Geethu Anna Jose is in a Kerala hospital recovering from high fever. She’s been away from basketball for a good four years —time in which she got married and had a baby. Her former India team-mates barely catch her online, and to officials, she’s a giddy chapter from the not-so-distant history. But she props herself up in the hospital bed at the mere mention of 3on3.
“I would love to come back and take a chance at qualifying, if India tries for Olympics in 3×3. I would really want that,” she says, the adrenaline briefly rushing through her veins, though adding that her immunity has taken a nasty beating.
As outrageous as the odds seem for the mum-of-one to return to a frenetic sport she’s been far away from for many seasons, Geethu who turns 32 next week, is entitled to this crazy dream. At an elegant 6 feet-2, a young Geethu was India’s most accomplished hoopster – her inside jump shot considered one of the best in Asia in her prime.
Playing centre, the former India captain did a pre-season with WNBL – America’s top league, after a stint in Australia. Ambition wasn’t her greatest forte, though, and her diffidence meant she would bow out of the game and retreat into a quiet life with her family.
Except, India’s finest had tasted heady success – in the 3on3. “Yeah, China, Doha, and Sri Lanka we won gold, and a silver in Vietnam,” she recalls gleefully, adding, “It was a wonderful time of my life. We just wanted to win, win, win, that’s it.”
But those were results which barely beeped on the radar, given 3on3 wasn’t in Olympics reckoning. While 2007 Asian Indoor Games at Macau was the first formal test event for men, Indian women would hit their strides five years later.
“China,” Geethu laughs heartily at memories of the June 2012 title at Haiyang, “That win was awesome, because we beat the Chinese in final. It was an open-air court, and the home team had huge ground support. It was a very close game,” she says, a mild-mannered hoopster who turned combative at the sight of the ring.
Women’s sport was still to explode in India through Saina Nehwal and MC Marykom’s medals that 2012 August, and though Geethu did consistently well at the Asian levels – a lone tall Indian woman defiant and dazzling in a sea of 6-and-half footers from Asian giants China and Korea — India’s centre was never considered for the Arjuna Award till the 3on3 medals came.
“It was a dream come true to win a medal for India,” says Geethu’s team-mate and point guard Manisha Dange, a typically reliable 3-point shooter, also a mother-of-one who’d struck a great understanding with Geethu in the 3on3 format. “When Geethu finally won the Arjuna on the back of this, all of us felt proud. We were good, you know, even if very few Indians watched us win,” she smiles wryly.
P Anitha, India’s top outside shooter, breaks into chortles at the memory from China. “It was beautiful – literally. Open beach view, and Indians were fearless and nothing can match that feeling of beating the Chinese. We won the last two points in the last minute, after going neck to neck,” she recalls.
Anitha talks of 3on3 as a pure expressing of individual skills. “One height (tall player) is enough,” she explains. “It’s crazy speed, harder than 40 minutes because of the quick reactions expected but players get to show their individual talent,” she says, the game a whirl of drive ins, kick outs, passes and jump shots. Shireen Limaye jumped on the rebounds, Geethu played post, Anitha rained in the 3-pointers, Manisha and Pratima Singh chipping in at other meets in the whizzing substitutions.
However, the early successes and consistent showings in 5×5 have ensured Indian women are ranked No 40 in the world, and 5th in Asia behind China, Japan, Korea and Taipei (in the men’s India is ranked at No 53, and 10th in Asia). India was never flush with tall women players at the start of this decade when 3on3 was first introduced internationally. 5×5 follows a set pattern where two floaters are expected to perform just as well beyond the trio’s link game. “We had very few players who could really fight and match offensive and defensive plays of the top tall teams at full tilt. 3on3 we went all-out and just gave it our all for 10 minutes to win,” Geethu recalls.
A dream, fast-forwarded
The three gold medals flash like a fast-forwarded dream today, even as she remains grateful that what hours and hours of plodding in 5-a-side – she played till she collapsed once – couldn’t register on Delhi’s award committees, a 10 minute bust-up leading to gold, immediately did. The Indian team, in fact, learnt the rules along the way. “The first time we played an international match was the first time we learnt the rules,” Manisha says. “The half-court meant one had to be quick and alert. But we enjoyed and played without tension and burden of reputations or history. It was new to everyone, and Indians just clicked in the format,” she recalls.
There was something else the women found liberating. “There was no coach interference,” Manisha giggles and guffaws. “There’s no time for a coach to meddle in 3×3. It’s us and our game in the race to be first to 21 baskets,” she explains. Also, Indians tend to be good 3-point outside shooters; with Geethu around to tap in and rebound, the girls couldn’t stop having fun and winning.
The first ever match in Dehi had really tired the girls out as it was 10 minutes of high intensity. But the women were quick to grasp the tactics. Speed, strength, stamina – that the top 5×5 nations boasted weren’t India’s calling cards. But a quick defense- offense-conversion was right up their alley.
Pratima met her future husband, paceman Ishant Sharma, around the same time she won gold at the Asian meet.
“You need to have more agility and quickness in your fitness training. Quick passing is the key to success and it discourages too much dribbling. We got just 12 seconds to attempt, it suited Indians well,” she says.
Pratima is aware that rules have changed, and with Olympics inclusion, the competition will get sterner. “It’ll be tough and we should start thinking about it right away and work real hard,” she says, adding that the format’s wildly exciting for spectators. “If you close your eyes for a second, you might miss the most exciting moment of the game. Defence and offence changes so fast that till the last second, you can’t say who’ll win,” she says.
The most memorable moments of their careers might’ve gone by in a blink. But for a group of women who faded out of the sport to start out families, the announcement of 3on3 has stirred emotions that only winning on court could ever replicate.