Ludhiana, Varanasi, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai. If you asked a basketball player in India to name the best places to play hoops, you’d likely hear the names of these cities mentioned first. It is here that , the greatest number of people play, the highest number of courts are available, many of the top Indian players originated from these places, and the most tournaments are held. There is one city I haven’t heard mentioned, which I’ve found to have its own advantages. Srinagar, in Jammu and Kashmir state is also one of the best spots to play basketball in India.
While a large part of India was sweltering in a beat wave, the early evening temperatures on May 31st, 2015 at the court in Raj Bagh where I was warming up for a game with National Institute of Technology (NIT ) College was 24 celsius. The court itself had a breathtaking view of the Zabarwan mountain range, with snowcapped peaks clearly visible. My stamina was feeling particularly strong, because for the past 2 weeks, I had been training daily on the outdoor courts and hills of Srinagar, where the elevation averages 5,200 ft. Altitude training is used by many world class athletes to gain a competitive edge during athletic competition.
After the game, and a post-game pizza with my teammates, I planned to walk the nearby Dal Gate Boulevard Road, strolling amidst tourists from various countries throughout the world. Elaborate houseboats were floating on the Dal Lake just a few feet away. I had the option of taking a shikara and gliding peacefully into Nishat, where I live just above the Mughal Gardens and the Dal Lake.
While some in India would come to America to train in basketball, I do the opposite.
In 2013 I found out about the Asian Basketball league of Kansas City where, to be eligible, a player needs to have Asian ancestry of at least one parent. It’s a recreation league with good guards, well organized with fair referees, a well equipped gym, and computerized team and individual statistics. In 2013, I won the league scoring title while being voted season Runner up MVP. The ABL is one of many leagues I’ve played in during my life.
In 2014, I missed the second half of the ABL season due to nerve irritation in my left leg. I rehabbed at a 24 hour fitness in Overland Park, Kansas until my third season in the league began on April 19th, 2015. After my team finished our third week, we were 2-1 and I was averaging 21 ppg on 60FG% and getting closer to full health. With the league schedule showing 2 bye weeks in the next month, I decided to miss two games and travel to Srinagar, Kashmir on May 10th, spending three weeks training in basketball, playing in exhibition games, coaching, and visiting my family and friends, before returning to finish the ABL regular season and playoffs.
After using various unkempt and run down courts during my first few years playing and coaching basketball in Kashmir, in 2014 the government had finally built two new courts which were of passable quality. On these courts I’d practiced with the J&K police team and also held my own Srinagar Kashmir Basketball Club (SKBC) camp. As fate would have it, the locality of Raj Bagh was one of the worst hit areas of Srinagar during the floods which back in September 2014. When I return in 2015, the court has literally been washed away and what remains is the cement foundation and two basketball goals, damaged but still standing. The first week, I meet on the court every evening with Aukif Khan and whoever else shows up, usually 3 or 4 other people, to practice and talk about what our plans are for the next three weeks.
I met Aukif Khan in 2010 when I refereed a local high school tournament in the early days of my visits to Kashmir. He invited me to his school, the Tyndale-Biscoe school and hold a practice there. I’d read the autobiography of Mr. Biscoe’s time in Kashmir setting up his school, the school my father attended as well. During the time I’ve been in Kashmir, Aukif’s been the most talented and dedicated Kashmiri player I’ve met. We both played other sports at first (him cricket, myself baseball and American Football) before focusing mostly on hoops, and we also share a frustration over the lack of regular competition in Kashmir.
In the previous years, I’d visited most of the major high school and colleges in the area. Those trips required long, tiring drives back and forth facing traffic jams, pollution, and many other annoyances. Both Aukif and I live in North Srinagar, separated mainly by the Dal Lake and the Foreshore Road which wraps around it. He informs me there’s a school called Green Valley Education Institute, located midway between our homes, which has a new basketball court and plenty of students and sports teachers who are interested in learning the game.
I visited the school and found a good response from the students and teachers. Aukif assisted me as we held several practices for girls and boys, attended by many students. I saw improvement from the students from the first practice to the next and also I was encouraged by the sincerity of the teachers and principal. After the practices, Aukif and myself would play a few games of 1 on 1, or shoot and rebound for each other. Later, he used to drop me off on his motorcycle outside my gate after we’ve planned the next day. I told him I want to organize a game on May 31st between our club team (SKBC) and NIT college in Hazratbal where students from throughout India attend, many of whom have played basketball in their home state under the BFI system.
