20-26 June 2014 #712

Shooting stars

This girls basketball team from Sikkim went from herding yaks to winning championships
Tsering Dolker

DRIBBLE, RUN, SCORE (l-r): Coach Siddhartha Yonjon started the Gangyap girls basketball team in 2007. The team went on to win several local level championships within its first year of formation.
Their story has all the makings of a Hollywood sports blockbuster: a passionate coach, an underdog team, hordes of critics and finally, an unexpected climactic victory. Meet the girls basketball team from Gangyap, a village in western Sikkim near the border with Nepal.

The girls from Gangyap stole hearts and headlines when they won India's U-19 CBSE Basketball National Level Championship in 2011, becoming the first team from North East India to do so.

Formed by educator Siddhartha Yonzon (pic), the girls are all students of Eklavya Model Residential School, where Yonzon serves as the principal. The school, opened in 2007, is a part of the initiative of the Indian government to provide education to children from indigenous communities. Most of the school's students come from families who raise livestock and farm.

“Many people thought I was crazy to want to teach basketball to a group who had never heard, seen or played the game,” says Siddhartha who along with the team was in Kathmandu last week to participate in the HIMS Basketball Tournament.

Players of Team Gangyap practice lay-ups before their match against Saipal Academy at HIMS on Thursday which they won.
Basketball was a sport limited to Sikkim's privileged and to boys, and Siddhartha himself has no professional training in coaching and didn't play the game in school.  But he loved the game and started building a team around two of his players from his previous school. Among the first to be selected from Eklavya was team captain Nima Doma Bhutia whose natural talent for the game caught Siddhartha's attention.

“When you see her play, you know she was destined to play basketball,” says the coach of his player who was named the MVP for two consecutive years at the U-19 National Level Championships in 2011 and 2012.

For years, the girls practiced on a pasture in the middle of a maize field with boards hung from tree tops. They got a proper court to play on only last year. But that didn't stop them from winning local tournaments. Aged 11-13, the girls beat teams with much older players in open-state tournaments and earned the monicker, “army of ants".

At the semifinal match against Saipal Academy at the recent tournament in Kathmandu, coach Yonjon was seen standing, jumping and screaming instructions at players, even though they had a double-digit lead most of the game.

While other competing teams - three of the best basketball girls' teams in Kathmandu - headed to the canteen, Yonzon sat the team down. Individual errors were pointed out, another round of layups were demanded. There was no time for food.

For an outsider, Yonzon’s coaching style might appear harsh and his passion easily confused with aggression, but the players don’t think so. “He knows what we are capable of doing. That’s why he’s disappointed today,” says Nima Doma Bhutia, the team captain. The other players nod in agreement.

Team captain Nima Doma Bhutia tries to dribble past an opponent.

Nima Doma is one of the five girls from the team who’ll be graduating this year. Their visit to Nepal is a part of a fundraising effort organised by Siddhartha’s friends, former schoolmates and collegemates to pay for the girls’ college. The girls have plans to attend LNIP, a physical education college in India.

A benefit dinner organised at Hotel Shambhala in Maharajganj, owned by one of Siddhartha’s friends, managed to raise enough money to pay for the girls' college for two years.  One of his friends has already offered to cover the remaining amount.

Although individual support has humbled the team, lack of support from the state of Sikkim leaves Siddhartha surprised. The state’s failure to get affiliation with the Basketball Association of India has hindered the girls’ dream of playing for their state.

Yonjon points out errors and discusses tactics with his players during a time out during Thursday's match.

“Many coaches have approached me to let my girls play for other states, but I refused because of this sentimental connection with Sikkim. I want them to wear a jersey with Sikkim imprinted on the back,” says Yonjon. But with the association showing no interest in getting an affiliation soon, Yonjon worries if that day will ever come. His other worry is that five of the girls will be graduating soon.

Like many other players in the team, Nima Doma’s ultimate goal is to play for team India. “That’s been my dream since I learnt to play," she says.


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