The life of a student athlete can be complicated. There's homework to deal with in the classroom and homework to deal with on the court. You have to study Xs and Os as much as you have to study formulas and equations. Sometimes, for the rare few, the two worlds combine so that the lab room science trickles out to make the science of basketball clearer, and the on-court discipline brings structure to the classroom, too.
It was nearing 9 at night when Maryland's guard Varun Ram finally had the time to take my call. His schedule was stacked as he tried to balance between two worlds. He was exiting the lab, catching up on missed time as a physiology and biology major. And he had to get rest to be ready for practice the next day. A game against famous rivals Duke - which would be Maryland-Duke's last ever face-off in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) - lingered only a few days ahead.
Shuffling between different worlds, and sometimes, polar opposites, isn't exactly new for the 21-year-old. Casual US college basketball fans might not flinch at 5-foot-9 backup guard out of his team's rotation, and averaging fewer than eight minutes per contest for the season, but Ram's significance stretches way beyond those casual eyes. Born to Indian immigrants, Ram is one of an extremely tiny list of Indian-origin players who have ever cracked NCAA D1 Basketball, the highest level of the college game in the world. He mixes cultures, academic interests, and athletic life, and he's doing it in the toughest division in college basketball.
And yet, it almost never worked out. At an early age, Ram had to choose between his academic, athletic, and family goals, in a journey that saw him do an extra High School year to improve his basketball skills, move to Connecticut and play Division 3 ball, travel back to Maryland to return home, and then work his way into a Division 1 roster.
But let's start the story at the very beginning: Ram was born in Lexington, Kentucky to Indian parents who immigrated from Tamil Nadu 25 years ago. His mother was from Attur while his father called the town of Rasipuram his home. In the States, Ram and his family moved around a lot but finally settled in Maryland for good 15 years ago. His roots to India remained strong as ever, though.
"I go back to visit often," he added, "And even here in America, I feel absolutely connected to the Indian community. My parents have brought me up completely with the Indian culture. My older sister is a bharatnatyam dancer, and we're constantly surrounded by the Indian community."
Ram excelled for River Hill High School in Clarksville, Maryland, and had dreams of attending an Ivy League college with a good balance of sports and athletics. Since his High School wasn't too high on the list of college recruiters, many skipped over him. He was shown some interest by coaches at Brown and Dartmouth who encouraged to do a post-graduate year in High School (which took some convincing to the Indian parents) to improve his skills, which he did. Unfortunately, by the time the year ended, the coaches that the shown interest moved on. Ram's hoops dreams were at the crossroads.
So he ended up leaving home to take any basketball opportunity he could, and it came in the shape of the Division 3's Connecticut Trinity College in Hartford, CT. "I was there for a year, I played a lot, and I played well. But after the year ended, I decided it was time for me to come back home to my family in Maryland."
Ram's homecoming was fated to be bittersweet, as he would end up joining Maryland University to focus on his academic major, but was told to give up on basketball. The Maryland Terps were too strong and too deep, he was told. It was over.
"I've been playing ball all my life," Ram says, "It's what I'm best at. I couldn't just stop. I worked my tail off and got a tryout at end of 2012. I made the team as a red-shirt, practicing with the team but not suiting up for games. And then, finally this season, I got the chance to become a D1 player."
As a third-choice point guard, Ram's opportunities for the Terps (15-12) have been far and few in-between, but the young man who has journeyed through so many obstacles isn't complaining. "My job now is to push the guys ahead of me in practice as hard as possible. If I train hard against them they'll be better in game against other point guards. I take my role very seriously and I'm waiting for more opportunities to play for the team."
Earlier in the season, that opportunity came when Maryland's starting point guard Seth Allen went down to injury, inserting Ram in the regular rotation. He played about 10-15 minutes a game, including in a marquee national television showcase against Ohio State.
Ram has also connected with the Indian national team in the past, and has had dreams of going back to his parents' home country to explore basketball opportunities. Unfortunately, India's rules against naturalization in sports might restrict his ambitions.
"I've played some ball in India," he says, "They are athletic and have a love for the game, but are very often lacking in technical skills."
"But, I think it's 100 percent possible for India to develop basketball stars one day. There are 1.2 billion people in the country and so many athletes. I was born and raised in a country where sports like basketball are a big deal. If I was in India, maybe I wouldn't be playing ball, especially considering my height. I'm sure there are kids in India who have the potential to be as good or better than me but who don't have the opportunities. They could make it if they were given the right exposure."
And that's why, despite the journey he faced to get where he is, Ram knows that he's been blessed. He's been blessed to have parents that supported both his athletic and academic ambitions, blessed to have a system around him that encouraged his love for basketball, and blessed to be playing for Maryland, where he can have home, sports, and studies all at the same time.
The life of a student-athlete is surely complicated, yes. But if you manage it right, it can be a blessing. At 5-foot-9 and from a community that is still an outsider to basketball, he worked hard enough to make it to the highest level. Hopefully, his example can motivate others to aim higher, too.