Inspiring Indian Hoopsters: Ankush Passi - Balancing books and basketball
In India, sports and education are usually treated as a zero sum game by the society. Excellence in one is seen as coming at the expense of the other. It’s difficult for a sportsperson to express that both are mutually exclusive activities and it’s not a see-saw situation where one can only be up if the other is down.
The best way to show that both can go hand in hand, is to show that they can go hand in hand. Show, not tell. Here’s a story of a player who did just that.
To contribute to the game in our country, everyone doesn’t need to represent the national team. The game in India is made from the grassroots. The fans, professional and amateur players, people who work behind the scenes to promote the game, anyone and everyone who pursues the game in whatever capacity contributes towards its growth. Being in the shadow of other sports, the directions basketball can take you is largely darkened in the shadow. Learning about those who have walked the path and made something for themselves through the game is heartening.
Ankush Passi picked up basketball in the sixth grade. He played junior state level for Punjab and got 80% in board exams, 10 and 12, and he graduated with first class distinction in B.Com. All while dealing with discouragement and setbacks. A lot of aspiring players can identify with him. Here’s his story:
I first picked up a basketball in 2000 when I was in 6th grade. Our school had a newly built court but without rims. It took them one entire year to arrange for the rims, until then me and other kids used to just run up and down the court, dribbling the ball. After one year of dribbling and throwing air balls on the walls, we had a rim to shoot. It was a moment of joy for all of us. Slowly it turned into passion. I played for the school team in 8th grade and we won our first inter school tournament.
Impressed by my talent, a coach of another school team claimed to make me the best player in the country if I joined his team. His words came as a motivation and I figured out that this is my talent, and I have potential to go beyond and also prove my mother, who always used to encourage me to have a skill/talent or be exceptional in some field, to show her that basketball is what I am good at.
Gradually I became a popular boy in school, not because they liked my game but because they used to see me playing ball almost every time – before school, free periods, recess time, after final bell. I used to bunk numerous classes to play ball. My batch mates always used to see me in a sweaty white shirt, coming to school half an hour early, eating lunch quickly, staying back at school after final bell all so that I could play more and more. I was in love with the game!
Discouragement all around
Just when I started taking the game seriously, I felt pressure and discouragement from people around. My parents, teachers and even school principal cared only about grades. They all persuaded me to devote more time on studies so that I don’t flunk. The only way to overcome this challenge was to prove them wrong. I studied hard, played harder and scored 85 percent in 10th boards. My school teachers were shocked but still wouldn’t encourage me to pursue the game. Tired of their attitude, I changed my school. The same year, I got selected for the state team to play national basketball tournament but that’s the only time I could make it to the state team. I played youth nationals, senior state level and various youth and junior state championships in Punjab.
Discrimination all around
Getting on the state team had its own unwanted challenges because of over aged players playing in lower age group categories, which made for tough competition for players like me who played according to their original date of birth. The new school I went to in 11th grade had no basketball team at all, so I had to change my school mid year. The third school again had complaints regarding leaves, even if they were taken for playing tournaments and they even suspended me for a week. They were too focused on the 12th board results. Anyway, I managed 80 percent.
The game paved the way for education
In 2006, right after my boards, I came to Delhi university for trials through sports merit (I don’t call it quota). I got through Hansraj College and the next day got through SRCC trials too. I chose to take admission in SRCC as it’s India’s most prestigious college since a decade. I cried tears of happiness at the time it was announced that I had been selected after their rigorous trials. Everyone seemed to be happy now – my parents, school teachers, relatives. My love, passion, dedication and sincerity for the game brought me to an institution which academics probably would not have.
After playing my first tournament in college, I realized how intensely basketball was played in Delhi university and students loved cheering for their colleges. This made matches more serious. Unfortunately, my struggle to pursue the game never ended and I broke my right wrist during a match in an invitational tournament in Noida. I was going for a lay up and the defender ducked, leaving me unbalanced and I landed on my wrist. That’s when it broke. I had to get it operated, leaving me with iron wires inside the bone with ten stitches and a 3 month plaster. Doctors told me that I couldn’t play ever in my life! Since I am right handed, it was impossible for me to shoot a ball with a broken wrist. I did not give up and did not listen to the doctors because I could not believe it. I just believed in myself.
Detail about the admission process through merit in sports :
In 2006, the minimum certificates required for candidates were first/second/third position at state level tournament or participation at national level. Candidates eligible for the trial had to undergo the field trials which included a fitness test, skill test, one on one, drill tests and game sense etc. At that time, around 70 candidates with these basic certificates competed and only 3 got through SRCC, including me.
First time I picked up a ball after the plaster was removed, I could not throw it above the rim standing right under it. I was devastated, I wanted to play, I had to play. I could not give up! I started strengthening my wrist with different exercises and started shooting the ball from the nearest point and gradually going a step farther. Within a couple of months, I was able to shoot a 3-pointer. That was it, my confidence was back. I could play, I could shoot, dribble and pass. With extra practice, I was as good as before, rather I played the best basketball of my life post that. In the second year of college (2008), we won many tournaments and I was selected for Delhi university basketball team. In the final year of college(2009) I became the captain of the college team and also the captain of Delhi university team and we stood runners up at North Zone basketball championship after 14 years.
One thing that I did not mention till now is that in 2003 I was diagnosed with a disease named ‘Hirayama’, which has affected my left hand and my left thumb has very restricted movement and this disease is not curable. None of my teammates ever got to know about it because I never let this be my weak point.
Sticking by my policy to maintain balance between sports life and education, I worked hard throughout and managed first division in B.com (honors).
I’ve attended four national camps overall but I could make it to only one nationals, because every time I was competing against guys of much older age with more experience. Like when I was playing under youth category, we had guys who were around 22-24 years old with fake certificates competing with us. Sometimes even the state federation overlooks this fact for their own benefits.
No matter what obstacles came in form of lack of facilities, discouragement from people, corruption within the system and ailments, the love for this game helped me sail through and made me who I am today.
I am really happy to have a passion for basketball because this is where I find happiness, respect and appreciation from people. This is from where I have grown , learned about hardships, struggles and pressures and found strength to overcome them. This is where I have earned an identity. It’s out of this journey that I have learned a lot about human emotions, about failure, about success and about life.
The ulterior motive behind sharing my story is to provide a bit of inspiration to kids who love this game or any other sport and to contradict school teachers and parents, who should rather encourage willing kids to participate in games and sports, especially at the time when they are at the early stages of their careers. Also to provide healthy, encouraging environment and facilities to those who choose to become sportsmen.
Today, though I do not play the game professionally, my heart and soul wishes Indian basketball reaches the greatest stage of Olympics and brings laurels for the country.