July 21, 2011

Kerala Basketball: Southern Supremacy

Two months ago, India’s most talented and most recognisable basketball player, Geethu Anna Jose, conquered new ground: Jose became the first Indian to be invited for trials with the WNBA. After trying out with three teams, Jose came back with no signed contract but with a story to tell and an example to be followed. On the way, the Kottayam-born superstar also continued to cement her name as the brightest basketball product out of the Southern Indian state of Kerala.

Fortunately for Keralites, the young faces of female basketball from the state are proving that the future of basketball in the state will continue to shine brightly as the present does.

Last week, the Kerala Junior (U18) Girls’ basketball team went undefeated through the Junior National Basketball Championship in Delhi to win the gold medal. This achievement had come less than two months after the Kerala Youth (U16) Girls’ side clinched gold at the Youth National Basketball Championship in Nagpur. It was Déjà vu in both these competitions, because the Youth and Junior champions a year ago were also Kerala Girls.

“Basketball is very well-organised in Kerala,” said Jose Philip, the coach of 2011 Junior Nationals winning side, “A great job is done in honing the young crop of players. There are dozens of basketball tournaments at school level and more held annually around the state. Young players have improved a lot because of these competitions and they bring that experience to the national championships.”

“Additionally,” says Philip, “The players are very sincere and they want to improve. The association in Kerala is supportive and they encourage us a lot.”

Philip is one of the many coaches of the Kerala State Sports Council (KSSC) who have been working hard to improve their own craft and thus improve the talent level and competitiveness of the players in the system. A month ago, NBA-India’s Troy Justice held a very successful camp for the coaches in Thiruvanathpuram, bringing together 40 coaches from all over the state. “The coaches were very engaged and had a strong desire to learn the technical aspects of the game,” said Justice.

But no matter how dedicated the federation, sports council, or the coaches are about the game, it is the performance of the players on the court that ultimately effects any squad’s success. Luckily, the new crop of Keralite stars are determined to follow on Geethu Anna Jose’s footsteps and make the state proud like she did.

Off the court, they look as gentle as they are menacing on it. The Kerala’s Girls’ side, sporting identical long ponytails and thin, athletic frames, may look like a welcoming and friendly bunch pre-game, but once the action starts, the ponytails run back and forth as a singular unified force, attacking and defending to produce well-coordinated dominance.

Perhaps the most talented amongst the youngsters is 17-year-old Jeena PS. Hailing from Padinjarathara, in the Wayanad District of Kerala, the five-foot-ten inch post player has been the chief force behind Kerala’s recent success in the Youth and the Junior level. Jeena was part of the side that won both the Youth and the Junior championships last year, and was the best players at this year’s Junior Nationals as Kerala won the tournament again. She is one of the best Junior rebounders in India, and holds her own when playing with the Seniors, too.

In the Junior Nationals, Jeena scored a high of 40 points in the first game against Punjab. She had 33 points and 29 rebounds in an emotional, overtime Semi-Final win against Chhattisgarh, and notched 17 points and 17 rebounds in the Final win against Tamil Nadu. Over the course of the tournament, she averaged 24.3 points per game.

“Basketball in Kerala works because there are many institutes out there to look after us, provide good practices, and we have good coaches,” Jeena says, “Our current Junior team has had success based on this great coaching – we have good rebounders, we play past, and we always start from defense first.”

Jeena was also chosen amongst the 30 probables for the Indian Senior Camp under experienced former US-college coach Pete Gaudet. Gaudet is known for his expertise at developing post players, and Jeena came back with her skills even more carefully honed after the short crash-course with the new coach. Even though she wasn’t chosen for the final cut of the Indian squad, she got to spend some time with the post player on whom Gaudet’s team is likely to build around: Kerala’s own Geetha Anna Jose.

“She is my role model,” Jeena says of Jose, “And I really want to learn to play like here. She helped the young players a lot in the Senior Camp.”

Jose is a former student of the Mount Carmel School in Kottayam – the city and Jose’s former institution has produced yet another young superstar who is taking Kerala basketball by storm. Poojamol KS, though only 15, is another exciting young face of Kerala hoops. Pooja is a versatile, do-it-all player, as capable of running the break on offense as she is of grabbing crucial offensive rebounds in the post. She was the best player in the Nagpur Youth Nationals, topping her performance with 40 points and 13 rebounds in the final. As a younger member in the Junior squad, she was still good enough to play a starring role in the team’s starting five.

Poojamol also showed a great all-round display in the Junior Nationals, as she scored, ran the offense, rebounded, and defended with equal ease. It was her clutch put-back lay-up in the semi-final against Chhattisgarh that tied the game and saw Kerala survive in overtime to head to the tournament’s final.

Besides these two, Kerala’s Junior side boasts of several other extraordinary young talents, such as Premi P Lal, captain Surya PR, and Anjana PG who helped this deeply talented team keep its edge. Coach Philip showed pride in the players, and was confident that the team were always the strongest threat to win the Juniors. “We have many great strengths,” Philip said, “Our team is full of quick sharp-shooters, and play who defend and rebound very well. They are sincere and dedicated.”

But the real skill in champion teams isn’t to win a championship, but to keep winning, to keep playing at an elite level, year after year, as Kerala hopes to do. “Our players stay motivated to keep winning,” Philip adds, “And they realise that with success in these tournaments they will be given cash rewards, scholarships, and a chance to secure a government job.”

With the right guidance, motivation, and output, it seems that Kerala has put together a blueprint for success and for producing elite female basketball stars. The young girls have a perfect role model in Geethu Anna Jose, and one day, there will be many more young Geethus following on her footsteps.

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