With all the talk of the growth of basketball in India and fans increased expectations of the performance of Indian basketball players, the popular (and to some, logical) next question has become: how soon will an Indian player be good enough to play in the NBA?
Unfortunately, the world’s best basketball league is still several years away from the grasp of the Indian baller. There are a lot more obstacles on the way – from fitness, to diet, to training, and to pure talent – and a lot more rungs in the ladder – from playing abroad in Asian leagues, or playing in the NCAA, or somewhere and Europe – on the way before a player arrives in the Zion of basketball destinations, the NBA.
But it’s in a different, yet parallel direction that Indian basketball may make a global impact sooner. With more of a level-playing field, the women’s game has seen one superstar – Geethu Anna Jose – rise heads and shoulders above any other player in Indian hoops history as she became the first Indian superstar to play professionally first in Australia and then in Thailand with her Southern Railway teammate Anitha Paul Durai. A year ago, Jose came close to joining the world’s most famous women’s league – the WNBA – as she tried out with three squads in America but unfortunately returned empty handed. Still, her success domestically and abroad laid the blueprint for aspiring Indian youngsters to follow her footsteps and one day hope to emulate her.
At 28, Jose is perhaps at the turning point of her career, and the women who has been the unquestioned leader of the Indian Women’s team for the better half of the past decade has perhaps left her better years behind her.
Born in Kalpetta, Wayanad, about a six hour drive up north from Jose’s hometown of Kotayyam in the same Southern Indian state of Kerala, young Jeena PS looked up to the Keralite heroine as role model. Little did the teenager know that, as she watched Jose go from becoming India’s best to WNBA hopeful, she herself would develop from a basketball newcomer to the nation’s hottest young talent.
Over the last few years, the 18-year-old Jeena has been in dominant form for every team she has represented and in every tournament she has entered. As a central figure of the Kerala’s brilliant youth and junior basketball programme, Jeena led her state to victories in the 2008 Sub-Junior Nationals, 2010 Youth Nationals, the 2010 Junior Nationals, and the 2011 Junior Nationals. The most recent Junior Nationals – in Puducherry – were a slight blotch on Kerala’s record, as they finished at ‘only’ third place. From 2010 onwards when she was just 16, Jeena also became a part of Kerala’s senior team, participating in two all India nationals’ and one Federation Cup tournament.
Already a force to be reckoned with domestically, Jeena had the biggest breakout moment of her career a few months ago as the leader of India’s junior women’s team that took part in the U18 FIBA Asia Championship for Women in Johor Bahur, Malaysia. Jeena was the second-highest scorer in the entire tournament with 20.2 points per game and led the tournament in rebounds with 13.6 rebounds per game. With her brilliant performances, India – who were in Level II of the championship to begin – won all of their games and defeated higher-seeded Malaysia in a thriller in their last match-up to win promotion into Level I.
Jeena was an unstoppable force in the paint throughout the tournament, just like she has been in domestic competitions, and yet, she doesn’t consider herself to be the most aggressive of players. “I would say that I haven’t done a bad job so far in the past championships,” Jeena says, “I’m not an aggressive player, and I might even be invisible to many spectators. All of my teammates and coaches have told me that I’m too silent.”
Perhaps it was her late start into the game of basketball that still keeps her quieter in games, as more of a learner, observer, and less of a talker. “Sporting activities never featured in my initial school years,” says Jeena, “Only when I was in the 7th standard did a physical education teacher make me part of the high-jump team. I did a pretty good job and was selected for the state-level athletics meet. The athletic coach at this meet – Tomy Cherian – noticed my height and jumping ability and suggested that I take up basketball, too. I was picked for my school’s team at that point purely because of height, because there were no tall players in the team.”
Jeena mentioned that she didn’t take basketball too seriously as first, but as her own skills improved so did her interest and time invested into the game. From practicing just two or three times a week, a year later Jeena graduated to focusing far more on hoops and leaving high-jump behind.
“I began to really love the game,” she says, “From my experiences I realised that, whenever our team worked hard – in the practice sessions or in the games – we got a result. I learnt something new in each game. Winning or failing didn’t matter, because the game always helped me think positively.”
Jeena began to model her game behind the Keralite superstar that everyone in the basketball fraternity admired – Geethu Anna Jose. “Obviously, she is my role model,” says Jeena, “Her rebounding, her offensive moves, defensive tactics, assists… She has been perfect and amazing in every way!”
Now, Jeena will be hoping that her international career can follow the same trajectory as Geethu’s. After receiving her first international call-up in the U16 FIBA Asia Championship in 2009, Jeena hasn’t looked back, and has played for India on the Junior and Senior level already. She looks back fondly to her most recent performance in the Junior FIBA ABC in Malaysia, where she led India to a perfect 5-0 record.
“That tournament really was awesome!” Jeena exclaims, “Our team did a pretty good job and I’m glad that we’re now promoted into Level I.”
Jeena credits two of India’s coaches at the championship – Harjinder Singh Simak and Shiba Maggon (Shiba called her a ‘scoring machine’) – for giving her enough time on court to showcase her growing arsenal of skills. “I was able to use the opportunity they gave me to make the most of it on court, specially scoring and rebounding-wise. Plus, we were all a good, close team together, and made sure to support each other in every game. I think that is essentially why we were able to have a good tournament.”
Jeena believes that the team had the right type of balance, of inside and outside players, of scorers and defenders, of passers and rebounders. While they showed strong performances in their Level II wins against Singapore, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, and Sri Lanka, it was in the Level I playoff versus Malaysia which really tested their mettle. As the going got tough, the tough got going: Jeena had 24 points and 11 rebounds to lead India to an exciting 1 point victory.
Looking ahead past the Junior Championship, Jeena has far bigger challenges ahead. The better she gets, the more will be expected of her. As the best young player in the country, she will be expected to become the leader of India’s next generation, the generation that is expected to make Indian basketball more competitive against Asia’s best.
Jeena looks at the challenge ahead by looking inwards towards herself, choosing instead to point the things she can improve in her own game that can later help the improvement of the entire team. “I’m a good dribbler of the ball and am fairly aggressive driving in – so I know that those are the two things that I have to keep improving on,” she says, “But I want to keep adding to my game to get even better in other ways.”
She is a self-confessed quiet player on court, but sometimes, the best leaders do it silently, with actions more than words. Jeena’s presence and quiet leadership have translated to consistent team success. We may be searching for the next big thing in Indian basketball to arrive with a BANG SLAM DUNK and blow us away, but maybe, that next big thing is already here, quietly moulding her way to a dominating career ahead. It’s time that we start paying attention to Jeena PS – Kerala’s best new export – and the player who can grow be India’s best in the coming years!