It was one U13 club-level match in Karnataka that brought out the best in Sanjana Ramesh. In textbook dramatic style, the odds were all stacked against her and her then team-the Basketball club Orion’s. But that game taught Sanjana something important about herself.
Imagine this. Your opponent is a team that has never lost a match that is scheduled to take place in the morning. Call it superstition, but clubs could just never stand up to this particular team, and they maintained a clean win record in all their morning fixtures. This team was Bangalore’s Mounts Basketball Club.
“This happened when I was 12 and playing for the club Orion’s,” recalls Sanjana during a candid conversation with The Bridge. “U13 matches have this rule where each player can only play a maximum of three quarters,” she explains. “So, my coach- Ravi Kumar, thought it best to have me sit out in the first quarter so I could join in later.”
That decision did not go according to plan. The first quarter turned out to be a disaster for Orion’s. At around 16-0 down, this young girl from the sidelines observed the reactions of all those around her. There was her coach with his head down and eyes averted. There were her teammates on court looking beaten with only a quarter of the match played. Mounts was happy to establish their dominance in morning fixtures once again.
“I was furious,” says Sanjana. “I used to be a defensive player back then when I started, but I decided that I needed to up my game when the second quarter finally started.”
It does not take much to gauge whether a person has the makings of becoming a capable leader. For Sanjana, this was the match that started it all. Thanks to her 12-year old self and the massive contribution of 14 points throughout the game, the long-standing jinx of Mounts being the undisputed morning-fixture champion was broken.
Orion’s had defeated them 52-43.
It’s been five years since that day. Sanjana has now become the second Indian female baller to receive a Division I basketball scholarship under the NCAA, and she will be joining the Northern Arizona University women’s team in the upcoming season. Between the 12-year old headstrong girl who decided to shoulder the responsibility of seeing her school out an impossible scenario to today, Sanjana has proven her mettle as a leader and she also captained the India U16 team to win the Asia Cup Division B last year. For her, however, taking charge comes naturally.
“For anyone in a leadership position, the biggest challenge they face is to make sure that everyone in your team is on the same page,” Sanjana observes.“For that, communication skills are important, and it is always the captain’s responsibility to take care that too many opinions in the squad do not ultimately decrease efficiency.”
“At the U16 national camp, a lot of responsibility was naturally on me. When you have as mixed and diverse a team as any Indian national squad, there are bound to be obstructions standing in the way of proper communication.”
“For most of the team, language barriers became a key issue,” she says.
This is where Sanjana stepped in. Being well versed in regional languages in addition to Hindi and English, most of the team naturally looked up to her when it came to understanding strategies and skills. Even formal paperwork that is required at National Camps saw her help out all her teammates as and when necessary. This is the patience that is expected of a leader. In addition to sincerely helping out her team alongside working on her game, it thus came as little surprise when she was named to lead the U16 team. Such was her willpower during the tournament that she played through with an injury and motivated the team to a podium finish.
“I do not think I could do much during the tournament, but I did enough,” she says in retrospect. For the record, Sanjana averaged 6.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game at the U16 Asia Cup. She played defensive and blocked for the most of it but, in her words, the tournament was unique in ways beyond her captaincy. It was an all-important event, and it was in Bangalore- the city she calls her home.
“A few months before we played that tournament, I’d been at Kanteerava to watch all the matches in the Senior Women’s Asia Cup,” she adds. “It felt good to go through a tournament undefeated just like the senior team did. They are, after all, the women I aspire to be like.”
A leader in more ways than one.
Cultivating long-lasting friendships is a part of the job for Sanjana. And she found a confidant in her teammate Vaishnavi Yadav. In addition to playing the U16 Asia Cup together, the two have had the chance to bond during the NBA Camp as well as the Basketball Without Borders event held at Greater Noida in March 2018.
“When I met Vaishnavi, she was already three international matches old. I hadn’t donned the Indian jersey yet. Initially, I was shy because I wasn’t that well-versed in Hindi and communicating with her was difficult,” says Sanjana when asked about their friendship.
“There is so much to learn from her. Eventually, she taught me basic Hindi, and I taught her English. And we just clicked,” laughs Sanjana.
At the U16 camp, the little exposure that Vaishnavi had back then proved to be invaluable guidance for young Sanjana. Discussions on each other’s skills proved to be only mutually beneficial for them as they began to help each other in their games. It also helped that their on-court coordination proved to be exemplary during the all-important tournament.
“I got good rebounds, and she got terrific fast breaks. I get the ball, and I would know exactly where she was on the court and how to get it to her,” Sanjana explains.
“Sport is a continuous process of learning. And the more you’re open to learning from your teammates, the better leader you prove to be.”
“Vaishnavi is a very humble girl,” she adds. “It never gets to her head if she scores a hundred points in a game. ‘They’re just numbers’, she says. Staying grounded was one of the most valuable lessons she taught me.”
“She also has hopes of making it to America. Now I can use some of my experience to guide her through the long process of applications,” quips Sanjana.
Ultimately, that is all this is about- making Indian basketball better. And it’s a fact that young Sanjana fully recognises. India has often been described as a powerhouse of talented players. But somehow, international performances against the top brass teams have failed to make a mark. All that a sport ultimately needs is someone to set a precedent in excellence. For Sanjana, this path to the NAU was inspired by Kavita Akula, the first Indian-born basketball player to receive a full college scholarship. Now, Sanjana wants to encourage people with the path she carves out.
“My basketball idols have kept on changing. But I now know the level to which idols can motivate a person to keep achieving new benchmarks. Hopefully, similar levels of international exposure will help Indian basketball in the days to come.”
Reading her own game.
The biggest asset that a sportsperson can have is complete honesty with oneself. It’s only by recognising their flaws can one work towards correcting them. And it is a practice that Sanjana has become adept at. While she started as a predominantly defensive player, the years have seen Sanjana branch out enough to be comfortable with multiple playing positions. To not be a specialist and, instead, keep her options open to adapt to whatever suits the team best at a given moment is a decision that was consciously taken. Part of it came out of a desire to be as big a part of every game as possible, but there were several other factors.
“Initially, my only type of offensive play was being so good in defensively that I could eventually launch a counter-attack. Once I started growing taller, I realised that I could play at the post more. My coach at my then and current club, Beagles, capitalised on this and he taught me quite a few moves.”
“Not all of them worked, but I give myself credit for keeping at it and repeatedly trying- even if it was only to understand how things would work.”
Understanding the technicalities is also what prompted her to choose NAU as her next destination. As part of the NBA Academy camp in India where she was also named the Most Valuable Player, the organisers contacted American colleges with her application on her behalf. Consequently, Sanjana had a lot of options to choose from considering that she had caught the eye of multiple significant colleges.
“I went with Northern Arizona University (NAU) because I think their style of play is most similar to mine. They usually play this kind of game where four or even all five players can play all positions. That’s how I play. I can play as a post, a forward and even a handler. I think that will be the best fit for me,” says Sanjana.
“Also, its a perfectly picturesque setting,” laughs Sanjana. “The University is on a hilltop, and the court has an amazing view. It’s just perfect.”
On that note, we end the very illuminating conversation on Basketball as seen from the eyes of a 17-year old who is at the cusp of living a very cherished dream. And if you ask her how she got there, she just has one thing to say.
“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Sanjana. “It makes a whole lot of difference.”