"Padhoge, likhoge, banoge Nawab. Kheloge, koodoge banoge kharab. (If you read and write, you'll be a king. If you jump and play around, you'll be a pauper)."
If I had a time machine, before high-fiving James Naismith, I'd track down the pundit who espoused the above rhyme and cordially bring him to the Chhattisgarh Basketball Development Academy (CBA) for an eye opener. Located at the Pant stadium basketball complex, Sector-1, Bhilai, Google Maps may as well show this place with a tiny animation of little children walking in and grown versions of them walking out in tailored suits with numerous medals around their necks. Over 800 medals to be precise, as the players from this academy have been adorned by over 586 gold, 119 silver and 130 bronze medals at the national level. That is a stupendous amount under any context.
The CBA is powered by the unflinching drive, vision and iron will of Rajesh Patel, who's dedicated almost four decades towards the development of basketball in this region starting in 1979. He's also the coach of the Indian junior women's team, an honorary secretary of the Chhattisgarh Basketball Association and an associate secretary of the Basketball Federation of India. Since almost a decade before LeBron James was born, Rajesh Patel has been working tirelessly to develop basketball at the youth level. He's assisted by his acolytes Sarjeet Chakraborty and Iqbal Ahmed Khan among other coaches to chase history at the CBA.
The history of this hallowed ground speaks for itself. Since 1995, Rajesh Patel's teams have finished on the podium 100 times at the nationals, as he's guided teams across different age groups to 67 gold, 15 silver and 17 bronze finishes. The sub-junior group has proved to be the most successful with 19 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze finishes in their bag.
While many basketball programs are playing checkers, the CBA is playing chess on multiple boards. There is a long-term plan in place here, as the academy consciously grooms batches of players born in various years to excel in different age divisions.
There are four courts here, two for boys and two for girls. Around 80 girls and 100 boys show up here before the crack of dawn to offer prayer in sweat on the court. Besides the numerous walk on players, these 180 are the ones who undergo strict training to realize their dreams of playing for India.
While tall individuals are the aberration rather than the norm in the Central India Tribal belt, the academy has maximized the potential talent pool by relying on speed, athleticism, and sheer hard work. These players are defined by persistence and a never say die attitude, taking on the values of their coach who has seen it all. Thanks to his ceaseless efforts at scouting, they now have some players over 6 feet tall, including the 7 feet tall phenomenon, Poonam Chaturvedi, who's the tallest women's basketball player in Asia.
This court doesn't hold invitational tournaments, as their core competency is spotting and nurturing talent, helping them win national level recognition and seek gainful employment on the strength of their service.
In India, a career through sports besides cricket can often mean aiming for employment in a government organization which represents the Holy Grail for many aspiring youths. It brings security, respect, prestige, and an opportunity to support one's family. Over 120 players have achieved the distinction of getting a job through sports quota in various organizations such as Bhilai Steel Plant, CISF (Central Industrial Security Force), MP Police, Government of Chhattisgarh Railways, BSNL, Indian Overseas Bank, etc.
Thousands of players have passed through this academy, with over 600 players being awarded various scholarships. The CBA has produced over 36 international players as well.
The CBA receives support from various organizations to sustain their run of excellence. Bhilai Steel Plant and Bhilai Engineering Corporation help as sponsors to the academy. BEC takes care of the food, lodgings, and education of the players, and they've also gifted deserving players with cycles and mopeds to make it to practice and school. Day boarding schools were started here in 2006 as well. The BSP helps to maintain the grounds which are floodlit. Along with Chhattisgarh Sports and Youth Welfare Department, the BSP helps take care of expenses for travel for tournaments.
Dr. Raman Singh, CM of Chhattisgarh, is very supportive of the academy as well. Much like NBA Champions touring the White House after a championship, the CM invites the team at his house and rewards the players after they win at the nationals.
Rajesh Patel has a few wishes he'd like to see realized here, and they are intertwined. "If I had an indoor stadium solely dedicated to basketball, I believe we could take India from finishing in top 8 in competitions in Asia to the top three positions." Cemented floor can be hard on the legs, and falls can result in deep gashes in the skin. Outdoor courts are also at the mercy of the weather, hence an indoor stadium would be a godsend boon indeed. Which would, in turn, help him to realize his dream of watching Indian basketball rise in the FIBA rankings.
In 2014, the Chhattisgarh senior women's team grasped the one medal which had eluded them thus far by ending Railways' decade-long unbeaten streak at the nationals. Seven of the 12 players on that team were from Bhilai Steel Plant. Of late, no team had an answer for the dynamic duo of Geethu Anna Jose and Anitha Pauldurai on the Railways. The arrival of the 7 foot wonder-kid Poonam Chaturvedi helped to contain Geethu as Chhattisgarh won 81-77.
Stories of perseverance and excellence in basketball in India haven't always received the limelight they deserve, but thanks to Chhattisgarh's historic win against Railways, their story caught the attention of Lara Dutta, as she initiated conversation with Rajesh to bring this story to the silver screen. Soon, you might see a big scale Bollywood feature film on this remarkable academy directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, whose work include NH 10, Udaan and Lootera.
The good folks at the CBA were chasing history long ago, now they are simply writing it.