India's next-gen talents' WNBA dream halted, but far from over

Khushi Dongre, a Kyrie Irving fan, believes ball handling is her biggest strength. NBA Academy

Sanjana Ramesh, Khushi Dongre and Asmat Kaur are three of a new wave of Indian talents who moved to colleges and schools across the United States over the past year in pursuit of a dream to reach the WNBA, the top of women's basketball. Those dreams have been brought to a shuddering halt by the COVID-19 pandemic -- as has almost all activity across the world -- but the athletes, now back home in India, have many happy memories to look back on, and much to look forward to.

They now miss the routine that is a part of every high-school/collegiate athlete's life, including the gruelling training sessions.

"It's exactly like Coach Carter," says 17-year-old Sanjana. The Bengaluru girl is a freshman at Northern Arizona University and she believes the Samuel L. Jackson movie (where he whips an out-of-shape high school basketball team into one that is a whole lot more awesome) provides the perfect peek into the life of a collegiate athlete. At least the bits about the training.

"The training is so intense; workouts [in India] barely hold their own to the warm-ups [in college]. Those scenes where they throw up in the movie [during the training montages], that's not exaggerated at all." It may sound like torture, but Sanjana's laughter while narrating the story suggests differently.

Sanjana has suffered before. In June 2018, she tore an ACL, which kept her on the sidelines for more than a year. The fact that she still became just the second Indian to receive a Division I women's basketball scholarship (after Kavita Akula, in 2017) last year, is a testament to her quality. She had joined the college not quite fully fit, but after a couple of months of focused strength and conditioning training, she was back.

"A month [in the States] was like a year [in India]. The difference in quality [of the rehabilitation and S&C] is just that high."

She had not stepped onto the court yet in a Division 1 game -- she is, after all, still a freshman -- but that has not raised much concern. While in college, her coaches would have continuous interactions with her, highlighting a clear-cut roadmap and that has convinced her. Keep working hard, keep improving, the game time will come.

Meanwhile, Khushi Dongre, who goes to the ASA College in Miami, had no issues getting game time. Loud, confident and fast-talking, Khushi is a bundle of sunshine. For the season that recently got cut short, key starters of the first team had been ruled out due to poor academic records and the freshman got a chance to step up. The team's results were shambolic -- a win-loss record of 2-24 speaks for itself -- but that hasn't bogged Khushi down. After all, they were playing without the vast majority of their first team. Of the 26 games her college played this season, she played 23, starting 22 of them, and averaged 13.4 points a game.

A centre who often bullied opponents at the post back home, Khushi played point guard for her college. At 5'10", the Aurangabad girl dominated age-group games in India, but that was never going to be enough for college ball in the States. She has, though, taken the change in position (as drastic a shift as you can have on a basketball court) in her stride. She wouldn't put it all down to her height, either. "I play point guard because I've got the best dribble in the team."

Khushi wasn't at any point overawed by the change in scene, by the step-up in the general levels of play. While she recognised the increased tempo and need for speed, she had no doubt that in terms of physicality, she and her compatriots could hold their own against the best.

But Asmat, who joined the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, is a touch more wary. The 16-year-old said that adapting to the "cultural differences" had been her biggest challenge. An aggressive centre, the 6'1" girl from Indore took a little time to adjust: "When you step out of your comfort zone, when you are in a place that is so culturally different, you can lose your aggression, it's only natural."

Recognising this, though, is always the first step to rewiring oneself and Asmat has been learning how to remain on the right side of that all-important line between aggressive and offensive. "You need a strong heart for this."

She had picked Lawrenceville after thorough research, and was happy with the on-court and off-court learning she had been receiving. "The game is more aggressive, but the approach to it is a lot more stats-based," she says, while explaining how number-crunching had been helping her develop her overall game -- rebounds, steals, assists, to add to the shooting that comes naturally to her. That detail-oriented approach to coaching was what attracted her to the school in the first place.

Khushi, Sanjana, and two others -- Shristi Suren at the University of Winnipeg, Vaishnavi Yadav at the Pensacola State College -- got into colleges across the States through the NBA Academies Women's Program. Asmat, while having joined Lawrenceville on her own, credited the spells she had with the academy's Basketball Without Borders camps for giving her direction.

Five young Indian women, a first true surge of talent, taking a shot at the No. 1 league in the world, and they have all had stints with the academy.

Blair Hardiek, global technical director of the NBA Academies Women's Program, believes this surge is a natural result of the one "constant" she has noticed in her camps in India. "Everyone truly wants to improve their game. This is evident by how well the players take instruction, how hard they go in skill work and their follow-up post camp to get assistance with the NCAA recruiting process."

She believes that "desire to improve" was so evident that it had made it easier to approach college coaches in the United States to sign up players from the relative basketball backwaters of India. This combined with their "strong work ethic, coachability, and high basketball IQ" mean she believes they have what it takes to succeed once the move is made.

Sanjana, Khushi and Asmat mentioned they are in constant touch with 'Coach Blair', and see her as an ever-present mentor. Hardiek put it down to her personal coaching philosophy, one borrowed from Teddy Roosevelt: "They don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care." Hardiek has shown, continuously, that she cares, and her protégés value that.

Hardiek stressed on the importance her athletes give to education, and it is evident when speaking to the players. Sanjana is studying to be a business management major, Khushi wants to do sports management and move onto sports psychology while Asmat has chosen science, with a slight lean towards chemistry. They may be aiming for the WNBA but if that -- or plan B of playing in Europe -- fails, they are ready for what comes next.

Their personalities may be different, but these young women all have the same alpha-confidence to them. And they have a common theme binding their philosophies -- the importance of "mental strength". It is a theme that laces their conversations, a theme that has helped them adjust to a life far removed from their comfort zones, a theme that has helped them conquer injury, doubt, fear; it is a theme that has helped them believe.

Come the end of this fearsome global crisis, it will remain the theme that helps them plow on in their quest for ultimate glory.