Sleep eluded Sahaij Pratap Singh Sekhon in Manama, Bahrain. When you dream about playing for the Indian basketball team, you see yourself hitting game-winners, throwing down powerful dunks, pulling off ankle-breakers, making the tricolor, your teammates, and the country proud. These are dreams that sustain and propel you, sometimes keeping you up at night in anticipation of what the next day will bring.
Sekhon had a sleepless night before he was set to make his debut for the Indian basketball team vs Lebanon in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers. Tip-off couldn't come soon enough for the teenage point guard. "I woke up 2-3 times the night before we played Lebanon, finally deciding to just stay up at 4:30 AM.” recalled Sekhon. “All I could think of was that I have to make a difference in the time that I'd see on the court.”
Words of his college coach, Amarjeet Singh, echoed in his mind “Bete, ek minute mile, do mile, ya na hi mile. Yeh mat soch ke khelna. Bas andar baarood bharte raho, aur jab time aaaye toot pado! Jitna time mile, yehi sochna ki kya karna hai team ke liye.” (“You may get one minute on the court, or two minutes, or no playing time, do not think about that at all! Just keep filling gunpowder in your belly and be ready to explode in the time that you get and only focus on what you can do for your team.”)
As he tossed and turned, his mind was racing on the basketball court, running through multitudes of scenarios that could play out. Amidst thoughts of holding his own on the court and rewarding the trust placed in him by his coaches and teammates, "I remember thinking, wouldn't it be great if I could dunk once in the game?"
As it happened, Sekhon’s first points playing for India came off of a two-handed dunk on the break, where he dunked so hard the ball bounced off of his head after the slam. “I’ve always wanted to dunk, everyone who plays basketball dreams about dunking.”
4 years before his debut for the Indian basketball team, dunking was the last thing you would have expected out of Sekhon, playing for the Indian basketball team would have been a close second impossibility.
"Beta, aap basketball bhi try karna"
When we think about the good old high school days, we reminisce fondly of friendships forged, innocent pranks played, tiffin shared, school bus rides, and more. Some memories fade into wisps with time, others grow stronger with a nostalgic tinge. And then we have some moments that stand out indelibly. In retrospect, we can see them for what they were; pivotal crossroads that helped steer our lives towards a road that led us to become who we are today.
Moments like the above from M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, dramatizing Dhoni's high school coach Keshav Ranjan Banerjee noticing a young Dhoni playing football, and inviting him to come and try his hand at cricket.
When we see someone represent India in any sport, we assume they’ve been at it since they could walk. Images of a toddler in a crèche with a baby hoop come to mind. You’d be surprised to see how that basketball wasn’t the first sport taken up by some of Punjab’s basketball stars. Amjyot Singh was a budding young cricketer before hoops came calling, Jagdeep Singh Bains was a track athlete in his youth, Amritpal Singh could be found playing Kabaddi, Yadwinder Singh was a discus thrower. Growing up in Mohali, Sekhon started playing football in his locality in the 3rd grade and joined a cricket academy three years later. He was playing both sports in his school at the time.
“I noticed Sahaij while he was playing football, he was very quick and agile,” recalls Rakesh Kumar, Physical Education teacher at Sekhon’s former school, Vivek High. “I asked him to come and try his hand at basketball, I had played basketball myself and wanted him to see if he’d like it. He's a fast learner. In his first year of taking up basketball, he was chosen to represent Chandigarh at the U-14 National School Games.”
Vivek High School places emphasis on having regular sports classes to start the day, or Morning Clubs as they are termed here. Every student from 4th to 12th standard engages in some sports or physical activity for 45 minutes to start the day. Students from 4th to 8th std play from 8:00 – 8:45 AM, and kids from 9th to 12th play for the next 45 minutes. “The Morning Clubs are a great way to start the day with physical activity. It helps keep the children healthy, alert and motivated,” remarked Rakesh.
When Sekhon started playing basketball, he was the shortest on the court playing against the seniors in practice. “I had to find ways to make an impact, that time made me focus more on ball handling and hustling among taller players.” As he got better, he was encouraged to move to a school with a strong basketball program in GGSD School with coach Amarjeet Singh, who has been coaching basketball since 1989.
