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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Behind closed doors, hoopsters prepare to chase their American dream

From Kapurthala to Nagpur to Bengaluru to Kottayam, the American dream is well spread out in the country with teenage basketball players trying to crack a college scholarship in NCAA.

Written by Shivani Naik | Mumbai | Updated: May 17, 2020 8:45:29 am
Grishma Niranjan is primed for an off-year at a prep school in Connecticut this August. (Special Arrangement)

Siya Deodhar is in Class 12, but getting good grades — although important — is only her second priority.

She is 5’7”, wears shoe size 7.5, and weighs 55 kg — all of which mean she will get thoroughly bullied on a basketball court if she doesn’t devote the 17th year of her life to gaining muscle and strength, and improving her speed. “I’m very good at no-look, short and long passes. But I’m working on my accuracy in shooting and have started attempting 3-pointers,” says the guard, who is trying to crack a college scholarship in America’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

The Nagpur teen has been to a bunch of camps — including one at Tampa, Florida, that serves as a brief look-in into what the life of an aspiring hoopster in the US could look like, in March 2019. She’s also been on international Basketball Without Borders camps previously, and every experience has taught her just how physically intimidating the challenge is, to crack the high echelons of pro women’s basketball.

“I have to make changes to the body and strengthen it. Indian diet is balanced, but usually, 2-3 months ahead of a tournament, I get protein powders prescribed,” says the daughter of a businessman, who owns a service station and is into construction. A former judoka himself, Siya’s father told her she should learn to swim like everyone but insisted she take up a team sport. “I form bonds easily with teammates but as a point guard, I like being the leader on the court,” says the player who quickly realised that basketball in Nagpur, where she could dominate opponents playing as an all-rounder, was like being a shark in a small pond.

The American experience was sobering, as she says: “It’s physically tough. There you have to prove yourself.” So, the lockdown has been spent working on her weak core and adding zing to her sprints on her home court. “I’m studying Commerce, and I might pick Management studies. Or maybe Law,” says the determined youngster.

Harsimran Kaur (L) with Siya Deodhar (R). (Special Arrangement)

While the world is hemmed in by the four walls of their homes, the unexpected break came at perhaps the right time for Bangalore’s Grishma Niranjan who was recovering from an ACL tear — though she missed making the state senior side and U18 nationals. “If it hadn’t been for the injury, I’d have never gone to the gym and started lifting weights. The gap in our game and US’ is really huge. By the time we start playing, they are already in the gyms lifting weights,” says the 5’6” Karnataka girl.

Primed for an off-year at a prep school in Connecticut this August, Grishma is glad she learnt from scratch about weights and gym work. “I knew nothing till injury forced me into the gym. Now my body feels stronger with muscle gain.”

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Perhaps the biggest improvement (also the most optimal use of being restricted to a gym indoors) was made by the hugely touted Harsimran Kaur of Kapurthala, a 6’3” talent, expected to make inroads into NCAA, given she got the maximum playing time as First Five when the group of hoopsters trained in Florida last. Harsimran (shoe size 11) is a well-travelled hoopster, with stints in Australia, Japan, and the US — who realised that merely shooting up in height might also not be enough.

“Start of 2019, I was tall and thin, and knew nothing about a gym,” she chortles. It took her 2-3 months to even get started on the weights properly, and playing 3X3 which compresses high-intensity play in 10-minute spans. “We usually are exhausted and finished by the end of the third quarter and it affects shooting in the fourth quarter. I realised my legs were very weak and that I should work day and night on strengthening,” she recalls.

While the lockdown gym work is helping her load up strength, Harsimran went to extreme lengths to improve herself. “I trained with football players on their field and sometimes ran on hockey turfs. I trained in hurdles and sand jumping and with sprinters. My attitude changed completely this last year,” says the Punjab girl who’s studying for her SAT scores aiming for a Division 1 NCAA scholarship.

“Also, a big difference was in food. I accepted that I had to eat everything – pork, beef, lamb, and not just chicken to do well. Locker rooms in US have fruits and protein shakes and protein bars. I’ve started carrying them too,” says India’s most exciting talent, adding “naak, aankh band karke khaana hai to do well.”

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Ann Mary Zacharia hails from Kottayam in Kerala. (Special Arrangement)

Another promising youngster from the Florida trip a year on, is Ann Mary Zacharia of Kottayam. A 6’1” centre, she’s hamstrung by the lack of a gym during lockdown near home, but has doubled her squats and lunges, having watched individual trainers in US work their charges into one almighty sweat even without equipment.

It hit home when she played an Asian U16 meet against stronger players from Hong Kong. “I’d receive the ball but couldn’t hold onto it as I’d get pushed a feet backwards. I couldn’t even stand steady. You need muscle and incredible lower-body strength for post-play. But also, their speed comes from excellent footwork which Indians are not that good at. I have only dumbbells to train with. But through this lockdown, I’ve practised on footwork and shadows,” she says.

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Their weaknesses in conditioning and strengthening all these years have kept the hoopsters far too busy in the backroom, to miss the foreground of playing action. All that could change in the future.

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