Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

"I have to make a big impact in my basketball career" - Gurbaz Sandhu, one of India's top scorers

Published on
June 4, 2024

A winter evening in Udaipur, Rajasthan saw a couple of lads furiously changing the scores manually on a scoreboard during the finals of India’s 72nd National Basketball Championship. No sooner had they tallied a bucket, another shot sang through the net. 

Basketball has evolved rapidly over the years. From changes in rules, to changes in the dimensions of the court, to introduction of a half-court format in the Olympics, the game continues to change and keep pace with the times. 

As the game changed, so did the scoreboards that tracked the score in the arena. We’ve come a long way from scores written on a board with a pen, to manual scorecards with digits being rotated, to electronic scoreboards of today, and perhaps floor LED scoreboards of tomorrow. 

But not on this day. Tamil Nadu’s blistering pace and space offense wasn’t designed to give a scoreboard like that a breather. It was easier to change the scoreboards manually when teams played without a shot clock, or played a slow style with the ball being thrown in the post over and over again. Not when you have Arvind Krishnan or Baladhaneshwar speeding cross-court for quick layups or creating good looks for their formidable forwards.

Tamil Nadu was looking to light up Punjab in the finals and repeat as champions. Punjab were raring for revenge, coming off a loss to Tamil Nadu in the 71st National Basketball Championship in Chennai. But it looked like a repeat was on the cards.

Punjab had two of the best big men in the country in Amjyot Singh Gill and Amritpal Singh. When your best players are big men, you need support from the guards to step up and balance the attack from the perimeter, run the pick and roll, shoulder some of the scoring load and keep the ball moving. 

They needed a big game from someone along with Amjyot and Amritpal, and a microwave scorer rose to the occasion.

Gurbaz Sandhu catches fire

Gurbaz Sandhu was still feeling the sting of the loss from the previous championship. “I was the main shooter on our team when we lost to Tamil Nadu in the 71st Nationals in Chennai. I saw that there’s something missing in my game. I had to learn to communicate better on and off the court. My shooting form needed work, my release was slow. Basketball today is very fast. The first time that you catch the ball, you have to shoot quickly. My team relies on me, if some of my shots had gone in, we would have won. We had lost a chance to three-peat as champions when we lost to Tamil Nadu. This time, we were not going to let the game get away.” recalled Gurbaz.

Time and time again, Tamil Nadu looked to pull away. Each time, Gurbaz rose to the occasion as he rained fire from deep. He put up 31 points in the finals of the 72nd National Basketball Championship for Punjab, as he blazed molten fire from deep in the 3rd quarter, came up big in crunch time and emerged as the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.

“If people look at me as an MVP, I have to play even better.” - Gurbaz

“When I won the MVP in the 72nd National Basketball Championship in Udaipur, I was happy, but I never want to be content with my performance. I always want to do better. If people look at me as an MVP, I have to play even better.”- Gurbaz.

"I can feel confidence from my teammates, coaches and family."

“My parents played a big role in my basketball career from the very beginning. They supported me a lot, through the ups and downs. They never let me feel down.” 

Confidence can come from the work you put in, from your daily routines, from self belief, and many other places. Much like Dragon Ball Z’s Goku and his spirit bomb that combines the collective energy of his well-wishers, part of Gurbaz’s track record of coming up in the clutch is thanks to his family, teammates and coaches who have helped him develop an unshakable confidence. 

“I get a lot of motivation from my father. He is a lecturer in the engineering department in Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Khalsa College. He also looks after farming. I’ve seen how hard he works. In a farmer’s life, there’s no certainty if you’ll face a loss or make a profit. I remember my father telling me ‘Profit ho, loss ho, jo kuch bhi ho, we should always be positive.’ (Whether we have a profit or incur a loss, we should always be positive.) This really helped me a lot.”

The very first trophy Gurbaz won was in the NBA Challenge in 2013-14, and his father played a big role in helping him participate. “The venue for the NBA Challenge was four hours away. My father would come with me by bus for 2-3 months. During camps, my mother would come with me. They all helped me focus on my game. My relatives helped me a lot too when I stayed with them on trips.”

Part of Gurbaz’s composure can also be attributed to Punjab’s head coach Rajinder Singh. I’ve seen him coach junior and senior teams alike. His unshakable composure flows through and empowers his teams to play tall. “I’ve learned a lot from Coach Rajinder Singh sir. He was an army coach. He motivated us a lot. He’s very disciplined. He’s passed that on to us, to be consistent and work hard, keep improving.” - Gurbaz.

Growing up in Punjab, training in Ludhiana Basketball Academy, brought Gurbaz in contact with legends of Indian basketball in Jagdeep Bains and Yadwinder Singh. The two stars were from the first batch of players from the LBA. “Jagdeep bhaiya once told me, ‘You’re one of the best players I’ve seen now.’ When a legend like him says something like that, when he shows so much confidence in you, nothing can shake you. I talked to him on the phone a few times too, his words of encouragement mean a lot to me.’”

