After playing for 18 years, I haven’t been given Arjuna Award | By Anitha Pauldurai
India’s most experienced women’s basketball player, and former captain of Indian women’s national basketball team Anitha Pauldurai narrates her journey.
India’s most experienced women’s basketball player, and former captain of Indian women’s national basketball team Anitha Pauldurai, who holds the record of playing for the Indian national team for 18 years (2000-2017) is the first and only Indian woman to have played nine Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) championships continuously representing the national squad.
Anitha, who has a record of winning 30 medals in Basketball National Championship, is the youngest ever to captain the senior national team at the age of 19 and went on to captain the side for eight years. In August 2012, she was selected to play for an international women professional league in Thailand. She has played a number of international tournaments including big-ticket events such as the Asian Championship, Commonwealth Games 2006 and Asian Games 2010. She also coached the Indian U-16 girls’ team. She nurses the opinion that although many Indian players get the opportunity to play outside, it won’t help the Indian basketball team to thrive unless Indian basketball has its own league.
She narrates her journey so far to The Bridge
From the day I started playing basketball for India, the Indian basketball team gradually improved. I still remember India was in the 9th position, then we made it to 7th, then we finished 5th in Asia level. I was on a hiatus from 2015 after my childbirth, and when I came back in 2017, we were pushed to Division B. My aim was to bring the team back to Division A in 2017. Today, I can say, in this 18-years of my career, gave everything to make Indian women basketball reach new heights.
It all started while I was playing for the Rising Star Club in Chennai. Actually, that club started from our team only. It was started by Sampath (coach). He is also from a middle-class family; the only thing is Sampath sir family itself basketball oriented. In my school, he was coaching, then he started the club, and he brought the club very well. It’s not easy to start a club and also to make it popular, make people know the club name, but he did that. For the love of basketball, he did that. The club is still going strong. Rising star tournament happens every year during April, and the club has its unique name in Indian basketball history.
I have been in the Indian team for a long time. During this time, I have missed a lot when it comes to my family, gatherings, function, spending time with my kids, but nothing could steer my focus away from basketball as it is my life. I wanted to do something for Indian basketball, even this time team lost all the matches in Division A and pushed to Division B, I could only think about how I could contribute for bringing back the team to winning ways.
It was a love marriage, and my husband knew that I would want to continue basketball even after tying the knot, and he was very supportive about it. Just a week after marriage, I had hit the court. I don’t think it was difficult to get back to playing after marriage, but the challenges heightened when I was diagnosed as pregnant. It was tough, especially in a middle-class family, where you cannot afford to have a babysitter; all you can depend on is family, parents and husband.
I use to get one-hour every day for myself where I could exercise; I think that one-hour changed everything. That one-hour freedom allowed me to come back. I am very happy that in basketball, In India I was the first person to do that. To come back after baby, so that inspired few, after me, Stephy (Nixon) came back after giving birth to a child. She used to tell me I was also one of her inspiration to get back to the court after the childbirth, if you ask, I would say I drew inspiration from Mary Kom. If she can do it, why can’t I? The only thing is you need support from family. That one hour when you leave home to practice, you need that confidence that you’re family will take care of your child and also the child will be safe. If that is there, any women can be successful.
Why recognition is important
I never felt that the sports betrayed me, but the only thing I feel even now is I have not been given enough recognition or awards. I am still trying, but that won’t stop me from loving the game, if I am not playing, I wanted to coach, it's just been one year from my second kid, I thought juniors would pick up, but it didn’t happen.
People may think why Anitha is always behind recognition, the truth is people here in south know me, especially in Chennai and I can say, the juniors or youngsters who want to take up the sport feels, “ if Anitha akka herself suffers this much then how can I survive, how can I play?"
Girls need to play with freedom and happiness. They need more security, secured jobs, recognition. I am a parent, and I will think twice before inspiring my child to play basketball because what’s the future in it? The same hard work, which I have put in basketball if at all I had put in cricket, or kabaddi, I would have been in a better place comparatively. Money is important, and we need professional setups. Every individual is talented, but as a team, we are yet to make it big. If there is no proper structure, then you cannot expect people taking up the sport and performing, and it will always remain a “show off sport”.
For women in basketball, recruitment is meagre other than the opportunities offered by the Railways. At the end of the day, you need to have a secured job. Even after playing for almost two decades, I think I should have been in some other place, but I am not, and the sport has also not developed,
When I was competing, I was not thinking about the money I would earn, but now you hardly see a girl pursue the sport more than a couple of years, I am not blaming them. This happens only because they are worried about their future. I have spoken to their parents, and in many cases, they even feel like it's a waste of time for their kids to spend time on this sport. At least players should get recognition like awards such as the Padma Shri or the Arjuna. If that too is not on the cards, then I do not know what is there for a youngster to get motivated and take up this sport. Only with professional set up, professional league, proper infrastructure and practice, the game can change.
I wanted to play for another two years. Health-wise I feel very active, and I want to play as long as my body allows. Alongside, I want to coach in schools and create an impact at the grassroots level. Since I am working in railways, I definitely want to help my Railways basketball team, too.
For Indian Women’s Basketball team
I feel the Indian team need more exposure. Yes, the experience is important, but you cannot play with all the experienced players, youngsters should be given more chance. Even if fitness allows also, I don’t see why playing five need more than two experienced players. So giving an opportunity to youngsters is must and also playing only in India won’t help, there should be exposure trips. More Foreign coaches.
In school, colleges there are leagues, but professional-level basketball doesn’t have a league yet, like cricket, football or kabaddi. Yes, India recently hosted the Asia Cup both Division A and B, and two years back also, we hosted the same tournament. But just competing won’t change anything. Going straight to the competition is not the ideal way of exposure.
India’s performance in Division A at the Asia Cup
Against Japan, we didn’t play well, but there were a few sparks in the second and third matches. I can understand the pressure what the girls would have gone through, but it is still disappointing to see we lost against the Philippines. A win would have ensured them staying in Division A. India lost against the Philippines because of their lack of experience. Juniors didn’t showcase confidence; they needed more exposure trips and friendly matches. We needed to go out, and play against a better team, fall and rise to get that confidence level. So, it’s important to have friendly matches outside the country before the competition. I always believe for a team to excel, all five players need to perform and shoot well.
About Pre NBA Games
Earlier, in India, basketball was considered as a stylish game, and people used to think of us as showing off. But now they finally see it as a sport, not merely as a ‘game’, so this is a major change in mindset I would say. Owing to the NBA, people are following basketball, and many are talking about it. Even from Chennai, I could see the NBA fever gripped people. Many school-going kids bought tickets for the event and went to Mumbai. So I think the pre-games were a huge success.
When I coached the U-16 team, three to four girls got the opportunity to play in the USA via NBA India, so yes, it’s good thing, this will change the Basketball culture in India but the only thing is, I want this to be even more professional in coming days, have our own league which will give more recognition and job opportunities to the players.