"I know my role, as a PT teacher I can help kids learn the basic skills and help guide them towards sports they can excel in to a limited extent. After that they need to move to move higher. We want them to take the path that will help them reach their potential,” says Rakesh. "Sahaij has always been good in studies, his mother is also a teacher (at Shemrock Senior Secondary school), he's had a great foundation."
Sekhon had been playing at Sports Complex 42 outside of school hours, he was familiar with coach Amarjeet and had made an impression even when his height made him easy to overlook. “Sahaij ki height choti thi (Sahaij was short), but he was very keen to play basketball. Shuru se hi bahut shauk aur junoon tha game ke liye, (He's always been very interested and driven in basketball)” reminisces Amarjeet Singh.
All grown up
Players who have grown up being taller than their competition may end up learning how to play close to the basket where they can capitalize on their height by shooting high percentage shots in the paint or be a dominating force anchored near the basket on defence. When you are shorter than your competition, you have no choice but to hustle hard to develop guard skills.
When you’re the biggest and baddest in an alley fight, you don’t need finesse. Think of the 6’4” Abraham Lincoln picking up an opponent by the scruff of his neck, shaking him like a rag doll and tossing him away.
But if you are the shorter guy in the fight, you need to up your game and develop a more diverse set of skills to be effective. Dodge and juke, bob and weave, punch and parry. Not to say that bigger fighters and players just ‘Run and dunk’, like one James Harden said of Giannis Antentokounmpo, rather the bigger players need to work on a different skill set, one that maximizes their size advantage. Shorter players spend their time learning how to dribble amidst taller players, how to make plays off the dribble, how to space the floor with their shooting, how to keep moving and keep hustling to make an impact in a game of giants.
What if you were short when you took up basketball, learned the above skills, and were then blessed with a growth spurt that propelled you 8 inches taller? You’d retain the skills of a guard in the frame of a bigger player.
With height came hops and Sekhon went from dunking on 8-9 feet high hoops to slamming it home on regulation rims. “My first dunk on a 10-feet high rim was in the 11th grade. When I was playing for Chandigarh junior state team, I tried to dunk in a game, and after the dunk I held on to the rim a bit too long to stabilize myself. My momentum carried me ahead and I fell on my wrist.” Even as a youngster, his speed, hops and hunger for getting better were becoming evident.
Sekhon changed his school in the 11th grade, moving to a school that was stronger in basketball in GGDSD school. Students from SD College trained at Sports Complex 42 under Amarjeet Singh. This is the same ground where players like Ravi Bhardwaj and Sartaj Sandhu have come up from. Both Ravi and Sartaj had also played for Punjab Steelers in the UBA Pro League, where Ravi played all four seasons and won the Season 1 MVP award. “I watched Ravi play for India, seeing him in the team India jersey and having him train right there made me dream of doing the same. I wanted it so bad, that was what I trained for,” added Sekhon.
In his 11th grade, Chandigarh with Sekhon finished 3rd in the National School Games. The next year, they finished runners up. The accolades were piling up and people were taking notice, one observer during the nationals was Indian basketball team’s coach Veselin Matić. “After the game, I heard that coach Matić was in the stands and had taken a picture of the scoresheet.” That led to an invitation to the Indian team’s training camp.
Veterans paving the way
Sekhon is always looking to move, with or without the basketball. That opens him up for good looks on the fly. Although he can create off the dribble as he did for his mid-range jumpers, most of Sekhon’s baskets in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers came off of assists from our veterans or from second-chance points off of rebounds/turnovers. We had Vishesh Bhriguvanshi assisting Sekhon on cross-court dimes on the break, Jagdeep Bains driving and dishing for a jumper, Muin Baig setting the court up perfectly with Joginder Singh Saharan spacing the floor allowing Sekhon to drive through the open lane for two, and more.
