A few trees and scrub dot the landscape. Vehicles whiz by on the lone road, in a hurry to get elsewhere. The Gadge Maharaj Mission school for tribal children in Vajreshwari, a village in Thane district, near Mumbai, sits in unexceptional terrain.
But this summer, the landscape brightened up as a bunch of school kids in fluorescent shorts and vests pounded basketballs, their excited calls piercing the air. The action continued well past sundown: the floodlights flickered on and the children carried on with their drills and matches.
The court at the school is new, with tall wire fences and stadium seating on one side. The kit and training accessories are what you’d see in any affluent city school. On a typical evening, the children are split into three groups—one goes to a paved lane, another to an assembly hall, the rest stay on the court—learning different aspects of the game: dribbling, layups, three-player weaves, while four coaches hector, cajole, and demonstrate. At around 7 p.m., they split into teams and begin practice games, with an audience to cheer them on. Finally, around 8.30 p.m., the day’s session ends.
Matter of pride
Anil Awate, head of the school, is visibly proud of his students’ accomplishments. “Our team has beaten teams from Mumbai. Now, children from Mumbai come to this rural area to learn the game,” he says. The new court gives him more bragging rights: “There are many ashram schools run by NGOs in Maharashtra, and not a single one has a basketball court.” The children from Mumbai, who had come to ‘Summer Slam’ camp, were ferried in for 15-day stretches, to work with coaches and participate in activities that included basic etiquette and spoken English.
The transformation of the school’s sports profile and camp owes to Hi5 Youth Foundation, a non-profit organisation that “aims to revolutionise the state of basketball in India from the grassroot level”. Radhakrishnan Sundar, who founded Hi5 a few years ago, says the idea was initially met with a lot of scepticism. “People used to ask me why I would start a sports NGO when children in the country don’t have access to good education or food,” he says. Sundar, co-founder of IT company Mastek and a fan of the NBA from when he lived in the U.S.—“My sons grew up playing basketball”—thought the game had the potential to make a difference to young people. “Being a team and non-contact sport, it was the right choice.”
The schools chosen for the programme need to have space for at least a half-size court. The foundation takes it from there, marking the courts, installing the baskets, and providing sports kits for the kids. It now has 14 training centres, including 11 at Mumbai’s municipal schools and one at YMCA Ghatkopar. Sixty children from each school are selected for the programme, and some 1,200 children are trained in basketball through the year.
In less than two years, 31 boys and girls have made it to State-level competitions, representing Palghar and Raigad districts, and others have played at meets, including Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation-run tournaments. The foundation also has its own annual tournament called Hoop it Up.
There have also been stories of extraordinary transformations. Salim (name changed), 13, a student at Motilal Nagar municipality school, would frequently skip classes and loiter at an auto-mechanic’s shop. “Some of his friends said he had started smoking,” says Kevin Francis, a Hi5 coach.
“His stamina was low; he used to get tired very quickly.” But when Salim started playing, he quickly developed an interest for the game. “I asked him to come regularly. And now, he even helps the juniors with the game.”
The foundation spends around ₹5,000 a year per child annually and it employs 30 people, including coaches and social workers. Besides the in-school programmes, there is also area training. At the Ghatkopar YMCA, for instance, the social workers go to children’s houses and ask them to enrol in the programme.
The children don’t just learn to play the game. “We teach them to take on life through basketball,” says Usha Sundar, Sundar’s wife, and director of operations at Hi5. During 15-minute sessions after coaching, they learn about cleanliness, manners, gender equality and other issues. “We ask them to do simple things like saying ‘thank you’ at least six times a day. They also make sure the courts are clean before and after the sessions.”
The trainers also share success stories. “We told them about author Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rulefor succeeding in any profession, be it basketball, engineering or business.” The children took that one very literally: “They began counting, and said ‘It will take 10 to 12 years to finish 10,000 hours!’”