My name is Shahid Bhat and I was born and raised in Midwestern United States to parents who had emigrated from Srinagar, Kashmir to work as physicians in Kansas City. My parents were the first in their families to leave home and venture into unfamiliar territory.
As the neighborhood I grew up in had a lot of young people who played sports, I became immersed in football, baseball, basketball and other sports, captaining the varsity baseball and basketball teams in my senior year of high school. I attended college at the University of Kansas (KU), in the city of Lawrence, which is known for its unrivaled historical relationship with basketball. Throughout my four years at KU, I took advantage of the infrastructure the city has for sports, playing basketball regularly against stiff competition. After I earned my undergraduate degree, I moved back to Kansas City, but on occasion would drive into Lawrence to play ball.
In 2006, I dropped by Watson Library on the school campus to check out some reading material. By chance, I happened upon a book written by a British missionary and educationalist who had traveled to Srinagar, Kashmir around the year 1900 to establish a school. He also introduced sports such as soccer and swimming into society, making him, technically, the first coach in Kashmir. The stories of the difficulties he encountered coaching sports in Kashmir were amusing to me, but also sparked a different interest.
At the moment, Srinagar, Kashmir was a distant memory as I hadn’t set foot there in 15 years. My family had regularly visited Kashmir throughout my childhood, but those visits came to an abrupt stop in 1991, when conditions became too unstable to travel.
After checking out the book, I stopped by the East Lawrence Recreation Center and played a few games of pickup basketball. The gym is located a short walk from Memorial Park Cemetery, where Dr James Naismith is buried and on my way home I stopped by his grave. Over the years, I’ve visited his modest gravesite and always have found it devoid of visitors, mostly being the only person there.
Unlike other sports, such as cricket and soccer, that have evolved gradually over time, the sport of basketball can uniquely trace its origin back to a single individual. Dr James Naismith invented the rules for basketball seemingly overnight, introducing it to the physical education class he taught at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA to fulfill the need for an indoor, wintertime sport. A few years later, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Kansas and remained there for the duration of his life, overseeing the rapid rise in popularity of his sport.
Basketball has created many stories around the world for countless people, something Dr. Naismith couldn’t have imagined when he sat down to write his 13 rules. Starting in 2009, I revisited Kashmir, and every year since, whenever I’ve traveled overseas to visit family, I’ve spent time on courts of the opposite side of the world and encountered some interesting experiences.
In April 2011, I was walking the Boulevard Road in Srinagar, Kashmir passing luxurious houseboats and decaying roads, having just arrived in town after a taxing 24-hour plane trip. Before I could reach the coffee shop, I had to deal with aggressive shikara vendors offering me a cut-rate deal on a boat ride.
“My friend. 200 rupees, best deal for you. I show all nice sights. Where you from? France? Spain? Israel?”
I politely declined and told them I was a local who lived in Nishat.
I live in a house my father built, overlooking the Dal Lake, with the Zabarwan mountain range providing a scenic background, like a mural adorning a wall. The house had been vacant for over a decade, before my family and I started to return.
By researching online and speaking to local players, I’d determined that basketball in J&K state was weak compared to other Indian states, and within the state Srinagar was weaker than Jammu. There does exist a team that represents J&K in national tournaments and for a while, I envisioned a possibility where I could represent the state as a player in the senior national tournament. What I didn’t anticipate was the degree to which the J&K team was controlled by the Police.
Between 2009 and 2011, I’d visited high schools and colleges in Srinagar to hold basketball camps and also organized a league for local players. During the last leg of my 2011 trip, a friend informed me that the J&K Police basketball players, reserve police officers based in Jammu who mostly comprised the State’s basketball team, were in town (Srinagar) along with their coach. This was the first chance I had to meet them and speak with the coach about suiting up for the national tournament.
I practiced with the police players three consecutive times at a miniature court in the Institute of Hotel Management, Raj Bagh. The court had improper markings, with the three point line only 10 feet away from the basket! With no indoor gyms or lighted courts in town, the setting sun ended all practices. As the players only spoke Dogra, the game was the sole thing we had in common.
The Police coach, who was there for the first practice, seemed rather indifferent to my handshake. Nevertheless, after telling him I was a state subject with a home in Srinagar and family residing here, I felt it might be possible to be on the roster for the national tournament.
The idea of playing internationally, in the largest tournament in India, was intriguing to me. The chance to represent Kashmiris in basketball was exciting as till then, my ethnicity and playing skills had never been connected.
With only a few days left in my trip and a need to introduce myself to the J&K Police (state team) players and coach, I decided to organize a tournament before I departed back to the States. Along with the Police team, I invited three local teams, while refereeing the games.
None of the local teams stood a chance against the Police team, who were much larger in stature. One local team comprised high school and college players I’d trained the past two summers, ‘the Kashmir Nets’. The other two local teams were from nearby high schools, with players whose physiques cried out for a weight room. The Nets’ tallest player stood at 6’1”. Meanwhile the Police team boasted a frontline of 6’8″, 6’5″ and 6’5″, with tons of experience in competition.