In the past, most of the young players I met graduated from high school in Kashmir and went off to study University throughout India and the world. As a result, I lost contact with many of those guys. There are still a few who now attend college in Kashmir like Faisal Rathore. I met Faisal in 2011 during the camps I started holding and the League I organized. He now attends college at Islamic University of Science and Technology in Awantipora, where he studies Engineering and plays on the College Team. Through the Sports Director, we hold a Men’s and Women’s practice session to help prepare them for the Inter-Department Tournament and also an Inter-University Tournament they attend once a year in India.
Awantipora is a 1.5 hour drive from my home in Nishat. I make three visits, twice for the practices and once for a scrimmage game between myself and my friends and their college team. During the drive up for the game with my four teammates, we encounter a major traffic jam which brings traffic to a halt for more than one hour. On the verge of having to cancel the game, we decide to take an alternative route, over terrain which cannot be described as a road. We arrive slightly late for the game, but make the best of it and win the scrimmage before stocking up on cold drinks and chips at the campus food market and hitting the highway back into Srinagar, feeling not so much triumphant as exhausted.
There’s a lack of quality facilities to use in Srinagar, but at the same time the natural landscape sometimes transforms itself into the best gym.
Once a week, Aukif and I meet early in the morning with Musadiq Mehraj, a young Kashmiri footballer player, to run up Shankaracharya Hill. The combination of inclined running and the high elevation atmosphere makes for an intense morning workout. We bring along a basketball and practice explosive dribbling moves, playing 1 on 1 up the hill.
Like most other places in the Indian subcontinent, cricket and football are the two most popular sports in Kashmir. Basketball is a sport mostly misunderstood by the Kashmiri public and media. For years, there was no competition outside of a hastily organized inter-school game between three or four groups of high school students, transformed into a team at the last moment. Since 2009, I’d only been able to play in pickup games I organized with whoever was in town. Still, Aukif and I’d maintained a regular training schedule including visits to a local gym for strength training and on court skill improvement.
There are several colleges and universities in Srinagar and the surrounding area, but none have a basketball program that is developed. The two best candidates are Kashmir University and National Institute of Technology (NIT), both located in Hazratbal. KU is the major educational institution in the locale and has spacious grounds and a history of organizing Athletic competition in other sports. However, they currently have no court and almost none of their students are basketball enthusiasts.
NIT college has a court which is unplayable, and yet its students utilize it nonetheless. NIT Srinigar is a reputable institute, one of 30 NIT’s in India.Some of the students who meet occasionally at the crumbling court with a busted rim have played basketball in their home state, even on a National Level. Aukif is friendly with some of the players and after meeting with the Physical Education chairperson, we invite them for a scrimmage game in Raj Bagh, at the court in Gindun Park.
On a cool and pleasant evening on the last day of May 2015, the NIT players come to the court and we hold an intense and competitive one hour scrimmage game. Two of their players stand out, one played National level in Delhi and the other in Rajasthan. Aukif has a good game also, and our team probably wins the scrimmage, although there was no official score kept.
In the future, it seems likely that a game with IUST and NIT can be organized; creating a basis for club basketball in Kashmir, with my own SKBC team involving myself, Aukif and any other players we choose to join the squad. For this game, I had picked up a Kashmiri player studying Engineering in Chennai who was back in town for a few weeks, a couple of local high school and college players, plus Aukif.
At the pizza parlor after the game, I sit back and listen as my teammates’ conversation drifts between four languages, Urdu, Hindi, Kashmiri and English.
Two days later I left for America, uncertain when we might meet again and under what circumstances. I enjoyed my trip to Srinagar, and return to Kansas City feeling optimistic and satisfied with what was accomplished.
In the three weeks I was in Srinagar playing basketball, whenever I found myself riding in my friend’s cars, which was often, there was a song playing which I hadn’t heard before. As my trip came to an end, and I said goodbye to them on that final night and walked in the opposite direction down the boulevard towards home, the line repeated in my head:
“We’ve come a long way, from where we began. And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again.”