March 11, 2011
Jayasankar Menon: A Hoops Odyssey
Imagine you’re in the theatre. The drama on stage is the tale of a legend. You have heard about him before, maybe even seen him, but what you know is only a rumour or story. But now, you’re going to see the action for yourself. Like every good character-based drama, this one starts with a life-changing moment for our hero, then sees the hero cement his legend, and then he meets his perfect heroine. But no story is complete without the conflict, which leads to the moment of climax, and then to a resolution that leaves demands a thunderous applause from the happy audience.
This is the story of Jayasankar Menon.
ACT – 1: The Auto-Rickshaw Accident
Our saga begins in the Wadakanchery, in Thrissur district, in Kerala around 1980. Young Jai, the son of a revenue officer in the Thrissur Municipal Office, grows up with what he calls a “free pass” to a local basketball tournament. His first major exposure to the world of basketball comes when Jai participates, not on-court, but just beside it, as he manages the scoreboard for the games.
But his own sublime basketball skills continue to grow as he grows older and taller. Learning under a coach at the local sports council, CP Michel, Jai improves to qualify for the Kerala Youth (U16) side, playing in his first National tournament at Bhilwara in Rajasthan. Soon after, in the year 1984, he gets selected to the Sports Hostel in Kerala, a move that injects a boost into his hoops development.
But basketball wasn’t the only sport that Jai participated in. He was also a very able Handball player, and was selected to represent Kerala’s Senior Handball side. Unfortunately, before he could explore his potential on the Handball court, his destiny would be changed forever.
“I should say, fortunately, I got into an accident,” Menon says, “While I was in Trivandrum for the Senior State coaching camp, an Auto-Rickshaw ran over my leg and I injured myself. That, luckily, put an end to my Handball career!”
When he recovered, he was fully back to basketball, as he began to play regularly and developed into good shape. “Of course I’m happy now that I had that accident!” Menon added, “Basketball got me so much more than Handball could have – I’m obligated to this game.”
ACT – 2: A rookie in the Starting 5
Jai climbed the ranks quickly, from Youth to Junior to the Senior side, before he joined Railways in 1987 and moved to Chennai, where he played for Southern Railways. That was the same year that Indian Railways took part in the World Railway Games in Delhi, where Indian Railways obtained a silver medal. Later that year, Jai was picked to his first Senior National, when India participated in the Asian Basketball Championship in Bangkok.
Later that year, the 19-year-old was part of the Railways squad that won the first Senior National in 19 years, at Mysore. He was part of the team that started a golden era for the Railways side, who are now favourites to win every major competition they participate in.
Jai played his first senior international game for India against Jordan, a 89-72 victory for India. But he got a bigger confidence boost as, in a rare move, the coach made him part of the starting five. “I completely didn’t expect that – usually youngsters have to move up the ranks before they get a starting slot. It was a rare opportunity for me, in my first international game, to start for India.”
Act 3 – Dominating Big Man
The dominance continued: over Six foot five inches tall, Jai played the Power Forward or the Center position, depending on the situation. He was also a strong player, who wasn’t afraid to use this strength to dominate the post play. One of the country’s best ever rebounders, Jai went on to represent India in four Asian Basketball Championships (ABCs). He won two gold medals for India in the South Asian Games, in Colombo and Chennai. His international basketball travels took him to the USA, Syria, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, and more.
During the 1995 ABC in Seoul, Jai led India as captain, and it was during this tournament where the full range of his abilities were put on display. “I played both the inside and outside game,” he said, “In some of the games, the opponents started to put full-court press on us, so I even began to bring the ball up the court and play the point guard position.”
Back home, there was no stopping Jai either. In his tenure with Southern Railways and Indian Bank, he participated in 15 Senior Nationals, winning the gold medal five times, and silver and bronze one time each. He won a further three golds and two silvers in Federation Cup Championships.
One of the biggest games of Jai’s domestic career came in the 1991 Senior Nationals – he had now moved to Chennai for good, and while representing a Tamil Nadu side, he was back in his home state of Kerala, where, in the Quarter-Finals, his team played against Kerala!
“It was a great game,” Menon remembers, “I really wanted to get this victory – I scored 49 points, and the game went into three overtime periods, but we still lost!”
In the very next Nationals, Jai’s redemption would be complete, as he helped lead TN to the gold.
The other game he remembers is the final of the 1995 Nationals in Calcutta, where, now as Tamil Nadu captain, he helped his team to another National win. “I remember playing the whole second half with four fouls,” Menon said.
Act 4 – The Heroine and the Co-Stars
Every hero needs a heroine, and the female lead role in the story of our main character is played by someone who is a legend herself, someone who deserves her own headline story. In 1994, Jai married Prasannakumari, who was the captain of the Indian Sr. Women’s side. A few years later, Jai became captain himself, taking the helm of the Indian Sr. Men’s team.