“Our team has a very good culture where the seniors support the juniors and do what they can to help them realize their potential,” observed coach Amarjeet. It’s not just on the court that veterans are making a difference for the young ones. Amjyot Singh, who’s also from Chandigarh, has been pivotal in pushing Sekhon to be more aggressive. “I wasn't able to make it on the court in the first game,” recalls Sekhon. “Amjyot bhai told me ‘You need to be more aggressive. What you are doing playing for Chandigarh, do that here. When you have the ball, you're the king of the court. You have to make something happen.’” When you have India's best basketball player pumping you up like that, your chest automatically expands ten inches with confidence.
One of the many advantages of playing for the Indian team for the first time is getting to practice with the team where the trainers and veterans can help bring out the best in you. Sekhon has had loads to learn from his veterans, especially from those who play the guard position.
“I had seen Vishesh’s highlights online, and seen him dominate the court for Uttarakhand. I’ve always looked up to him for how he plays but I hadn’t got a chance to interact with him. In the second window of the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, I was shooting around during the camp, when Vishesh bhaiya came up to me. He was also shooting nearby, and he observed that the ball wasn’t getting the right backspin to it when I shot it. He guided me to practice my action with a medicine ball by rolling it 200 times a day. That really helped my shooting form.”
While Vishesh is a shooting guard, he’s the best playmaker and half-court prayer shot maker we have on the team. His game-winner vs Iraq is easily the best game-winner in Indian basketball history taking into consideration the degree of difficulty of the shot and the qualification stakes riding on the game. He had an all-around game before the shot, making plays on both ends to lead India to a win. But we would not have been in a tie-game situation if it wasn’t for Muin Baig leading the way with 22 points, shooting 8 of 12 from the field and making all three of his 3-point attempts.
“Muin and I both play the point guard position,” says Sekhon. “He’s given me a lot of helpful pointers on how to use screens well, how to come off of them, how to be a better playmaker and more. After the regular practices, we practice together with our coaches and guards. Our locker room is very energetic. Full josh hai. Seniors hyping up the juniors, everyone getting into their zone.”
The big men have plenty of inspiration to provide as well, resilience and putting in the work being two of the main lessons one can learn from Jagdeep Bains and Arvind Annadurai. Both veterans have overcome obstacles and are still going strong. “Everyone looks up to Jagdeep bhai, for good reason. He does all the right things, always brings the right attitude for the situation. I ask him a lot of questions, about how he trains, what he does to be more effective, and so much more.” Speaking of Aravind, “Every time you talk to him, he makes you feel like his equal even though he's a veteran.” The respect is mutual, "Jagdeep told me (of Sekhon) ki 'Aapne acha player taiyaar kiya hai (You've prepared a good player)", recalled Amarjeet with pride.
Basketball in the Time of COVID
We are in unprecedented times. The new normal is still far from normal. Fans tuning in to the live broadcast of the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers can hear the commentators hype up plays, but the players don’t get the thundering roar from a packed stadium. We see the empty stands with basketball games being open to few attendees or none in some cases. What we may miss out is the level of preparation that goes on behind the scenes just for one game to be played. Leaving aside all that one has to do to be among the best players in the country, there’s an added wrinkle thrown in with the COVID-19 protocols.
When you shoot a jumper, there’s a wait of a quick second as you see if the ball sails through the net or clanks off the rim. The uncertainty lasts for a second, and has an immediate result.
When you take a COVID test, you may have to wait for a day to get your results back. The uncertainty is longer, and the result can mean the difference between playing or sitting out a game.
“We would undergo COVID tests every other day,” recalls Sekhon of the time in Bahrain. “There’s an app, Be Aware Bahrain, we’d get our test results in the app the next morning. At first, I’d feel a bit nervous waiting for the message. Even though I had not gone out and had followed all the protocols, you never know with COVID. We would be allowed to go for practices only after getting our negative test results. Over time, I got used to it.”
The pandemic has pushed us all to battle for survival. As the world stands still, we have to find ways to keep moving forward. With basketball courts and academies being under restrictions, one has to be creative to find ways to keep raising one’s game. “I’m living in Mohali; the pandemic situation is serious here,” adds Sekhon. “I try to get most of my training done in the mornings from 5 AM to 7 AM when there are fewer people around. We have weekly virtual meetings with our coaches where they connect with us and share a strength and conditioning programs schedule for us to follow.”
