The pioneering examples of Ravjot Kahlon and Ambati Reddy show how young Indian basketballers from middle class backgrounds are willing to go abroad to pursue their hoop dreams. [This feature was originally published in Tadpoles magazine and can be accessed here.]
The shelf life of a basketball player, indeed any professional sportsperson for that matter, is short. Barring certain sports (say high altitude climbing or golf), most athletes reach their primes in their late twenties. It’s all downhill after that.
For Indian athletes in particular, the challenges are manifold. Apart from simply being hungry for the chance to play and compete, the financial rewards/need to earn for themselves and their families is paramount. In such a scenario, non-cricket sportspersons have to take a call on how to manage their careers: continue in India where the competitive opportunities, financial rewards and support infrastructure are limited, or else put their patriotic feeling of ‘wanting to live and play in India’ on hold and explore professional opportunities abroad. Thankfully, with domestic leagues sprouting in a few sports —cricket, kabaddi, football, field hockey and badminton, to name a few— more athletes are able to sustain themselves from within India.
Dilemma of Indian basketballers
Basketball in India though, is at a crossroads. Over the last four years, ever since the IMG Reliance (IMG-R) conglomerate decided to invest in Indian basketball for the long haul, the opportunities for Indian cagers are increasing. Better facilities, more exposure and dedicated foreign coaches have all combined to help India perform better at the international level. Thanks to IMG-R, there has also been a rapidly expanding national league based competition at the school and college levels. A professional Indian basketball league for seniors is the logical, and perhaps most crucial, next step.
Every year announcements are made that “a pro league is on its way.” Every year, there is a build up of hope among players, only to hear “not this year, but next year for sure.” In such a situation, what should India’s ‘semi-professional’ basketballers do? Should they wait and watch as they grow older and injury risks pile up, or should they to try their luck in professional leagues abroad?
What makes this decision even more difficult is that spending months abroad limits the chances of that player to attend national selection camps for the Indian team. In other words, effectively, a player is forced to choose between representing his country versus securing his financial future by going abroad.
In the past, basketballers have invariably chosen the former option. Today’s youngsters though, are not afraid to look westwards.
Due to deeper penetration of satellite television and internet, more kids in India today are exposed to the professional possibilities that foreign countries offer, especially in North America and Europe. They might study in classrooms that have paint peeling off the walls, but in their heads and hearts they harbour dreams of playing on courts with swanky wooden flooring and thousands of spectators screaming and chanting their names.
Pioneering this new trend of going abroad, are enterprising teenagers Ravjot Singh Kahlon and Ambati Prudhvishwar Reddy.
Ravjot Kahlon’s move to America
“I didn’t have too much knowledge at the beginning to be honest. I was just a simple kid,” says Ravjot Kahlon, a Delhiite who is currently completing his final year of schooling on a substantial basketball scholarship at the St Louis Christian Academy in Missouri, USA. “All I wanted to do was to get out of India. I knew that there is a basketball culture in the US.”
While Kahlon knew he had to reach the States, he had no clue how. “I began first by contacting a number of foreign basketball coaches on Facebook. One of these coaches told me about the one year foreign exchange programme.” After paying the approx 10,000 INR fee to a foreign exchange consultancy, Kahlon soon realised that the one year course is only for “non-serious students”. “I thought, if all that this foreign exchange consultancy is doing is contacting American schools on my behalf, I can do that myself.”
He started from absolute scratch. “I went to Wikipedia and compiled a list of all the public and private high schools in USA across the 50 states.” He then proceeded to mail as many as 2000 high schools all over America! Playing the numbers game, he knew that at least a handful of schools will answer him. “The foreign coaches that returned my emails told me that they are not allowed to directly speak to players and I must be represented by an agent.”
An undeterred Kahlon found himself hunting for sports agents online! “I created a LinkedIn profile for myself and got in touch with a number of agents.” One of these ‘suits’ got him offers from around 60 to 70 high schools.
While other kids would have been overjoyed by this response, a remarkably mature Kahlon didn’t get too ahead of himself. “Most of these were private institutions with fees in excess of 30,000$ a year (approx 18 lakh INR). My budget was 6000$ to 7000$ (approx 3.5 to 4.2 lakh INR).”
After paying the agent his 20,000 INR fee, Kahlon finally seemed close to selecting a school in Kansas within his budget. “I almost completed the paperwork when I realised that they have strict rules regarding hair length of students.” Kahlon, a Sikh with traditional unshorn locks, naturally didn’t comply with the student admission guidelines.
True to his nature, the point guard found an imaginative solution. “Before applying for other high schools, I first checked out the Facebook profiles of their coaches. The coach at St Louis Christian Academy had a profile picture of the skull and crossbones symbol. I thought to myself ‘yeh banda to cool hai’ (this dude is cool).” The teenager’s uncanny instincts proved right on the money and he was offered a 60% fees waiver, with him having to shell out 7000$ a year, exactly as per his budget!
The 5ft 11 inch high school senior now hopes to get a similar athletic scholarship at an American University. If not, he will explore professional playing opportunities in Europe.
These are his words of advice for others who wish to follow him. “You should have basic English proficiency, all the academic transcripts and decent highlight videos to show to coaches. Don’t make the mistake of keeping a camera in a tree like I did to record my games!”
How did he manage to convince his parents through all of this? “Nothing happens overnight. It’s a process of years of developing and showing your love for the game. Also, they knew I was no great shakes academically.”
Reddy’s Euro Step
Ambati Prudhvishwar Reddy’s journey from Nalgonda, Telangana to Barcelona, Spain is just as unique. Unlike fellow 18-year-old Kahlon, who has gone as far as representing Delhi State, Reddy is one of India’s top juniors. Currently in India on a term vacation from Europe Basketball Academy (EBA), he recently represented the national u-18 team at the South Asian Basketball qualifiers that was held in Bengaluru last month. He was also an India camper at the u-14 level. So the decision to go abroad was especially hard in his case. “I did not get selected for the IMG Reliance full sports scholarship four years ago.” Under this scheme, four young boys and girls each were sent to the world class IMG sports facility in Bradenton, Florida, where they have been training under expect guidance.
Unable to train in USA, a gutted Reddy took the call to explore options in Europe instead. “I knew that the style of playing in Europe is similar to what we have in India. Also, in Europe, there are more opportunities of playing, rather than sitting on the bench.”
He applied to ten colleges and one academy in Spain, eventually zeroing in on EBA, Barcelona. “The entire process took me about a year, and once I got selected to EBA, then another two and a half months of visa and documentation work.” Like Kahlon, Reddy had to supply video highlights of him playing along with individual game stats.
A one year programme at EBA, Barcelona costs approx 10 lakh INR (13387 Euros), and this includes accommodation in a single room, three daily meals, flight tickets and all the basketball and education services. Being a particularly gifted player, Reddy has been invited for a second stint at the Academy and hopes to play professionally in Europe in the years to come.
Reddy’s move abroad has already sparked off an interesting trend, with five more Indian players set to join him in Spain. “Indians are not less talented than those from other countries. It is just that in India, talent is not being maximised due to inadequate infrastructure.” says EBA Director Srdan Premovic in an exclusive email interview to Tadpoles. Premovic is quick to add a positive note. “Among the billion plus people in India there are many potential superstars and I believe every year India will grow as a basketball country.”
While going abroad was never their first option, the pioneering examples of Kahlon and Reddy show how young basketballers from middle class backgrounds are willing to do whatever it takes to pursue their hoop dreams.