“We were probably the first marriage of captains,” Menon said, “Not only in basketball, but in any sport!”
Just like his illustrious lead partner, Jai was blessed with co-stars who helped him through his career. He speaks in high regard of the greats he has played with, included Ajmer Singh, Ram Kumar, Sunny CV, Shahid Quereshi, Unwin J. Anthony, Rajesh Srivastava, and Parminder Singh – each of whom could have a saga of their own now.
“The basketball players today are far more athletic, far more stronger than the players in our time,” he says, “But what we had, and what the current crop has to work on, is perfecting the team game. We had good fitness, and knew how to move well without the ball. This is something that the generation today has to work on.”
He adds: “There is also not much good height in the players today – maybe some in the Juniors – we need good big players, 7 footers in India.”
Act 5 – The High Point – The All Star and the Arjuna nominee
In 1997, Jai did the extraordinary – after leading India as captain to the ABC in Seoul (South Korea) two years earlier, Jai became the first basketball player from the South Asian region, and certainly the first from India, to be chosen to the Asian All Star side. He was the sixth-man in the All Star Team that played against the South Korea team in Seoul.
A year later, he was nominated for the Arjuna Award, recommended by the BFI, and although he never received the honour, in the eyes of the true fans, our protagonist had reached his high point.
Act 6 – The Suspension
As his international career ended, Jai still found it impossible to stay off the court in domestic competitions, continuing to be a dominating force for Indian Bank well into his late 30s. But for our lead character, the conflict was never against age – it was against an unfortunate circumstance.
In 2005, Jai stepped on court for Indian Bank against Southern Railway. When a little rough play from both sides got out of control, Jai found himself in an altercation. Three players from each side, including Jai were banned from the game. Five out of the six had their bans rescinded afterwards – but not Jai. He suffered a suspension from the game of basketball, the game he loved, the game that made him, and the game he had given his life to. Having lost his ‘current player’ status, he was transferred to Mumbai, forced to stay away from his wife and his daughters.
It took three more years, when a change in the association came about, and finally, Jai’s ban was lifted. But by then our protagonist was no longer the dominating force of his younger years. Between a knee surgery and weight-gain due to inactivity, he was never in shape to be a star again.
Act 7 – The glass half full
But that is not the end of our drama. The end is still in process, still in play, as we, the rest of the audience, watch and, and as we listen. Because although Jayasankar Menon may have waved goodbye to a legendary playing career, he has started to contribute to the game in other ways.
“I’m an optimistic person,” he says, “I always like to see the positive side of things and I believe that good things are bound to happen. As basketball grows bigger, I’m continuing to look for more opportunities to contribute to the growth of the game in India.”
And indeed, he has already made a name for himself off the court. He is an honorary Sports Advisor for Hindustan Group of Institutions and Sports Committee member of Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). Menon and Prasanna, Indian basketball’s power couple, started the Professional Basketball Academy (PBA) in Chennai, where he is Director. He has organised inter-school basketball tournaments for several years, and has been involved in coaching. “I have learnt a lot from a lot of different coaches, in India and abroad,” says Menon, “I like to use all their influences but I have my own style!”
Of course, it is perhaps likely that you may have heard Jai before you ever got a chance to see him, despite the fact that he stands at a giant’s height. Jai is a regular colour commentator for DD Sports during India’s televised basketball tournaments. His game may have slowed down, but his voice never does!
And as he watches the game of basketball in India enter an exciting new phase, Menon keeps his outlook positive, but at the same time, offers some sound advice. “There are good things happening to the game in India. The current General-Secretary of the Basketball Federation of India, Mr. Harish Sharma, has helped guide this new way, this new beginning for Indian basketball. I’m happy to see the involvement of IMG-Reliance. Now that our players have begun to receive an honorarium, they will be encouraged to perform better.”
“But we still have a long way to go,” he adds. “We have to make sure our players are promoted the right way. They have to have more exposure against better foreign talents. Our best players now might be dominating the domestic scene, but they get exposed overseas because they do not play enough against better players. We should get more and more foreign teams to come play in India against us so our own level can improve.”
And this is where, for now, the curtains close, and Menon’s story so far comes to an end. Because this is the part that our lead character leaves the stage and he joins the audience to witness a bigger show. A show that his story is a small part of, and a show that we all have a stake in: The Story of Basketball in India.
“The presence of these giants – IMG, Reliance, and NBA in India will take basketball to the next level,” says Menon, “It will take three or four years for things to smooth out, but once a professional league starts in India, things will start to work out.”
We all certainly hope so. But before we welcome our exciting future, let’s celebrate a legend from the past. Who knows? There might well be a young child somewhere in the country, manning the scoreboard at a basketball tournament, and have his eyes set on becoming the next Jayasanker Menon.