Past Masters of Indian Sports: Jimmy George – volleyball legend who pursued excellence on and off the court

Anish Anand
·11-min read

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.

Jimmy George is one of India's greatest sportspersons, and without doubt, the greatest volleyball player that the country has produced. At his peak, Jimmy was one of the best in Europe.

At the age of 16, Jimmy represented his state team Kerala. He captained them at 19. By the time he turned 22, Jimmy was already a recipient of the Arjuna Award. After his time with the Abu Dhabi Sports Club, Jimmy moved to Italy in 1982, becoming the first Indian to play in a top European league. In 1986, he was part of a talented India team that clinched the bronze medal in the Seoul Asian Games. In 1987, at the age of 32, Jimmy tragically passed away in a car accident in Italy.

Jimmy was a rare world-class volleyball player to have come from India. He was blessed with natural talent, his jump was extraordinary but it was sheer determination and single-minded pursuit to enhance his skills that led to Jimmy rubbing shoulders with the best during his sojourn in Italy. Above all, Jimmy was a perfect role-model, a player who gave his 100 percent on the field and carried an irresistible charm off the court. He was a man who tried to live his life to the fullest, made many friends all over the world and became an icon for his fans.

Early days

Born in 1955, in Thondiyil near Peravoor in Kannur district, Jimmy was the second son of George Joseph and Mary George. Jimmy's father was a first-generation graduate, a lawyer and also a volleyball player and that's how Jimmy and his seven brothers got interested in the game. "My father used to play in a church court but a priest objected to playing inside the premises so he, being rebellious, constructed a court nearby and that's where we all started," said Robert Bobby George, the youngest of the eight brothers, a Dronacharya awardee and husband of former long jumper Anju Bobby George.

Jimmy and his seven brother had grown up playing volleyball on the court their father built.
Jimmy and his seven brother had grown up playing volleyball on the court their father built.

Jimmy and his seven brothers had grown up playing volleyball on the court their father built.

All eight brothers had grown up playing volleyball on the court their father built and four of them have played for the state team in the nationals. Jimmy's father wanted his sons to pursue excellence in sports as well as in the field of education, so studies never took a backseat.

Jimmy was an all-rounder in the truest sense. He excelled at studies, earning a seat in the Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram. He won medals in swimming during his college days and also loved chess. But volleyball was Jimmy's true calling. It didn't take long for coaches to notice Jimmy's talent and he was soon playing for the state.

"Apart from his physicality, he had the attitude to achieve success. To my knowledge, Jimmy could've been an Olympic winner in the high jump. If he would've been a tennis player, he could've won Grand Slams. He was a very brilliant chess player too," Robert said.

There comes a time when every athlete has to make a decision whether he or she is willing to take up the sport seriously. These decisions are not easy, especially in a country like India where factors like education and jobs are involved. Jimmy was studying to be a doctor but time had come to take the big call. Along with his two brothers and his father, Jimmy met Russian coach Sergei Ivanovich Gavrilov at a coaching camp in Thiruvananthapuram.

"He (Gavrilov) told my father that India can make many doctors but players like Jimmy come once in a century. He told my father to leave Jimmy for volleyball," Robert said. Later, Jimmy joined Kerala Police and he was part of the team till his death.

Initially, Jimmy's parents were a little reluctant because their son was leaving a seat in the medical college to pursue volleyball. Even at this age, not many could make those risky calls, but Jimmy had the conviction and soon his father realised that there's no way he could stop him.

Jimmy, the player

Jimmy kept improving his game as he started going places. Before Jimmy left India to play for the Abu Dhabi Sports Club, he had already played in two Asian Games (Tehran, 1974 and Bangkok 1978) with the national team. A three-year stint in the UAE was followed by a chance to play in Italy for Pallavolo Treviso. Later, Jimmy also went on to play for Pallavolo Gabeca.

Jimmy George (fifth from left, standing) with his team in Italy. Image Courtesy: Sebastian George
Jimmy George (fifth from left, standing) with his team in Italy. Image Courtesy: Sebastian George

Jimmy George (fifth from left, standing) with his team in Italy. Image Courtesy: Sebastian George

"In the beginning, he got opportunities only to play in the B division because at that time, they were not aware that India had such good players. Later, he was promoted to A division," said Sebastian George, Jimmy's brother who also played and captained Kerala state team.

"There was a Korean coach in Abu Dhabi at that time and he pushed Jimmy to try for the Italian league. At first, language was a problem in Italy and Jimmy used to communicate through actions," Sebastian added.

Jimmy played with some of the world's best players during his time in Italy and that helped immensely in his development as a player. At the same time, Jimmy also experimented with his style to ensure he flourishes at the highest levels.

