January 8, 2011
Geethu Anna Jose - "Every time I enter the court, I want to play the best game of my life"
It's the first quarter of the Women's Final of the National Championship, the biggest basketball competition in India. A large crowd has come this cold, January afternoon to watch the hosts Delhi taking on their arch-nemesis, Indian Railways in the Final. Railways has defeated Delhi in the final of the Nationals for eight straight years, and they again boast the tournament's most formidable team, going undefeated and beating their opponents by over 50 points in each game. But this Delhi squad is going to be tricky; backed by strong home support and featuring superstars such as Prashanti Singh, Akanksha Singh, Shiba Maggon, and Raspreet Sidhu, this was going to be no cakewalk.
But the star of the show as Railways' six-foot-two center, Geethu Anna Jose, attracting attention from fans and opponents alike. India's finest basketball player was aiming for her seventh consecutive national title; her first as team captain.
But the game wasn't turning out the way Geethu had imagined. "When I had gone out, I wanted to score 50," she admitted, "But I missed three easy shots in the first quarter and started feeling the pressure. People say that ‘Nobody in India can stop Geethu', but I wasn't living up to those expectations in the game. I was letting them down in the Final! I was embarrassed and just wanted to sit on the bench."
It was Geethu's Railways and India teammate, Anitha P., who finally got the superstar to relax at halftime. "She told me to approach the third quarter like the first, to start all over again. After that, I was able to realise my mistakes, start improving, and played a completely bindaas, cool game."
Those who don't deal with the heady expectations that Geethu Anna Jose has put on herself may not realise her context through just her words. She reached double digits even in that ‘embarrassing' first half. She finished with her personal tournament-high of 29 points by the end, playing ‘bindaas'. Railways routed Delhi by 40 points in the final, 95-55. The team won each game by an average of 55.9 points each. Their closest game was a 37 point semi-final victory over Chhattisgarh; their biggest win was against Punjab in the quarter-final, by 101 points. It was Railways' eight straight crown; Geethu's seventh.
"I was surprised that it was such a one-sided game in the end," she says, "I looked at the score-sheet later and was shocked to see that I was the top scorer!"
Seven straight victories, but somehow, Geethu still manages to stay motivated for the National Championships. "This is the toughest competition in India and the one I enjoy playing the most. Yes, we have been winning a lot, but this is one tournament with so much talent that I believe that anyone can defeat us if we don't play hard. The victory in the final felt sweet because Delhi was a talented team that had been playing very well. I was especially happy to see that all the players in our squad played well in this championship." Apart from Geethu, players like Anitha P., Anju Lakara, and Renjini Peter stepped up big time for the champions.
"There is no problem with motivation," Geethu adds, "I want to improve myself in every single game. Every time I step on the basketball court, I want it to be the best game of my life. I want to become a better scorer and a better player."
It is perhaps this hunger for improvement that has Geethu wishful for tougher competition. Standing taller than most other opponents she faces, she believes that better defenses will get the best out her. "I want to test myself against other big players to see if I can face that challenge. In Australia, I face tall girls all the time, but there are not too many other tall opponents in the basketball scene in India. I hope that players with good size can be developed in the next generation of Indian players."
There has been no bigger basketball player in India - in stature, and in the Women's division case, in size - than Geethu. Born in the city of Kottayam in Kerala, Geethu, still only 25, has already had a legendary career. She started playing basketball at age 11, idolising the former Indian captain Ivy Cherian as a youngster. After representing Kerala in her youth, she was brought in to play for Southern Railways. The high-point of her career came when she became the first Indian to play professional basketball in Australia - Geethu was picked by the Ringwood Hawks, a lower division team in the Australian WNBL (Women's National Basketball League). Her potential realised, Geethu dominated in Australia, even winning the Most Valuable Player award of the league in 2008.
But her time in Australia was no trade-off for success back home. Geethu led the Indian National Team to new highs in tournament's in Thailand, Vietnam, the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Australia, the 2009 FIBA Asia Women's Championship in Chennai, and the recently concluded Asian Games in China, where the Indian basketball team featured for the first time in 28 years. In a young, steadily improving team, Geethu emerged as undisputed leader, winning top scorer, top rebounder, top blocker, and most valuable player honours in many of the tournaments she took part in. She was named India's captain for the FIBA Asia Championship.
It was the Commonwealth Games experience in Australia when Geethu first faced her on-court idol, Lauren Jackson. Jackson, an Australian, is one of the best women players on the planet. India faced Australia in their very first game, which resulted in a massive loss for India. "Jackson is the best," Geethu gushes, "She scored 40 points in 20 minutes, and I became a fan ever since!"
Fast forward four years, and Geethu and the rest of the National squad faced their toughest challenge as they headed to China for the Asian Games in November. Led for the first time by an American coach - former WNBA player Tamika Raymond - India's inexperience proved to be their downfall. India played against Asia's finest, and the tournament's two best teams, in their first two games - China and South Korea - and were blown out by each one. Their confidence shattered, the team went on to lose their final game too, against a relatively easier Thailand squad. India made a big comeback against the Thais, but Geethu noted that their opponents' zone defense in the end exposed India's inconsistent outside shooting.
"We really have to improve our game in India," Geethu lamented, "Yes, we may not have height, but we must harness our speed and our shooting ability to get the best out of the team. Each time a player puts on an India jersey, they have to find out some way to improve themselves so that they can be responsible for representing India the right way."
Still, the future is bright for the game in India. The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) has received sponsorship from IMG-Reliance, who have been helping develop leagues and have handed a bonus honorarium payment to India's best players. Geethu and seven others were part of the top category of players handed this honorarium.
"Now that we're getting paid, there are no more excuses and no one to blame," she jokes, "We just have to perform now. India still has a long way to go - the youngsters need improved coaching and improved knowledge of the game's fundamentals. A foreign coach like Tamika cannot make miracles happen in three to six months, and a good team cannot be formed if the players aren't always playing together. We need consistent good coaching and we need team unity to improve. It's a long-term process."
From Shiba Maggon, the Singh Sisters, Geethu's Railways' teammate Anitha P., TN's Kokila, and Maharashtra bigs like Shireen, Geethu is optimistic of the talent in India - it is the experience of big games that she feels will bring out the best potential out of these players. "If we have more small international tournaments in India, inviting squads which are closer to us in quality, we will not only learn more from them but also generate a lot of hype amongst fans for basketball in India," she says.
But her personal ambitions are higher, and further. Currently mulling over another offer to go back to Australia to the Hawks, Geethu is holding back optimistically as she hopes to get a try-out with the WNBA, the world's finest Women's basketball league. "I don't know if I can make it, but I want to try. It will be a big step if an Indian can even get a trial with the WNBA."
Geethu doesn't mince words about her growing legend. She has been India's best-known name in basketball for the better half of the last decade, and has admitted that although the pressure sometimes gets to her, the fame certainly doesn't. "It was great being recognised in China and elsewhere as a well-known basketball player - that is the feeling that basketball players should receive in India too, because they're superstars in their own right."
"Like the National Championships, there are great expectations of me from both fans and opponents when I play, and I have to change my attitude to be able to deal with it," she confesses, "On the court, there are no friendships, no Didis - It's my game, I'm the killer on court."
So, can anyone in India stop Geethu Anna Jose? "Of course!" she laughs, "I can be stopped very easily." After a pause, she adds, "But I won't reveal how!"