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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Khushi Ram: Giant from another era

Khushi Ram from India topped the scoring charts in the late 60s at Asian Championships.

Published: January 5, 2014 3:04:23 am

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 Mumbai’s 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 NBA’s 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 sport’s 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 NBA’s uber-cool arenas of Los Angeles and New York.

Despite NBA’s 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,he’d 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 we’ll conquer the world.”

Philippines,Asia’s most formidable side in 1970s had just been humbled by a spirited India,riding on Khushi Ram’s exploits at Manila,and the rival coach even tried poaching India’s 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 didn’t care about the four others. We’d 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 Mumbai’s Nagpada,possibly India’s 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 he’d 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 Asia’s best pivot at that time.”

At 6’4” he wasn’t the tallest of giants in Asia of his time. Yet,for a ‘puny’ 5’11” 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 — India’s 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 6’10”,” 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 Ram’s two magical words got stuck to his mind. “‘Ghumke Maar’,(turn ‘n shoot) he’d 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 Ram’s 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 couldn’t 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 he’d 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 Ram’s 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 India’s 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 who’s followed the sport over the years,recalls.

Watching Khushi Ram’s footwork was Lapsia’s 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 Asia’s 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 Rajasthan’s 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 didn’t turn up for practice,the whole team would land at his doorstep,with the coach ordering— “Chalo ab kuchh halwa banao,” — the coach’s 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 weren’t flashy,never boasted,and were doggedly consistent,” recalls Aziz Ahmed,a former player with Chennai’s Indian Overseas Bank.

“As coach,Khushi Ram was a taskmaster and his son Ram Kumar was a top-class shooter. He’d 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,he’d get annoyed,but never raise his voice,” recalls Ajmer,who was hand-picked as a greenhorn from Haryana Police and transformed into India’s 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.,he’d 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 they’d start rolling.”

Legacy carried forward

Khushi Ram’s best tricks are still in currency,the legacy carried forward by Ram Kumar,whose Railways are India’s 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 man’s arm,push him,do anything to destabilise him. If you could come through that,you’d 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.

“He’d just let loose one defender after another on us. We’d 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 that’ll ring life-long in Ramkumar’s 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 Ram’s 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.

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