January 21, 2010

Divya Singh: Good Girl Gone Basketball

A ‘good Indian girl’ isn’t supposed to be this way. A ‘good Indian girl’ is supposed to listen to her parents, stay publicly inhibited and grounded, and in these slowly changing times in modern India, is allowed to study diligently to achieve an attractive degree.

Because from Day One, a ‘good Indian girl’ is nurtured for eventual her matrimonial advertisement in the supplement copy of the Wednesday newspaper. She is taught how to cook the right Indian meals to keep her future husband happy, she is expected to build a home, churn out descendents (preferably boys) at regular intervals, and sacrifice her own ambitions to satisfy the expectations of both her and her husband’s family.

It is because a woman in India rarely exists for herself: she lives for her parents, and her siblings, and her prying aunties, and her husband, and her children, and so on and on… That’s why the story of a female athlete in India, or a female architect, a writer, a filmmaker, or anyone from a male-centric traditional background, who instead decided to live her life the way she wanted to, will never be an ordinary story.

Divya Singh, the former captain of the Indian women’s national basketball team, is one such story. At 27, Divya has already turned the stifling ‘good Indian girl’ stereotypes on its head, and instead trailblazed a career for herself in what she loved most: basketball.

Like former men’s captain Trideep Rai, who I interviewed for an article last month, Divya is also from my hometown Varanasi, which has had a reputation of being uniquely illustrious in churning out national-level basketball talents. Her early inspiration to get into the game as an adolescent was her older sister Priyanka, who received notable basketball success herself when she got a chance to play for her state team. “I used to watch my sister play, and hang around her, just dribbling,” Divya says, “That is how it all began.”

In two years, Divya’s casual dribbling drills morphed into serious interest in the game, and at 14, she got her first call-up to the Varanasi District Junior Team. Two years later, she was called up to play for the seniors. She was in her senior year at high school when she got her call-up to represent her state Uttar Pradesh (UP) in the senior nationals.

Although naturally gifted, her journey in basketball wasn’t without its share of hurdles. First and foremost, it was from her own father, a bank manager who was against his daughter’s interest in athletics. “He still feels like I should’ve tried to find a job in something related to administration,” Divya said, “He didn’t understand that I could have a future in sports.” Her mother, Divya admits, fully supported her dreams, and despite the differing worldviews in her family, Divya continued to develop her game towards stardom.

Divya received her first call-up to the Indian national team in 2000. For seven years thereafter, the young Banarasi was a force in women’s basketball in the country. The highlights of her international career included a silver medal in the 20th Asian Basketball Confederation Championship in 2005, gold in the First Phuket International Invitational Basketball Championship in Thailand in 2006, leading the Indian team as captain in the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne (Australia), and finishing at 5th place (India’s highest finish in decades) at the FIBA Asia Championship for Women at Incheon (South Korea) in 2007.

Meanwhile, she continued a stellar career domestically too. After representing UP for a few years, she moved on to play for Delhi from 2002-2007, with whom she won gold in the Senior National Basketball Championships at Hyderabad in 2003 and three silver medals from 2005-2007. While she played for Delhi, she “worked” for the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL) as a Telecom Office Assistant. I emphasize on “worked” because, as I had written in my article on Trideep, a lot of successful Indian basketball professionals are signed on to represent a government service with a mock job placement and title, whereas in reality they are expected to focus mostly on basketball. Divya agrees that her placement has been no different.

Divya’s success led the way to her three younger sisters following her path. Prashanti, Akanksha, and Pratima Singh have all represented the Indian national team, making Varanasi Singh family a unique foursome that began to dominate women’s basketball in India. It was to help her sister’s that Divya indulged in her first stint in coaching. She has been coach of St. Stephen’s College (Delhi) and Jesus and Mary College (JMC) Delhi, as well as Manager-Coach for Delhi University.

“My sister used to play in these teams,” she said, “I coached a few tournaments whenever I had the free time to try and help them out.” This early exposure for the youngster was to shape her interest in basketball coaching in the future.

After years of success in her career, she had reached a standstill: Divya stopped and asked herself, “Now what?” 27 is a mighty young age to be having a crisis of purpose; but as Trideep (26) had mentioned earlier, after a certain point, basketball in India leaves their players disillusioned with nothing to offer any more. “I played for the national team and had success in the national tournaments,” Divya says, “But players like us soon realize that there is nowhere else to go from here.” Divya was offered contract with a club in Chile, but the deal broke early, and she didn’t wish to pursue it any further.

It was later in 2007 that another unique opportunity came knocking Divya’s way: from one of the seminars conducted from the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders (BWB) programme, Divya and fellow player Yuvika Sharma were selected by the University of Delaware’s Sports Management Department for its Higher Education Administration Graduate Programme. The programme is a collaboration between the University of Delaware and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), and Divya, who is getting a Master’s in Educational Leadership and Sports Management there, will return to help the BFI at the end of her course in mid-2010.

“I’m learning stuff like international sports marketing and sports finance here,” she says, “I have plans to come back to India and work for the BFI, helping to promote basketball in India through the right kind of marketing and campaigning.” Aside from her degree, Divya also serves as the assistant coach to the head coach Tina Martin for the University’s senior team, which is in the D1 and is having a good season.

