The story of basketball in Mumbai is a story of neighbourhoods and the hungry young men who live in them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Nagpada, as Nikhil Rao finds out.
In a city that is obsessed with spectacle, sports has always had its role. And yet basketball, though a sport that Mumbai had made its own, is now in decline. Nikhil Rao goes to the hoop to see why basketball seems to be fading away, and finds a story of institutional neglect, huge social changes, and neighbourhoods that are being redefined. It also provides a microcosm for the declining standards in competitive sports across the country. But there is hope. On the basketball courts of Nagpada and Colaba and in the suburbs, there are kids still arcing their balls netwards and hoping for that perfect swish…
“There are eight million stories in the naked city.” The memorable first sentence of the voiceover in Jules Dassin’s seminal noir flick, The Naked City, is probably as applicable to Mumbai as to any other megalopolis. For the last several months I’ve been engaged in tracking down some of these stories as a doctoral student struggling to collect enough material to write his dissertation. Yet, as a sports fan, one story has intrigued me for a while. Perhaps precisely because of its ephemeral and tangential role in the sporting life of Mumbai, I have often wondered about the place of basketball in the social fabric of the city.
I should explain that I am a hoops fan. As is probably the case with fans of other sports, describing myself as “a fan” is simply code, to be deployed in polite company, for describing myself as pathologically obsessed with basketball. For a long time now, playing in my regular pickup game at the Central YMCA in Colaba, I’d heard stories of legendary players. These sessions of reminiscing were themselves memorable—four or five younger players standing around sweating after the game, swatting away moths in the near darkness, while one animated older player fortunate enough to have seen some legend in action described the poetry of so-and-so’s jump shot, or the strength and aggression of such-and-such’s rebounding ability.
When I finally set about trying to find out about Mumbai basketball more systematically, what emerged is as much a story of basketball as it is a story of the city. It is not simply a desi version of the story of Harlem, or the Bronx or Watts—of dirt poor ghetto kids achieving fame and fabulous fortunes through sport. Rather, it is a story of Mumbai, its neighbourhoods and its own very particular history.
The Sabina Chandrashekhar Manoranjan Maidan in Colaba is where I usually play. It is a cozy space ringed by trees and completely enclosed by buildings. By day it serves as a sports ground for the three schools and the Central YMCA that circle it. But in the evening, for two hours, it is the venue for the hottest pickup basketball game in South Mumbai.
The squeak of rubber is accompanied by the usual courtside melange of sounds —people trash-talking and supplying intimate genealogies of the aberrant sexual lives of each other’s forebears, always in an argot that combines basketball terminology with choice swear words in a few languages. On the post supporting the backboard, some local hoops-crazed artist has rendered a version of the leaning, dribbling player that is the logo of the American National Basketball Association. Someone else has emblazoned basketball jargon onto the post—“dunk,” “alley-oop,” “finger roll”—and I recognise a kindred spirit. When one is obsessed with basketball, when one falls asleep visualising a perfect head fake followed by a flawless crossover dribble, one feels the need to embody it somehow. It is as if somehow articulating the action through words or a figure could freeze the beauty of that moment for posterity.
Yet this court is merely the scene of a lively pickup game. Even though the Central YMCA has produced respectable teams in the past, it becomes clear after asking around that this is not the epicentre of the Mumbai basketball scene. For this I have to go to Nagpada. Here, right next to each other, sit two legendary institutions—the Nagpada Neighbourhood House and the Mastan YMCA—consistently producing the city’s greatest basketball players.
On a recent Saturday evening I head over to Nagpada to catch the finals of the Mastan YMCA Monsoon League. The club is in Mastan Talao, a former tank that was deemed a health hazard and was filled over during the Bombay Improvement Trust’s great redevelopment of Nagpada in the early 20th century. This is not some desolate urban ghetto—it is a vibrant working and lower middle class neighbourhood. The YMCA ground is ringed by low, ramshackle buildings. Small enterprises of various sorts thrive—garages, workshops, small manufacturing units—many undertaking outsourced job work from more prosperous parts of the city. The minarets of two mosques are visible on the periphery. As I walk in I step past three goats nestling snugly against one another.
