By appointing two women— Shiba Maggon and Prasanna Jayasankar— as head coaches in season 2 of their Professional Basketball League, the United Basketball Alliance of India (UBA) ushered in a new era of parity, not just in Indian sport, but worldwide.
As mobile and DSLR cameras click away at her, Shiba Maggon looked as comfortable as ever next to Bollywood actor Neil Nitin Mukesh. The actor and the coach stood shoulder to shoulder. Surrounding them were the players from ‘Haryana Gold’, a franchise in season 2 of the UBA Pro Basketball League, India’s first professional basketball league, that concluded earlier this April. Maggon’s cheery visage ran counter to the fortunes of her team, which ended Season 2 without a win. But for Coach Maggon, turning her team around isn’t a daunting task.
Maggon wasn’t the only woman head coach in Season 2. Southern side, Bengaluru Beast, was helmed by the more senior Prasanna Jayasankar. Both Maggon and Jayasankar are former Indian women team captains, albeit in different eras. “Our playing days overlapped only once, when both of us made it to the Indian senior team camp in 1993,” recalled Ms Maggon.
What makes their stories unique is that when it comes to sports, women head coaches of men teams at the national and international level are an uncommon sight, more so when it comes to India. “This is indeed a rarity. The only other examples I can think of, of women coaching men, are Sunita Sharma (in cricket) and a couple of full time women coaches with National Football League (NFL) teams,” said veteran sports journalist Sharda Ugra, herself a pioneer in the field.
The world’s most popular basketball league, the National Basketball Association (NBA) — currently in its 70th year of existence, and known for its progressive initiatives that include the NBA Cares programme — has never had a woman head coach (though they have two assistant coaches). Beyond basketball, Amelie Mauresmo made news in 2014 when it was announced that she would be mentoring tennis star Andy Murray, an association that ended last month.
So what prompted a basketball league in India to take such a pathbreaking decision?
“Ms Maggon and Ms Jayasankar were very prompt in conveying their interest. We don’t care about gender and only want quality coaches to be associated with our league; those who can improve our teams,” said Mr Thimmaiah Madanda, Operations Manager of UBA India.
Also finding prominent screen time in-between the matches that were telecast live on the Ten Network channels, are two lady anchors- Ridhima Pathak and Kashyata Bhatia.
The significance of these progressive steps isn’t going unnoticed. “I can see that the Haryana coach is a woman and it is awesome that she has got all the boys in line,” pointed out popular television anchor Rochelle Rao, who was a celebrity guest on day two of the League in Pune.
“The first thing that I asked the boys before practice was: do you have a problem with a lady being your coach?” Ms Jayasankar was quoted as saying to her team. “If you have an ego problem learning from a lady, you will face lots of issues moving forward. We are trying to move towards making India progressive, and what better way to do that than on the basketball court.”
After starting off strong, Jayasankar’s high octane Bengaluru team hit the skids, eventually falling to the Pune Peshwas in the playoffs to secure a semis spot. “It took us a while to learn from her, but once we did, we realised she has this amazing leadership quality. She doesn’t care about gender, but just wants us to do well,” said Kaife Zia, a talented young forward in the team.
“She is a hard taskmaster. Right from the training camp in Bengaluru, I was impressed with the way she demands commitment from her players,” said Madanda.
It helps that these two women coaches command respect, with impeccable credentials and past successes as players and coaches. Maggon has coached the junior and youth Indian women’s teams, while Ms Jayasankar has been part of the national selection committee, and a key member in the coaching staff of the Indian Railways women’s team, the reigning champion at the Senior National level.
While the road ahead for their teams may be contrasting, when it comes to these two coaches, their trendsetting journeys are perhaps more important than the destination.
“As I keep telling my team, together we can achieve more,” signed off Maggon.
*Image credit: Dulon Kharsati/Ekalavyas