Much before NBA fever gripped the average basketball enthusiast in India,there was Khushi Ram,who topped the scoring charts in the late 60s at Asian Championships. Shivani Naik profiles the forgotten legend who passed away last week.
Nothing about the hoopster,in his early 20s,or the Jay-Z blaring out of the speakers in the background,could have prepared you for what was to follow.
His hair,an over-grown mohawk streaked red,fit right in with the neon bright basketball court in Mumbais late-evening wintry outdoors tournament of 2009. His arms,bulked up in some Floridian gym where he played ball at college for a couple of seasons,rippled with multiple tattoos also inked in America. A hoodie had been flung casually to the side. The India international stepped on the court for a spot of fancy dunking and showboating. The crowd came to watch his rakish stunts. He was good at those,and he knew it.
Summoned to the stage a while later though,this punk,in a flash,turned into a pious devout. Waiting for him on the dais,his back ramrod straight and eyes inscrutable was a lanky man in his 70s. Khushi Ram only sniffed slightly when the young player walked up to him and reverentially touched his feet,head bowed.
A dozen youngsters,growing up on a staple of NBAs mid-summer razzmatazz of All Star weekends on TV and slipping into Kobe Bryant and Shaq knock-offs,fell into a line and repeated the routine. Some flattened out their spike cuts,others tugged up and tucked in their recklessly low-slung baggy shorts,before standing before the big man. Khushi Ram evoked that sort of veneration in Indian basketball.
The sports biggest Indian legend passed away in little-known Jhamri in Rohtak,Haryana,on December 29,2013 at age 77 and India in turn,lost a man who could transform cocky dudes into earnest disciples,with his mere gaze and straight talk.
Basketball in India draws its talent from the most rustic of villages in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh,Haryana and Rajasthan,Tamil Nadu and Kerala,but aspires to a dream which ends in NBAs uber-cool arenas of Los Angeles and New York.
Despite NBAs marketing over-drive and hyper-attention on India,the country finds itself unsure of how to bridge the gap between its existing players and the holy grail sending the first Indian into the NBA orbit.
Khushi Ram,possibly the only Indian hoopster to taste any manner of international glory,twice topping the scoring charts in 1965 and 69 at the Asian Basketball Championships (making him the best player at the pivot position in Asia),left behind a blueprint for success.
But the simplicity of what he preached makes it tough to emulate in India,which is currently being seduced by everything that is fringe to the NBA cheerleaders,shooting gimmicks,yuppie hairdos and rhythmic rap. Everything,it would seem,save the pure art of scoring a basket,which was a singular obsession with Khushi Ram.
Moscow Olympian N Amarnath,who idolised the prolific pivot for his bloody-minded pursuit of scoring baskets,stresses the point. Basketball is a simple game about scoring baskets. Many players get carried away by style and miss the point.
Khushi Ram never lost sight of that. If he received a pass at the right time at times even at a wrong time there was not a chance that he would miss the basket. If the defence was too tight,hed drive in and score,but never would he delay,and indulge in needless manoeuvres to buy time like they do these days. He could demolish opponents
A Philippines coach had once declared after an invitational tournament where Khushi Ram finished as the MVP of Asia,the highest scorer in Asia and best centre of the meet: Give us Khushi Ram,and well conquer the world.
Philippines,Asias most formidable side in 1970s had just been humbled by a spirited India,riding on Khushi Rams exploits at Manila,and the rival coach even tried poaching Indias tall-man for good before the team returned home.
On a day when Khushi Ram was said to have played badly,he still had 30 points on the score sheet, recalls Gulam Abbas Moontasir,who admits he tried every trick in the book,and a few on the borderline,to stop his rival on the domestic circuit.
Abbasi was half a foot shorter and a point guard,but ended up being assigned the duty to stop the basket-bazooka because he was quick and clever bending a knee here,pinning his foot there to hustle Khushi Ram.
Abbasi admits he was scared,very scared of what the latter could do to opponents.
This man could go on scoring points. If he was playing,I didnt care about the four others. Wed obsessively focus on him,and still come up short at times. He could put the fear of the devil in an opponent, Abbasi,a magical playmaker from Mumbais Nagpada,possibly Indias all-time greatest,adds.
Apart from a good reach,Khushi Ram was known for his unrelenting grip. Once he had possession,no one could grab the ball from him and hed score 9 times out of 10, Abbasi,his contemporary,says. He might not have helped with too many assists, he adds cheekily,but he fed hell into rivals and was easily Asias best pivot at that time.
At 64 he wasnt the tallest of giants in Asia of his time. Yet,for a puny 511 like Amarnath,Khushi Ram offered the hope of standing tall under the basket and taking on the biggest of opponents. He was prolific even against 7-footers. As coach,he taught the likes of Ajmer Singh Indias best all-round centre who wowed everyone at Moscow Olympics by showing how to take on 7-footers. Remember,at times,foreign playmakers (the shortest of players) were as huge as 610, Amarnath recalls.
Ghumke Maar technique
A pugnacious player from the south,who caught only snatches of Hindi at national camps,and understood even less,Amarnath remembers how Khushi Rams two magical words got stuck to his mind. Ghumke Maar,(turn n shoot) hed say. Of course,turn-n-shoot sounds easy,but merely turning and shooting would never be effective. It was about footwork,how he received and moved away from blocking range of the defender, Amarnath adds.