"He always wanted to do new things. Jimmy used to do experiments like when he was airborne during the matches, he used to lower his left shoulders so that his right arm gained an extra three to four inches for the attacking shot. He also did breathing exercises which helped him to sustain in the air for a fraction of a second more. That means he used to cheat blockers by going in the air a little early and he managed to delay the shot," Robert said.

"He had the talent but what made him stand out was his style of play. His style of jump was different, he always had that extra second. That style plus his behaviour on and off the field made him a legend," Sebastian added.

After the silver medal at the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, Indian men's team's crowning glory came in the 1986 Seoul Asian Games where the team won a bronze medal. Jimmy was part of a dream team comprising of Cyril Valloor, Abdul Basith, Dalel Singh Ror, Sukhpal Singh, GE Sridharan, K Udayakumar, PV Ramana (PV Sindhu's father) €" all of them were honoured with the Arjuna Award.

Jimmy's sensational spikes as well other Indian players' performance from the Games can be seen through a series of videos uploaded on YouTube by Sebastian. India lost matches against South Korea and China in the final round, but their win against Japan got them the medal. This was the last tournament Jimmy played for his country.

Jimmy, the person

When Jimmy was born, his mother had an intuition that he was a 'divine' and a 'special' child. She felt that Jimmy was different from other kids and also from his own brothers. Jimmy could get intense during matches but off the court, he had his charming ways which made people happy and at the same time, inspired them. "Everybody will have a special story to tell about Jimmy. Be it my mother, father, brothers, teammates, friends and fans," Robert said. "Even though he was the second son, he was considered to be a guiding light of our family," Robert added.

Jimmy was a big fan of John F Kennedy, the former president of the United States of America and read quite a few books about him. He was also interested in subject life psychology and spirituality. "Whenever he was around, people used to get excited. He lived for his people and for the game. He never used to quarrel or argue with anybody. He inspired me in many ways."

Whenever Jimmy was in town, people used to call him to play in various small-level tournaments. Being an international player, Jimmy had no obligation to go but he always made time because his participation meant more coverage and in return, organisers could make more money.

"When Jimmy played these matches, all the best players from surrounding places participated because they got to train and share the court with a world class player. People used to celebrate him," Robert said.

"We used to get upset because when Jimmy was at home, other people took away his time and we couldn't spend much time with him."

Jimmy's last game in India was a unique one where all eight brothers played in one team against a Kerala select side in 1987. This was a dream of his father and it took place in their home town of Peravoor. Not surprisingly, the match ended in favour of the George Brothers. On 30 November 1987, Jimmy died in a car accident in Italy. India lost a world-class sportsman, family and friends lost somebody who had a profound influence in their lives and fans lost their favourite sporting hero. Jimmy's wife was eight months pregnant when the accident took place.

"After a week, his body arrived in Trivandrum and from there it was taken to Peravoor. Almost one lakh people attended his funeral. He had a huge fan following in Kerala," Sebastian said.

Jimmy's legacy

Jimmy's family and friends have been doing their best to keep his legacy alive so that he could inspire future generations. Sebastian took a lot of efforts to document the life of his brother through photos, videos, certificates and letters. Documentation is such a key component in preserving the legacy of sporting heroes as well as developing a culture, and it's disappointing to see that sports federations, Sports Authority of India and the sports ministry do not take it seriously.

In 1988, the family started a Jimmy George Foundation and in 1989, Jimmy George Award was instituted for best sportspersons in Kerala. "We did a lot of humble things to keep his memory alive and promote sports, especially volleyball. Even now, I am in touch with thousands all over the world who have adored Jimmy," said Sebastian. "How Jimmy George wants to be remembered? Though the work of his foundation. We have been doing this work for the last 30 years."

Sebastian made a DVD of Jimmy's playing days, including India's famous victory against Japan in the 1986 Asian Games after obtaining the videos through a contact on Facebook. He then held as many as 40 screenings of the DVD all over Kerala and two more in Doha and Kuwait to commemorate Jimmy's 25 death anniversary.

Sebastian's Facebook profile is dedicated to Jimmy, the foundation and other sporting legends from India. There are thousands of photographs along with all the important information related to athletes and sports, which shows the importance of documentation of our sports culture.

Jimmy made a lasting impression in Italy as well. After his death, the then Mayor of Montichiari opened an indoor stadium in honour of Jimmy and wrote a letter that perfectly encapsulates the player and the person. "Jimmy George has left his high human values and morals not only in the world of sports, but also in our whole community, especially among the youth. The dedication of this prestigious stadium to his name should convey a meaningful message of faith in the universal brotherhood," the letter read.

"Therefore, on this occasion, I would like to express through the high officials to whom this is addressed, our feeling of appraisal and gratitude to the noble Indian people who has offered us, in the figure of Jimmy George, a shining and solid example of high universal values.

"The circumstance may help to build up more friendship between the two nations and can be a symbol of love and peace for all the people."

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