Flashing cameras, TV journalists desperate for sound bytes, waiting print journalists…all the attention fit for a cricketer. People walking into the Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium gape or rather look up to the object of all the attention, Geethu Anna Jose, captain of the Indian women's basketball team.
Cut back. Thirteen is tough on a regular girl, and if she is tall, really tall, it is tougher and ‘nicknames' are an invariable fallout. She was ‘ ostrich', she says. Geethu got a lot of that but the luxury of hindsight makes her laugh. She says she used to hide behind friends, “who were much shorter than I was.”
Harping on her height might, somehow, seem to limit or contain what Geethu has achieved. But at six feet plus she towers over most people. Gawking she is used to, and being comfortable with gawking happened fairly recently - when she caught herself gawking at another player. “I just couldn't take my eyes off her. She is so much taller than I am. That is when people staring at me made sense,” she says. Lauren Jackson is an Australian professional basketball player who plays in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the Australian Women's National Basketball League (WNBL) and considered by some to be among the best women basketball players in the world.
At the time Geethu was in Australia to play for Ringwood Hawks, in the Australian professional league. She was probably the first woman to have played in the professional basketball league in Australia. While there she was adjudged Most Valuable Player. Geethu was spotted by Tim Ottin of Ringwood Hawks at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Australia where she did very well.
Last year at the FIBA Asian Basketball Championship, which was held in Chennai, she was adjudged top scorer with 132 points. The long-limbed athlete, the centre (her position on court), just needs to stretch and dunk. Basketball just happened to her, she says. “In school I just had to try every sport, be it athletics, volleyball, basketball…anything at all. I wasn't very serious either. But then the basketball coach in school caught hold of me and….” she grins, shrugs and looks heavenwards. She joined Assumption College, Changanasserry, for her graduation (“I left that half way. But I want to get myself a degree.”) and joined the Southern Railways team who snapped her up seeing her play for the State team. Selection for the Indian senior team also happened around the same time.
The ‘job' with the Southern Railways took her to Chennai when she was 18, the reason why she dropped out of college. She is a ticket examiner at the Madras Central Station, but if you are going to be looking for her there…it's going to be a no-show. “When a train from Kerala arrives, there will be somebody who recognises me and then they come to me and ask me about how things are with me. Then come the advice, remonstrations…it is nice to know that absolute strangers are concerned but it creates a disruption so I, generally, don't get assigned on ticket duty there,” she says.
Playing in the Australian professional league has taught her more than a lesson or two. The fitness levels of the players there is one. What for her, however, was the eye-opener was seeing really tall players run! “Here we are told, while training, if one is tall ‘don't run'. But that is not the case; there I saw very tall players running and training. I learnt so many things with the exposure I had.” She makes a strong case for exposure gained by playing in leagues abroad. One of her long term dreams is to play for the WNBA.
It hasn't been all basketball for Geethu. Movies, almost, came calling. Jayaraj made her an offer that she…resisted. “When he called up; I didn't want to refuse outright. But I politely refused. I would much rather do something that I know than get into something I have no clue about!” she says. She, however, has modelled. That too was not particularly easy since, “it was not just about smiling away…the photographer would tell me to look a particular way, not to smile, not move…it was tough!”
From Kottayam via Changanaserry, to the captaincy of the Indian team; playing professional basketball Down Under and dreaming of playing in the WNBA, Geethu has taken the long and unconventional path. But when it comes to matters of the heart and marriage, she is as conventional (if not more) as the next girl. “I want my husband to be at least half an inch taller than I am,” she then turns, looks at her mother and says “see, you have to make sure of that”. To which her mother replies, “Half an inch hardly matters, won't seem like much of a difference.” Geethu adds, “Of course there is plenty of time for that!”