Ajmer Singh,who went on to become one of coach Khushi Rams finest products,perfected his pivot style over 7-8 hour sessions day-in,day-out for a decade,remembers the technique that was unique to the coach-pupil pivot pair. Even if he was up against a 7 feet tall player,the defender couldnt touch him. With his back to the defender he would take a leap 3-4 feet sideways,spin and twist in the air and shoot. These days,they simply dribble and pass around. He would end what hed start,by moving away from the blocking range of a defender,which made him such a bulk-scorer, recalls Ajmer,himself a looming legend.
Khushi Rams one-pointed shooting agenda can in part be attributed to his basketball upbringing which started as a jawaan in the Army with Rajputana Rifles after he was picked as a teen from Jhamri in Haryana.
For 10 years (and as many national titles in the 50s and 60s),the screaming instructions drilled into his head were to score.
Then,score some more.
By the time he became Indias first captain at its debut in ABC in 1965,and later moved to Kota in Rajasthan to join Shriram Rayons,a team known for its mind-boggling consistency,he was boasting of one of the highest scoring percentages.
In those days,matches were 20 minute-halves,not 4 quarters. His training sessions would last an hour at a stretch, Jayant Lapsia,a commentator whos followed the sport over the years,recalls.
Watching Khushi Rams footwork was Lapsias favourite pastime a fake to left or right,one foot dangling in the air,and the screaming of the crowds. Those feet seldom resigned to tiredness as the game neared its close.
His teams were known for their fast dribbling over 40 minutes,pointing to outstanding endurance. And Khushi Ram never collected 5 fouls. So he was in the match till the end, Lapsia adds.
After the twin peaks of 1965 and 1969,when he was Asias top-scorer,1970 saw Khushi Ram return from a fulfilling trip to Philippines.
Hit by injury
However,an errant elbow in training smashed into his eye and though a retinal replacement restored vision,his playing career was ending,even as plans to coach full-time crystallised in 1976. Khushi Ram was to go on to make one of the strongest Indian basketball outfits at Shriram Rayons as Rajasthans slumbering giants from Sikar to Ajmer awoke to take to the basketball courts.
Huddled into the DCM colony,Kota,Khushi Ram turned into a mentor looking over his charges with benign sternness. If someone didnt turn up for practice,the whole team would land at his doorstep,with the coach ordering Chalo ab kuchh halwa banao, the coachs idea of a disciplinary measure by asking the tardy player to serve them breakfast.
That army of gentle giants from Rajasthan Khushi Ram raised in his own mould,were known for how little they spoke and how much they achieved. Come,play,demolish opponents was their motto. They werent flashy,never boasted,and were doggedly consistent, recalls Aziz Ahmed,a former player with Chennais Indian Overseas Bank.
As coach,Khushi Ram was a taskmaster and his son Ram Kumar was a top-class shooter. Hed tally 500 points and average 30 playing as forward. The shooting style was passed on,and so was the work-ethic, he recalls. Legend has it that when Ram Kumar himself a successful coach now would walk up to his father after completing a 300 basket-shooting training,the father would say aur pachaas zyada. 300 would turn to 350; 350 to 400.
If you repeated mistakes,hed get annoyed,but never raise his voice, recalls Ajmer,who was hand-picked as a greenhorn from Haryana Police and transformed into Indias most-complete pivot of all-time.
But he inspired us to practice the same repetitions for days,months,years. If the team was to train at 6 a.m.,hed call me at 5,and be there at 4.45 himself, Ajmer adds.
His teams played nationals for 17-20 years,and were never satisfied with what they achieved. He was never satisfied. He always told his players Tum abhi kuchh nahi ho even when they returned triumphant.
He had the cogs to his wheels good players a pivot,a playmaker,feeders from the side and a shooter. He just needed to press the button like a machine and theyd start rolling.
Legacy carried forward
Khushi Rams best tricks are still in currency,the legacy carried forward by Ram Kumar,whose Railways are Indias most successful and attractive contemporary basketball outfit,contributing a bulk of the Indian squad.
Call it technique,or practice,but he could shoot baskets without even having to look. What he did in training was important for 8-9 hours,he would unleash 4,5,6 defenders on his scoring pivot or forward. They were allowed to hang onto this mans arm,push him,do anything to destabilise him. If you could come through that,youd find a match situation manageable, he recalls.
Several times,army strongmen were brought in to rough up his sons (younger Ashok Kumar,now no more,also played pivot) on court so they would toughen up.
Hed just let loose one defender after another on us. Wed have to take on a fresh man every minute,with triple-teaming or even 5-on-1, he adds,recalling that most hoopsters were encouraged to play rugby in monsoons.
The advice thatll ring life-long in Ramkumars ears though is: Whenever you go to the ground,make sure you never sit down to rest,to think,to chat. Sitting is for spectators, Khushi Ram would chant.
Khushi Rams own busy feet never tired well into 70s when he coached village boys at Jhamri,not unless some punk bent down to seek his blessings,after tidying up his mohawk.