Rajesh Patel’s name finds mention in the Limca Book of Records as the most successful basketball coach in India.
Sample this: the Chhattisgarh sub-junior women’s team that he coaches (apart from coaching other age groups right upto the Senior Chhattisgarh team) has won 13 golds in the 15 years since it’s inception. In the two years the team didn’t win gold, it still finished on the podium with a silver and a bronze. Patel is famous the country over for being one of the most successful Indian coaches. Word is that there’s also a Bollywood movie in the works.
Patel’s status as a coach of the Chhattisgarh teams, and the most successful one by far is not in dispute, but the journey began before the state was carved out of Madhya Pradesh. Like his players, he too played for the Bhilai Steel Plant, from November 1979 till 1986. After retiring from the game, he spent a year at NIS, Kolkota earning himself a diploma in basketball. “I graduated with a gold medal,” he says, proudly.
The court was constructed in 1986 and from 1988 to 2000, Patel coached the Madhya Pradesh sub-junior girls, junior girls (18 & under), youth girls (16 & under) and the senior women’s team. During his time there, the sub-junior girls team experienced significant success in the Nationals. After the creation of the state of Chhattisgarh, he eventually took over as the coach of the state team.
The Bhilai Steel Plant today has a seating capacity of 5, 000. The plant also has deep associations with the Chhattisgarh Basketball Association. Patel, along with his position at the Bhilai Steel Plant, is also the Secretary of the Chhattisgarh Basketball Association. The model that they follow in terms of usage of facilities is an interesting one. Every individual in a 10-15 km radius are allowed to play on the courts. This, according to Patel, is what has made the Bhilai Steel Plant court, a hub for sporting activity. “Everyone from around here can come and play, and we even provide them with basketballs,” he says, to highlight the accommodative policy of the institution. He, along with 2 other administrators, Mr. Sajith Chakravurty and Mr. Ahmed Khan are the individuals who are directly in-charge of the functioning of the court. Mr. R. S. Gour, is the main coach at the facility. The Junior Nationals, Youth Nationals, Sub-Junior Nationals and the Federation Cup have been played on the Bhilai Steel Plant Court. Additionally, national games are played there every 4 years.
The girls that Patel and his staff oversee, are split into three distinct categories. There are players who they get from the community around them, children from all over the country who are financially not secure and finally the children of the employees of the Bhilai Steel Plant. They currently operate on 3 outdoor courts that have floodlights. This allows Patel to hold training sessions both in the morning and the evening. According to Patel’s estimates, they train for 5 hours in the mornings and for 5 hours in the evening. All that the children’s needs are taken care of by Bhilai, with the support of the Bhilai Engineers Corporation and their Director, Mr. Rajiv Jain.
From 1987, many players such as Rekha Chouwdry, K. T. Kamal, Seema Singh and Poonam Singh have been associated with the court and have gone on to play for India. The almost 7 foot tall phenomenon Poonam Chaturvedi is also a famous name that is associated with the court.
Rajesh Patel also stresses how important the sport is in terms of imparting alternative employment opportunities for these women, when previously they would have been at a disadvantage. A passing grade in the 12th standard and a medal at either the Junior or Senior Nationals will secure any of his players a position at one of professional teams, such as the Railways.
90% of Patel’s players go on to work at the Bhilai Steel Plant itself and around 40 students that he has coached have gone on to play for India. 80 of his students have also got jobs and positions in organizations on the basis of their Basketball playing.
With such an impressive resume (both coach and court), it is no surprise that the government sees this as an area of positive investment when it comes to sport infrastructure in the state. It is with this in mind that Patel approached the government to build an indoor court that would serve as a complement to the cement courts that the Bhilai Steel Plant is known for. He also says that he has heard positive indications from the government and that there is some understanding on this going through. “Since we have done well, we have requested the government to help us build an indoor court” says Patel, with an air of confidence.
What makes the Bhilai Steel Plant court special is that, more than being a hub for sports in Chhattisgarh (which according to Patel is a state that loves the sport of basketball), it is a very community centered project. Bringing together members from the immediate surroundings of the largest steel plant in Asia, it manages to blur the line between sports and opportunity. Allowing individuals to congregate in positive spaces allows them to engage their community and fosters a sense of belonging. Going forward, with this in mind, there’s good reason to expect that the best is yet to come, from Patel, the Bhilai Steel Plant players and the Chhattisgarh women’s team.