December 23, 2022
For young girls in India, hope and basketball go hand-in-hand
'They barely know names of NBA players, so dreaming of going to the U.S. is hard to even imagine'
It was still pitch dark at 4 a.m. when Aditi Lakde, 13, got out of bed to help her mother set up their family vegetable stall. She had to prepare breakfast and lunch for the entire family before leaving for school in a couple of hours. As the sun rose, Lakde’s face lit up with excitement. All she could think of was how she would come home from school, complete all house chores, assist her parents in their work, cook dinner, study and then finally, in the evening, head to her favorite place — the basketball court.
Lakde’s under-17 teammates share a similar story. “It all sounds very tough didi [sister] but it is routine for us,” said Lakde. “We love looking forward to playing the evening after finishing all chores. It pushes us.”
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Aurangabad, a small town in western India, is home to Champions Basketball Court — a basketball coaching academy run by Sandeep Dhangare. Dhangare has been teaching kids in and around Aurangabad for almost 15 years now. “These kids don’t come from the best of families,” he said. “I want them to play basketball to keep them away from falling prey to bad habits. It’s my hope for them.”
At first glance, Champions looks like a regular backyard basketball court. Nestled between small houses in a quaint colony, it might not attract one’s attention immediately. But the noise it creates can’t be missed. Almost 200 kids, from all walks of life, train with Dhangare everyday. And he charges 100 Rupees per month for three hours of training. That’s $2 for every child. “Some cannot even afford that,” he said. “I don’t do it for the money. They are like family to me… I just want them to learn.”
Dhangare has to put in twice the time and effort to train the girls on his court. Factors like safety, familial pressure and lack of resources invariably affect their practice. Girls are frowned upon for wearing sleeveless jerseys and shorts — the basic attire for playing basketball. For years Dhangare has struggled to convince parents to send their daughters to the court.
“They are scared of a lot of things but most importantly they fear losing their daughters to things like teenage relationships and flings,” said Dhangare. “The culture in our country is such that the girl gets blamed and she is pulled out of all activities. I don’t want that to happen with my girls.”
Lakde and her teammates don’t seem to have time to do anything other than play basketball. After a day of juggling household chores and school work, all they have time for is their coach and the court. Dhangare’s techniques to train the girls are distinct. He focuses on increasing strength and speed because that’s where the girls are outsmarted by teams in various tournaments. Better resources like access to media, superior-level courts and higher exposure to tournaments are a few reasons why metro cities have produced far more skilled players than rural towns.
According to Tejasvi Deshpande, a senior point guard for Aurangabad’s district team, experience plays a large role in shaping a team. “We have the talent, skill and passion but we lack experience,” she said. “I have been playing basketball for 16 years at almost all levels now and I believe that exposure to varied matches marks the difference between us and the girls from big cities.”
While the NBA Academy is a prominent entity in India now, it has yet to reach the grassroots level. Each year the academy selects 20 top prospects across the country for training and scholarships in Delhi, India. An encouraging initiative at its core, it subsequently also aids players to secure admissions at colleges in the United States of America. A graduate of the NBA Academy and beneficiary of its initiatives is Sanjana Ramesh, a senior at Northern Arizona University.
A veteran player for India Basketball, Ramesh got an invite from NBA Academy in 2016. With assistance from Ruth Riley, an ex-WNBA star and mentor at the NBA Academy, she began applying to colleges in the USA. She was elated when she got accepted into Northern Arizona University and after playing with them for a few years now, she hopes India can someday build the same kind of system for basketball.
“Now that I’ve experienced what America has to offer, I know why it is number one in basketball,” said Ramesh. “So, if we have these kinds of resources and these training schedules, equipment and weight room access, Indians can be doing a lot more.”
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While girls like Ramesh are getting a taste of elevated basketball training and facilities, in Aurangabad and other rural areas of India, girls are still struggling to play the game. Dhangare lauds the efforts the NBA Academy is taking but believes that it is insufficient. “How will these initiatives reach my girls?” he asked. “They barely know names of NBA players, so dreaming of going to the U.S. is hard to even imagine.”
Lakde and her teammates are hopeful. They wake up with the drive to play and improve their game.
“We know we might not be the best at the game and we might not have the best shoes or the best court,” Lakde said. “But we really love playing basketball because it gives us freedom and we will keep giving it our best shot.”