Sanjana Ramesh grew up playing sports. Outside her home in India's Bengaluru, Karnataka, Ramesh often competed against her older brother in soccer and badminton, honing her competitive spirit. She started playing basketball at 12 as a hobby with friends. By 13, she was playing for her state team. Basketball quickly transformed into her favorite sport.
"You can be creative on the court and make new things," Ramesh said in a phone interview. "It's like an art."
Last Wednesday, Ramesh put pen to paper. On the first day of the NCAA's early signing period, the 17-year-old signed a national letter of intent to play at Northern Arizona University (NAU). Standing at 6-feet, Ramesh is just the second woman born in India to receive a Division I women's basketball scholarship. The first was Kavita Akula, who is a senior at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix via Garden City Community College in Kansas. Ramesh has never been to the United States, but the connection she forged with the NAU coaching staff has given her the confidence that this choice is the right one.
"I hope that more people will come from India to the U.S.," Ramesh said. "There's a lot of talent here, and I want to inspire them."
Ramesh will be NAU's first international player. Head coach Loree Payne found out about Ramesh from Blair Hardiek, one of the global technical directors for the NBA Academies Women's Programs. Hardiek worked with Ramesh in May when she attended a camp in Delhi.
"We recruited her pretty hard from the jump," Payne said. "We were looking for that stretch-four position and thought she'd be a great fit."
The NBA Academies Women's Programs are designed to engage top female prospects from outside the United States, giving players an opportunity to experience elite coaching and facilities. Along with Hardiek, Ruth Riley and Jennifer Azzi are also technical directors. The experience was transformative for Ramesh.
"I didn't think I'd get a chance to play in the USA," Ramesh said. "The NBA Academy was a real eye-opener."
Ramesh impressed at the camp because of her versatility. Her size and quickness can create mismatches. She is comfortable on the perimeter and on the block, where she can maneuver around taller players. Add that skill set to Ramesh's personality, and Hardiek knew she could be successful in the U.S. collegiate system.
"She's the type of kid that a coach notices right away," said Hardiek, a former associate head coach at the University of San Francisco and Missouri point guard. "One thing I love about her is that her teammates love her. She's a leader on the floor and off."
The experience at the NBA Academy gave Ramesh the confidence she needed. She'd already captained the U16 Indian national team in FIBA's 2017 U16 Asia Cup, but she still didn't fully believe in herself. Azzi and Hardiek helped with that. "They made me feel like a champion," Ramesh said.
So much of the American collegiate recruiting process is rooted in school visits, but Ramesh didn't get to do that. Instead, she trusted the connection she felt with the NAU staff. NAU is already sticking with Ramesh through challenges. While playing in a tournament in Taiwan in July, Ramesh came down the court, twisted her knee, and tore her ACL. She has been sidelined for the last four months, but NAU and Payne remained interested in Ramesh despite the injury.
"The way the coaches at NAU were supporting me and pushing me, that's really why I wanted to go to NAU," Ramesh said.
Although Ramesh will be able to return to the court in January, her studies will take up much of her time until April, though she's hoping to sneak in a visit to NAU in February or March. She plans to study sports psychology or criminology, and is looking forward to the opportunities awaiting her in Arizona.
"I feel like I can make a difference on their team," Ramesh said.