Editor's Note: Every sport needs its superstars to thrive, and the Indian sporting ecosystem is no different. Despite a notoriously fumbling officialdom and a history of 'what-ifs', Indian sport has thrown its fair share of flagbearers who have led the way for this generation of promising athletes who unabashedly dream of global recognition and success. In Past Masters of Indian Sports, Firstpost's latest series, we look at such flagbearers, forgotten or otherwise, who have shown that being world-class in a largely mediocre environment is a pursuit worth celebrating.
Indian basketball has had many close encounters with international recognition in recent years. Satnam Singh Bhamara probably would be the first name to come to our minds; the seven-footer made history when he became the first Indian to be drafted in the NBA (National Basketball Association) by Dallas Mavericks as a 52nd overall pick. He never played for the Mavericks though and was drafted to their affiliate Texas Legends in the G League (earlier known as the D league). Star hooper Amjyot Singh also played in the NBA G league for Oklahoma City Blue and Wisconsin Herd for three seasons from 2017 to 2019.
But long before all of them, it was Geethu Anna Rahul (known as Geethu Anna Jose before she got married) who brought Indian basketball to the international stage with her call-up for tryouts with three WNBA (Women's National Basketball Association) teams - Chicago Sky, Los Angeles Sparks and Saint Antonio Silver Stars in 2011. She was the first Indian to get a call-up by the American professional basketball team but the WNBA tryout is not the only thing that defines the basketball great. Her senior career is a collection of many firsts as she continued achieving new milestones for Indian players, which still remains largely unparalleled. At her peak, the six-footer Geethu, renowned for her shooting and scoring bucket load of points, was easily one of the best basketball players in Asia.
"In my opinion, she is the greatest Indian basketball player including male players. This is not to say she was a better player than this male player or that, she has achieved the most for a basketball player in India," says Karan Madhok, a basketball analyst, who also runs the popular blog Hoopistani.
"She won almost all the tournaments that she participated in during the best period of her playing career. Her record in national championships is amazing. It was considered cheating to have her as a player. In international tournaments, FIBA Asia Cup, championships, I think she was the only Indian female player who could have been considered a top-five player in Asia. She had a WNBA players trials 10 years back which was before any other Indian player got such an opportunity. She is the greatest of all time."
Geethu, who played for Indian Railways in the Senior National Basketball Championships, single-handedly transformed her team into the most dominant force across the basketball scene in India with 11 out of 13 titles. Nine of those titles came on the trot. She was the highest scorer in the FIBA Asian Women's Championship's (now known as Asia Cup) second division in 2007 when India women's team for the first time graduated to the top tier of Asian teams. She once again emerged as the highest scorer during India's first appearance in the first division of the Asian Championships in 2009.
She led India to the gold medal in the inaugural FIBA Asia 3x3 Basketball Championships in 2013 and finished off by ensuring India's best-ever finish in the Level 1 of Asia Cup, a fifth-place finish. Her foreign sojourn included playing in Australia, the first Indian player to play professionally there and a season in Thailand's professional basketball league. Geethu won the Arjuna Award in 2014.
Geethu Anna Rahul led a glittering career which still remains unchallenged in Indian basketball. Image: BFI Facebook page
In her early days, however, it was high jump that caught the interest of Geethu but the athletics' loss became a massive gain for basketball. A student of Mount Carmel School, Kottayam, Geethu was persuaded by coach Venugopal to give basketball a try. The decision changed the course of her life forever.
"I was in athletics before and participated in state championships. I was really good in high jump but we didn't have an athletics coach in our school. With basketball what happened was that my coach Venugopal was looking for a tall player and at that time I was 5 foot 11, he asked me to play, my principal also asked me, so I decided to give it a try," says Geethu.
"Thankfully we had a coach, otherwise, maybe I would have left that also. Basketball is a team sport and in athletics, you are mostly on your own so, so I liked that part. My experience of high jump helped me a lot in basketball because you really need to be a good athlete to be a good player. I was 13 years old when I started playing basketball."
With the advantage of height and natural flair for basketball, Geethu courted success at a breakneck speed. She quickly graduated from school basketball to Kerala U-17 team and later to the senior team. Indian junior basketball also came very early for her but one of the most important decisions of her career was to join the Southern Railways side in 2004. It was the start of domestic dominance for the team and the hoopster but more importantly, it helped her improve as a player.
"Joining southern Railways really helped me a lot, it changed my career. The basketball at the school level is completely different than the senior level. It was the transition period where I worked very hard, my seniors gave me good guidance and I developed as a player," says the former national champion.
The very next year, Geethu was in the senior Indian team and represented India in 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. The team finished sixth among eight teams but the quadrennial tournament brought big news for Geethu and Indian basketball. Australia's Big Victoria League's team Ringwood Hawks scouted the Indian cager during the international tournament and offered her a contract. Geethu, hesitant at first at the prospect of staying away from home, eventually agreed and played three seasons for the franchise, also winning a player of the month award in her first season. She would also make the cut in the All-Stars team which played against the All-Stars team of the famed WNBL (Women's National Basketball League).
"Before going to Australia, we had a practice game in New Zealand and there I was scouted by a local team. I got to know about it after I landed in Australia and coach Aparna Ghosh asked me to play in it, saying it's a step up. But I didn't want to, I was like, 'how can I play here, how can I stay alone'. And after that I played in the Commonwealth Games and was scouted by the Australian team," says Geethu.
