"India khelna hai" — How U-16 hoopsters rose from nothing to finishing fifth in Asia Cup
The U-16 players used to be called up for the camp with the Seniors which helped them to get mentorship from top players in India.
As India prepares for the FIBA Asia Cup, they will want to continue to bring the laurels to the country as the U-16 Boys did in their latest outing at the 2022 U-16 Asian Championship.
The young Indian hoopsters made a statement that they have a lot to offer and can take Indian basketball a notch higher. As Coach Veselin Matic said in his post-game conference against the Philippines on Sunday, one of the players from the U-16 squad is going to be part of the totally overhauled Indian squad in next week's Asia Cup.
In a discussion with Assistant Coach Mohit Bhandari, it seemed that this was the best group he has worked with. With the young blood to coach, the team performed totally different.
"It used to be that India was always under pressure in full-court defence situations, but that was not the case this time. We pressured our opponents and didn't let our weakness take over," he said.
Coach Bhandari has a different perspective on handling the players and the game compared to coach Matic. He is a soft-spoken, down-to-earth guy. This balances with Matic's aggressive approach to the game.
The boys from the team understand what grit, determination and hard work are. Their disciplined approach and mentality to win at any costs helped them achieve this feat. Their upbringing is filled with all of this, each of them had their own ways of reaching where they are today.
The players used to be called up for the camp with the Seniors which helped them to get mentorship from top players in India. While they lacked international experience, they learned by training and playing during their time at these camps.
What is interesting is the fact that a majority of these players didn't start with basketball as their primary sport.
Lokendra 'Loki' Singh started as a skater and taekwondo practitioner.. Harsh Dagar and Jaideep Rathore were both inspired by their brothers and took up basketball after trying their hands on football and cricket respectively.
It was a different scenario with Kushal Singh though, shifted to Varanasi after impressing early on to improve his game under coach Vibhor Bhriguvanshi, Indian captain Vishesh Bhriguvanshi's brother.
What stood out was the fact that all of them took basketball as meditation and forgot everything just to focus on the game.
"Jaideep did not attend family functions and used to train day-in-day-out," says his elder brother Rajdeep Rathore.
Harsh came to his coach Vikram Singh Gurjar saying, "Sir, India khelna hai (Sir I want to play for India)."
The coach replied, "Sab bhool jana padega 1 saal ke liye (You will have to forget everything for a year)" and within a second Harsh responded, "Sab bhool gaya (I have forgotten everything)".
"The fire in his eyes was like Milkha Singh's need of an India blazer," Vikram tells The Bridge.
The lockdown might have been demerit for a lot of us but for these players, it was a boon. Some of the players took lockdown as a break from the game but as it got extended, their itch to step on the court grew more but since they couldn't they started practising at home.
Harsh, with his brother, collected waste materials from his home and neighbours to make a homemade basket. Jaideep bought a gym set-up at home to maintain fitness.
The support from family, friends and others plays a huge role in developing a player's game. But as typical parents would be studies, for them, were more important than sports.
Kushal's parents were reluctant to send him to NBA Academy. Jaideep's family started to support him after he performed well in NBA Academy tryouts. It was the game which won over their parent's hearts and motivated them to support them.
Jaideep received support from his local collector after his request to have a ground at Kendriya Vidhyalaya. Before that he used to cycle 10 kilometers for training and summer camps.
Harsh Dagar lost his father at a very early age but with the constant support of his mother, his elder brother and coach, he continued to play. Loki's coach Ravi Singh Chauhan also used to support his ward with his training by helping him to arrange training at basketball courts nearby his home.
Whether it's their blood which has basketball running in them or whether it's their will to be the best they can be, India's basketball future seems to be shining bright.