I arrive in time for the Men’s Final. Several boys and young men sit around the court, watching the action. A podium has been erected for the guest of honour, a Minister with local connections. The nets on the rims are red, white and blue. One of the floodlights is temperamental and chooses to turn itself off and back on. There are also elements of the unreal. In the interlude between the Juniors and the Seniors, we are treated, bizarrely, to an array of “lilting melodies”—(announcer’s words)—by the Sea Scout Marching Band. Replete in white uniforms, white gloves and batons, with a full complement of bagpipes, the Band launches into a series of off-key marching tunes, leaving my friend and I marvelling at the incongruity of the whole scenario and yet thinking to ourselves, “it could only be this way.”
It is clear that this event has deep significance in the community. “Basketball is the main sport in Nagpada and Nagpada is the main breeding ground for Mumbai’s players,” Iqbal Qureshi tells me a few days later, when I meet him in the early evening at the Mastan Y, to the sound of the muezzin calling the neighbourhood to prayer. Iqbal bhai, as his students call him, is the Head Coach of the Mastan YMCA team. We talk a little about the history of basketball in Nagpada and the role it plays in the community today. Why basketball? Why here?
Basketball was introduced to Mumbai by the YMCAs. In the mid-1940’s, an American missionary group set up an institution called the Nagpada Neighbourhood House, designed to provide various kinds of services to young men. The sports coach was one Mr. Longfellow, a basketball fan who saw the possibilities in marrying his favourite sport with the cramped space and limited resources of the Nagpada community. The needs were minimal—one relatively small patch of earth, two posts with boards and buckets, one ball. Add adrenalin, testosterone and muscle. Stand back.
With the arrival of the legendary Bachoo Khan in the 1950s, basketball in Nagpada really took off. There are numerous stories about him. “Bachoo Khan was a real bhai. Even the local dadas were respectful of him,” Shahid Qureshi, a recent star of Nagpada tells me. By the sheer force of his personality Bachoobhai would will the most athletic kids of the neighbourhood onto the court and make them train hard.
This made Bachoo Khan a force, not just on the courts, but in the entire locality. In a relatively poor neighbourhood like Nagpada, the sporting facilities offered by clubs like the Mastan YMCA and the NNH were rare and seized upon. People realised that keeping their children on the courts meant that they would be off the street and less susceptible to the various malevolent temptations on offer. “Why do you think we have this Monsoon League?” Iqbalbhai asks me. “If we allow these kids to run around for these three months, who knows what new friends they may fall in with.”
Iqbal Qureshi moved from Nagpada Neighbourhood House to Mastan YMCA in 1978. He is now something of a neighbourhood figure, the way Bachoobhai was. “Everything I am I owe to Iqbalbhai,” Ibrahim Lakdawala, a Mastan star, tells me. Most of the kids who come straggling in to the practice that evening are from the neighbourhood, from within a few minutes walking distance. As I sit by the court talking to Iqbalbhai, I notice that every kid who walks in makes it a point to come up to where we are sitting and shake each of our hands. The first few times this happens I perceive it as an annoyance. After several kids have come up to us and shaken our hands, I see what is happening. This is yet another practice that Iqbalbhai has instilled into the kids, a habit that, through sheer repetition, is meant to encourage civility. I am moved by the simplicity and beauty of the gesture, by what it reveals of the concern Iqbalbhai and the other coaches have for these children. “We often know and care more about the whereabouts of these kids than their parents,” Iqbalbhai remarks, as though he were reading my thoughts.
Because the club draws heavily from the neighbourhood, and because the neighbourhood is predominantly Muslim, the vast majority of players in the two Nagpada clubs are Muslim. At Central YMCA in Colaba, most players tend to be Christian. I ask Iqbalbhai if this ever results in any kind of communal tension during games. “Absolutely not,” he tells me. “When we go to play in Indian Gymkhana [in Matunga, where most players tend to be South Indian Hindus] we get maximum support, and when they come here, they get all the cheering.”
