The great basketball exodus

Gopalakrishnan R | Updated on December 05, 2019

On the ball: Khushi Dongre (left), Sanjana Ramesh (top, standing third from right) and Vaishnavi Yadav (right, standing) are currently among the nine Indian women ballers abroad   -  Images Courtesy: ASA College, Pensacola State College, North Arizona University

More and more Indian women hoopsters are playing at collegiate levels abroad, hoping to crack the big league

Four years ago, when seven-footer Satnam Singh was being held up as the next big thing in Indian basketball after he became the first Indian national to be drafted into the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the US, history was being written away from the spotlight, too. For that was when one of his contemporaries, a young woman called Kavita Akula, was embarking on a special journey of her own.

Back in 2010, Singh and Akula were among eight young Indian basketball prospects — four boys and four girls — who had been selected for a four-year, all-expense-paid student-athletic scholarship at the world-class IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, US.

Almost 10 years on, the much-hyped Singh has since returned to India without playing a single NBA game. But Akula has stuck around in the US, becoming the first Indian national to compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division One, the highest level of intercollegiate athletics in that country.

While it was believed that it would be Singh who would open doors for Indian basketball players in the US, it is, in fact, Akula who has proven to be the more impactful trendsetter.

Nine Indian women ballers are currently abroad. Ever since Akula’s graduation from Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, earlier this year, as many as six other Indian female basketball players have been committed to high schools and colleges across North America. Sanjana Ramesh is playing for the North Arizona University, Flagstaff, while Vaishnavi Yadav is part of the Pensacola State College in Florida. Khushi Dongre is in the ASA College team in Miami, and Srishti Suren plays in Canada for the University of Winnipeg. Asmat Kaur Taunque plays for The Lawrenceville School team in New Jersey, and Sunishka Kartik for the Woodside Priory School, California. Akula is currently a middle school coach in the US and hopes to play professionally overseas.

“Kavita didi has advised me on what to do here because she knows this system well,” 18-year-old Khushi Dongre tells BLink. Like Akula before her, Dongre joined a college in the lower National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) circuit, and hopes to move to an NCAA Division One programme after two years. Apart from Akula, Dongre says she was greatly helped by Anmolpreet Kaur and Barkha Sonkar. Kaur is now at the Osaka University, Japan, and Sonkar at the Lindsey Wilson College, Kentucky.

Five girls from the batch of six that went abroad this year were scouted through the NBA Academy Women’s Programme. Launched in the summer of 2018, NBA Academy Women’s five-day camps have been held across the globe in regions such as Latin America, Australia, Africa, China and India.

The camps are meant for girls aged 17 and below, and India has hosted three so far — in May 2018, and January and October this year — with 18-24 participants in each.

“The NBA Academy Women’s Programme has helped create fantastic opportunities for past campers,” says Blaire Hardiek, technical director of the programme. “The fact that past campers have received scholarships and are already in the US puts them in a great position to continue their basketball journey at the highest level, the WNBA [the women’s NBA],” she adds. Basketball, she points out, is still relatively new in India and the academy’s campers are now role models for the younger generation.

Why go abroad? “It is a step towards a better future,” Dongre says. “The US is a basketball country so we get all the facilities, from weight rooms and hot tubs to trainers.”

Besides better facilities, the primary reason India’s top basketball players are looking westwards is the continued absence of structured competition at the school, college and professional level in India. Job opportunities and lucrative deals are a bonus in the West.

“The main difference between Indian basketball and American basketball is the pace and the strategy with which they play here [in America]. Everyone in the team is an all-rounder, and that has allowed me to polish my skills,” Dongre says.

Beyond playing college basketball in the US, Dongre and others are setting their sights higher. Their ultimate goal is to play in the WNBA. Only one Indian — Kerala’s Geethu Anna Rahul in 2011 — came close to getting selected when she was invited for trials with three WNBA teams, but didn’t make the final cut.

“In a sense, it is harder to make it to the WNBA than the NBA because there are only 12 teams (compared to 30 in the NBA). Besides, men also have the option of playing in NBA’s development league,” points out first-year student Sanjana Ramesh.“But I feel we will have a better shot at it in another four to five years.”

While it is not uncommon for foreign players to leapfrog into the NBA or WNBA, studying in North American colleges and universities is still considered the preferred route to the top.

Conspicuously, while there are currently seven Indian women basketballers in the US, there are just two Indian men, despite the latter enjoying the benefit of a year-round elite NBA residential academy in Greater Noida.

“Indian women have a better mindset than Indian men because nothing is a cup of tea for us. We face more problems from our childhood, and that forces us to work harder. Whether in academics or sports, we have to prove ourselves even though we get limited opportunities,” Dongre says.

Gopalakrishnan R is a Bengaluru-based writer and founder of Ekalavyas, a basketball promotion company

Published on December 05, 2019

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