May 3, 2011

TJ Sahi: 'Air India' still taking flight

There are few personalities in Indian basketball as simultaneously exciting and enigmatic, unifying and divisive, and polarising in every sense of the word, as Talwinderjit Singh “TJ” Sahi. Fans know of him as the explosive dunker, as the man with one of the quickest crossover dribbles in the country, as a man who stood face to face against Chinese superstar Yi Jianlian. And they know him as the same man who has suffered years of being boxed away from the elite status due a host of personal and professional problems, as the rebel of Indian Basketball.

During the Indian All Star Game and the Ramu Memorial Tournament in Mumbai a few weeks ago, I finally got my chance to spend some time and speak to TJ.

TJ Sahi is anything but bashful – but it’s not considered bragging if you can back it up. TJ was the first player in Indian Basketball to borrow the streetball game and bring it to the elites. But like many stories of Indian basketball stars, the journey didn’t exactly begin with basketball.

Born into a family of athletes, and to a father, a national record holder in Decathlon, who encouraged him to take up track and field, TJ rebelled for the first time. “When I was only around 10 years old, my father wanted me to focus on running, and then allowed us to take time off later by playing other sports,” says TJ, “My brother and I discovered a basketball court nearby and started to compete against several American players. It was exciting and brought me into the game.”

It was playing with the Americans that the streetball swagger came into TJ’s game. Always undersized (he stands at 6 foot 1 inch now), TJ had his doubters, who told him that he could never be good enough to dominate a basketball game. This is when he found his perfect idol in the NBA: Allen Iverson.

“I used to spend day and night watching Iverson highlights,” said TJ, “He is my inspiration – I would try to copy his moves into my game as much as possible. Like me, he was also very small, but he didn’t let that stop him – he became one of the most dominating players in the league and even won an MVP award.”

Shades of AI are clearly present in TJ: The quick first step, the deadly crossover dribble, the fearless drives to the basket, the pound-for-pound toughness on court that Iverson exhibited in his heydays. “I was the first one to start copying the NBA players in India!” grinned TJ, “And then the rest started copying me here.”

And then, his legend grew – TJ finally got his break as a Junior for Punjab in 2004, and it here that he played the tournament of his life. In a knockout game of this competition, due to an injury to the starting point guard, TJ got his chance to step on the court for his team. With his first move, he broke his defender of off a quick dribble and attacked the basket, laying it in for an easy two. He didn’t look back after that, going for 38 points in the second quarter alone and then riding his confidence all the way to the tournament’s final.

The early returns were great: following on his older brother’s footsteps, TJ also made his entry into the Indian national team. He represented the country in several Asian tournaments since then, including being part of the squad that played at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Australia.

TJ’s basketball career in India came to a screeching, temporary halt a few years ago – he had decided to follow his older brother to the US to explore other opportunities. It was during this exile from India that he found hoops again on the other side of the world.

In San Jose, California, TJ began to make a name for himself once again. He played for several local leagues, especially leagues featuring Indians in California, and the dominating spring in his step returned. He played in several recreational tournaments around the state, and his explosive above-the-rim play earned him the ‘Air India’ moniker.

But after two years, a tragedy back in his home country brought the ‘Air’ back to ‘India’. “My father passed away in 2008, leaving my mother alone – both me and my older brother were in California. My mother’s health became worse and she suffered some close calls. I realised that I would have to return home to take care of her."

The homecoming also presented an opportunity for TJ to reignite his Punjab basketball career. As a regular for the side, he has become one of the most popular players in the state and across the country. He was recently named to one of the sides at the Indian All Star Game, and a night before participated in the three-point shooting and dunk competitions. It was here, that, TJ achieved the incredible: grabbing an alley-oop to dunk over a kali-peeli taxi.

Today, he remains one of the most potent weapons for the talented Punjab team, leading from the point and scoring buckets at a high volume. With his all-time favourite Iverson now fading his career away in Turkey, TJ has a new favourite now, another small, tough, fiery scorer.

“Derrick Rose,” says TJ, “He is the best player now – He is fast and athletic – he plays with his heart, and is the most like Iverson right now.”

TJ’s fan-base will certainly be hoping that TJ’s career curve doesn’t end the way Iverson’s did, and instead, is re-ignited the way that Rose has started his. TJ has had his past problems with authority, with coaches, and even with teammates, but when it comes to the game of basketball, he remains loyal and disciplined.

“I have gone through a lot of troubles in my life, and it was all for basketball,” TJ said, “I am what I am today because of the game. People recognise me for what I have done on the court. If you take basketball away from me, I am zero.”

At the Ramu Memorial Tournament, after the first day of games, TJ saw that his on-court accomplishments had found him an unexpected fan. “Even the man who was sweeping the court after the game approached me and complimented my game,” said TJ, “It feels good that all this has happened because of basketball.”

In Mumbai, a city where Indian basketball is adorned and its stars readily recognised, TJ continues to see a burgeoning fan base. At the Indian All Star Game in Nagpada, more than a dozen young kids crowded around him, seeking advice and inspiration.

He talks to the kids about how to become a better jumper, a better dribbler, but more than anything, he talks to them about heart. “To be all you can be, you need to believe, deep down in your heart, that you’re better than your opponent,” he tells an aspiring young baller.

But apart from the occasional words with the kids, TJ spends his pre-game time alone, practicing and psyching himself up, all by himself. He tells me that he realises how important it is to be an athlete before becoming a basketball player, something that his track-and-field background has taught him well. He also realises that unlike a 100 meter dash, where all that can come between him and victory is his own potential, he has to rely on four other players on the court to win in a basketball game.

“Sometimes I do wish to go back to focus on running,” says TJ, “If I get a chance, I will participate in track-and-field again – but ultimately, there’s nothing better than basketball.”

“Basketball has a good future in India – a lot more can be done now. I dream of participating in an IPL-style league in India, and hope that more people around the country can watch the best Indian players in action.”

Until the day arrives that you can see ‘Air India’ take flight regularly on your TV sets – here’s some advice – head out to the court the next time TJ Sahi is in town. As his performance at the Indian All Star Weekend showed, you never know when he will have you jumping off the edge of your seats!

1 comment:

  1. T J - like Robinson - are rare breeds. Indian basketball can be built around these greats - WILL WE? Do we have the environment where such players can be nurtured?