In order to secure the court in Sanath Nagar, I visited the school and spoken to the Principal. A few days later, under a blaring hot sun, unguarded by any clouds in the sky, four teams met at the Government School court for the SKBC Summer Classic Tournament 2011, which I hoped might lead to my own participation for the state team in the national tournament later that year.
The two high school teams faced off and played a forgettable game which ended with little drama or dispute. To cap off the evening, the Kashmir Nets would play the J&K Police in a game I assumed the Police would win by at least 20 points.
Up to that point I had refereed quite a few games in the US and Kashmir, in rec leagues and high schools, and prided myself on being impartial and fair. However, for this game, on an anonymous court with few spectators, my primary motive was not to referee another game, but to develop chemistry with the J&K coach and players. Therefore, as I threw the ball into the air at the circle to start the game, I’d decided to be lenient towards the Police team during the game regarding fouls. There was also the reality, which hung in the air mixed with diesel smog from passing vehicles, of the political tensions and allegiances that dominated life in Kashmir.
The Police coach, exuding less and less charisma each time I saw him, was seated in one of two lawn chairs I had placed courtside. Alongside him, with a face which looked like he was always smiling, was his assistant. As the first half came to the close, the Police team held a comfortable 15 point lead, with no fouls having been called against any of their players, rather generously.
The unrelenting sun had forced anyone watching to seek refuge under the nearest shade providing trees. Only the Police coach, seeming even more detached than usual, and his perpetually gleeful assistant remained. On the court, the 2nd half was under way and marched towards its logical conclusion, the Jammu police proving their superiority over the local Kashmiri players, many of them recent high school graduates awaiting entrance to college and the start of new lives away from conflict and curfews. After the game, I planned on exchanging info with the coach and players and hopefully corresponding with them as a member of the J&K team for the national tournament. I would say goodbye to the Kashmiri players and promise to return yearly for training.
How quickly things change.
Starting innocently enough, a three-point shot by a Nets player banked in off the backboard. Then, a missed shot by the Police was followed by a fast break run out by the Nets. Before long, the players whom I’d been training in Basketball camps and in the SKBC league, often times ending our practices with several rounds of conditioning sprints, had began to creep back into the game. The older J&K police players starting walking up and down the court, shots fell far short or clanged hard off the rim. With eight minutes remaining in the game, under a blistering sun, 7,330 miles away from my home, the Kashmir Nets had tied the game forcing the J&K police coach out of his chair for the first time, anxiously pacing back and forth. A minute later the Nets had taken the lead and the Police coach called timeout.
Instead of drawing up a play for the team, or discussing a change in strategy, he spent most of the time out loudly objecting to how I was officiating. A check of the score sheet revealed that up to that point, his team had not been whistled for a single foul, while the Nets had incurred 12 fouls total. When pointed out to him, he seemed even more offended.
Coming out of the timeout, the Kashmir Nets got another defensive stop, patiently working the ball on offense, and found the open player who made a mid-range jump shot. The lead was extended to four points, with the game approaching five minutes remaining. The Police coach was now standing on the court, directing offense from near the three point line. The ball went into the post, to the most physical of all the Police players, a burly man with an intimidating aura, who pivoted and swung his elbow directly into the face of the Kashmiri player guarding him, sending him flying backwards with a bloody nose. I blew my whistle and called an offensive foul, the 1st foul called on the Police team during the game.
Almost immediately the Police coach was at my side, loudly objecting to the call in blatant disregard to what took place, clearly nervous that his team might be on the verge of losing to the unheralded Kashmiri players. I informed the coach that the play was an obvious offensive foul and reminded him that if he wandered onto the court during play, the rules dictated a technical foul. His reply to that bit of information was: “I will stay off the court when you learn how to officiate.”
I replied: “Coach, anymore of that and I’m going to have to T you up.”
The coach continued his tirade, so I blew my whistle and put my left hand on top of my right in the universal signal for a technical foul. Before I could take more than a few steps, I suddenly found myself boxed in on all sides by several angry Police players, being jostled this way and that. One of the players tried to remove the whistle from around my neck, telling me he would “finish the match.” In the middle of the scrum was the assistant coach’s face, still smiling. During the chaos of the moment, I saw the anxious Kashmiri players from a distance, afraid to intervene.
One hour prior to this I had harbored a thought that the J&K team might welcome me as a point guard and we would march towards the National Championship of India, or at least a Final Four appearance. Now, I was contemplating on how to get out of there ASAP before I got my ass kicked by the Police.
Uncertain that I could referee the game without coercion, and sensing that I had lost control of the situation and there was not going to be a Hollywood ending, I called off the rest of the game and declared the Police team the winner. I loaded my backpack and crawled through an opening in the fence. I headed down the dusty road towards the bus stop and eventually, I reached my home in Nishat. A few days later, I was home in Kansas City.
Footnote: Since 2011, I have continued to come to Srinagar and Delhi to play basketball and occasionally hold training sessions. In 2014, I met the Police team players at a new Government built court in Srinagar, and practiced together without incident. I’m currently in India from May 13th 2015, and I update all my activities on my Facebook page.
*Editorial Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the website. You can read more about Bhat’s work in the Valley here.