The tyranny of the tall is so over-emphasised in basketball that Tejinder Pal Singh needs to often repeat to his two basketball playing sons, the need to bring intelligence to the court, along with the long, loping limbs.
“If you want to really grow in basketball, you have to be intelligent,” says the trained lawyer, lamenting how physically-gifted boys from Punjab, have faltered at the highest level because they believed they didn’t need to study alongside the sport or exert cerebrally. Thankfully for him, Tim Duncan happened to his older son, Jagshaanbir Singh, a 6’11” hoopster known to his team as Shaan. The 17-year-old grew up idolising the Spurs legend who completed four years of college when most leave after their sophomore season. “In India, the mentality is to play to get a job. But if an Indian has to do well in the American system, they can’t afford to ignore other aspects,” Tejinder stresses.
Shaan is the latest from India’s NBA academy who will head to USA to kickstart his attempt at cracking the world’s greatest league. It’s the path previously taken by Satnam and Palpreet Singh, which leads to D-League teams and in exceptional cases, an NBA side.
As a preliminary first step, the Jalandhar lad enters Golden State Preps (GSP) in Napa Valley, California, one of America’s top-5 academies, which will make him trials-ready for the next stepping stones, honing his skills and physicality. “This will help him ease into the basketball culture of America,” explains Tejinder, who has always stressed on impeccable off-court behaviour from his son as his parent and first coach.
Shaan says he emulates more than Tim Duncan’s hook shot when he plays centre at the Gurgaon academy (he is training for the forward position though). “Tim Duncan was very down to earth as a player and stayed polite always. It is very important to not be self-absorbed in the team and one must think about team-mates too,” says the tallest hoopster graduating from the Indian academy. His 6’11” vertical advantage gets him immediate attention but Shaan is aware there’s more to basketball than just the 207 cm ability to tower over others.
His entry into the sport was triggered by a growth spurt in Class 10 – he shot up from 6 ft to 6’5” at age 15. “It’s when I realised that not only had I started very late, but I was playing at a very low standard on skills. That’s when I told my father to coach me,” Shaan recalls.
Father Tejinder, himself 6’6” had led his University at basketball, looked up to Punjab Police doyens Sajjan Singh Cheema and Paramjit Singh, and played against Parminder Singh ‘Happy’, but had waited – rather impatiently – for his son to come and tell him he wanted to take up the sport. Shaan played badminton, cricket, kushti and even handball at school, but remained very interested in studies, scoring straight A1s at La Blossoms, a CBSE schhol in Jalandhar. “I did not want to impose basketball on him,” says the lawyer who now runs a construction business. “As someone who couldn’t fulfil his potential because times were different then, I did want to live that dream through my son. But I waited for him to come and tell me he was interested by himself.” The hoops gene wasn’t all that latent – Tejinder happily realised. Born to a strappingly tall CRPF soldier himself, he’d started playing the sport in Jammu and continued in Bihar. His younger son Akshatbir – 6’4” at age 15 – is also at the Delhi academy.
While Tejinder got down to training Shaan in the basics – shooting, rebounds and that Duncan hook shot he so loved, the boy was reluctant to dump studies and go live in Ludhiana which has India’s most bustling academy brimming with talent. While the state academy kept an eye on him, it took the father-son duo a whole year to crank up Shaan’s playing level – from simply holding the ball and dribbling to higher skills. Tejinder would accompany Shaan to tournaments and the two would return and obsessively work on their shortcomings. Within a year, he had significantly improved, giving a good account of himself at the Karnataka Nationals. He was picked for the NBA academy soon after, moving to Delhi.
A step-up it was for one of India’s tallest juniors, but the NBA Academy is where all the half-baked assets of his game got brutally exposed. Shaan was tall but injury-prone (especially on his shoulders). The Size 15 had the physique but not the physicality. “He was a very docile kid. Very cute and innocent type, would never argue,” says the doting father, “but as a basketball player, that was counter-productive when he grew up.” It’s where the academy stepped in to beef up his body language – supremely important in basketball. “It changed his game. Earlier he wouldn’t look into the opponents’ eye. At the academy they worked on his confidence,” Tejinder explains.
“Physicality is the biggest difference between playing here and even at the lowest levels of competition in US,” Shaan says of the ability to assert yourself on the court and make all of that 6-ft-11 count. “Physicality is what I’m hoping comes into my game,” he says.
A bigger problem for Shaan was his propensity to injury on a very tetchy shoulder. The NBA academy was quick to step in and pull him out of the rut of constant niggles. “The trainers brought me back on track in 2-3 months. On-court intensity in training tends to be very high, so recovery is tough. So I spent a lot of time training in the pool working on my strength. It was to regenerate power,” he said. Coaches also worked on giving his game an edge of aggression.
Golden State Prep has a newly emerging program, and Shaan is keen that it gives him valuable experience to steer him to a Collegiate career, another stepping stone towards the coveted NBA spot.
Currently, Amjyot Singh is trying his luck in D League, while Satnam is settling into Canada’s H Academy. “I really like Amjyot’s elegant game – especially his wrist-release of the ball when shooting. I’d like to play consistently like him,” he says, as Indians seek steady improvements in skills given the big-bang like Yao Ming’s in China is not on the horizon. “Shaan will have to be in a lot of effort. This is just the first step of a very very long journey,” father Tejinder says.