Unfortunately for Divya, she can’t actually play for Martin’s squad, because D1 rules imply that no player who has been paid as a professional can represent a D1 squad. It is not all disappointment for her, since working under the tutelage of Martin has helped Divya hone her own basketball knowledge, which she later wants to share with youth back in India.

“The level of players here is extremely high compared to back home,” Divya adds, “Players are physically tougher, and a lot more skillful. They train in a systematic manner, and have excellent facilities which are at least six or seven times than the facilities that we have back in our camps in India.”

Divya’s playing career seems to have been halted abruptly, a fact that she is resentful about, but realizes that with her knowledge now she could go back and help many more youngsters in India develop their basketball talent. “I didn’t want to leave sports. I love playing the game, but now I feel the right thing to do is to go back and help BFI in making basketball bigger in India.”

One of her dream projects is to be part of the system that ushers in a basketball league in India, similar to the popular Indian Premier League (IPL) for cricket. “In India, sport fans generally focus more on international games than domestic leagues – we need to help and chance that attitude,” she says, “The IPL has been very successful and we need to do something like that for basketball. Such a league will increase the competition level, provide regular games and exposure for players, and will be attractive to the fans.”

“Fans wake up at 4 in the morning to watch NBA games, and nobody knows about our own national championships.”

The league system, unlike the current service-tournament system in India, may not provide lifetime job security, but Divya believes that for the overall growth of the games as well as talent in India, it is better.

“I don’t like cricket very much,” Divya admits, “But I admire the way that it is managed. It’s possible for basketball to grow in India. There is a court in most of the schools in India, and kids play the game regularly at a young age. Their talent needs to be channelized in the right way.”

Her exposure in Delaware has shown Divya what facilities are lacking back home, like proper weight rooms, weight-trainers, dieticians, or scouts to cultivate young talent the right way. “Some of our players have had the natural talent and would’ve been able to make it into American leagues if they were nurtured properly from a young age.”

And it is with these dreams that Divya plans to return to India. “I am undecided on whether I will return to a playing career,” she says, “But I love the game, and I’ve found my calling with administrative work for the BFI in helping promote it the right way, whether through the media or through more camps across Indian schools.”

I don’t know if Divya’s step into administrative duties for the country’s basketball body was a planned career move, but they mark a strange compromise between her own dreams and her father’s. “When my sisters and I began playing the game, it was a passion, not a career,” she says, “We went against our father’s wishes and followed our hearts. That kind of passion needs to be brought back into youngsters playing basketball here.”

For Divya, it was always more than a career… Until it became one! Her story is exemplary to other young girls with dreams that conflict with their family, society, or the potential matrimonial ad. And it is girls like her who follow their dreams and positively redefine the 'good Indian girl'.

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  1. Congrats to Divya...True,she is one of the shining jewel in our indian basketball family...keep up the good work...all the best to u and for ur sisters success...
    with love and prayers...
    Dinesh cv
    (Chennai Coustoms,Tamilnadu,India)

  2. great work again karan of putting Varanasi on the hoops map.

  3. great story about a true champion and role mode for young sportswomen in india!

    i have to get to varanasi, what are they feeding you guys up there? is this the basketball capital of india

  4. she's a star! she's articulate, intelligent, and confident enough to follow her passion in an industry that is not always easy to support. we loved the article and will support divya in whatever ways we can! -neel

  5. Good Article.

    If the BFI can start and promote a league with the help of the corporate gaints in India, I'm sure that there will be enough fans that will follow the league; People want talented and a league that is competitive and skillful.

    I'm a regular follower of NBA from past 15 years and I do keep track of the basketball happenings in the India.

    I think the BFI is way behind in promoting the basketball but should admit in the recent years they are trying their best to do things right.

    Most of the times it's the politicians who manage the BFI rather than the players who had represented the country and who has given their best to the game and who has great vision.

    It's good to see Divya taking up something like this. All the best..!!

    I think it will be good if the BFI site can cover the state level tournament details as well to promote basketball....

    Prasad Nallamudi

  6. hi this is pratik Bhardwaj from Ranchi.. (the Dhoni city)..
    it was 20th Feb. at national games ranchi..
    we saw akanksha Singh playing at the court..
    a 5'6" girl with a red headband playing fast, hard and skillful game of basketball was a treat to watch.. she is a gr8 n stunning player to whom god has provided with plenty..
    please divya ji groom her for the best..
    please extend my well wishes to her....
    she has a very infectious smile and looks very pretty while smiling.
    i felt really bad... that i couldn't take her autograph .... nyways never mind...
    hope to see her in future again..
    maybe this time get to get her autograph..

    PS: divya ji, please cud you provide me with her email on pratik.bhardwaj009@gmail.com..
    don't take me otherwise

  7. these sisters are the queen of basketball..
    and akansha singh is the best....

    i have heard that basketball is the second fastest game in the known universe... after ice hockey is it so???...
    sometimes i get surprised that how these puri eating girls could match with the meat eating girls of america.. but i know they would do just fine..
    all the best for the future to these sisters and to the Indian women basketball team..

    you rock..

  8. Awesome, Divya you are an inspiration. Wish you the best, I really do hope basketball becomes much bigger in India.

  9. I am inspired by you . Now even i want to become a basketball player.

  10. extremely inspired :D please please just follow the path of your dreams just to point every dog fends food for itself and tries to live and almost male/female gets married settles their life and end their dreams my point what different did one even tried to do from the rest in life...