Hoop and the hype: Meet the promising basketball talent knocking on Team India doors

Shivani Naik
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The 70th national championship was held at Ludhiana, Punjab last week.

The Punjab juggernaut has been literally rolling through basketball nationals for the last few seasons, and the team brimming with internationals once again picked up the trophy at the Ludhiana Nationals last week. Punjab beat Tamil Nadu in the final, banking on top stars Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh, but the 70th national championship threw up performers that weren’t on the hoops map until now. Shivani Naik looks at the promising talent knocking on Team India doors.

Muin Bek Hafeez | Tamil Nadu
Out of syllabus

Like every other young Tamil boy from the educational district of Krishnagiri, Muin Bek's parents insisted he crack JEE and become an engineer. So, the obedient lad, who fell in love with basketball at school, completed his degree in Mechanical Engineering. Playing basketball meant lots of sneaking out in what was definitely not a hoops hub of the state. After his emergence, crowds now throng to watch Indian Bank, Muin Bek's team, cheering on the local boy at Krishnagiri. The top scorer for the runners-up this year, Muin Bek - a versatile hoopster who plays forward for state and point guard for India - was effective in holding off the rampaging Punjab offence of Amjyot, Amritpal, Arshpreet and Princepal till the third quarter as the 6-ft-1 kept his team in the hunt. Then it became all too much, as the familiar foe - Ludhiana's cold weather - compounded the hosts' last-quarter surge.

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Muin Bek Hafeez

But for someone who started rather late in the sport, was nudged towards academics by his father, and then lost a parent soon after they'd come around to watching the youngster make it to India squad feeling proud for his achievements, this was a standout Nationals.

Muin Bek is part of an exciting young unit at Indian Bank - he might be the oldest at 23 — but his poise and cerebral game make him a promising playmaker for the future. “Academics was the respectable thing in Krishnagiri. My tutors in Chennai helped me through engineering college even as my interest in the game kept growing. They helped me with shoes, diet and proteins through a stipend. I'm glad many more have started in the sport that didn't exist at all in my district. I hope I do well for India and take it even further,” he says.

Princepal Singh | Punjab
Learning from the best

The most promising of the stars from the Ludhiana Nationals for Punjab, the teenager from the border town of Gurdaspur, is already touted to shine for India. Punjab has literally been hulking out opponents with their giants at the post, and the 6-ft-6 Princepal came in to compound Tamil Nadu's woes with Amritpal already tormenting them, and Arshpreet finding some wicked form with his shooting.

Princepal played volleyball in his hometown but turned up for trials in Ludhiana and was immediately snapped up because of his height even in his early teens. He's a typical power forward who's honing his game at NBA's Global Academy at Canberra in Australia, playing with a bunch of future international stars from China and Australia day in, day out. His father works as a cashier with the government, and Princepal covets a break into NBA's developmental league in the United States. “What struck me immediately in Australia was how hard that level is in speed and power. I had a shoulder injury a few years ago, but the American trainers here in Canberra have put me through a very tough training to be ready for that level,” he says. A big future beckons.

Ravi Bhardwaj | Chandigarh
One-man wrecking ball

At 202 cm, he towers over his own team and opponents at most times, and is not the easiest to hide even if he plays for a non-elite team like Chandigarh. An all- rounder in cricket, he sensed no future for him in the sport at 14 and made a quick switch to basketball at the Sector 7 Sports Complex, for he was pushing 6-ft-7 even at age 16.

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Ravi Bhardwaj

Now a decade later, Ravi remains a rare tall player with proficiency at the post and a surprisingly strong game from the perimeter. In his first brush for India, he didn't get enough playing time, but the Income Tax employee reckons he's a better player now even as he shoulders the bulk of the responsibility of his tier-2 team that made the quarters two years ago. “I was MVP last year in the league, and my game's at its peak right now,” says the power forward, who's 27, but remarkably disciplined and motivated to return to top-flight action.

Vikas Kumar | Haryana
Fitness freak

Haryana are the hustlers and hasslers of Indian basketball, a perennial headache to all the top teams because they never play according to a system but can play at a high level during their mercurial swings. The team they got under the skin of this year was finalist Tamil Nadu.

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Vikas Kumar

Matching the Punjab stars for swag, but not in skill, are Haryana's eternal triers, headlined by their 6 ft forward Vikas Kumar. He hails from nondescript Fatehbad, a small town known for its architectural ruins. Vikas got picked at trials in Kurukshetra, after he stuck around basketball not because he was tall, but because he wanted to shoot up. “Height nikalne ka best chance tha,” he explains. Haryana keeps bleeding players to Services, but Vikas stayed put in the state with the police job he secured at 18 on a sports quota. He went on a points rampage against Tamil Nadu in the quarters. He's a rare species in Indian basketball known for playing the whole 40 minutes game after game. The secret lies in his obsessive fitness workouts in a rudimentary gym and indoor stadium at his base in Karnal. What Vikas lacks in height, he makes up in deceptive physicality leaning on his fitness. He's a rage in Haryana basketball owing to his fitness videos, top of which is him hand-walking the length of the stadium to and fro, inverted with acrobatic ease. As forward on the court, he's feared by India's best players for his ability to negate vertical superiority with just a boisterous physicality and some deft shooting when he's not unsettling opponents.

Nikhil Kumar | Services
Shooting to conquer

The Services basketball team - known for its post giants like Om Prakashes (Jr & Sr), Radheshyam and Nathu Ram - is going through a height crunch, as the top tall players from the Sports Authority of India get snared by departmental teams - Railways and banks. As a result, the Services game has focused on flawless and prolific outside shooting. But holding fort under the basket is 6-ft-5 Nikhil, a lanky centre who tries his best to hold his own in one-on-ones with rival post players - Amritpal, Jeeva (Tamil Nadu), Arvind (Karnataka) - and is slowly transitioning to forward after a stint in the India camp. He's not the most powerfully built, but makes up with his jumps and fairly dependable medium-range shooting that helped them make the final last season and the quarters this year where the height differential proved crucial.

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Nikhil Kumar

But Services remain a team that, on their day, can trouble most. Nikhil picked up basketball at the Chhatrasal stadium and the southpaw is currently honing drive-in and shooting skills with his right hand, aiming for a forward spot in the Indian team.

Mesmerised by dunking, Nikhil obsessively put together workouts to strengthen his jump as a teenager. “India's Serbian coach (Veselin Matic) has told me to focus on playing as a shooting forward. For Services playing post, I struggle a little defensively against Punjab because of Amritpal. But as a forward, I am learning quickly,” he says.