“Aap yaha bhi aa gaye?” (“you’ve come here too?”) Narender Rathee has an impish grin on his face when he sees me at the MNIT College in Jaipur. Perhaps I could have asked him the same question. As the Indian basketball tournament scene makes its way across this great nation from north, south, east to west, Narender and I keep bumping into each other, first in Odisha, then in Delhi and now in Rajasthan.
It isn’t a coincidence that of all the players from these various tournaments, Narender is the one that keeps drawing our attention. Basketball players stand out in a crowd because of their height— but Narender Rathee attracts stares on the court for precisely the opposite reason.
At 5ft 6 inches, the Haryanvi from Rohtak is as tall as your average Indian male. Looking at him before a match, opponents are lulled into believing he is just another pushover. Once the match tips off though, it is a different story.
Narender’s impish grin turns into a murderous glare. His slender 60kg body contorts into a twisting rubber band that finds its way through the tiniest of gaps. While the defender reacts to his first move, Narender has already moved on to the next. In a flash, the ball is stolen, a pass is made and his streaking teammates have scored. More often than not, his team wins. More often than not, they win because of Narender.
The point guard has been a regular starter on the Indian national team at the youth (u-16) and junior (u-18) levels, and has just returned from the u-18 FIBA Asia Championships in Doha, Qatar. “When I told my parents about making it to the Indian team for the first time in 2012, more than being happy, their only concern was that I should land a job soon.” Narender’s family is engaged in farming back in Haryana. “My big brother though was encouraging saying that ‘naukri to kabhi bhi lag sakti hai, abhi bas khelna hai’ (you can get a job in the future, but now is the time to play).”
The highlight in his young international career came when the u-18 boys and girls teams finished with silver medals at the 1st FIBA Asia 3 on 3 Championships in Bangkok last year. “After this tournament, we realized that there is no difference when it comes to skill level, between India and other top Asian teams.”
Despite belonging to Haryana, Narender has always represented Delhi at the national level. “I moved to Delhi in 2008 because of better coaching and facilities.” An ex-student from the St Giri Senior Secondary School in Rohini, North West Delhi, he used to stay in a rented room and cook all his meals himself. “The teachers were very supportive attendance wise and let me play freely as long as I kept bringing laurels to the school.”
Earlier this month, he captained the Delhi junior side to its second straight national final appearance against Punjab. This time though, his team fell short at the last hurdle. “That loss still hurts because we didn’t play to our potential.”
The 18-year-old will graduate to the much more challenging senior division this year. “I’m currently in Guwahati where I’ve just given the North East Railway team trails for the post of a ticket checker. If I don’t get through then I’ll start applying to colleges. I have five to six years of growth left and will push hard to make it to the senior Indian team.”