“Hey, well played man”, said Coach Lebron James, simultaneously high fiving one of his players, a young 5ft 9 inch 23-year-old man from Tamil Nadu by the name of Akilan P. The occasion was the 2013 All Star Weekend in Houston, Texas. NBA superstar James, arguably one of the greatest basketball players of his generation, was coaching a motley bunch of international players —from China, Chinese Taipei, Lithuania, Mexico, Philippines, Puerto Rico, US and India—as part of a Sprite exhibition game against another legend Kobe Bryant’s team. As Akilan sat back on the bench, he asked himself yet again in disbelief “Basketball has taken me across the globe, what else is it going to do for me?”
The misty Nilgiri mountains loomed ahead in the distance. The low rising clouds parted every now and then to reveal row upon row of tea plantations that spread out like undulating green carpets. Walking home after a hard day’s studies at the Stanes Anglo Indian School in Coonoor, ten-year-old Akilan marveled at his verdant surroundings.
Akilan’s father worked in the Tamil Nadu State Forest Department and, as is standard practice, kept shifting base within the state. An ardent sports lover, he had played football, hockey, athletics, table tennis and basketball in college. Akilan was encouraged to engage in physical activities from an early age. “I didn’t play basketball initially. Till the age of ten I played cricket, later on I tried my hand at tennis, badminton and athletics.” Soon, it was time for Akilan’s father to get transferred again.
“Since there were no good schools where my dad transferred, I stayed with my mom in her hometown of Pollachi.” Akilan joined the LMHS School in fifth standard, and then started playing basketball. “In our school, there weren’t a lot of facilities for many sports. There was a tar court with wooden backboards, which for us was like heaven.” Akilan picked up the basics by watching his school seniors. “My father used to come home every weekend, and he taught me how to dribble and shoot.” Soon Akilan got selected to his school team.
One day, his father saw a newspaper ad announcing selection tryouts to the under 13 Coimbatore District team. “In those days, I used to be pretty fat because of the constant pampering from my mother’s relatives in Pollachi. Earlier, in Coonoor, all that walking around in the hills had kept me fit.” Akilan went to the tryouts but wasn’t selected among the twenty probables.”My father told me bluntly that I had to lose weight and become fitter.” Akilan began practicing in earnest at the local club. “Every morning and evening, before and after school, I played against 20 and 25 year olds, half of whom used to turn up barefoot in trousers and shirts!”
Despite the informal nature of these scrimmages, Akilan’s skills improved. By next year, in 2001, Akilan made the cut to the district team. “It was a huge achievement, because Coimbatore is one of the most competitive districts in the state when it comes to basketball.” A stellar showing at the inter-district meet meant Akil was named in the u-13 (mini) state team for the national championship. It was time for another bump in the road. “Playing against much taller, older and experienced opponents meant that we weren’t able to match them physically.”
From 2002 to 2008, Akilan was a regular in the Tamil Nadu line up and captained the u-13, u-16 (youth) and u-18 (junior) sides. After completing his 12th standard, he joined the PSG College in Coimbatore and in 2009, graduated with a B Com (Corporate Secretaryship) degree.
But before graduating, he had the chance to play in one last junior national championship. “It was a breakout tournament for me. Our side got the bronze medal and we upset Chhattisgarh, which is always a very strong team to beat.” Interestingly, in this tournament, Akilan played against future India stars Vishesh Bhriguvanshi (Uttar Pradesh), Pratham Singh (Chhattisgarh) and Riken Pethani (Gujarat).
Tamil Nadu is known for its vibrant college basketball atmosphere, with hundreds of invitational tournaments every summer. Winning these events is a matter of great prestige and basketball coaches in Tamil Nadu colleges like Loyola, Jeppiar Engineering College, Hindustan University and Sathyabama University aggressively scout for talent from across the country and lure them to TN by offering full scholarships and monthly stipends. Akilan’s bronze medal performance in his last Junior National Basketball Championship brought him on the radar of Jeppiar Engineering College. It was time for yet another learning curve.
Akilan joined Jeppiar in 2009 for his post graduate MBA degree. The Jeppiar team was being coached by the legendary CV Sunny, a point guard on the Indian national team in the 90s. “Being a point guard myself, Sunny Sir taught me a lot of finer aspects about ball distribution and how to make my teammates better. One of my favourite memories is a double overtime win over arch rivals Sathyabama.”
Within three months of joining Jeppiar, Akilan was offered a job in the Integral Coach Factory (ICF), Chennai. “The fact that I was a graduate, and a bronze medal winner at the junior nationals meant that I was eligible to join at the higher position of a senior clerk.” After close to two years, in 2011, Akilan was recruited by the Income Tax Department. The same year, he was selected for the first time to the senior Tamil Nadu team.
It was in Income Tax that in 2012, Akilan participated in the inaugural NBA 3 on 3 championship. “I rounded up three of my friends from Income Tax and Integral Coach Factory and registered our team online after seeing a Facebook announcement.” His impromptu team would win the Chennai regional rounds and go all the way, winning the nationals in Mumbai. After another selection round, Akilan and one of his teammates were chosen by Sprite to play an exhibition match on the sidelines of the 2013 NBA All Star weekend to play an exhibition match.
“I got to see all the past and current NBA legends like Charles Barkley, Shaquille O Neal, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant.”
A keen student of the game, Akilan paid particular attention to those NBA players who played in his position: point guard. “I especially remember watching legends Tony Parker and Steve Nash in the NBA Skills Challenge. I learnt how fast the game of basketball really is. The time we take to dribble once, NBA players can dribble two or three times.”
Akilan returned to India, and in early 2014 helped his Tamil Nadu Sr side to its first Senior National Basketball Championship win in a decade. “India’s Head Coach Scott Flemming came to me after the win and told me I had a great tournament.” Akilan sensed that finally an India call up was in the offing.
“It was one of the happiest days in my life when I got a letter saying I had been selected among the Indian team probables.” After a grueling three week camp at the Jaypee Greens Indoor Sports Complex in Greater Noida, Akilan was named in the final 14 member squad that traveled to Kathmandu, Nepal for the 3rd South Asian Basketball Championship in end April 2014. “I can still feel the goosebumps when I recall our national anthem playing for the first time before our opening match against Bangladesh.”
After easily winning the South Asian Basketball Championship, the Indian team has now qualified for the Asia Cup in Wuhan, China. “No doubt, the competition is going to be a lot tougher, as we will be up against Asian heavyweights Iran, Korea, China and Philippines.” But like always, Akilan is confident of his journey. “A year ago, I was watching the Indian team on TV. Now I’m part of the squad.”
Basketball continues to take Akilan places.