October 15, 2010

Dishant Shah: Sky's the Limit

If it hadn’t been for a few encouraging coaches, we would have lost one of India’s rising young basketball talents to another sport.

At 18, Dishant Shah from Baroda is slowly beginning to make a name for himself at the highest level of basketball in the country. The undersized center (he’s 6’8”) just returned from Yemen after captaining the Indian junior side at the U18 FIBA Asia Championship. Upon his return to India, he was the only junior player invited to train with the Sr. National Men’s team that is preparing for the Asian Games.

But all this could’ve been so very different. It was only five years ago when Dishant was busy spending his time perfecting another sport.

“I used to have interest in cricket before,” said Dishant, “That is all I used to play.”

Fair enough – nearly every child that has breathed the Indian air has at some point thrown a cricket ball or dreamt perfecting that square drive. But luckily for the Indian hoop world, a basketball coach approached Dishant to take up a different game after he noticed the youngster’s sudden spurt in height.

“I admit I didn’t like basketball that much in the beginning,” said Dishant, “It was a completely different sport. But when I hit the court and started playing a lot, I saw a sudden improvement. I began to enjoy myself because soon after I was chosen for the Gujarat Sub-Junior team.”

As the national tournaments and call-ups became more frequent, Dishant became more motivated towards basketball, and his love affair with the game grew deeper. He played his first Sub-Jr. Nationals in Billai, right after which he was selected for the Indian Sub-Jr. team. He kept on being invited to more camps. In July 2008, he captained the Indian Youth (U16) team to the Children of Asia International Sports and Games in Russia.

A month later, Dishant was promoted to the Junior squad, joining the team to the U18 FIBA Asia Championships in Tehran (Iran). Dishant kept reaching for higher, and as his performances improved, so did the attention.

He received his very first senior team call-up in 2008, when he was part of a young squad that went to Hong Kong for the Super Kung Sheung Cup.

Dishant was also chosen for the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders – Asia camp that took place in Beijing in 2009. “The BWB was a great experience,” said Dishant, “Several NBA players were there as coaches and we learnt a lot from them.”

A simple twist of fate, a change of sport, and voila… The country saw the development of a devastating basketball talent. Dishant captained the U18 squad Middle Asia Zone qualifying for the FIBA Asia Championships, and after dominating their opponents, the team travelled to Sana’a (Yemen) for the final tournament. India finished 13th overall, but Dishant was still proud of his team's performance.

“We need to keep taking part in competitions like this,” he said of the tournament in Yemen, “It brings us great experience and makes us confident.”

India was grouped with Japan, hosts Yemen, and Iraq. Although they lost all their three group games, Dishant said that the game against a tough Japan side brought out the best in the squad. “We were actually leading up until the last four minutes,” he said, “And then their great three-point shooters brought us down.”

Dishant was one of the strongest performers for India at this stage, and his height and versatility caught the attention of new Indian Sr. Men’s coach Bill Harris, who called the youngsters to Chennai to try-out for the Senior squad. Dishant is amongst the select squad of 14, 12 of whom will be part of the final team to travel to Guangzhou (China) next month for the basketball tournament in the 2010 Asian Games.

So far, Dishant has been playing at the center position for this squad, too – India has an undersized team, but Dishant believes that they will be able to overcome their height disadvantage under the new coach. “Yes, India is a short team and we will face many bigger players in China, but we cannot back down from anyone just because they are taller,” said the confident young star, “We have to use certain defensive techniques to negate opposing big men. We have to simply pay attention to our basics and fundamentals and we should do fine.”

“What we need most is coordination and teamwork amongst ourselves – although we have some good individual players in the squad like Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Jagdeep Singh, Yadvinder Singh, and others, it is important to know that basketball is a team game, and we will be able to compete as long as we play in that way.”

Dishant himself as an excellent post game, featuring a smooth shooting touch from inside the ‘D’. Whether or not he makes the final cut, this is sure to be another important experience for a player who has rapidly improved from a cricketer/basketball novice to U18 captain and member of the Indian senior team. “I have already been very motivated ever since I was called for these tryouts,” said Dishant, “I want to make the best out of it. I am a younger player and I want to learn from all the talented seniors around.”

Dishant has also sung praises of his new coach. “Coach Harris’ main strength is in defense, and we are feeding off that. A good defensive team always wins. We have been emphasizing on certain defensive tactics with the coach, such as on-the-ball defense, recovery, and providing help defense to a teammate that has been beaten – this is something that we don’t usually do in India.”

“We have a good coach, so our chances for the Asian Games are good. I hope that we can bring back some good results.”

From a casual young cricketer to a budding basketball star, Dishant Shah has already come a long way. He may be a fresher on the senior team, but seeing the pace with which he has already achieved success, there is no doubt that in the near future he blooms into one of India’s leading basketball players.

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