Why basketball? I ask Tom Alter, the well-known actor and media person, to speculate on reasons for the popularity of the sport in this area. Mr. Alter has been involved with the basketball scene in the Mumbai Central area for more than 15 years. “I think it has to do with the symmetry and order of the sport,” he says as we talk over a cup of coffee and he absent-mindedly fights off other claimants for his attention. In a context of poverty and disorder, he suggests, young boys in areas like Nagpada are drawn to a pastime where the rules are clearly drawn and where winning and losing depend entirely on one’s own abilities and efforts. Add to that the gritty, urban nature of the game and the opportunities for grandstanding it provides to young bucks from the neighbourhood, and it’s easy to see why this sport appeals.
All this apart, the game thrives in Nagpada simply because it’s there. Everyone I speak to tells me that they started playing basketball because they lived across the street from the court and used to watch people play there, or because their brother used to play, or because Bachoobhai or Iqbalbhai caught them one day and made them get on the court. The courts in Nagpada are inextricably embedded in the neighbourhood—if you live there and have energy to burn, then some channel or other will lead you to the point where you’re dreaming about the perfect arc on your jump shot.
In a place like Nagpada, kids are drawn to basketball because there are no other sporting opportunities, and because excelling might lead to a job and upward mobility. However, in other neighbourhoods, playing basketball is more of a choice.
To find a counterpoint to the Nagpada scene, I go to Indian Gymkhana in Matunga, another ground that has produced great players in the past. It is set in a wooded middle class neighbourhood that is quite different from Nagpada. Low, comfortably picturesque buildings circle the Gymkhana; their paint is peeling, but they have a shabby gentility. An immense tree casts its shadow over the tennis courts. The first thing that strikes me is the plenitude of space compared with the cramped quarters in Nagpada. In addition to the two tennis courts and two basketball courts, there is also a ground that is used for cricket and football. But when I show up one evening, the basketball court is empty. I speak to Mukund Dhus, an Indian Gym veteran and General Secretary of the Maharashtra State Basketball Association. “Right now the kids are too busy to come and play,” he tells me.
We chat a little bit about the game in Matunga versus the game in Nagpada. He suggests that the Nagpada boys play a more physically aggressive game whereas Indian Gym plays a technique-oriented game. I pose the same question I did to Iqbalbhai, as to whether the communally specific nature of the major club teams ever leads to tension. He vociferously concurs with Iqbalbhai that there is never any friction of that sort. In fact, he says, the great thing about sports is that it transcends these communal differences.
The sociology of Matunga is utterly different from that of Nagpada, and thus basketball occupies a different place in the life of the community. The kids in Matunga have different sporting options. They can play tennis, badminton, cricket or football. Moreover, their middle class background means that basketball can only ever be a hobby. Their first priority is studies: getting good marks in the phalanx of exams and getting into the right colleges. In recent years, with the proliferation of various coaching classes and other extra-mural academic programs that appear to be mandatory, kids have no time or energy to play sports on a sustained basis.
Hence, while good players may be bred here, the chances of their becoming great players are slimmer since they simply won’t have time. While there have been illustrious players to come out of Indian Gymkhana—the names of C.N. Sharma, S. Krishnanand, and P.V. Prabhu stand out—they don’t need to make basketball their life. They will become doctors and engineers and bank managers—all solidly middle class occupations. They are not hungry the way boys from Nagpada are, they don’t live for basketball in the same way. They don’t have to. The Nagpada boys are more hungry because they are less privileged, because doing well in school is not presented to them as a way to move up in life.
Another reason for the decline of basketball in Matunga in recent years might have to do with the changing real estate market and the resulting transformation in the demography of the neighbourhood. I notice that the Gymkhana is a less vibrant place than it used to be in the ‘80s, when I used to play tennis tournaments here. Until the late ‘80s the Gymkhana used to host the famous Ramu Memorial Basketball Tournament, the biggest and most popular hoops festival in the city. Teams from all over the country would participate and fans would flock to the Gymkhana to see legends in action. Now the formerly lush maidan is brown, rutted and uneven. The tennis courts appear to be in disrepair. I ask Mr. Vishwanathan Menon, the Manager of the Canteen, about the general feeling of malaise that seems to pervade the Gymkhana.
