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Paathshala on the Court
Crossover India is one of the few organisations that looks to seamlessly blend academics and sports. Image credit- Hannah Bitzer for Crossover India.
I want to apologise to my primary school teachers at St. John’s DLW in Varanasi. It’s been over twenty years, and I finally have a confession: for years, when my friends and I said that we needed to skip class to practice our ‘Teacher’s Day’ Talent Show break-dance routine, we were lying. We didn’t do much dancing at all.
We spent those after-lunch periods bunking class, playing football with a piece of a stone, “Catch-Catch” with a tennis ball, some cricket out in the field even without our PT shoes, and yes, throwing up a basketball on the cement court at the far end of the campus.
I don’t know if the teachers actually believed our creative excuses to bunk and go out and play. Were they apathetic? Or perhaps, it was just simpler to let the ‘naughty’ boys of the Blue House run wild outdoors instead of disrupt the classroom. Either way, year after year from Class I to Class V, our group kept up the ‘break dance practice’ charade in the month leading up to September 5, Teacher’s Day. Finally, in Class V – my last full year at St. John’s – two of my friends eventually made it to the Talent Show stage and gyrated their bodies without coordination to “Main Khiladi Tu Anari”.
It was the end of an era. We all had to grow up. In senior school, academic and social pressures would rob us of those idle afternoons to play sports around campus. Sports, even for the most talented spin bowlers among us, was to remain a hobby. We had to choose one or the other – the classroom or the basketball court – and everyone chose the classroom.
Our story isn’t unique; young Indian kids with energy and zest for outdoor activity learn early in their lives that sports are only a pastime. In developing India, where every struggling student is in competition with millions of others for few percentage points on the Board Examinations, a few seats in the best colleges, a few employers for their skillsets, it is understandable that parents and teachers prepare their children in this mould.
One of the major reasons why India – despite a population of 1.3 billion – continues to struggle on the global stage in most sporting competitions is that there are countless young players who make the choice of classroom over the court every year. We are taught to choose one or the other; we can’t have both.
Sports in India are a risk; and this why some of our best athletes, certainly many of India’s best basketball players, come from backgrounds where the sport was all they had to secure a profession. Many of these talented players didn’t choose to play basketball for the fame or the money (there is hardly any of either), they chose it because the game is all they had.
Times are changing, though. India is waking up to a new era where an entire generation of young families are beginning to have a little more disposable income. Sports are still a “risk”, but with more opportunities in the sporting sphere than ever before, more families are willing to take that risk. Cricket is of course the ‘Holy Grail’ of financial success in Indian sports, and any top cricket player in India will be able to find professional stability. But leagues and high-level Olympics performances in other fields – Hockey, Football, Boxing, Wrestling, Kabaddi, Tennis, etc. – are making young people think of sports as a real alternative.
But, as the example of other countries can teach us, sports vs. academics doesn’t need to be a choice. In the USA, for example, the system is created so that even the best basketball players – future NBA talents – have the option to be successful academically in High School and College (while playing in the NCAA) as well. Having a variety of paths and options should be the ultimate goal in India: only a miniscule percentage of all young players bunking class with hoop dreams will be able to make basketball a professional option; for the rest, the classroom will prepare them for other options if the sporting careers end or don’t work out.
Shaun Jayachandran, a teacher and basketball coach in Boston, combined his two passions for hoops and education to give back to the youth in Chennai, where his parents are originally from. He created the Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy, a non-profit programme that has been active in India for several years now in using basketball as a vehicle for academic change. For Jayachandran, the union of sports and academics is indeed the ideal solution.
99.9 percent of people will never play professional sports, but sports can teach in other ways,” said Jayachandran. “It is an opportunity to learn in small doses how to win and how to lose, and how to recover from a loss. It is an opportunity to be a leader and learn how to follow. Basketball is about problem solving small processes, and it’s a great teacher to help make practical decisions in your job, community, and family life. Every study has shown that students who play sports get better marks and have a higher graduation rate. In a country like India, where education is a pinnacle of value, sports should be an obvious fit.”
Sports has often been a way into better academics, and in India, parents and students need to be encouraged to make the most of the opportunity both ways: if an athletically-gifted child can win a scholarship through sports, he or she should make the most of the academic provision in their school or college. And if a school or college has a strong athletics programme, there should be no separation between “those who study” and “those who play”; there is no reason for students not find the balance between being “nerds” and “jocks”.
Most recently, the NBA in India announced a massive news that could touch this very nerve; within a few months, they will launch the NBA Academy India, an elite basketball training centre for the top male and female prospects from India, in Delhi National Capital Region (NCR). The Academy, which is the first of its kind in the country, will be fully funded by the NBA. It will start with a pool of 24 elite young prospects who will receive scholarships and training at the Academy and provide education to the chosen prospects through a local school partnership.
The Academy is the successor to the NBA’s grassroots school initiative in India, the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme, which reached more than 3.5 million youth and trained more than 3,000 physical education instructors nationwide since its launch in 2013. The programme worked with schools in several Indian cities to make NBA-assisted basketball instruction a part of the physical education programme. The NBA was holding a paathshala – their classroom – on the court!
Now, the NBA Academy will sway even further towards the athletic sphere – choosing only the best of the best – but with a commitment to not forget about educational growth as well.
“As a young athlete, it’s difficult enough to become an elite player through the training and the stress of managing basketball and education,” said Brook Meek, the Vice President of NBA’s International Basketball Operations. “Our philosophy was having an NBA Academy India where we can prepare them in that 360-degree way that when they do make that transition, they’ll be more prepared for success.”
Meek added, “All these skills that they are going to be learning at the academy in addition to how to shoot and dribble are skills that they are going to take with them when they are done playing basketball and they are interviewing for a job or they are starting their career after basketball.”
The NBA’s aim in India is, eventually, to produce players who could stand competitively against the best talents in the world. No Indian player has yet played in the NBA, but last summer, Satnam Singh made history by becoming the first Indian to be drafted by the league.
Satnam's is a true success story, of a young man who beat the odds to achieve more than his wildest dreams. But, along with the story of Satnam's success, there is a story of some regret, too, on almost every step, of missed chances. Due to his poor English upon arrival to America, he struggled in the classroom, fell behind a year, and couldn't make the most of his High School experience. Eventually, his grades were too poor to get him a necessary college scholarship in the US, leading him to forego the option of college altogether to declare for the NBA.
It isn’t enough just to replicate the success of Satnam; India needs to think of preparing young people to dominate both on the court and in the classroom. Hopefully, local schools and programmes can give priority to this duality
Jayachandran reiterated that sports can be used to find passion and opportunities in other careers, too, even if they are not directly related to sport itself. “The ball for every athlete stops bouncing one day,” he said, “And you have to have another career to go to afterwards. You could stay with sports but you could go on to become an educator, a doctor, an engineer, a scientist. You can translate those qualities of being an athlete into the rest of the world.”
A whole new generation of young people are surely bunking class right now, but for all the temptations and dangers available to an idle young person, sports is the best-case scenario. I’m hoping that they don’t need to come up with lame excuses and ‘dance practices’ like we did. There are classrooms everywhere: indoors, on the cricket field, on the basketball court, in science labs, on mountain cliffs. And instead of a one-way path, education should be a seamless combination of them all.