Pressure builds diamonds and bursts balloons. The more expectations we place on someone, the more they can rise to the occasion. It’s part of how Gurbaz grows his faith in his game, from those around him who believe in him.

“I want to always play at my best. Now, players have confidence in me. ‘This is our shooter, let’s feed him the ball, he’ll hit big shots.’ I can feel the confidence from my teammates and my coaches. It makes me want to give my best and keep developing my skill set.” 

After winning in Ludhiana, Gurbaz told me that his next dream is to play for India and three-peat with Punjab. Fast forward a couple of months and he got  a chance to represent the tricolor in February 2023 in the FIBA Asia World Cup Qualifiers. 

Microwave clutch scorer

“The way my game is, I feel that very quickly I can score 8-10 points in the flow of the system.” 

A Microwave scorer is one who can heat up in a hurry and put up points on the board with a flurry. A Clutch Time scorer is one who rises to the occasion and makes big shots when their team needs it the most. 

Gurbaz is a mix of both. This requires a number of skills. The confidence to take tough shots, the stamina to do so in late game situations, the ability to make them, and to earn the trust of your teammates and coaches so they can help put you in the best position to help the team. 

“My main purpose is always to do what it takes to help our team win. Whichever team I am on, they have a lot of confidence in me. They trust that I’ll make the shots. Then I also get that mindset, that I can make every shot.” 

“When I played in the INBL Nationals 3x3, although we lost the first game vs Mumbai, there was a spark and a feeling that we are a good team. Once we get going, anything can happen. We won the other two games in the league stage. In the quarterfinals vs Chennai, I think I hit a lot of shots from 3-point range. After that game, I felt like one of the main players. I started to feel that I can always hit contested shots.”- Gurbaz.

There’s nothing wrong with players being expressive on court. Killers come in all types, shapes and sizes. Shaquille O’Neal said it best, comparing his boisterous style with Tim Duncan’s stoicism. “I used to say Duncan and I were like two mafia bosses. I was the loud East Coast boss, taking names, knocking heads. Tim was the laid-back, one-hundred-acre farm don. Nobody knows what he does, he’s the chill mafia guy, but we both know how to carry out a hit.” - Shaq.

Then there are players with ice in their veins. Cool, calm and collected under pressure. 

“I started to develop a mentality of performing under pressure. If we get too worked up, we might run around without being productive. If we get too low, we won’t be confident. I try to stay calm and play under control. My main motive is to win, and to give my best to win. After the game we can express happiness. During the game, I’m locked in. If we’re too happy with our performance, we might become overconfident. If we are too down, we may get demoralized. Our emotions should be in our control.” - Gurbaz.

Where it all began

I’d like to float out a quiet thanks to this astute gentleman who came to Gurbaz’s home to invite him and his brother to come check out a local basketball contest. “I grew up in Abohar, Punjab. Someone came to my home to inform my brother about zonal level matches being played nearby, and asked me to come along too. This was around 2012. At that time, I had played a bit of basketball but didn’t know much about it. What’s a fastbreak, what’s a screen etc. I had no idea. I only knew how to dribble and throw the ball at the hoop. My cousins also played basketball. After seeing such a competitive level with the zonal championship, I got very interested in basketball.”

Children should be encouraged to explore multiple sports in their formative years, to help them have a more well rounded development. They can then naturally gravitate towards the sport that they enjoy the most. “I played a lot of sports growing up. Besides basketball, I played football, volleyball, swimming, athletics (100m, 200m), skating, among other sports. At one point, we had to choose one sport to try and play competitively, I chose basketball. As I played, I found myself adapting to it quickly. It felt very fast paced. I found the environment of the game very interesting.”

“After playing for one year, I got selected to play for the U-14 sub junior nationals in Goa. That was my first nationals, and Gurwinder Singh (Billa) was one of my teammates. We’ve been playing together ever since then.”

Gurbaz first played for India at the Youth Asian Basketball Championship, 2015. “We used to train till 10th in our hometown. After that, I joined the Ludhiana Basketball Academy in 2016. It was always a plan to look to join the academy. When we heard that one of us, Satnam Singh, got drafted in the NBA, we were all so happy”.

It’s rare to have players who right from their first competition, absolutely dominate their sport. While today Gurbaz is one of the primary threats on his team, it wasn’t always the case. 

“Growing up, when I played U-14, U-17, U-19, I was never the main player of my team. I was in the starting five, but never the main player. Now, the Punjab team can rely on me as a scorer. Earlier, I wouldn’t play free or open. Even the coaches felt that.” 