"Physically it was very tough. In India, the style of playing is very different but there they use the body a lot. Playing in Australia really helped because when I came back, my scoring went up."
Geethu Anna Rahul in 2014 became the first women's basketball player to win the Arjuna Award in over two decades. Image: Twitter/@GMSRailway
The foreign exposure and experience of playing in a high-quality league were evident in Geethu's display in Asian tournaments. In 2007, she would score 197 points in six games including 47 against Malaysia in the final of Level II of Asian Championships in South Korea. She finished the tournament as the highest scorer and rebounder. India's victory meant they, for the first time, made the step up to the big League 1.
On the professional front, Geethu had the big break coming her way after spending three seasons in the Big V League - a potential break into WNBL, one of the most popular female basketball leagues in the world. She was offered a chance to play for Dandenong Rangers but was unable to do so due to an unfortunate situation back home. Geethu, who was employed with Southern Railways, was not granted leaves to participate in the league and it came down to her quitting the job. Eventually, the basketball player from Kerala opted to let go of the offer.
"I came back to India for a week. I left my luggage in Australia only and came back for a week to play a tournament for Railways but then things changed and I couldn't go back. I had to resign from my job to go back and then the decision-making became very difficult. I am a player and if I get injured, then what happens? I lost my father when I was 21 or 22, so the family responsibility was on my shoulders and I needed to make the right decision, but it was tough to decide which one was the right call. There was this fear about leaving the job and playing professionally. Everything was booked, even the tickets for our friendly matches," recalls Geethu.
The disappointment of not turning up in WNBL and letting go of a historic opportunity didn't sully Geethu's performance in national colours. In the 2009 Asian Championships, that was held in Chennai and was India's first appearance in Level 1, saw her scoring 132 points from six matches and finishing as the highest scorer, in a tournament which featured giants like South Korea and China.
At 6'2", Geethu certainly had some height advantage against few of her contemporaries but her game awareness and ability to make full use of her height made her such a deadly scorer.
"She was the tallest player of her team usually and would start as a centre. You would describe her role as an old fashioned post player which means if she plays for your team you would give her the ball in the circle and she would score somehow or the other. She had a very good back to the basket game, short mid-range game, this why she was so successful in Indian tournaments because no one could come close to her, a great mix of size and skill. It was not just her height that made her a good player, there were others as well who were close to her height but she had very good co-ordination. She had height, good hand control, and a really good sense of the game. She knew how to use her height and skill to dominate. The mixture of all these made her an unstoppable player, says Karan.
Record-breaking performances and historic milestones not only made India proud but also had its multiplying effect in the game with more and more players aspiring to emulate Geethu at the highest level.
"If you look around women's or men's basketball, players have seen her as a role model. She is one who has made it possible for players to believe that Indian basketball can be a good profession. Before her it was very rare for Indian players to go out, so her experience really opened the door for many to dream bigger," adds Karan.
Her success opened up the opportunities for many, including current India women's team captain Jeena Skaria, who in 2019, became the second player after Geethu to play professionally in Australia, representing the hoopster's former side, Ringwood Hawks. In an interview with NBA India, Skaria regarded Geethu as her "role model".
As big an achievement the 2009 Asian Championships performance was, there were bigger things to come for Geethu's career. In 2011, she was called up for a tryout with three WNBA sides. She narrowly missed making the cut.
"WNBA is everyone's dream, every player in the world wants to play in the league. The trial took place in a short duration but I gave my best. In Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant's father (Joe Bryant) who was the previous coach of the team, was very impressed with my game and shooting action and he even asked me to stay back there for two months or so on scholarship. The level there is very intense and very different than what we see in Asia. Had I got the opportunity in 2008 when I was still playing in Australia, I would have cleared it," says Geethu.
"After the try-outs I got an offer for NCAA. Two or three colleges were interested and they said, 'Why don't you play for us? You can play in NCAA and it will easier to get into WNBA from there.' But I was 25 plus and I wasn't sure about going back to college."
She would later go on to play a season in Thailand's profession league for Sripatum University in Bangkok in 2012 but her major focus stayed on playing for India as she neared the end of her stint with the national team. She led India to gold medals in the Asian Beach games in 2012 and then at the inaugural 3x3 Asian Championships in 2013, where she also won the Player of the Tournament award. The same year, Geethu appeared in her final Asian Championships and helped India register a fifth-place finish, their best effort so far.
In 2014, Geethu won the Arjuna Award becoming the first female basketball player since Suman Sharma in 1991 to get her hands on the award. She also got married in the same year and currently resides in Thiruvananthapuram with her husband and two children.
She recently made a return to basketball, playing in the 2019 3BL Women's League and plans to continue playing. Geethu has also started work on opening a basketball academy in Kerala.
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Looking back at her career, there's a lot of satisfaction for Geethu with very little regret.
"There's a lot of satisfaction with whatever I did, there's a lot to learn for the youngsters. If you do the right things, you can achieve a lot. When I look at my playing career, I feel I could have taken the NBL opportunity in Australia and could have played there. As a player, you should play at the highest level. Maybe that's the only regret," says Geethu.
Paying in WNBA or WNBL would have certainly enhanced Geethu's reputation but the fact that she was unable to participate in the best leagues, once due to bureaucratic issues, takes nothing away from the basketball icon, who not only made India proud at the international level on numerous occasions but has conjured a legacy so rich that it will keep serving Indian basketball for years to come.