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Dr. Sankaran Subramanian: Basketball Guru’s Flame Burns Eternal

Published on
February 2, 2018

Originally published in 2017 on NBA India.

It all started with a ball and a ring. In the Mahabharata, Dronacharya became the guru of Pandavas and Kauravas after retrieving a ball and a ring from a well around which the young princes were playing. Guru Dronacharya’s training ground, Gurugram, is some 350 kms from Ludhiana, where another guru, Dr. Subramanian, gave decades to his disciples in a sport involving, coincidentally, a ball and a ring. Hopefully, a lifetime achievement Dronacharya Award might unite these teachers soon.

“Had we not had him in our lives, we may not be where we are now,” said Amritpal Singh, one of India’s finest players currently, who has captained India.

Embodying a ‘Nishkama Karma’ (selfless action) approach to teaching, Dr. Sankaran Subramanian’s till-death-do-us-part approach towards basketball set a standard of excellence few can match. His hoop dreams were on a galactic scale and he lived every single day with an exemplary ethos of personal and professional conduct to realize that vision.

Did It Like Pop

Be it coincidence or a rite of passage ordained by fate, one of the NBA’s greatest coaches Gregg Popovich and India’s pride Dr. Subramanian share uncanny similarities in their careers. Scholars at heart with experience in the Air Force, they never stood in the way of players pursuing better opportunities. Told they weren’t good enough to coach, they persisted nevertheless and produced a stupendous lineup of talent, which continues to proliferate. Not to mention a heart of gold masked by an acerbic impatience and low tolerance for ineptitude. Those who learned under them are now growing the game as coaches/players.

“Whatever we are today, is all thanks to him. He grilled us in the fundamentals and initially it felt unnecessary, but over time we saw the benefits. Now when coaches from USA teach us the same, it reminds me of him telling us, ‘This will help you later in life,’” said Jagdeep Singh Bains, another stalwart of the Indian team.

Having joined the Air Force in 1958, Dr. Subramanian sharpened his on-court skills with American Air Force pilots, who’d play and train in a court set up in an airport hangar. Since then, he played and coached in the National Basketball Championship and won multiple medals as a coach. In 1973, he moved to Patiala with his family and joined National Institute of Sports (NIS) as a coach. His children excelled in sports, with daughter Indira Bali, who’s now a teacher herself, being proficient in swimming, and son Jai Shankar wielding a badminton racket with aplomb.

Dr Sankaran Subramanian with the national medal winning team

A certified FIBA referee, Dr. Subramanian was a scholar and a student first and foremost who continued to add to his resume. “During his tenure with the NIS, he coached numerous men’s, women’s, and junior teams as he continued to learn about the sport and shape lives of some of India’s finest players,” said Mrs. Indira Bali, his daughter, when I spoke to her over the phone. “He would come back from coaching trips abroad carrying heaps of NBA VHS tapes to dissect. He’d pore over them way past midnight and promptly be back on court at 5 a.m. in the morning, with the enthusiasm of a young child who can’t wait to experiment and incorporate his newfound knowledge. His boundless energy would sometimes outpace his wards.”

The Ludhiana Chapter

“He retired from his post as Director of Training at NIS in June 1998, and the same day he was taken away in an Ambassador car to Dashmesh Girls School in Badal, Punjab. They wanted him to be the school principal as well, but he solely wanted to be involved in sports. In his tenure there, the idea of a full-fledged basketball academy began to take shape in his mind,” recalled Mrs Bali. “Out of a sense of loyalty and nostalgia, he had a dream to set up an academy in Tamil Nadu, but they told him to stick to coaching schools.”

Spurned by Tamil Nadu, Dr. Subramanian found a home in Ludhiana as he set up the Ludhiana Basketball Academy (LBA) in 2003 at the Guru Nanak Stadium. Employed as the Director/Chief basketball coach at the Academy, he took the avatar of coach, warden, parent, tutor, clerk and peon among other roles for his wards till his passing. The academy did not have every facility which he dreamt of. But you wouldn’t know it by the long line of players he produced. The irony was that Dr. Subramanian would train students knowing very well that one day they would move on, but he never stood in their way. Being deeply attached to them, he’d often come home dejected and tearful, saying, “Today another boy has left.”

He never missed a practice and never let his students miss one either. He would say, “Nothing doing. You’ll go back to zero,” if a student requested a vacation. When it came to selection, he’d apply a scientific method of selection. Coming to him with a ‘sifarish‘ (request) to put a player in a team was a futile endeavor. “Extremely punctual, always well prepared, he was usually dressed in shorts or a tracksuit. If he wasn’t on the basketball court, he would either be on his way to or back from it. There were days he’d be so tired after a day’s work that he’d hit the bed in his training clothes. He rarely visited us at his home in Patiala, only once in a month or two,” said Mrs Bali.

Taunted as ‘Silver Subramanian’ for not winning gold at the Nationals, indifferent to the fact that many of his players were competing against his team, he was vindicated when he led Punjab to the gold against Tamil Nadu at the 2011-12 National Basketball Championship. He had mentioned that gold medal tasting especially sweet as it came against Tamil Nadu in Tamil Nadu.

Once A Coach, Always A Coach

The same year saw his health deteriorate. “While he was ill, his phone would be ringing almost non-stop with students enquiring after the daily training plan and parents calling and coming to our home to discuss future prospects for their children. He always attended every single call,” remembered Mrs. Bali.

Later in his life, he suffered from paralytic attacks, blood clots, high blood pressure and a litany of other ailments, which would be aggravated because of his physically strenuous lifestyle. To Dr. Subramanian, though, walking away would be tantamount to giving up, and that would be in direct contradiction of the basic principles by which he lived every single day. “We’d argue with him, insisting he take it easy on himself as we tried to keep him at home. But he’d walk out and catch a bus and go right back to the academy regardless of how he felt physically. In ill-health, he still insisted on attending tournaments,” said Mrs. Bali.

Satnam Singh with a Dallas Mavericks cap beside Dr. Subramanian’s potrait

Dr. Subramanian’s health worsened in October in 2012, and he passed away in May, 2013. His ‘bhog’ ceremony was attended by thousands from the basketball community. Satnam Singh came to him as a blank canvas, an extremely raw prospect. Dr. Subramanian, instead of pushing Satnam relentlessly, took a meticulous and measured approach to grooming Satnam with patience and foresight. Many a big man’s career has been cut short due to overexertion, but the Doctor wouldn’t allow Satnam to suffer the same fate. After Satnam was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks, he came back to Dr. Subramanian’s house in Patiala on 8th August, 2015 and tearfully laid his team cap aside his portrait in gratitude.

His Flame Burns Eternal

A candle burns itself to give light unto others. Dr. Subramanian exhausted every last breath of his body for the sport, firmly etching a prominent place for himself in the Mt. Rushmore of elite Indian coaches. He wouldn’t go out on a wheelchair, idling his days away, basking in peaceful nostalgia of a life well lived. He’d go out on his own terms, serving the game right to the end. He was selfless in his dedication to the game and selfish in placing love for the game over his health. Only his death at the age of 75 could make Dr. Subramanian part from basketball.

If Dr. Subramanian were to peek down from the heavens, he’d observe Satnam Singh grinding his way to make it the NBA, Amjyot and Amritpal Singh playing professional basketball in Japan and Palpreet Singh winning top scorer’s honors in FIBA U-18 Asia Championship. All the while students from the first batch of LBA, Jagdeep Singh Bains and Yadwinder Singh, continue to be India’s finest talents. Observing his lifelong fruits of labour coming to fruition across the globe, he would be smiling in contentment as he watches his wards keep his dream alive.

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