July 18, 2014

Don't Call it a Comeback: Pratham Singh returned from injury to become one of India's heroes at Wuhan

No pressure. It was only the chance of leading India to their biggest win in history. It was only their first opportunity to ever defeat China, historically Asia's most successful team. It was only a chance to overturn years and even decades of Team India falling short of their potential, over and over again. So, yes, no pressure.

In the fourth quarter of what became a surprisingly closely-contested match-up, China made every attempt to avoid an astronomical upset. And for every question that China posed, India's 23-year-old Pratham Singh had an answer. Pratham hit three of the biggest shots of his career - clutch three-pointers - in the fourth quarter to give India the lead for good, and helped secure the win which will forever be remembered as the 'Wonder of Wuhan', of the first time India silenced the mighty Chinese on the basketball court.

And throughout this heroic, clutch performance, he remained calm. No over-reaction, no nervous breakdown, no shot taken too quickly or taken too slow. No pressure.

A few days later, when I asked Pratham Singh about his calm under the storm of that entertaining contest in Wuhan, China, at the 5th FIBA Asia Cup, he responded with humility, instead crediting the whole team for his individual performance.

"It's all about team defense," he said, "When the team is playing good defensively, and you're playing well defensively, too, then you automatically get confident and you feed off that good defense on the offensive end. The offense comes easy then. But if your defense lacks, then it gets in your head on the offensive end, too. Our team plays great defense, just as we did against China in those possessions."

Pratham talked about being lost in the moment of the game, when it's just him and the bucket, and him his job off the ball. His job was to stop China and his job was to hit those open shots. He did just that, and three after three after three, he was successful.

For Pratham Singh, each big moment now plays as the perfect balm to heal the missed opportunities of his past. One by one, each three he hit in the fourth quarter against China soothed the pains that he went through as a younger player, the pains that derailed his career and threatened to end a promising career before it could even take off.

Born in Amritsar, Punjab, but trained as a rising young talent at the Bhilai Steel Plant in Chhattisgarh, Pratham's performances caught the eye of the Indian Overseas Bank (IOB) in Chennai when he was just a teenager, They brought in the 6-3 sharp-shooter in to strengthen their wing position for the future. It was around the same time - in 2009 - that he moved up from India's junior squads to get a first senior team call-up. But Pratham's career paused before it could truly begin to ascent; a knee injury put him out of action for two years. For two years, basketball in IOB and internationally for India passed him by, and Pratham waited on the sidelines as it seemed to leave him behind.

An injury like this could've proven to be the end of an elite career for many players, but Pratham, gracious as ever, credited his IOB teammates for not letting him get down on himself.

"The team I got - IOB - were really good and supportive," he said, "So even when I wasn't playing, I wasn't disconnected from basketball. The senior players like S. Robinson and others who played for Team India really supported me and kept encouraging me. They told me that all players suffer through injuries, but it's only the ones who come back strong that become really great. Slowly I started coming back to practice and made a comeback."

The comeback, so far, has been electrifying. Once Pratham got his strength and explosiveness back, he became a can't-miss player - literally and figuratively speaking - for club, state, and country. He took a bigger role at IOB as the likes of Robinson made way for a younger generation, he helped Tamil Nadu - the state whom he represents now - reach the top by winning this year's Senior National Championship, and, most importantly, he found himself back in Team India colours - this time for good.

While the injury stole two years of basketball away from Pratham, he looked back at it now as a great learning experience, and his comeback for Team India has been all the better for it. "I was inexperienced as a Junior," he said, "But playing with and spending time with players like Robinson in IOB, I learnt a lot more about the game, I became stronger, and all of that helped me when I returned."

Since last year, Pratham has become an indispensable part of India's rotation. He made his national comeback by playing for India's 3x3 side at the FIBA Asia 3x3 Championship in Qatar. He was picked by Scott Flemming for the FIBA Asia Championship team, the Lusofonia Games, the SABA Qualifiers, and now, here at the FIBA Asia Cup. He is a regular starter for India, and for his clutch antics, a regular finisher in close games, too.

Pratham's rise has come parallel to the team's surprising rise as well. "In the last FIBA Asia Championship, we were losing to these same teams very badly in all our games," he said, "For this tournament, we didn't get an exposure trip before we started, and if we had, we would've done better against Japan in the first game. Of course, then the best thing happened and we beat China - after that our confidence level went up. Before we used to look at Iran, and think within ourselves that they're a really good team. We used to fear them. Now, we think of them, like, 'Okay, it's Iran, but we can play them well.' Teams like Iran and Philippines used to big us big. We've turned things around now."

"Our confidence level after this tournament has gone really high," he repeated, "And the coaches feel that this team can do well. Our players have improved, specially defensively. At the last Asia Championship, we played scared. Now, we know that if we practice hard in the future, we can do better."

The confidence in Pratham individually seems to be at an all-time high too, despite the fact that India followed their wins against China and Indonesia with three losses at the hands of Iran, Philippines, and Jordan. Despite the losses, the team left a strong impression and turned some heads. India's next big challenge after Wuhan will be an invitational basketball tournament in Dubai, and after that, they will likely head to Incheon, Korea, for the Asian Games in mid-September.

"My dream is that India plays well at the FIBA Asia Championship," he said, "This time we nearly did it, but missed. It was a great chance to make semi-finals but we lost by just 4 points. Next time, we'll try in Dubai tournament to reach semis or finals. And then continue good work in Asian Games as well."

These are bold ambitions from a player who represents a team that has rarely cracked the top four of Asia's best. But India's new crop of players - among whom Pratham Singh is their clutch, cool three-point threat - now have the conviction to look any opponent in the eye and believe that they could be taken down. After beating China, Pratham Singh and India have the conviction to make history again.

So yes, no pressure.

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