By Dr Amanda C Tongper
Department of English, St Anthony’s College

In my defence, everyone loves potatoes unless recommended not to by the doctor. It may be difficult for some readers to understand the potato reference here. All I can divulge is it is a beloved inside joke, therefore, it is used lovingly in this article as a tribute. And in my defence, baller is a term popularly used in basketball (rap and hip-hop influence notwithstanding) to describe someone who has risen to exceptional heights through hard-work. I begin my article on a defensive note because, let’s face it, it is the only way to begin an article about basketball.

“Watch your defence!” a tall voice roared.

Photo: Raju Paul

I came across basketball (quite literally across the court) after ten years of being in St Anthony’s College. It is a game I glanced at but never watched. I never understood it because I did not feel the need to. The players are an everyday sight as the flowers, trees, NCC cadets and cars on campus. I expect them to be there but never thought to stop and watch them. One day, I happened to glance for just a minute longer and saw a student from my department playing and that was when I stopped. I’ll tell you why. I stopped because in class, my student is quiet and by that I mean quiet as the softest whisper. She is not the kind to raise questions or offer answers. She is a mystery like so many other students. But on that court she was home. Something about her was transcendent as she commanded the ball to her will. She was fierce in the most beautiful sense. There was something sure-footed, steadfast and sturdy about her. And just like that, I felt like I was closer to knowing her. I thought to myself, there are many ways to be a human being just as there are many ways to know a human being.

Photo: Dr Amanda C Tongper

Sometimes I am guilty of being lost in the well-intentioned drill of teaching that students become one-dimensional. Just as I was lost in this lofty reverie (which is the tenth reason why I’ll never be a basketball player) coach screamed, “Ten push-ups! Now!” I’ll not reveal the creative ways in which they “completed” their ten push-ups, but I’ll say this – coach’s message was clear. Zero fluff will be tolerated. You cannot spare a second to think about how good you are or the contrary or how tired or hungry because in this sport, a second lost to distraction is equal to your ego receiving the worst beating in front of an audience. You get on with it. You fall, you get up, you dust if off. And while you are at it, you must be excellent. I was hooked.

“Why are you dreaming/sleeping/over-thinking?” the same tall voice demanded to know. It is a rhetorical question, of course, and the only reply needed was for the players to let go of whatever it is that is bothering them (because basketball is a game of seconds, Amanda!).

On the bench, the players both cheer and chide their mates on court: “Leh kai seh!!” or “please play!!” cried one of them from the bench. This is an urgent plea to please be your best. They watch their mates’ every move. They pleaded, encouraged, supplied the necessary gung-ho cheering from the sides. They know each other better than anyone else because coach says, “Communicate!” and this I learned is a cardinal rule without which things fall apart. An attempt to turn any moment on court into a one-man/woman show is not dealt with kindly. Be humble and effective like a potato; swagger is a trait for another day. Players recognise each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes it is the brilliantly dexterous one with a big heart that they worry about because she is too sweet to intimidate anyone and they would cheer for her to be a little tough. It is the cutest thing.

Our teams usually do not have the biggest echo of cheers when they compete. There is an occasional “A-n-t-h-o-n-y-s!” from a few members of the crowd. Usually, as part of the gladiatorial nature of this sport, the teams are cheered when they miss the basket and booed when there is a fault. Personally, I have never liked the sound of booing. Surely, there is another sound in the arsenal of the supporter that is less cowardly. I watched the players worked-up by a pack of competitive spectators. Coach pulls them aside and asks: “Why are you listening to the crowd?” Or “Why are you playing the way they want you to play? RELAX.” I stole those two questions and took them home with me.

The players understood their coach and it is amazing to watch how this man can single-handedly shift and shape their state of mind under duress. With only four minutes to spare and a few points behind, they relaxed and then the magic happened. For this and other reasons, I call their coach a maestro. His name is Sanju Das.

Four seconds remain and with a nail-biting one-point lead, Evarista contained the ball. The opposing team gave the girls a harder time than they would have liked. The final whistle blows, the girls won, but they broke down. I imagine there were many reasons behind the this. It was the close shave, yes, and the accompanying adrenaline of a close call, but I also suspect that it is partly because players compete against elements on and off court. That day the crowd was merciless. All part of the game. Moments like those are the bricks and mortar of a resilient mind and I hope our players go through life remembering this lesson among the many others that basketball has taught them.

One of the many things their teacher-in-charge, Emelia Lynrah and previous faculty-in-charge taught them is how to be courteous on court. I noticed their collective big-heartedness and goodwill that could have only come from solid grounding and guidance. Good manners are one of the most telling hallmarks of excellence.

In conclusion, I am, of course, an outsider to the game and not in the habit of writing articles about every new thing that catches my interest but our boys and our girls deserve a shout-out for the triumph they continue to bring to the college and the tough work they go through. Although, I have a sneaky suspicion, they do not need so much praise. They play to win every time for the love of the game. Their passion is only paralleled by their drive. You should have seen them, they were baller!

(Featured photo: Dr Amanda C Tongper)

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