“The whole locality has changed,” he tells me. Following the escalation in real estate prices in the last two decades or so, the original predominantly South Indian base (which was also the core basketball constituency, both in terms of supplying players as well as fans) of Matunga has eroded considerably. Significant numbers have moved to places like Chembur, Mulund and Vashi. Mr. Menon maintains that the new entrants don’t place as much emphasis on sports for their kids. Several flats in Matunga are also currently vacant, he informs me, because the owners, people who’ve most recently moved to Thane or Vashi, are waiting for the market to pick up again before selling.
When one is obsessed with basketball, when one falls asleep visualising a perfect head fake followed by a flawless crossover dribble, one feels the need to embody it somehow. It is as if somehow articulating the action through words or a figure could freeze the beauty of that moment for posterity.
A comparison between the current state of the two main clubs in Matunga is illuminating. Indian Gymkhana is a classic middle class club. It is somewhat ramshackle, but has a genteel, mellow charm. Matunga Gymkhana, which used to be a similar place, has now gone in for a thorough makeover. The whole place is rubble right now, but in its place is to be erected a posh club, with expensive membership fees and all sorts of luxury services. This contrast embodies the transformation in the neighbourhood. The old middle class is having to make way for new entrants with money to spend.
If basketball in Nagpada is a story of the neighbourhood, it is also a story of getting out of the neighbourhood, at least metaphorically. For many boys from not-so-affluent backgrounds, basketball offers an entree into a white-collar life. As with other sports in the Indian system, large companies and government agencies hire athletes on generous terms where the “job” is essentially a sinecure, allowing players to practice and participate in competitions. On the basketball front, the behemoth Indian Railways—the world’s largest employer with a staggering 1.4 million employees—alone fields about 13 basketball teams. Other major employers include Income Tax, Central Excise, TISCO, and various banks.
To learn more about this, I set off to find Abbas Muntasir, Mumbai’s Mr. Basketball and Arjuna Award recipient. In the days before I finally met him, he acquired a mythic quality. When I told people I was writing about basketball, almost invariably the response, delivered in a hushed tone, would be, “Well, have you spoken to Abbasi yet?” or, even more maddeningly, “Have you seen Abbasi play?”
In person Mr. Muntasir is very real. He comes from a family of Kashmiri carpet merchants. He is not particularly tall for a basketball player—he stands about 5’11″ or so—but, even at 58, he is powerfully built and radiates intensity. He is one of those people who leans into you as they speak, as though compelled to do so by the sheer force and conviction of what they are saying. As I appraise this legend of whom I had already heard so much, I recall what Tom Alter had said to me. “He’s not particularly tall and he’s not a great shooter, but once Abbasi decides that he wants to steal the ball from you or that he’s going to drive past you to the basket, then nothing is going to stop him.”
We sit watching the Railway team practice at the NNH. As a Sports Officer with Central Railway, he has personally recruited many of the young men we see playing. Across the street, overlooking the court and about forty metres from where we’re sitting, is the building where Mr. Muntasir was born and where he still lives. The space of the court somehow inscribes a certain form of sociability into the space of the neighbourhood. Despite the differences between neighbourhoods, what we’re doing—sitting around watching a game, with passers-by on the street pausing to check out the action—could happen anywhere. Every now and then he heaps abuse upon the players for a slack pass, or a meek attempt at a rebound.
“The problem with players nowadays is that they don’t hate to lose,” he says, succinctly offering his analysis of the decline in India’s basketball fortunes. The scene now is a far cry from the days of the Ramu Memorial at Indian Gym, when there would be a brisk black market trade in tickets to see stars like Abbasi play.
Mr. Muntasir does not like to lose. In fact, he doesn’t even like other people thinking he’s going to lose. He tells me of an episode in Bangkok, during the Asian Basketball Championships in 1975, when he bet all his money on India coming out on top, simply because a local resident had disparaged the Indian team’s chances. Goaded perhaps by the wager, India ended up coming in fourth, an unprecedented high finish.
