In a first of its kind, a marble statue of an Indian basketball player — the late Khushi Ram — was unveiled on Sunday in his home village of Jhamri in Jhajjar district of Haryana. The scholarly-looking hoopster was an Asian giant of mid-to-late 60s and India’s first captain at the Asian Basketball Championships. Khushi Ram’s dedicated shrine,has was raised two years after he passed away while training children on the court at his academy in December of 2013.
India’s first outstanding pivot was only 6’4” but scorched basketball courts in Asia with his prolific scoring and attracted a cult following across the continent when he twice top-scored in 1965 and ‘69 at the ABC. His son Ramkumar, an Arjuna Award-winner just like him and a coach of equal repute with the Railways, believes that it was important to set down the legacy in stone. “I personally went to Jaipur and this was made by sculptors who specialise in marble work and took two months to complete,” he says. “India’s attention is on basketball and everyone’s looking ahead to developments in NBA. But we also need to honour our past, because Indian basketball has a rich history, and Khushi Ram was a legend,” he said.
A dozen boys trained by the doyen in his final years, also played an exhibition game, as his work continues in the little-known village. Jhamri promises to be a rare basketball nursery even as the rest of Haryana is swept by myriad other sports — hockey, volleyball, boxing and even cricket. “The villagers came out in huge numbers because they knew what this man did for Indian basketball. I can’t expect the whole country to know him but it was heartening that the whole village turned up at the unveiling by another towering legend Ajmer Singh (who was India’s highest scorer in the 1980 Olympics),” Ramkumar said.
The legend of Khushi Ram is incomplete without the tale of the Philippines coach. The tiny island country were the dominant nations of Asian basketball in the 60s. 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.” 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 made more than the polite enquiry into whether it was possible to poach India’s tall-man for good, before the team returned home.
He had started as a jawan in the Army with Rajputana Rifles after he was picked as a teen from Jhamri. For 10 years (and as many national titles in 50s and 60s) he would become India’s first superstar. He later moved to Kota in Rajasthan to join Shriram Rayons, an outfit that boasted of the best talent of its time. After a successful return from Philippines, an errant elbow in training smashed into his eye and though a retinal replacement restored his vision, his playing career was over in 1976. The Kota giants would soon enlist tall, well-built teens from Sikar to Ajmer and turn them into superior hoopsters, even as Khushi Ram turned into their mentor.
“I know basketball players get lost in sands of time and are forgotten. But the statue will keep the spirit of this game and what it means to several village ball players alive. Future Satnams (Dallas Mavericks pick Satnam Singh) are bound to come from villages,” Ramkumar added.