“I started off playing like a role player. I also had good players on my team. As my game developed, I experienced my first senior nationals in 2019 in Ludhiana. That was the first time I played with Amjyot (Singh Gill), Amritpal (Singh), Jaggi bhai (Jagdeep Bains) and more. It was a really good experience to be on the same team, although I didn’t play much at that time.”

“It was really good to see how they play under pressure. I never thought why am I not getting more playing time. If there’s someone better than me, I want to learn from them. What are they good at, how are they adapting.”

Learning from the best

"It doesn't matter how long you've played this game, the day you think you could stop learning is the day you start going backwards."- LeBron James. Basketball is over a hundred years old. The best players are those who study and constantly try to get better. 

“I try to learn from all players. Someone like Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, no one can shoot like him. But the way he moves and plays, the way he creates, is something we can try to work in our games. Especially how he drives and scores among taller players. Another player I look up to and try to learn from is Bojan Bogdanovic. He had a very good World Cup, he’s a very good shooter, the way he creates space is something to learn from.”

There’s also a lot to learn from your mentors and competition about how to play, how to approach the game and more. “When you see and play with players like Amjyot or Palpreet or Amritpal, their movements are really good. Be it in the post, or while dribbling, they are very skilled. If they didn’t work so hard, they wouldn’t be as good. They are still dominating.” 

“When I first played with them, I felt the pressure. How I’ll compete with their game. Amjyot is really good at passing, and at dribbling. If he plays at such a high standard, I have to work really hard to play with them. Other teams are also working hard. I watch players like Vishesh (Bhriguvanshi) bhaiya, the forwards of Tamil Nadu, what separates them. Every player has their own identity. I try to take positive points from their games.”

“I talk to seniors like Yadu bhai, Palpreet, discuss points of the game with them. What kind of screen do they want? Which side is strong, how to feed the ball to you well. If the screen set is good but the ball handler doesn’t use it properly, there’s no point. And vice versa. Communication is very important. How you share your point of view, how you communicate. With experience, positive points come in the game. It’s a team game, if a team plays together, you can win. This isn’t a one on one game.” 

Some of the matchups he looks forward to are with two of India’s top guards. “One is Muin (Baig) from Tamil Nadu. He’s a very good player, he can drive, shoot and make plays. Vishesh (Bhriguvanshi) bhaiya, he plays so calmly. I always want to play better when matched up with them. 

Punjab had an eventful 4th quarter of 2023, capturing one spot each of the podium in 3 different competitions. They won silver in the 1st 3x3 National Basketball Championship, Chennai, avenged that loss with a gold in the 37th National Games Goa, and finished with a bronze in the 73rd National Basketball Championship, Ludhiana. 

Here’s a closer look at their run.

1st 3x3 National Basketball Championship - cutting a 16-9 deficit to one point in 1 minute

One minute, thirty-seven seconds left in the finals of the 1st 3x3 National Basketball Championship, Chennai. Punjab were down 16-9 to Tamil Nadu and hope seemed bleak. It's times like these that you call upon your Microwave scorer to heat up in a hurry. 

“We were missing some shots. All I was thinking was, I know I can heat up in a hurry if I click once. We have Amjyot and Amritpal, who are so good off the ball and at helping create space with screens. We just needed to get going.” recalls Gurbaz.

Down by 7 points in a format where 2s count for 1 point and 3s count for 2 points, Gurbaz sank a 3 to pull Punjab to 16-11. He followed that with a layup to cut it to 16-12. On the other squad, Arvind Krishnan hit a baseline jumper to push the lead to 17-12. Undeterred, Gurbaz hit another 3-pointer to cut it to 17-14 with 17 seconds left in the game. He then stole the ball and hit yet another 3, making it a one point game with Punjab trailing 17-16. Tamil Nadu held on to win, in spite of three 3-pointers and a layup by Gurbaz in about one minute.

37th National Games Goa

Punjab and Tamil Nadu gave us one of the best games we’ve seen in Indian basketball. It all came right down to the wire in overtime, and might have gone to a second overtime were it not for Billa’s block. 

“Billa’s block. I don’t remember him making a block like that in a game. I was on the floor, I had slipped and was thinking that I had given up an important bucket. But when I saw Billa run, I thought something good might happen.”

“Our coach Rajinder sir tells us that how we start a game affects the game a lot. Our body language Body language. Coach tells us that how we start a game affects the game a lot. We had confidence, this time we’ll pull through. We were motivated. We had the size.”

Gurbaz put up 19 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists as Punjab defeated Tamil Nadu 105-103 in overtime. 

73rd National Basketball Championship

Punjab won bronze in the 73rd National Basketball Championship as the host team in Ludhiana at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy. While they defeated Delhi 71-65 to clinch bronze, their game vs Services was one of the best games of the entire tournament. Services were leading 71-51 going in to the 4th quarter. About halfway through the 4th, the lead stood strong at 78-59.