There are also structural reasons offered for the decline in stature of Indian basketball. I speak to another Nagpada legend, Abdul Hamid Khan, also known as “Babu”, who works at Central Railway. Of a younger generation than Mr. Muntasir (he is about 42 now), Babu and his older brother GhulamRasul Khan (aka. “Papa”) grew up in the building next to Abbasi, the sons of a coal merchant.
“The structure of incentives isn’t there to encourage young players,” Babu tells me. Despite the fact that he has attained almost every honour there is—represented India on numerous occasions, received the Chhatrapati Shivaji Award when he was only 15—Babu appears embittered with the way the Indian sporting establishment treats basketball players. He’s upset that he and his fellow players don’t get enough respect for having represented India at the International level.
Yet he too feels that many players today are simply not that hungry. It’s as if the nature of the existing incentive structure dulls the urge to excel. Unlike marquee sports like cricket or football, the best they can hope for is a secure job with Railways or Income Tax. Knowing that their job is guaranteed if they deliver a certain minimum performance, they have no itch to transcend themselves. He tells me that when he and his brother were young and playing in the Nationals, they would play both in the Juniors’ as well as in the Men’s divisions. Since quite often a team would have to play two matches a day, those playing in Juniors’ and Men’s would have to play four matches a day. On such days, Babu informed me with a dreamy look in his eyes, he would sometimes end up scoring over a 100 points a day. They would simply keep changing vests and step out onto the court, hungry for action.
I try and see if younger players are more enthusiastic about their prospects. I’m sitting with Shahid Qureshi in his family’s business premises—the Super Taxicab Meter Manufacturing and Repairing Co. in Nagpada—watching him take care of business. Shahid is 28 and is a recent international player from Nagpada.
At a bulky 6’2″ or so, Shahid is an imposing figure, as much for his size as for his aggression and intensity. When he played professionally in Sweden, his teammates and opponents called him “Djor”, which is Swedish for “the Bull”.
Shahid now has a job with TISCO. But he too is not enthusiastic about the support that players get. The money is not enough, there is not enough respect, there is too much politics. “I now play because I love the game, not because of what I can get out of it,” he tells me. He has suffered a brutal knee injury and plans to go to the United States for a complicated surgery.
However, people are still obsessed with playing the game. Abbasi doesn’t play anymore, but shows up regularly at the court to watch and criticize and encourage. Babu still works out thrice a week with the Railways team. Shahid’s knee has healed somewhat, and he now plays regularly, although with only a fraction of his previous intensity. He tells me of one recent Nationals where he would be carried off the court after every game, such was the pain in his knee. But he would get back the next day, ready to bang some bodies.
In posh areas like Colaba and Cuffe Parade, basketball currently enjoys a certain surging popularity among wealthier youth as a result of their having travelled to the States or because NBA games are now broadcast on Indian TV. But the old basketball scene appears to be declining in popularity as well as in institutional support. Tom Alter traces the beginnings of the decline to roughly the mid-80s. In neighbourhoods like Nagpada, he suggests, poor young men now have other avenues to upward mobility. Meanwhile, in neighbourhoods like Matunga, demographic changes and other pressures have contributed to the downward trajectory of the sport. Some say that the future lies in newer suburban clubs such as the Andheri and Ghatkopar YMCAs. But so far nothing like the Nagpada or Indian Gymkhana tradition has emerged.
Back in Colaba, I’ve just been humiliated on the court by Donald and Rajni, the two current kings of Central YMCA. They are probably not going to pursue basketball seriously although Rajni, especially, has long been bitten by the bug. He is now about 19, but he used to show up at the court as a kid of 11 wearing chappals. The older boys (I was one of them) wouldn’t let him play. But he would hang around the periphery and, every time the ball went out of bounds, would run after it and grab it. Before we could get it from him, he would run into the court and launch one shot at the hoop. This is how he spent his evenings—waiting for that stray chance to launch the ball.
So, perhaps there is cause for hope, despite the problems of Indian basketball. As long as the court, the basket and the ball are around, there will always be someone or the other, waiting, hoping to watch the arc of his jumpshot culminate in the sublime swish of the net.
This article was first published in the October 2000 issue
Image courtesy: Meenal Agarwal