This feature was originally published for NBA.com/India in July, 2016.
Varanasi, many believe, is the oldest living city in the world, a civilization in perpetual existence for thousands of years. While the outside world was destroyed and rebuilt, Varanasi’s essence remained the same. Devotees begin their day early in the morning, at the crack of dawn, with blessings from the Ganga, moving on to yoga by the ghats, a cup of chai at the Chawk, visits to the Sankat Mochan and Vishwanath temples, Ganga Arti at Dashashwamedha Ghat in the evening, and a final ring of the bell to call it a very early night.
The city’s personality is a dual acceptance of discipline of ritual and a creative expression of one’s free-soul, what locals call being ‘mast’. And it is this balance that eventually produced the most unlikely by-product of this ancient city. Not its saris, its carpets, or paan. Not the ghats, lassis, or educational institutions. But a culture of basketball like no other.
Specifically, one particular house of hoops – the Singhs – an incredible family of five sisters who have made an indelible mark in contemporary Indian basketball. Varanasi’s Singh Sisters – Priyanka (36), Divya (33), Prashanti (30), Akanksha (27), and Pratima (26) – have made basketball a family business. Divya, Prashanti, Akanksha, and Pratima have all played for the Indian National team, and two of them have even been national captains. Priyanka played for the UP State team. And Divya, now, is blossoming into one of India’s finest young basketball coaches.
Prashanti, sister number three and a national team regular, credits the energy of her hometown to her family’s basketball success. “The vibration in Varanasi is very different,” she says. “You step into the city - people come from across the world and feel different there. There are cultural differences and difficulties everywhere, but there is a positive feeling here. It’s a simple place. People are sensitive and focused because there aren’t many distractions.”
“There is no night life, so we have early mornings! For Indian sportsperson, this is required: to be a morning person. Lifestyle of Varanasi both mast and disciplined. It's an amazing place, and in our case, it really helped.”
Unlike a lot of stories of Indian athletes, the Singh Sisters had no pedigree of sports in the previous generation. Their father is a Senior Branch Manager at Allahabad Bank in the Shivpur area of the city and the mother a former teacher turned housewife. The sisters, however, took advantage of the Udai Pratap (UP) College to hone their basketball skills, in a golden era for the city when one coach at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) center helped briefly make Varanasi into the basketball capital of the nation.
Prashanti also credits the intellectual culture in the city for making the sisters into cerebral as well as physical players. “This city,” Prashanti says. “It’s not fashionable, but it’s intellectual. People may look simple, but they are intelligent.”
“All of us [sisters] have a strong academic background because of our father, who attended IIT Kharagpur. We had no sports background, even though we had the physical ability, a natural built from our village ancestors. But basketball requires more than that; it’s not easy game. It’s a game that requires quick decision-making. Only physical ability doesn't help, this is a smart person's game. We always had focus on intelligence and academics, and that helped us a lot.”
Like the devotees by the ghats, the sisters followed their own ritual in the city. Basketball practice in the morning, school, and more basketball practice, repeated with absolute discipline to perfect their basketball skills. But basketball is more than a game of discipline; and it took a dash of local creativity – that mast personality – to turn these players into star athletes for India and at the international level.
Will the future generations in the city, and around the country, follow the Singhs’s examples? “People are definitely very interested in helping the sport in the city, but nothing is happening yet,” Prashanti says, “Despite this being the Prime Minister’s constituency, sports here is ignored. We have to improve infrastructure and we need a good indoor court in this city. Basketball is a global, A-grade sport. We deserve more.”