On a humid Sunday evening in Bengaluru, 17-year-old Prudhvi Reddy slipped on an 'India' basketball jersey for the first time, in what he recalled was one of the best days in his life.
24 hours later, on the same court, and in the same jersey, the 'best' day had evolved into the most frustrating one.
Europe Basketball Academy in Barcelona, Spain, starting as an ambitious young player hungry for game knowledge and returning to his country as a blossoming star in the making. With Reddy in the roster, India won both their games in Bengaluru against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and qualified for the FIBA Asia Championship in Qatar next month. But Reddy's joy at getting a chance to play for his country in the first game against Bangladesh turned into frustration the very next day, when he was planted to the bench for most of the game while his teammates fought off the tricky Sri Lankan side.
"I had been trying to play for India for the past three years, ever since I was cut from the country's under-14 side," Reddy said in an interview with Hoopistani a day after the qualifiers, "So it felt really good when I got to wear the jersey and got to play for India for the first time and I did pretty well in just 10-15 minutes against Bangladesh. But I was left disappointed the next day when I didn't get a chance to play much against Sri Lanka. I felt that the whole squad should be pushed forward and encouraged equally"
"Abroad," he continued, "If you have talent, you'll be selected. I'm hoping to get past that to focus on basketball first and foremost."
When Reddy speaks of his experience 'abroad', he speaks of his time with the Europe Basketball Academy, a decision that he felt has completely changed his life and transformed him into basketball professional - even at his young age. Reddy was born in the village of Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh and his family moved to Hyderabad when he was at a young age. "I credit my parents for the support they gave me early," he said, "They came from nothing - my father worked day and night at a petrol pump and my mother became a teacher and they earned just so me and my brother could get a good education. They let me follow my dreams and sent to the academy in Europe despite the expenses."
Growing up and improving on the court, Reddy decided after the 10th grade that, instead of choosing just an academic stream like most of his peers, he was also going to choose basketball. "I wanted to try my best in the game and see how well I could do. I wanted to make the game my life. I made a video of my game at the national championship and uploaded it for the world to see."
A typical day in the academy for Reddy included a few hours in the weight room and at least four hours of basketball practice. Every Thursday, the academy would play games against lower league Spanish teams. The competition was intense, "A lot of the players there were chasing professional contracts" Reddy recalled, "It was a jungle, with everyone fighting for their spots. They wait for your mistakes and seek your weaknesses, so you have to be at the top of your game at all times. I think I went through a lot there, but I ended up learning a lot, too."
Reddy is thin 5-11 combo-guard, who described his mental ability before his physical strengths. "I feel that I'm mentally strong and on the court, I never stop attacking," he said, "I like to share the ball and help my teammates get better, but if they struggle scoring, I like to take over and do the scoring myself. I take pride in my defense - that's where my game starts - and I could've really helped shut down Sri Lanka players the other night!"
While most young players look up to NBA idols like LeBron and Kobe, Reddy has had a different role model recently: UConn's NCAA championship winning guard, turned rookie with the Miami Heat, Shabazz Napier. "When I think about improving my game, I think about becoming more like him," Reddy said, "I have to built my body more, get more bulk. I have to become a pure shooter and a pure point guard. I have to be more a leader who is concerned with every activity on the court. I really idolize Napier and want to play his game. Napier can control the whole game and he won the national title. He made his teammates better, and at the same time, he saved them when they required. He's also a good rebounder for his size."
The improvements are essential for Reddy now as he looks ahead. From July 12 - August 6, he will be with India's U18's at a national coaching camp at the SAI Center in Aurangabad, following which there are plans for a short exposure trip where the team can take part in friendly/practice games. The big test will come in Doha (Qatar) starting August 19th, when the team play in the U18 FIBA Asia Championship. Reddy then plans to head back to Europe, where he has an agent who will help him seek professional basketball options.
|Photo courtesy: Ekalavyas|
And after that? "I wanna be the first Indian player in the NBA. I want to get there by 22 or 23. I'm ambitious - why not? I grew up in a village. I never thought that I could go outside India and play basketball. I made it that far, and from here, everything is possible in life if I keep working hard. There are rarely any players from India who have played outside the country. Why can't others also follow my example?"
But back in his homeland, Reddy will be hoping that his talents - and the talents of many other young Indians - aren't squandered away by politics in the system. "We cannot keep following the same old ways of thinking in India if we have to win. There are lots of nice players in India who can make a difference, but we're losing them."
India had a clear height advantage against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, which helped them secure the two victories. But in Doha, against other big teams, India will have to rethink their strategies to challenge their stronger opponents. Reddy believes that the team will have to tighten up on defense, not allow any open looks and make sure to protect their rebounds.
Upcoming stars like Mahipal Singh and Gurvinder Singh Gill played well in Bengaluru and will be the focal point of India's offense in Doha, but Reddy believes that India will need a system and play as a team to have a chance.
The system will be perfected in camp over the next few weeks and then tested against Asian rivals in Qatar. The India U18s represent a group of youngsters most likely to become a focal point of India's future senior national teams. And Prudhvi Reddy is in the mix, with an ambitious attitude to be part of that future. He took a unique route to basketball success, and after all the life's lessons he learnt, his journey was rewarded with an 'India' jersey.
Now, Reddy has to take the frustration and turn it into fuel and motivation, and work harder to become the best player that he possibly can be.