September 29, 2010

Little Mountain town of Kangra soaks in basketball culture

Think Kangra. Think a quiet mountain town in Himachal Pradesh. Think hilly terrain, twisty-turny Himalayan roads, and cold weather. Think temples. Think a few kilometers away from Dharamsala, picturesque tourist destination and the centre of the Tibetan Government-in-exile. Think a little further from Mcleodganj, the home of the Dalai Lama's monastery and a mini hippie-paradise.

Well, if that's all you think when you think Kangra, you need to think again.

For the last week of September, this little Himalayan town has temporarily become the focal point of basketball in India. The Himachal Pradesh Basketball Association (HPBA) is hosting the IMG-Reliance 37th National Sub-Junior Basketball Championships here, from September 24-31. For one week, the three main courts in town have been invaded by fierce young basketball players from all corners of the country – Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Kerela, Karnataka, Goa, Rajasthan, and many more including the hosts Himachal Pradesh.

"There has always been a craze for basketball up here in Kangra," said Munish Sharma, thePresident of the HPBA, "Even though it's a small town, hundreds of youngsters go out and play the game in our courts every day, practicing hard in the mornings and the evenings. Basketball is a very popular sport here, and apart from the three main courts being used for this competition, we have a few more smaller ones."

Just how popular is basketball here? Well, his opinion may be slightly biased, but 13-year-old Nitin Mehra, a local boy who also played for the Himachal Pradesh Sub-Junior squad, said that most kids are seen playing either football or basketball in Kangra. Cricket comes in third place.

"I first got introduced to basketball through my older sister," said Nitin, "For the past three years, I've been coming out regularly and playing. The games are very competitive here."

There has been an electric atmosphere around town ever since the Sub-Junior nationals tipped off here. The scenes around the man Municipal Corporation Basketball Court are surreal: intense basketball games, cheering crowds, and rap/bhangra music blaring out the speakers, amongst the surroundings of an otherwise sleepy mountain town.

But perhaps the most surreal thing is the confidence in the young players – many of them are playing in this sort of competition for the first time, but seem to show no sign of being unhinged by the stage. "I have been playing basketball for five years now," said Chahana Suresh, the captain of the Karnataka girls' team, hours before the team's Quarter-Final match-up against Maharashtra. "We have a much stronger team this time around than last year, and we are confident that we can win the tournament this time around."

Suresh added that the best team in the Girls' section was Chhattisgarh, but her squad was ready to face them, too. "We will beat them by defence – that is our strength," Suresh added, "Defence is the best offence!"

In the Boys' section, the team from Chhattisgarh have emerged as one of the strongest as well, and their captain Tarendra Kr. Yadav feels that few teams will be able to come in their way to the title. "We will play Madhya Pradesh first, and then Rajasthan, who are probably the best boys' team," said Yadav, "But we are confident we will beat them – we have a good team full of talented sharp-shooters."

Another encouraging scene in this year's tournament has been that several parents (and grandparents) have accompanied their children up to Kangra to watch them play and learn the game themselves. "This is my first introduction to basketball and I'm beginning to enjoy it a lot!" said Dr. Meenakshi Dhar, mother of Kerala player Aniruth, "This is the first time my son is representing the state, and we are going to continue to support him discover his talents as much as possible."

Aniruth has quite a support-squad with him: his grandfather Balbir Singh Yadav has also come up from Delhi to watch the youngster perform.

Aniruth said: "These games are very intense – our team didn't know as well as I expected, but we will work on improving our performance in the future."

Similarly, another parent, Dorothy Gomindes, came with her son and her son's team all the way from Goa for the tournament. "This has been a very well organised event," Gomindes said, "We have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in Kangra."

Back to the basketball courts – the cheering crowds have been showing up regularly to support their favourite teams, or just be witness to some exciting basketball. After all, the finest future Indian hoop stars are sure to emerge out of these talented young players.

There has been a great response by the locals to the tournament, believes HPBA President Sharma, and he is hoping that this spirit will continue. "We have done well with the organisation, but we want to improve," Sharma said, "We are hoping to renovate the Municipal Corporation court and make a more stadium-like structure to provide comfort to the attending audience. We also have hopes to be able to construct an indoor court here in Kangra."

When it comes to hoops, the future seems bright for this little town. Think Kangra. Think Basketball.

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