Deep in the heart of Rajasthan, a small town called Sikar is pushing to become a basketball power-centre.
As many as three of their boys were in action here at the Khelo India Youth Games on Monday, helping Rajasthan romp to the Under-17 title.
Interestingly, all of them -- Jitendra Sharma, Digvijay Shekhawat and Lokendra Singh – have learnt their ropes at the basketball academy run by Bhanwar Singh Shekhawat in Sikar and are also sharpening their skills at the NBA Academy.
“Sikar is known to produce a lot of basketball players for Rajasthan. One of the reasons of course is that there are lots of tall youngsters in our town,” Jitendra Sharma, who himself is 6’5 even though he is just 16.
Their girls counterparts too were at it, barely missing the gold by a couple of minutes at the hooter.
With three NBA Academy campers and junior India internationals in their midst, Rajasthan’s U17 Boys team walked into their basketball final as favourites against Delhi. And despite a third quarter fightback from the capital city team, Rajasthan took gold without much fuss when push came to shove at the death.
Not too long before the U17 boys won the Khelo India Games gold, their U17 girls team had ben narrowly edged out by Tamil Nadu in the final. Two teams in the same age group, two finals. One silver, one gold. It was testament to a new power centre emerging in the sport for India.
Jitendra Sharma, one of Rajasthan’s pivotal players in the final credits one single town for this influx of talent in the state. Sharma is from Sikar, and was drafted into the NBA Academy in Delhi last year.
“Sikar is the bastion for Rajasthan men’s basketball,” Rajesh Nenawati, coach of the girls team, explained. “The girls are more spread out from across the state. We have two girls each from Bhilwara, Ajmer and Jaipur.”
The Girls Under-17 squad too impressed, narrowly losing the gold to Tamil Nadu by a couple of points at the hooter.
Nenawati, who himself coaches in Bhilwara, credits the resurgence of the junior teams the grassroots programmes of the state. More coaching camps and better scouting have been responsible for elevating the women's game.
“Shekhawat Sir has retired for a few years now,” Jitendra Sharma said. “But that only means that he can spend more time teaching the kids basketball.”
Shekhawat, in fact, travelled with the Rajasthan contingent as a coach and despite not being on the bench for the U17 final was screaming at the wards from the stands through the game.
“Basketball in Rajasthan used to be about physicality,” he said. “It was a stereotype that North Indian teams fit into. Punjab, Rajasthan will be powerful and Kerala and Tamil Nadu will be passing and thinking.”
Over the years though he insists that the definitions are more fluid. Teams have learnt from each other and adapted accordingly. In the final, Sharma is fouled out in the final quarter, and Rajasthan are forced to rethink their strategy having lost their best rebounder and power centre.
“In earlier times, the team would have been lost. But not today. Our smallest player on the pitch [Rakesh Sharma] took charge of the game,” Shekhawat said, before running off to join in a group photograph. A photograph of two teams, both U17s set to be at the top of the sport for the foreseeable future.