“I think girls should do more than be married at 18.”
There are few better examples of basketball’s power to transform lives than the remarkable work Rajesh Patel and company have been doing at the Chhattisgarh Basketball Development Academy. The academy operates at Pant Stadium, Sector 1, Bhilai on the ground which they call their temple. If this is a temple, one man is the head priest, coach, scout, mentor, teacher, guide, counsellor and everything else which the academy and players might require him to be. This holy ground is adorned and worshiped since it has given livelihood to hundreds, uplifted countless families by extension, done its part for gender equality and put the state on the national basketball map.
In India, almost one in three girls are married before they turn 18 and the Central India tribal belt is no stranger to this practice. Families of young girls are accustomed to having ‘rishtas’ (matrimonial alliances) come their way for their daughter’s hand. But they are in for a surprise when an earnest man approaches them with the proposition of allowing him to adopt their daughters as his own, and raising them in his academy. “There’s no one better than him [Patel]. No one works harder than him. He’s the best person in the world for us,” said Seema Singh, a product of the academy who’s been a regular fixture on the Indian women’s team.
Standing at 5 ft 6 in, Patel played basketball for Indore and Bhilai Steel Plant for 12 years from 1974 to 1986. With the blessing of the late J.M. Sharma, former president of Madhya Pradesh Basketball Association, he joined Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) through sports quota in 1979 and began a lifelong association which changed thousands of lives.
After his playing career, Patel topped in the National Institute of Sports in 1987 and became the coach at BSP. He’s now won multiple awards in recognition of his service and is perhaps the only coach to have won the Nationals at the sub-junior/youth/junior/senior levels, along with winning the National Women’s Games, Federation Cup, National Games, and School National Games. Patel, though, is quick to deflect praise. He attributes his success to well-wishers and the love of the students who found employment through sports.
Having coached over 8,000 players to over 800 medals at the national level, what makes Patel most proud is the lives he’s changed. San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich recently said that winning an NBA championship is not a priority for him as much as knowing that his players will make the society a better place. Patel follows Pop’s credo. For him, success is as much seeing his players stand on their own feet as it is about winning. His own family had to struggle to make ends meet and he’s seen first-hand what that feels like. Most of the players Patel uplifts are from humble backgrounds where families rely on their daily labour to put food on the table.
Hailing from Raipur, 5 ft 10 in Aruna Kindo was the first player Patel admitted into the academy in 2002, which now houses 20 girls for free. Kindo’s parents were averse to the idea, but to overcome their reticence, Patel invited Kindo’s father and school principal to Bhilai to stay at his home for two days. He explained to them the bright future that awaited Kindo through basketball. Kindo stayed at Patel’s home and went on to become a success story as she represented the Indian team and is now employed with the Railways in Bilaspur.
Anju Lakra is another such story of a player, who went on to play for India and gained employment through the Railways sports quota. Much like MS Dhoni’s school coach spotted him playing football and nudged him towards cricket, Lakra’s talents in handball were observed by Patel who told her to try her hand at basketball in the seventh standard. She’s effusive in her gratitude towards him, saying, “He is like our God. Today I’ve played for India and my name stands for something. Without the support, dedication and security which he gives us, we’re nothing.” The 7-feet tall Poonam Chaturvedi is another gem polished by Patel as he recruited her from Uttar Pradesh and moulded her into a formidable talent with WNBA aspirations.
Gut wrenchingly, Patel suffered a heart attack on the auspicious occasion of Diwali this year when the courts at CBA are outlined with lamps. He had to undergo angioplasty. He’s been asked to take it easy, but for Patel that means continuing to do what he loves. When your heart beats to the rhythm of bouncing basketballs, nothing can provide greater solace than continuing your life’s work on the court. “I retired this year, but I still want to coach for as long as I’m physically capable. This is all I know. I’ve spent most of my life here and my wife Anita and I consider these kids as our own.”
Clearly, the Iron Man of Bhilai is in no mood of slowing down anytime soon.