May 27, 2011

From player to coach, Manisha Dange looks to complete the hoops cycle

Could an early bloomer also be a late bloomer? How many stars dominate at a young age, and as they grow older, find the inspiration to bloom again, into a different kind of star? From a star young player, to an inspirational veteran, and now planting the seeds of a potential coaching career, Maharashtra’s Manisha Dange hopes to do it all.

Three months ago, Manisha Dange and Shireen Limaye were playing on the same court on the same squad: the former a 30-year-old legend of Maharashtra’s women’s basketball; the latter had just turned 16 and was already being touted as the next big thing in women’s basketball in India. Dange, as the team’s captain, and Limaye, as the young, do-it-all sparkplug, led an exciting Maharashtra Women’s team into the Federation Cup at Raipur.

Three months later, the faces are the same, but the roles have changed: it is the Youth (U16) National Basketball Championship in Nagpur, Maharashtra, Dange and Limaye’s home-court, and the Maharashtra team is captained by Limaye, who is the most experienced young star leading a group of girls who are relatively fresh to the big stage. But Dange is here too – staying involved with Maharashtra and her young teammate as the coach of the U16 side.

The transformation to coach for teammate has been seamless for Dange. “I’m only the team’s coach on the court,” Dange says, “Outside it, I’m more a Didi - an older sister – than a coach. The difference of age between me and Shireen or any of the other girls isn’t too much, so they are comfortable with me. I have to be strict but allow the girls to have their fun.”

“Because I’ve been a player myself I can understand the girls and know exactly how it feels to travel for a tournament, feel the pressure, and perform at this stage. During basketball games, working now as a coach, I get to see understand many of my own faults as a player and find a way not just to improve my coaching ability but also my playing ability.”

And as she continues to discover her coaching attributes and rediscover her talents as a player, Dange makes sure to indicate that she has enough gas to keep both her careers going. “I want to continue playing and coaching simultaneously,” she said, “This is just the first step: I want to keep progressing as a coach as time passes and keep playing for as long as possible, too.”

Her star player, Shireen Limaye, doesn’t believe that Dange’s shift from player to coach has been a complicated affair. “She has been and is still a very good player,” Limaye says of Dange, “Even as a team-mate, she is always a coach on court – she has always making sure to train us and give us advice, and we used to practice drills with her as team-mates that I now practice with her as coach. It is an advantage for us to have a coach who is also a good active player.”

This is Dange’s second attempt at leading Maharashtra’s U16 Girls squad at the Youth Nationals – she was also the team’s coach last year when they went for the Nationals in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. This time around, the pressure to perform as hosts and as one of the most talented young teams in the competition is squarely on Dange’s side.

“Our team has a lot of positives,” Dange said, “The biggest of them all, obviously, is Shireen. But this year, we have come prepared physically to be the best and put up a good show as the hosts. Before this tournament, the girls took part in an 18-day fitness camp in Vashi, which helped them improved their speed, agility and overall fitness.”

The current Maharashtra Girls side also has a good size advantage and will hope to exploit it against most of their other opponents.

As a player, Dange has been here and done it all before. Hailing from Thane in Mumbai, she picked up the game when she was only 12 years old, but didn’t make her first major Nationals until the youth/U16 stage, the same stage at which she has made her coaching debut nearly 15 years later. From then on, the game of basketball began opening several new avenues for her: she was picked to play for Railways at the age of 18 – a move she calls the ‘best moment of her basketball career’ – and she represented India in two crucial tournaments in 2007: the FIBA Asia Championships in South Korea and an Invitational Tournament in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia.

Although she won’t be making a comeback to the Indian National team soon, she continues to be a dominating and respected figure in Maharashtra Basketball – besides, it is now the turn for her teammate/star-pupil to shine: Shireen Limaye has become the youngest player to get a call-up for the Indian Senior National Camp in New Delhi, and she will have a shot at making her own debut with India’s Senior National team at the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship in Japan this August.

As she has experienced the past and the evolving present of basketball in India, Dange is hopeful for the future that Limaye and other young stars of the country. “The current crop of stars have a good future,” she says, “They are getting a lot of opportunities now, and will soon get a lot more exposure and returns for their hard-work in the game.”

But for now, ‘Coach’ Dange – or Manisha Didi – has only one mission in mind: helping Limaye, Shruti Menon, Ayushi Gupta, and the rest of the young squad live up to their top billing and capture the Youth Championships on home soil. “We have a good team, and because we’re playing at home, we’re the favourites. Once the crowds get bigger, there will be more pressure on the girls to perform – I have to make sure that they blank out the outside noise and just focus on their game.”

And if anyone can help them deal with the pressure it’s their experienced coach – after all, she has been there, done that, and is now back to bloom again.

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