This article was first published in my column for The Times of India Sports on May 8, 2018. Read the original piece here.
I vividly remember one of the first times I saw Rajesh Patel—coach and spearheading force of Chhattisgarh basketball—in action on the side-lines of a basketball court. It was the 2010 Junior National Basketball Championship in Vashi, Maharashtra, the annual tournament featuring the top under-18 players in the nation. By then, Patel had already turned Chhattisgarh’s junior, youth, and sub-junior level girls into the most successful programme of the decade, winning dozens of medals across the various competitions. He was Chhattisgarh basketball secretary, its chief talent scout and recruiter, it’s media relations-person, and on this day in Vashi in a preliminary round game against Delhi, he was there in his favourite role: head coach.
Chhattisgarh had begun the game in a blitz, leading 25-2 after the first quarter. But as the girls walked back to the bench, Patel still seemed unhappy.
“You slowed down in the end,” he told them. “This is a 40-minute game, and we have only played 10. We lead by 20 now, I want us to lead by 50 by the time the game's over.”
With ruthless efficiency, they followed his command, and by the game ended, Chhattisgarh had secured a 69-48 victory. Not quite the margin he had envisioned, but it would be good enough.
Ironically, the 2010 Junior Nationals were one of the few years when Chhattisgarh’s girls didn’t win a medal. For Patel, such failure was a rare, almost alien occurrence. For 33 years, he dedicated his life to coaching the game to youngsters from Chhattisgarh’s rural, tribal, and other nearby regions. As head coach of Chhattisgarh since 2001, he delivered 104 medals, including 69 gold medals, to the state in the 17-year stretch in National Basketball Championships, National Games, and the Federation Cup. In 2015, he was named India’s Most Successful Basketball Coach by the Limca Book of Records.
reportedly diabetic and suffering from kidney issues.
Patel will be remembered as one of the most dedicated and hard-working leaders in Indian basketball. In his youth, he played for Madhya Pradesh and joined the Bhilai Steel Plant (BSP) in 1980. By 1985, he turned all of his efforts into coaching the basketball recruits at Bhilai.
In 2000, Chhattisgarh gained independent statehood from Madhya Pradesh and Patel became the state’s basketball secretary the following year. He set up a residential basketball academy in Bhilai and recruited dozens of players from nearby regions—many of whom were from tribal or underprivileged backgrounds—to teach them the game. His mission was simple: to help these young girls earn employment through the sports quota.
He found astonishing success. Patel’s Chhattisgarh teams were renowned for their speed and efficiency, running lesser prepared opponents off the floor with ease. They won or were in the mix of winning every under-age championship in Indian domestic basketball for nearly two decades, and it was only when his top players were successfully recruited by units like the Indian Railways that the senior level Chhattisgarh teams saw a dip in results.
Over the years, he helped 85 young women secure jobs under the sports quota at the Indian Railways. 41 of his alumni have represented the Indian national team at various age levels, and seven have been Indian national team captains. Some of the top players to have risen under Patel’s tutelage include Anju Lakra, Bharti Netam, Seema Singh, Poonam Chaturvedi, Kavita Akula, Akanksha Singh, Maddu Pushpa and many more. Several male players like Ajay Pratap Singh also credit Patel and the BSP for their rise to prominence.
Notable stories among these players include that of Poonam Chaturvedi, originally from Kanpur, was discovered by Patel and grew to be the tallest woman basketball player in India at 6-foot-11. Chaturvedi was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2014 but made a comeback to the game and continued to be a major part of Patel’s Chhattisgarh state team. On the other side of the “height” spectrum is 22-year-old Kavita Akula, a five-foot-six point guard who earned scholarship to the IMG Academy in Florida at 14 and, last year, became the first Indian to be offered a full basketball scholarship in an NCAA Division 1 university, the Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona.
For his contributions to grassroots basketball in India, Patel was felicitated at the FICCI sports summit in 2010.
Twice during his tenure, Chhattisgarh’s Senior teams reached the finals of the prestigious National Championship. In 2014, Chhattisgarh pulled off a stunning upset of Railways in the final of the National Championship in New Delhi, ending Railways’ ten-year winning streak. The victory inspired Bollywood, too, and a production team led by Lara Dutta and Mahesh Bhupathi has since shown interest in making a film about Patel and his squad.
Patel continued to lead and coach until his last days, and his sudden death on Monday brought an outpouring of respect an emotion from Indian basketball veterans on social media and in the news.
The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) wrote in a statement: “The Indian Basketball family lost a legend today as former Indian team Head Coach and current Chhattisgarh team Head Coach Mr. Rajesh Patel passed away. Coach Rajesh Patel was one of the best Basketball Coaches in India and was a true gem of a person. May his soul rest in peace.”
“His dedication to basketball is beyond everything,” wrote India’s veteran coach, former player, and referee Shiba Maggon. “His life is a complete journey of basketball. His efforts gave hundreds of families food in the house, jobs to the girls. He raised hopes for the girls to make something out of life.”
Anju Lakra, one of the many success stories of Patel’s programme, summed up the coach’s extraordinary influence: “He helped us break free.”
Patel will always be synonymous with Chhattisgarh Basketball, and will particularly be remembered for leading the charge to help female athletes in a culture where their efforts are often undermined and their opportunities few and far between. He exemplified the potential of the sport, it’s power to provide both excellence on the court and hope off of it.
On the way to the Junior Nationals, Patel passed away doing what he loved best, leading a group of young women to more basketball opportunities. His legacy will now be carried forward by the athletes whose lives he transformed.