Geethu Anna Jose, India’s brilliant 6-ft-2 Centre, took a shy at the WNBA tryouts in 2011 but couldn’t quite crack the code, overwhelmed by the cultural and athletic challenges of it all. Now almost a decade later, five young Indian women have set up base in North American schools, colleges and universities, prepping themselves for a shot at the biggest women’s basketball league in the world.
Transplanting themselves into the American college system on scholarships while being aided by the Indian NBA Academy, the five are negotiating campus life with its academics and intense conditioning sessions. The Indian Express speak with the group of five women which can help elevate Indian basketball out of the current lull as they bounce off the bench and earn playing time — The Power of the Five, which could help India challenge the traditional Asian powers.
Finding her comfort zone, culturally and on the court
Asmat Kaur, 16
The Lawrenceville School, New Jersey
Asmat’s father works in telecom and mother’s a published author of fiction, and the compact family of three have perfected the art of packing, unpacking and settling in quickly in new places owing to the father’s transferable job. Chandigarh, Lucknow, Indore, Mumbai — the 16-year-old has moved around from state to state since age 5, but it’s the basketball move to New Jersey for the 6-ft-1 that has been a “360 degree turn in life — culturally and in the aggressive game as well.”
Playing Centre — mostly post work, though she can move around the perimeter — the adjustment was more than polishing her 3-pointers and more about the aggressive attitude on court. Asmat points to a unique tweak for foreign players. “Look, it’s a foreign country. At home, I could be no-mercy aggressive on court and switch to rational outside the game. But once you go to a culturally different place and are out of your comfort zone, aggression can deflate out of the body. You are in America, so you relearn to be aggressive in a non-offensive way,” she explains.
Asmat grew up tall and lanky, but basketball was an obvious choice at 13, soon turning into a passion beyond her then 5-ft-9 frame, towering over classmates. The only child, her parents trawled the internet for options so she could target WNBA, no less, while setting up her personal workouts as they moved from Indore to Mumbai’s Dominic Savio, taking in her loping strides, cement courts and casual training routines.
Sunday amateur games in the fall season (basketball’s a winter sport in the USA), helped her ease into the drills and she recently watched an NBA game at Brooklyn, strengthening her resolve to play at the highest level, WNBA. “I miss my friends from around India. But I’m aware that if you focus on your career through your teenage years, stay single-minded and devoted to learning the skills and not try rushing to success, then I can crack the big one — WNBA.”
Out with the rulebook, in with the ‘system’
Sanjana Ramesh, 17
North Arizona Uni, Flagstaff
Sanjana inherited her mother’s athletic genes — Sr played with the hoops (not shooting into them) in tennikoit and hustled in kho kho. Her father, an IIM Bangalore professor, instilled the importance of being sound in academics and lawyer brother, older, taunted her suitably on being intellectually callow. From a mix of these and a rash in badminton at 10 after which she traded the shuttle for hoops at 11, emerged the Bangalore girl’s ambition to play basketball at the highest level in the USA.
She’s 6 feet and a power forward, and discovered the elusive “system” in the States that’s non-existent in India: defence, offence, transitioning, the works. Along the way, she recalls literally flying back and falling when an American opponent casually stuck her elbow out, and left a rattled Sanjana thinking “Why did she do that!” She got over the coy, prissy rulebook of Bangalore high school basketball, and prepped herself to not get thrown about.
This meant weight training three times a week, lot of squats and planks, whipping of muscle groups she never knew existed. Summers were about conditioning, where weights was the start of the story. She was in Arizona at 7,000 feet above sea level, four times Bangalore, and the air was gaspingly thin. “They’d want you to puke in the end literally, it is that intense,” she says. Sprints of 1,800 yards were the preamble to weights and courtwork. “Everyone here knows how to dribble and shoot. But we are trained in specifics on ball handling, form (shape of the shot) and defence, which is hard work — bent knees and hands up at all times.”
Back home, she was the tallest with the highest jump and was accorded the respect of playing post. In the US, she learnt she’d get benched if she didn’t run up and down the court or was not boxing out. Picked in 11th grade from a scouting WNBA camp, who helped send out her reports and game footage to different universities, Sanjana is the pivot of the American group, speaking to them weekly and helping them through the adjustments of campus life for an Indian baller in America.
WNBA or a professional league abroad are the targets, but life right now is one giant grind of bone aches. “Student athlete life is sad. Classes, practice, gym, eat, sleep, repeat, sneaking in homework somewhere there. Zero social life,” she laughs. She misses people and food from back home and teaches her buddies desi moves on ‘Kaala Chashma’, but enjoys the chuckling con. “Oh, it’s so easy to be smarter here than others, now I know why Indians want to study abroad! I was average in Bangalore, here I’m a Math genius! No, but they think Indians are hardworking and kind and very (laughs) smart. And sweet.”
On road to recovery, Yadav copes with math, quiet festivities
Vaishnavi Yadav, 17
Pensacola state College, Florida
The best-laid plans of men and mice often go awry. For Vaishnavi Yadav, all that could go wrong did. The Varanasi girl had been gung-ho about going to America and even joked about dazzling every scout when she left home, having surprised herself by scoring well in GRE and earning the scholarship. An injury to her knee from a fall was the worst thing to happen then. In a mix of salvaging sympathy and plain-speak, her college team trainer told her: there couldn’t have been a better place than the American college in Florida to get hurt.
Yadav is inclined to seeing humour in real dark situations, so she says she set aside time each day to mope and curse her luck at getting the opportunity to play basketball in the US and injuring herself within the first few months. “Timetable mein slot banaana pada rone ke liye daily,” she recalls. On the whole, she hurtled through the first few weeks of the dreaded ACL.
