Hoopsters on a mission


Bengaluru girl Ramesh Sanjana (top) and Punjab boy Princepal Singh, training in the US and Australia respectively, hope to make it big in basketball. File photos

Speaking from a cramped dorm room in Canberra, Princepal Singh sounds about as big as he is. It’s pure, unadulterated bass through the telephone. It would have been difficult to place an 18-year-old to the voice, save for the knowledge that there is a human flag pole at the other end of the phone.

Made aware of how large he is from a young age, Princepal has learnt to crouch in conversations to accommodate the rest. He says little, even when spoken to in Hindi, and is almost apologetic each time he is done saying something. Awkward silences ensue but talk NBA basketball, and he can’t stop himself.

Anthony Davis this, LeBron James that, Kevin Durant this, Kareem Abdul Jabbar that… he goes on and on. He sounds about as knowledgeable as anyone who has followed the sport for a long time. Only, these names, every single one of them, were gibberish to him four years ago.

Dera Baba Nayak, a village in Gurduspur district, isn’t what you’d call basketball central, let alone NBA crazy. In fact, volleyball is the only sport they ever want to talk about. Even cricket isn’t a headliner here, offers Princepal.

Knowing well that the only way to make a living out of playing a sport is to pursue volleyball, Princepal made his way to Ludhiana for trials with his father - Gurmaje Singh - by his side. Both reckoned Princepal could make a career out of a hobby and not become an electrician like his father.

On the bus ride back to his village, he let go of his father’s hands and felt for the basketball on his lap instead. He had never seen one before. But suddenly, it had the potential for being an instrument in his plans to make it big.

“I was heading to the volleyball trials and I went past a basketball court. One coach ran up to me and asked me what I was there for. I told him that I had come for the volleyball trials. He convinced me to come to the basketball court,” he reminisced.

“I didn’t understand a word of what he said. He said ‘move’ and I moved. He said I had potential and called me for the trials. Even then I didn’t understand what was going on. But the coaches showed a lot of faith in me and my athleticism. I enjoyed the kind of attention I got in basketball. They made me feel at home.”

After years of being looked at as if behind a glass case, Princepal wanted to belong. He considered the army and the police force as potential career options as many from his village - 3 kilometres from the Indo-Pakistan border - do at that age, but the violence of it all didn’t appeal to him.

Volleyball offered an escape. Basketball provided it. Within months of his internship at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy, he was spotted by NBA Academy India and drafted to travel to their academy in Greater Noida. At this world-class facility, Princepal showed skills never before seen in India for a boy his size.

Unlike Satnam Singh, the first Indian to make it to the NBA draft and subsequently signed by the Dallas Mavericks for the D-League, he doesn’t drag his feet and play the game the bigs in India do. “Satnam is from my club in Ludhiana and I learn so much from him,” he interjects.

Princepal is India’s answer to NBA’s Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. Faster than he looks, bigger than he seems and covers the court with a certain ease. He has a mid-range jump shot - follow through and all - worth replicating, and a shot-blocker’s aggression worth admiring. These credentials saw him dominate Basketball Without Borders Asia 2018 and the NBA Global Camp 2018 in Treviso, Italy.

NBA in India saw shades of Yao Ming, the Chinese superstar, in Princepal and licked their lips before packing him off to the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, where 13 of the brightest prospects in the world train to get a shot at the NBA.

“It has been a very interesting journey,” he says. “It is difficult staying away from home, and I am not the type to go out and make friends. I stay in my room for the most part, but people have been very nice to me. All I know is that I have a job to do so the other stuff doesn’t bother me as much. It is a bit lonely from time to time but my parents tell me that that is the price you pay for success.”

“It is better than sitting on street corners, not knowing what you are going to do with life,” he adds.

He knows now, more so after the Indian national team roped him into the side for the Super Kung Sheung Cup International Basketball Invitation Championship in Hong Kong in December 2018.

On the other side of the globe, Sanjana Ramesh is just as homesick, only she masks it with humour. After she’s done chuckling at the quality of Indian food available to her and cultural differences, she takes to describing the difficulty in living away from home. For someone who hasn’t seen much outside Bengaluru, North Arizona may as well be a UFO territory.

“I thought I was going to completely embrace the American way of life, but strangely, I feel more Indian here than I did in India. I respect our culture and our ways even more,” she says. “I miss home. I miss how simple things were.”

Clearly, she is yet to come to terms with the migration. After all, it has only been a few months since she signed up to an NCAA Division I College with the Northern Arizona University on a basketball scholarship.

The 12-year-old, who only took up the sport to prove a point to her elder brother - Savithran - has indeed come a long way. From guiding Beagles to multiple titles in state-run leagues to captaining the Indian Under-16 side to an undefeated run in Division B of the FIBA U-16 Women’s Asia Cup, Sanjana, 18 now, has done enough to earn what only Kavita Akula had managed before her.

But unlike Akula, Sanjana has more to offer than a diminutive point guard often can. At 1.83 metres, Sanjana is a force to reckon with under the rim. She has a power forward’s tenacity with the shot-blocker’s mentality. Add those traits to a never-say-die attitude on the stretch back to defend and rather good ball-handling skills in the perimeter, and you have a set of qualities never before exported. Perhaps why, NAU didn’t bat a lid enrolling her despite an ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) injury late last year.

Self-taught piano lessons in the common room, daily phone calls to the folks back home, stressing over non-fiction paperbacks suggested by her brother, dressing up for festivals with the Indian community in Arizona…. Sanjana is doing everything she can to fix the blues. Sometimes basketball just isn’t enough.

“I know it’s tough, but I also know why I am here. I haven’t forgotten my purpose, and this opportunity doesn’t come to everybody.

“This is my shot at making it to the WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) and I will not let it slip. I want to be the first one to get there,” she says.

Two very different personalities on two different journeys but their goal is one: make it to the biggest basketball leagues the world and go where no Indian has gone before.

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