Harshitha carving a different path

Harshitha carving a different path

Swift rise Harshitha Bopaiah (left) in action in the Division B final of the FIBA U-18 Women’s Asian Basketball championship. DH Photo/ Srikanta Sharma R

A career-defining advice and the resolve to do something different brought Harshitha Kelettira Bopaiah close to basketball -- a sport she knew nothing about until the eighth standard. But it is right here that she is fast making a mark, soaring up the ranks as one of India’s best young players. 

Coming from a sporting background, she was always encouraged to take part in various sporting disciplines. Her father Dore Bopaiah had played hockey for the state. But Harshitha’s first love was athletics. She excelled in both high jump and long jump. “I was into athletics early on. I did both long jump and high jump. I didn’t choose hockey because I wanted to do something different,” said Harshitha, who hails from Kodagu.

But her moment of truth came in 2013. Harshitha travelled to Mysuru for selection trials for athletics in the DYES Sports Hostel. There she met coach K Sathyanarayana, who after looking at her height (she is 5’ 9” now), gave the all-important suggestion.

“I finished my athletics trial and came out. That was when coach Sathya told me that I had the attributes to excel as a basketball player,” she recalled.

Harshitha took his words seriously and returned for basketball trials and aced it. The Kodava girl then had to make a choice. “I was selected for both athletics and basketball but I chose the latter and got admission in the school,” she said.

Despite making it to the facility, there were apprehensions about education taking a backseat, but coach Sathyanarayana was always there to motivate her. “When I first joined the sports hostel, a lot of people told me not to. They said it will affect my education and that it will ruin my career. But my coach believed in my abilities. He was of immense help,” she explained.

The 18-year-old soon understood the basics of the game and in 2014, she started playing nationals. However, her breakthrough year was 2017. She was first included in the Indian squad to play at the ISF World School Games in Croatia and then was selected in the national team for the FIBA 3x3 U-18 Asia Cup in Malaysia.

At the FIBA event, India finished last in the standings but the experience of competing against the top Asian nations proved vital for Harshitha, who used it fully at the recent FIBA U-18 Women’s Asian championship in Bengaluru, where India clinched promotion to Division A.

The Indian team was without its two big players, Vaishnavi Yadav and Sanjana Ramesh. In their absence, Harshitha stood out, scoring 75 points in five games to emerge as India’s top scorer in the competition. Scoring was fun for Harshitha but she found greater pleasure in defending and stealing the ball from the opposition’s defenders. She revealed she constantly sought tips from her coach. “After every match, I called him. He would tell me the mistakes and the corrective measures.”

The result was evident as in the semifinal against Hong Kong, Harshitha ruled the paint with 16 rebounds. The power forward then repeated her heroics in the final against Kazakhstan, claiming a double-double (20 points and 13 rebounds) and four crucial steals. Harshitha called it the biggest achievement of her career till date. “I felt very happy and I received a lot of appreciation because I was the top-scorer. My team-mate also congratulated me. It is my biggest achievement since I started playing basketball. To play at home was special,” said Harshitha.

A proud Sathyanarayana, on the other hand, was thrilled to see his ward stepping up on the big stage.”I am so proud. She is a big talent and definitely, she’ll be a star player for India in future,” he said. “There were so many talented players in the team but to come out as the top-scorer was unexpected,” he added.

AB.Com student of Sha-Shib College in Bengaluru, Harshitha hopes to play in the senior women’s team in future. “The planning has started. My coaches have begun the preparations. When I go to the senior level I need to be mentally stronger,” she said.