Firstly she hid the injury from her parents, once ignoring 50 missed calls from her mum. “I wanted to prove I was a good player, so why did it have to happen to me?” she lamented to her older brother, while going in for the MRI. Vaishnavi had been picked in trials a month after returning from a back injury, then the knee meniscus cracked. When her mother was finally told, she threatened to send across tickets and haul her back home. “I never thought I’ll say a line so lame, but that day I told my mother: ‘I’m a big girl now’,” she recalls, readying to wheel into surgery with no family around, though helped greatly by hostel mates and team officials. She also remembers telling her dad to lie to the press about the injury since they’d started asking why she hadn’t been starting in college games, and the last thing she heard before getting into the OT was her dad telling her, he would not lie. “I was feeling guilty but he screamed at me. Wo bole injure hui hai, koi chori, dacaiti nai daali ki hum ye chhipaaye.”
Of all the girls, the adjustment has been the roughest for Vaishnavi. “It’s always very quiet here. I’m not used to the silence and I like hasee-mazaak. It’s tough to mix easily here. Also their English is higher level,” she declares.
For the first 10 days, she subsisted on cornflakes and omelettes. Facetiming with her mother, she learnt to cook. She scored straight ‘A’s in most subjects, save math which continues giving her grief as does the grim silence.
“Ab New Year le lo… no fireworks, no noise, no screaming Happy New Year like we Indians do. I mean, if a sheep or cow gives birth in Allahabad, there is more dhol-baaja than what they did here to celebrate New Year!”
There’s the other sound she’s craving to hear — the thap-thap of the ball dribbling on polished wooden floors.
Chennai vegetarian in Great White North
Srishti Suren, 18
University of Winnipeg, Canada
Srishti’s parents Suren and Sunitha played basketball on the Chennai circuit. Naturally, they weren’t overtly keen on letting her drift into a sport that can be heart-breaking in its returns, besides breaking knee bones on outdoor courts.
Cricket or squash sounded better options. But even more predictably, Srishti wanted to do nothing but play basketball since she was three and accompanied her mother, who still plays at 44, courtside. She also idolised Geethu Anna Jose watching her play since she was little, but still tall for a toddler.
Her father’s resistance continued until Srishti took a gap year to train at the IMG Academy after her 12th, and used that as a launchpad to earn a scholarship at the University of Winnipeg where she studies psychology and plays as a (rather tall) shooting guard at 5’11.
Eventually when her father came around to let her let go of her dream of being an architect, the former MCC player got down to tweaking her wrist and arching action when shooting, lending it the familiar Chennai solidity in technique. Prior to Winnipeg, she had to work hard on her TOEFL and SAT scores and learn the ropes of carrying herself and fitting in that Collegiate life demands before women find their footing in basketball.
Then it was all about not staying skinny. “The physicality of the game is immense there and girls are way taller. Also in India, we don’t let positions 4/5 step out of the perimeter, but at Winnipeg I learnt to play everywhere.”
She was told real ball players could do 150kg squats — trouble was her diet didn’t have enough protein.
“I’m actually a vegetarian like my mother. Dad ate chicken till he played basketball. It was very difficult to adapt at the IMG Academy in Florida. Even chicken felt ‘raw-ish’. I could’ve tried supplements, but I just taught myself to love chicken and eat it for my sport.”
Then there was the Minus 30 degree temperatures. “I’m from Chennai. I’d never been in snow,” she laughs, of the ‘cold’ that is traditionally the bane of all Tamil Nadu teams even when they hike upto Ludhiana. But Srishti’s willing to brave it all.
“I’m working hard to get into WNBA. If not, then European or Japan leagues. But more than anything, I want to play for India. I did two junior camps, but I’ve missed out last two years because I’m on a scholarship and they can’t let me take off. So I need to learn everything here and bide my time.”
For someone who switched schools in Chennai with solely basketball as a target, and who’s obediently rebelled against a reluctant father, Srishti has much to prove. “He’ll be more proud than anyone should I crack WNBA,” she ends.
Wrestling-gymnastics base, toughned by pumping iron
Khushi Dongre, 18
ASA College, Miami
A childhood spent training in wrestling and gymnastics made Khushi, hailing from Aurangabad, a formidably strong player when she moved to basketball, encouraged by her enthusiastic father. A lawyer in Aurangabad, Khushi’s father pushed her towards the playground, though the turning point came when she went crying to him after being ragged by seniors in junior college. “I got ragged on a basketball court and I went back bawling. My dad told me if I really wanted to play, then I should work harder,” she recalls.
On either side of an ankle trouble, Khushi would end up playing eight nationals in multiple age categories after she took to the sport in 2015. One of the first ones to hit the treadmill and bench press in the gym, Khushi focused on strength and conditioning. Training with her father, who continued playing in the masters U45 category, also helped her grow up.
“I have a big body, I’m strong, I had a career-high 47 points in u-15 nationals and I trained hard in the gym. I also loved studies and had good grades,” she says of the move to Miami, made smoother with her outgoing personality. She studies Business Administration now, alongside developing as an all-rounder training 4-5 hours a day. At 5’10”, matching the power of opponents wasn’t her challenge. But the blitzing pace took her aback. “The Asian pace is very slow. In the US and even college basketball, it’s all about speed. I trained how to run. There people are huge, so you have to trick them in running and we need to use our mind. I figured out on Day 1 that it was gonna be a lot of mind work. I’m a little bit famous in college for my skills,” she says.