The ability of raw physical pain to kill all semblance of love in sportspeople for their sport, is hugely underestimated. Jagdeep Singh Bains summarily fell out of love with basketball a few years ago when his mangled L 4 and L 5 sent spasmic shooting pain through his body for days on end.
Drained of that first love of sport, confined to the bed, and with every feeling crevice of his body filled with excruciating pain, he decided to drive around recklessly in Ludhiana late one night, not bothered to live anymore. Mercifully, nothing untoward happened. On Tuesday, Jagdeep — now recalled to the Indian team for the FIBA World Cup qualifiers after an inspiring tale of a comeback — headed off to Beirut once again after six years.
For the uninitiated — and that will be everyone who’s not been on India’s domestic basketball circuit — Jagdeep was India’s finest young hoopster till half a decade ago. This is just before the NBA faux-surge that took over the basketball narrative with Satnam Singh getting picked by the Dallas Mavericks.
Till that bit of news caught the country’s imagination, Jagdeep Singh was the darling of the annual Nationals. Turning out for Punjab year after year at the winter inter-state starting from his teens into his early-20s, Jagdeep would lead a bunch of ridiculously talented tyros trained in hoop-symphonies by a technically erudite coach, to become the favourite team of the country.
They were all speedy, and Jagdeep with his incredible poise and innate skill would sketch lovely patterns of scoring on the court. He was fast, his drive-ins blitzy and feints breathtaking as Punjab won over neutrals. No rough play, no histrionics, his was meditative, smooth passage of play.
Six years ago, he suffered a slip disc at a 3×3 meet in China, and his spine having borne the load for several years, gave way. Bedridden for large part of three years, basketball faded from his muscle memory with sheer pain taking over. “I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t walk. The pain was all I thought of,” he recalls. A man known for his deceptive back torques that fooled opponents was struggling to even look back with a frozen torso. Having worked painstakingly on staying fit for many years till that doomed day in China at 25, Jagdeep’s life spiralled into a bottomless vacuum at the first snap of the L4 L5 and a stiffened spine. No one likes being restricted to the sleeping position, but it’s especially cruel on sportspersons, and India’s finest slipped into oblivion just like that.
“Bas bed mein pada rehta that. Haalat kharaab thi. Sochta tha kya karu aisi Zindagi Ka. Isse behtar toh marr hi jau,” he remembers that dark night. Unable to sleep till 3 am owing to the pain, he would take off into the night, not keen on carrying on. The injury also meant he had to take a long leave from his job — which he’d landed through the sports quota. Someone filed a legal case citing his long absence and questioning if he deserved the job still, and he had to quit that too.
“After I dealt with the injury, there was this mental weariness. I thought I’d played enough, getting back to peak fitness seemed impossible and friends suggested ‘ab rehne do.’ I was angry that all I’d done since my teens was play the game. When I got injured, no one phoned. No one helped. I was just stuck staring at the roof,” he recalls. It was his parents and wife who would slowly patch him back together. His father, an athletics coach in Punjab, would accompany him on runs and help with speedwork. He would train on weights. “I am 31 now, and what should’ve been the heights of my career was spent lying down,” he says wryly.
Satnam Singh had been a junior at the Ludhiana Academy, and would remember his captain’s help and encouragement, to repay with something tangible. “After going to 4-5 doctors without anything sorting out, Satnam helped me with recommendations of doc and physio,” he says. He would get operated at Gangaram Hospital in Delhi. “The rehab wasn’t difficult once the pain went away.”
With his family supportive and Punjab basketball heads chipping in, he finally caught a break when the sport’s UBA league called him up for the Mumbai franchise. His jump wasn’t as explosive immediately, but the signature drive-ins evoked immediate praise, as Jagdeep Singh Bains was back in action. His childhood coach Dr Subramanian had passed away during this time. “But he’d told me many years ago that the game was going to change. I would have to learn to play from outside. He always predicted accurately,” recalls the 6’4″ former forward.
The India call up followed his league performance, and Jagdeep is at peace again on the eve of flying to Lebanon. “Yes, I think sometimes that at 25 when I was at my peak, I could’ve been part of the pack that’s cracking into NBA or D League. But there are no guarantees in sport. You just take off and hope you can finish the basket. It’s kismet,” he says calmly.