January 19, 2011

Arjun Singh: Point Perfect



As a chubby young child, Arjun Singh got the nickname ‘Golu’, which literally translated, means 'Round One'. As he grew older though, he left the chubbiness and roundness behind him – but it was another round thing that caught his full attention.

The basketball.

From the looks of it, this new ‘Golu’ in Arjun’s life is likely to stick with him forever.

Fulfilling his potential as an explosive youth star, Arjun Singh has become one of the most respected and feared young players in India over the last few years. Still only 20 years of age, Arjun is already becoming a key ingredient of India’s senior national team. He has starred in several national and international tournaments already, and is looking to cement his position as India’s top choice at the point guard position in the future.

Following the footsteps of his older brother, former Indian international Amit Singh, the Varanasi-boy Arjun started playing basketball when he was just 11 years old. “My brother had a serious knee injury that ended his career early,” Arjun said, “I always liked the game and used to watch my brother playing so well and winning – I knew I had to make this game my future, too.”

Arjun began playing the game at the UP College basketball court in Varanasi, where his ascension as a basketball star mirrored another young player that started with him – Vishesh Bhriguvanshi. Arjun and Vishesh started off playing together at the same age, making it through to the UP Sub-Jr. team together, and then moving on to the Youth, Junior, and finally the Senior level. Arjun also followed Vishesh to Indian Railways, where the duo combined to make a devastating backcourt for Railways’ two of the last three years of National Championship victories.

Arjun’s first experience to a national side was when he was called up to play for the Junior FIBA Asian Basketball Championship (ABC) back in 2008. The youngster got his first exposure of playing internationally in Tehran. He followed this with another call-up when the team went to Kuwait for the Stancovic Cup.

Things started to get better for the youngster: Arjun, along with Vishesh, was part of the squad that won gold for India at the 1st Beach Games in Bali (Indonesia) at the 3-on-3 championship.

2010 was an up and down year for Golu: After playing for India in the South Asian Games in Dhaka, he went on to have his best performance to date for India as the Junior ABC in Yemen neared. A good ball-handling PG for his tall height, Arjun and the Indian Junior Team dominated opponents at the Middle Asia Zone Qualifying matches held at Bangalore. His performances gained him steady crowd support too, and when India headed to Yemen for the tournament in September, he announced his arrival at the Asian stage, finishing as India’s leading scorer in a tournament that was otherwise a disappointment for the talented young team.

“The ABC experience was great,” Arjun says, “This was the second time in this tournament for me and many of the other players. I was able to play more confidently this time. Plus our coach was Mr. Ram Kumar, who is also my coach at Indian Railways. With him on our side, I knew that the training for this tournament was going to much better.”

Unfortunately, Arjun faced a setback at this tournament: despite his good performances, he suffered an injury that kept him out of contention for India’s Sr. Team which went on to make the country’s first appearance in an Asian Games basketball tournament since 1982.

Arjun watched from home as India, after winning their grudge match against Afghanistan in their first game, went on to lose their next five matches against Qatar, Chinese Taipei, Iran, Philippines, and Japan. “We lost, but India played very well,” Arjun defended his fellow players, “The team lacked experience, but still played much above their level through stretches in many of the matches.”

Arjun’s injury kept him out of the team for the Super Kung Sheung Cup in Hong Kong too, but he chose the biggest domestic stage – the National Championship – to announce his much-awaited comeback to basketball. In his second year for Indian Railways, for whom he is the starting point guard, Arjun became a fan favourite at the tournament, wowing opponents and supporters alike with his improving abilities. Indian Railways went on to win their third straight National Championship gold, defeating their rivals, Services, in the Final, 74-62.

Arjun was in scorching-hot form in the final, scoring a game-high 27 points. Boasting an exciting line-up of Arjun, Vishesh, Gagan Deep Singh, Prakash Mishra, Yadivinder Singh, and Kiran Pal Singh, blazed through the tournament in style.

But there is one problem that plagues Arjun despite the domestic success: many of the successful Indian players continue to get caught up in an unhealthy cycle of winning big in domestic tournaments, and then, unprepared to handle better talent, India’s national team ends up suffering internationally. “We need more exposure against better international teams before major tournaments,” Arjun said, “The Men’s team had little exposure together between the South Asian Games in January and the Asian Games in December. We can’t improve if we just keep playing against each other at home.”

Still, Arjun remains optimistic about improvement, both for the Indian National team as well for his own game. “It will take time, but I think we are close to figuring things out,” he says, “We need to make a habit of playing and practicing together to become a stronger side. Once we can find the perfect combination of players in the team, we should be able to improve. Of course, all of us have to remain motivated and keep training harder.”

“I want to keep improving my game, too,” Arjun adds, “Right now, I’m a good passer of the ball and can be quick running the floor. But to hang with international opponents, I have a lot more work to do. I have to add more body weight to take on stronger opponents, as well as try and get faster.”

With a sunny future in basketball ahead of him, the boy known as Golu has come a long way at a young age. For now, his focus is on the next challenge ahead of him: the upcoming Savio Cup in Mumbai, where he will once again lead Indian Railways as the team’s premier feeder. Following that will be the Federation Cup and the basketball tournament at the National Games later in February. Railways doesn’t play in the National Games, but Arjun will be there: A highly touted player, he is wanted both by Punjab (where his current job posting is) and Jharkhand (who, as hosts, can call upon any player). His decision could well bolster one lucky side at the tournament.

Though the young star’s ambitions, clearly, lie strongly with the National side. “I want to keep representing my country,” he says, “India’s position is down right now, so I feel that it will be my responsibility in the future to help fulfill the shortcomings we face today.”

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