“The game vs Services was one of the most memorable games for me. It was such an amazing turnaround. They are a good team. The way we were able to come back was unexpected. We felt confident even when we were down. After Mandeep hit a foul shot, it felt like we just got in a rhythm. The audience could sense it too. Billa scored, Nazzy scored, we just needed some spark and we went on a run.”

Red Bull Half Court 2024 - New York Calling

"This was the first time I played in a mall in India, it was a new experience for most of us. We felt like we had home court advantage as it was at Elante Mall in Chandigarh. It’ll mean a lot to go and compete in the USA with the best 3x3 players in the world. To learn their culture, in the place where basketball really took flight." 

"Anything can happen in 3x3 basketball. Me, Nazzy (Nawaz Singh) and Arvinder (Khalon) have been playing together for a long time, from our days at the Ludhiana Basketball Academy. We have good coordination in our team with Karandeep Singh rounding up the squad." 

The story of these three reminds one of Jalen Brunson, Josh Hard and Donte DiVincenzo. All three of them played together in college at Villanova, and they are now teammates with the New York Knicks. Brunson and DiVincenzo were roommates in college during their freshman year and were part of the same recruiting class in 2015.

Speaking of New York, Gurbaz and Pistol Group are New York bound in the Red Bull Half Court 2024!

"It was a very good experience to compete in the Red Bull Half Court 2024. It is an interesting format where the point differential matters a lot. This year, we were in a situation where we needed 22 points to make it to the finals, or we needed to win by five points. We were trailing 9-4, then we went on a run and it was neck and neck till we got to lead 19-17. Nazzy almost hit a two-pointer from behind the arc, but realising the situation he hit a one. We went on to score 22 points and win by 5 points."

"We met Diphu Nihang in the finals. In the previous edition, we had defeated Delhi in the group stages and lost to them in the finals. This time, we had defeated Diphu Nihang in the group stages and were facing them in the finals. I really did not want to lose again. The whole team was confident in ourselves, we thought to forget what happened earlier and just got get it."

"At one point the score was tied at 14 each in the finals, then Nazzy hit a two. I found myself on a Red Bull logo behind the 3-point line, shots count for 3-points from that spot. My man went under the screen and I made the shot. At that point, we got some separation from a tie-game and we went on to win it." 

The journey has just begun

“Before, I was not an MVP. When you are not as good as you want to be, players don’t recognize you. They take you leniently when they defend you. I had it in me to want to be a threat on the court. I always wanted to get to a point where teams need to make a plan for me. I want to dominate on the court.”

Gurbaz has been setting the net ablaze since 2022. “Every time I play, my aim is to be better than I was previously. I’ve been the top scorer in the major national level tournaments I’ve played in recently (73rd National Basketball Championship (Ludhiana. Tied with Palpreet Brar), 37th National Games (Goa), All India University Games (Rajasthan), 3x3 National Basketball Championship (Chennai), Khelo India University Games, 72nd National Basketball Championship, All India University Games (Murthur))."

"India ko represent karna mere liye fakr ki baat hai. I'm proud to represent Punjab and my community. “My father came to Ludhiana in the 3rd place match. Yadu bhai met him, he said ‘Aapka ladka jaan laga deta hai game me.’ Coming from him, who always gives it his all in the game, it’s such a proud moment. Whatever opportunities I get, I’ll give my best performance and give full effort to the team. I want to compete overseas and play professionally in a basketball league. I want to make India proud and perform in the qualifiers, excel at the Asia level.” 

“I’ve played point guard and shooting guard both. I try to keep the players motivated. If someone is playing well, to do my part and help them perform. I want to be one of the players to whom the team can look for during pressure, and trust.”

“It has never been an easy journey for me. Be it making it to the state team, making it to the Indian team, I’ve always had to prove a lot to get to be there. Although my game was being noticed and making an impact, I had to struggle a lot for two years to get to make it to the Indian team. Maybe that’s why I have to think more about making an impact in my career than anyone else who might have got into this platform early.”

“Good luck is not always by your side to shoot well in every tournament. It wasn’t always easy to come out on top. All this is thanks to Akaal Purakh by my side.”

Having seen Gurbaz rise to the occasion time and time again, you get a feeling that anything can happen when he’s on your squad. No deficit feels unsurmountable with him on the court.

The first national basketball championship I got to witness in person was at Udaipur, Rajasthan, where Gurbaz roared his way to gold and an MVP award. He was just as humble then as he is today. It's been a blessing to have got to see him excel and keep growing stronger in each successive competition.

One of those players you can count on to always answer the call, Gurbaz Sandhu’s ascent feels like it has just begun.

Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

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