trusted to knock down his threes when the team needs it the most.
While newspapers like TOI hailed India’s newfound basketball star, Joginder himself remains unmoved. “The only thing that matters to me is that Indian basketball gets the public recognition it deserves.” For Joginder and the rest of the Indian basketball fraternity, the fight for light continues.