July 13, 2014

Talent Found: Amrit Pal Singh's astonishing story from farmer to Indian basketball star

In the larger scheme of things, four years is a mere blimp in time. It's the time between the last leap year and the next. Four year is the time between Spain defeating the Netherlands in the FIFA World Cup final in South Africa and Germany playing Argentina in the final in Brazil. It's the time it takes most people to complete their bachelor's degrees. It's the time it takes for the occurrence of every total solar eclipse.

Growing up a farmer in a tiny village in Punjab who had never heard of the word 'basketball', four years is also the period of time in which Amrit Pal Singh became one of the linchpins of India's senior national basketball team. In 2010, Amrit Pal was helping his father plow a rice field. In 2014, he is dominating the post to finish as leading scorer against the highest level of Asian hoops at the FIBA Asia Cup.

For those who have closely followed Indian hoops in recent years, Punjab's Amrit Pal Singh - currently employed by ONGC - has been a rising star in the game. The 23-year-old broke into the scene when he made his senior national debut for India back in 2011, in the Middle Asia Zone qualifiers in New Delhi for the team led by then-coach Kenny Natt. From then on, the 6-foot-11 big man's fortunes have risen higher and higher, and now, he finds himself as one of the indispensable pieces for the national team. At the domestic level, Amrit Pal has played valuable roles in title winning squads in national years, including winning national titles for Punjab and Federation Cup and other tournaments as the best performer for ONGC.

And yet, until the age of 19, he was a complete stranger to the game.

Born in the village of Fattuwal, about 30-35 kilometers from Amritsar in Punjab, Amrit Pal was the child of humble farmers that grew rice, peas, potatoes and other vegetables. He attended a small village school and was destined to follow his father's footsteps into farming, an increasingly tough lifestyle choice in recent years where high costs of water, mechanized farming, indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, rising seed prices and the loan sharks have left many farmers facing a dark future ahead. Little did he know, Amrit Pal had a genetic advantage that existed in a field that he had never even heard of.

"I used to play kabaddi back then, which of course is the most popular sport in Punjabi villages," Amrit Pal Singh spoke to me outside of Team India's locker room at the Wuhan Sports Center in Wuhan (China), reflecting on his past, minutes after India's first game at the 5th FIBA Asia Cup. India lost the game to Japan, but Amrit Pal finished with game-high 15 points to go with eight rebounds, "I didn't know what basketball was. It was only when my Mama [mother's brother] approached my family and told us that my height could help me with this game. At age 19, he took me to a different village near Ludhiana to practice - and this village, unlike mine, had basketball court."

"In the beginning, I had no clue how to play the game," Amrit Pal added, "I didn't know how to dribble the basketball and I couldn't shoot it at all. But slowly, as I got better, I started to enjoy it and soon got an opportunity to play for the Ludhiana Basketball Academy (LBA)."

'Slowly' is far from the truth in Amrit Pal's case, who, within one year of picking up the basketball for the first time in his life, was picked for India's national squad. He was still a raw talent, but back in Punjab, he had landed in the Promised Land of potential Punjabi basketball stars. The LBA was led by legendary coach S. Subramanian, who passed away last year, but in his lifetime had been responsible for developing several key talents for India, including the likes of TJ Sahi, Yadwinder Singh, Jagdeep Singh Bains, Amjyot Singh, and Satnam Singh Bhamara in recent years. For Amrit Pal, it was a choice to master a new craft to ensure a future for himself - and he toiled hard to make sure that the craft was mastered.

"In the village, I had no job, and the only option was farming," he said, "My coaches showed me the way, they told me that if I play basketball, I could get a job. I was told that I had a chance to do so. I was told that I get a job, I could win medals, and I could even represent India. That motivation made me work extremely hard in the early years to improve my game."

Still, it's almost unheard of for a basketball story to start by the time one's teens are nearly over. At 19, Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, India's captain and Amrit Pal's teammate in the current squad, was already the MVP of the Basketball Without Borders Asia camp. Meanwhile, Punjab's other story of a giant going from the farm to the court - Satnam Singh Bhamara - found the game at 10 and at 19, he's getting world class training at the IMG Basketball Academy in Florida. At 19, Canadian-Indian giant Sim Bhullar - who has now become the first Indian-origin player to be signed by an NBA squad - had already been recruited to a NCAA Division 1 programme at New Mexico State. At 19, Kobe Bryant had become the youngest NBA player to play (and start) in an All Star game.

At 19, Amrit Pal Singh was playing kabaddi. His migration to hoops has been kabaddi's loss and Indian basketball's gain.

"Early on, I was told that I would have to play close to the basket a lot, so I always focused on improving my post-game," Amrit Pal said, "In the village, when I played kabaddi, there was a lot of fighting. Kabaddi mein maar-peet to chalti hee hai (There's a bit of fighting in the kabaddi all the time). It was always physical, so it toughened me up. When I started playing for Punjab, [former Indian international] Jagdeep Singh warned me that if I wanted to play in post, I would face a lot of dhakka-mukki, physical, bruising play). So my attitude kept changing and i bought dhakka-mukki into my style."

For the past two years, Amrit Pal has been working with Scott Flemming, who he says has helped the big man's game by getting more powerful in the inside and adding more complex post-moves to the simpler ones he knew as a basketball novice. He also says that Coach has helped his pacing to match the rest of the team's pace on court.

Hearing about Amrit Pal's rapid improvement, and learning of the new skills that he continues to add to his game, should be encouraging news for Indian basketball fans, as the big man still has a lot of potential and can continue improving as he polishes his ultra-raw game. But before he looks too far in the future, Amrit Pal's challenge will to help India get a good result at the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan. At the previous iteration of this tournament in Tokyo two years ago, Amrit Pal put in what he believes are his best performances in the India jersey, and ended up leading all players from across Asia in rebounds.

Yet, India finished last two years ago with no wins to their name. With China, Iran, and Indonesia left in the Preliminary Group, they'll be looking to avoid a repeat of that performance.

"We have two very tough games ahead of us now in China and Iran," Amrit Pal said, "These are tough matches, and we have to play tougher."

From one sense, Amrit Pal's story is a joyous one. An unknown man's basketball talent - the potential for the talent which he didn't even know he had - was found. But from another perspective, the talent found was talent delayed. Imagine how much more the the big man could've learnt had he crossed paths with the game earlier? For those who come from a background like Amrit Pal, or Satnam Singh, opportunities that translate only in a different world can go amiss frequently. The Indian villages are potent with young Amrit Pals - young players who have the physical gifts and the personal motivation to become basketball stars - and we only hope that these young players can be found before their talent is delayed.

At 23, Amrit Pal can still get better individually, be he leaves our interview with national pride as the topmost agenda. "Until I help India make a huge improvement, help India get to top four in Asia, then nothing else can be possible. The first priority is India."

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