Kavita Kumari, at 5’4”, is not exactly a stand-out. And basketball, more than any other sport gleans the outstanding from the rest, with a swift once-over of an athlete’s height in feet or inches. Chhattisgarh marched to the Women’s National Basketball title, propped by three young forwards who aren’t exactly 6-footers, and an even tinier ball-handler.
But Chhattisgarh’s giant-killing act — and basketball is literally about slaying giants — was in bringing down the dominance of Indian Railways, a unit that has dominated Indian basketball for over two decades, losing the final only twice in a quarter of a century. Kavita top-scored (25 pts) against the country’s most formidable team (the country’s best and Asia’s twice top-scorer Geethu Anna Jose turned out for them) in a 81-77 win to end Railways’ streak that stretches back to 2003.
Chhattisgarh is merely 14-years-old. When coach Rajesh Patel set his camp at Raipur’s Bhilai Steel Plant, scouting around for eager athletes in the adjoining tribal areas of Bhilai, top-most on his mind was forming a team that would not allow the local bullies of basketball Madhya Pradesh to browbeat hoopsters from the smaller state.
Chhattisgarh has come a long way from besting the big-brother MP, consistently making the Last-4 of women’s nationals in the last few years. But Indian Railways had barely lost a match in the last decade.
Switching formations to a 2-1-2 zone defense, banking on 3-point shooting of their shorter players (they practice ring-shooting routinely for 5-6 hours in off-seasons), and aided by Railway-rejects like L Deepa and Bharti Netam, Chhatisgarh broke the final rail-barrier at this year’s Nationals to become one of India’s most-succesful start-up projects.
The Railways trimming to 12 players (from 25 probables) released the likes of Bharti, ball-handler Deepa and Seema (who are also employed by South East Central Railway at Bilaspur) to play for the home-state, and coach Patel says he was dealing with a group of deeply hurt and highly motivated girls. At the Delhi finals, Chhattisgarh employed a relentless choke to come back from trailing in the third quarter and pulled off the ultimate revenge of the rejects.
In what left Patel chuckling even more, the Indian Railways boasted of three players out of 12 from Chhattisgarh, on their roster.
Shivani is a senior assistant editor, based in Mumbai firstname.lastname@example.org