What makes a court special? Is it the quality of the playing surface? The seating capacity? The tournaments hosted? The players produced? The location itself?
When it comes to basketball in Manipal, the answer perhaps lies elsewhere. Situated on a 73mt hillock eight kilometres away from the Arabian sea, within the temple district of Udupi, Manipal — for those unfamiliar with the educational hub — is often confused with a similar sounding state in the north-east.
“No, I am not shifting to Manipur…it’s mani-PAL,” I had told my incredulous fourth standard friends back in Anand, Gujarat, when I announced to them the decision of my father to transfer. Being a south Indian in north India (or should I say West India), I was born in Karamsad — the birthplace of the great Sardar Vallabhai Patel — aka the ironman of India. That’s where the similarities stopped. I was a naive, scared, confused kid, who didn’t like maths, nor cricket, was terrible at athletics and hated going to school.
So with bags packed, furniture wrapped in jute gunny bags and sent ahead via truck, my family headed out, the five of us — mother, father, sister, our Tambram-ised Pomeranian dog Tommynathan and me — to a strange new land south of the Vindhyas.
Manipal is a ‘university town’, a unique phrase reserved for the 26 square kilometre plateau that houses 20+ colleges spanning engineering (Manipal Institute of Technology or ‘MIT’), medicine (the nationally ranked Kasturba Medical College or ‘KMC’), mass communications, management, and jewellery design, not to mention a school and a pre-university college.
As we made our way past the main Tiger Circle (named because Tigers apparently used to haunt the place that was very much part of the Western Ghats before Dr T M A Pai decided to turn the place into a university campus) into the MIT faculty campus and entered the Mangalore tiled house that would be our home for the next 8 years, I wondered what was in store for me.
Up until very recently, it was hard for kids growing up to not be around cricket. Being able to bowl without chucking is almost a rite of passage for any Indian boy entering his early teens. Sure there were other sports like badminton or football that were equally part of one’s childhood playground experiences, but cricket was always numero uno. You had to watch cricket because your father did. You had to wait breathlessly for the next issue of Sportstar and collect the posters of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid or Lance Klusener. You had to fight with friends to save every last Britannia wrapper not because you cared for the environment, but because only if you collected 100 points (each wrapper was assigned a certain number of points) could you exchange it for a scratch card and an elusive chance of getting a ticket for the 1999 World Cup Finals in Lord’s England.
I dutifully did all of that and more, converting our driveway into a practise pitch to bat and bowl. The rules were simple: hit straight and you can score a four or a six, go square off the wicket and you were out! Not to mention the added punishment of having to climb over the neighbour’s wall and bring back the bright red rubber ball before your neighbour’s Alsatian bit its teeth into it, drowning the sphere in saliva.
It was on one of these forgettable cricket occasions, during the PT class in school, as I was sullenly standing on the outfield, picking my nails and waiting for the odd ball to come racing my way, that I felt a tap on my shoulder behind me.
Standing there was a classmate of mine, a wavy haired sixth-grader also from Manipal. The two of us had connected for being one of the few students in the school with some sort of living experience outside of South India. (Yes, that was a good enough reason for camaraderie back then.)
“Wanna play around the world?” he asked me, holding out a dusty orange basketball. The grip had completely worn down. The surface of the ball was ultra smooth, with threads sticking out.
I looked back at the cricket pitch and the 21 others I was supposedly playing with, many of whom were like semi-specks in the distance. It was doubtful I would be noticed, let alone missed. I shrugged my shoulders.
“Sure, why not.”
Over the next 35 minutes or so, until the PT instructor blew the whistle announcing the end of the gym period, I struggled with a javelin style action to complete the sequence of 11 baskets at a distance of 12-15 feet from the hoop. My classmate meanwhile finished his round and waited rather impatiently for me to finish.
Damn why is this so difficult. It looks easy enough!
For what would turn out to be the first of many such occasions, I mulled over my appalling field goal percentage as I headed back home in the school bus, criss-crossing two bridges over the Suvarna river, one national highway and one state highway.
That weekend, I stepped onto the Manipal Institute Technology basketball court near my home, determined to finish ‘Around the World’ at least once. Marked by constant interruptions by college students who took over the court at will to play full court games, it took me a week, but I finally did it. I made those 11 baskets that had proven so deceptively simple.
From that day on I was hooked.
A boy. A ball. A ring. The holy trifecta.
Later than year, my mother bought me my first basketball — violet and yellow — a not-so-subtle Cosco ripoff of LA Lakers colours.
Two years later, I made it to my school team. Six months after that I played my first competitive game, against MIT College, Manipal, on the very same court that I called my home.
It felt like life had come a full circle.
My grades miraculously improved. My confidence increased. I started participating in co-curricular activities and enjoyed debates. It felt as if basketball had unlocked areas of my life I didn’t know existed. I left Manipal for good in 2006, to pursue my higher studies in law, before moving onto co-founding Ekalavyas with my buddies from law school. But the memories of picking up the sport for the first time and the countless hours of hooping in Manipal is something that I carry with me to this day.
Today Manipal boasts of facilities both indoors and outdoors for numerous sports ranging from tennis, squash, athletics, badminton, cricket, football, swimming, shooting and basketball.
In September 2010, a state-of-the-art multi-purpose indoor sports facility called Manipal Arena (or ‘Marena’) was officially opened. Constructed at the cost of 50 crores, Marena is a six-storey structure with a mindboggling built up area of 1, 42, 042 sq. feet. The building comprises a futsal court, five badminton courts, four squash courts and a basketball court with viewing gallery, table tennis tables, a cricket bowling machine with nets, five enclosures for simulation games, a kinesis circuit system, a gym, a sauna and a steam bath. The highlight of this facility is undoubtedly the 200 metre jogging track on the topmost floor, with glass facades overlooking the breathtaking green Western Ghats. All these facilities are under one roof. Immediately outside are two synthetic tennis courts.
Manipal may not be a story of great players, international stars or stadia with thousands in attendance, but what makes this town special is simply the willingness to provide a wide range of facilities, which in turn, allows kids to discover and fall in love with the sport of their choice.