You gotta make it for both of us
When Sekhon was in 11th standard, he didn’t have a license to drive or ride. His friend Navjot Saini would drop Sekhon back home from the sports complex before going home himself. They used to train together after regular practices. Navjot was 5’6”, he’d tell Sekhon I may be short, but you have the talent and the height. You HAVE to reach your potential. The duo trained and learned together. “Navjot used to tell me, ‘You need to be able to create your own shot. If the defence only plays you for a drive or a 3-point shot, your game will be limited. You need to be able to create space to make plays for your team,” recalls Sekhon. “When I made the Indian team, he was the first person I called with the good news. He’s very passionate about basketball and has helped me a lot.”
Sekhon took that advice and incorporated it in his game. Nowhere was that illustrated better than in one sequence vs Lebanon. With Amjyot being double-teamed, he looked to move the ball to an open Sekhon. Instead of standing still outside, Sekhon drove in, paused to freeze the defence, hopped through two defenders and swished in a fadeaway over a third defender. You don’t expect to see that from a teenager among grown men.
Another connection between India’s young talent was on a half-court alley-oop from Sekhon to Princepal Singh, “I should have thrown the ball up a bit higher, he was looking for a dunk. I saw him raise his hand and just lobbed it up for him to finish the job.” Those are moments that tease fans with visions of what’s to come for India with our young talent meshing together.
“Coach Matić tells us that we need to drive in to open the floor up, I just try to stay aggressive and make something happen,” remarks Sekhon.
The dream of playing for India
“You can tell a lot about a player by how they enter the basketball court. What is in them and what attitude are they bringing to the game. Kuch players hote hai ke dekh ke pata chalta hai ‘Kuch karne aaya hai yeh’. (There ae some players, you can tell that they’ve come to do something when they enter the court) observes Coach Amarjeet.
Magic Johnson chose to wear #15 when playing in USA’s Dream Team in the Olympics, taking the advice of Josh Rosenfeld, NBA’s PR man. As Magic wanted his name to be announced last and carry the USA flag as the team took to the court. Sekhon took the advice of his grandmother and chose to wear #1. “I wear it for her. She felt that #1 is lucky for me as my birthday is on 1st September.” That also meant he would be the first player to take to the court as the players get on in the order of their jersey numbers.
Excitement and nerves blended together in Sekhon as he looked to make his debut for India. “My parents were really happy for me, they had never pressured me towards any path in life, they just told me to work hard and excel. After I found out I made the team, I didn’t tell them right away. I was waiting to go to my room to call them. But they had already found out through some social media post. When I called them looking to surprise them, they ended up surprising me!”
His coaches back home were tuned in too, "I was watching him play live on FIBA's channels. Jab ab apna baccha India ke liye khele (when our kid plays for India), it's a very proud moment. I had seen him dunk before, but to see him dunk for India for his first basket, that felt very special," remarks Rakesh. “It is really motivating to see our kids do well. We hold up their examples to the next generation and to the parents, these are the high standards one can achieve with hard work.”
Coach Matić has been instrumental in having the youngster rise to the occasion. “Coach has helped us ramp up our intensity. During practices, he would tell us youngsters to give our all on defense and to hustle hard. If someone was not going as hard as he thought, he'd sub them out. Coach can be a man of few words off the court, but what he says really makes an impact,” says Sekhon. “After the game vs Iraq, we were in a lift together. Coach Matić told me, It was good the way you handled yourself. You did not turn the ball over. You did what I expect our young players to do. That made me feel really happy that I had kept the trust he placed in me when he gave me this opportunity.”
While he’s shown flashes of potential, there’s a long road ahead for the youngster to shine in hoops. “We have the FIBA qualifiers coming up in August, I’m focused on carrying our momentum ahead. I’m also looking for a scholarship in the USA to study and play.” Like most of us today, Sekhon is more of a fan of stars than NBA teams. “I really admired Kobe Bryant’s work ethic and competitive spirit. I try to read and watch all I can about him to inculcate the values he talks about.” He also takes inspiration from young NBA stars like Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry and Ja Morant among others.
The young buck has arrived with a literal bang, and he’s just getting started. Follow his journey here and on his profile.
Check out Sekhon's Hoop Story Highlights Mixtape