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Hoop Dreams

by Nikhil Rao

Published as “Hoops Hunger and the City” in Naresh Fernandes and Jerry Pinto, eds. Bombay Meri Jaan: Writings on Mumbai, Penguin Books India, 2003


“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 in my capacity 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 and because of its general unrelatedness to what I should be spending my time on, 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 Y.M.C.A. in Colaba, I’d heard stories of the legendary players in the history of Mumbai basketball. These sessions of reminiscing were themselves memorable — four of 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 these players and their legends in a more systematic kind of way, what emerged was as much a story of basketball as it was a story of the city. Of this city of Mumbai, its neighbourhoods, its various communities, 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 squeaking of rubber is accompanied by the usual courtside melange of sounds — teammates “advising” each other, trash-talking, supplying intimate genealogies of the aberrant sexual lives of each other’s forebears. It is a distinctive argot. Technical terms in English are interspersed with instruction and gaalis in Hindi and Marathi. Cries of “Backdoor cutter” and “Screen left” consort equably with “Bahenchod, undar ghus,” or “Foul kar de, saale ko.” Some of the players are more comfortable in English while others with Hindi or Marathi. It is one of the peculiarities of this sport that, precisely because of its small and restricted constituency and fan base, it forces a mingling of young people from different classes not often found in other sports. How often would you find rich kids and poor kids playing cricket or football together on a daily basis?

On the post supporting the backboard and hoop, 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 recognize a kindred spirit. When one is obsessed with basketball, when one falls asleep visualizing a perfect head fake followed by a flawless crossover dribble, one feels the need to embody it somehow. As though somehow articulating the action through words or figure could freeze the beauty of that moment for posterity. This is a common trait among those of us not gifted enough to actually enact these scenes on the court, but who are utterly mesmerized by them.

Yet this court now is merely the scene of a lively pickup game. Even though the Central YMCA has produced respectable teams in the past, it becomes quite clear after asking around that this is not the epicentre of the Mumbai basketball scene. For this, it turns out, I have to go to Nagpada. Here sit two great institutions – the Nagpada Neighbourhood House and the Mastan YMCA – right next to each other, 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 that was filled over during the Bombay Improvement Trust’s great redevelopment of Nagpada in the early 20th century. The club premises are minimal – a dirt ground abuts the basketball court and one small structure serves as residential quarters for the Manager, while another structure serves as Office cum Changing Room. The grounds are ringed by low, ramshackle buildings. Small enterprises of various sorts thrive – garages, workshops, small manufacturing units — many presumably undertaking outsourced job work from more prosperous parts of the city. The minarets of at least two mosques are visible on the periphery. As I walk in I step past three goats nestling snugly against each other.

I arrive just in time to catch the second half of the Junior Boys Final, which precedes the Men’s Final. The tournament is not a trivial event in the life of the community. 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 marveling at the incongruity of the whole scenario and yet at the same time thinking to ourselves “It could only be this way.”

But what is clear is that this event, this sport, has deep significance in the community. “Basketball is the main sport in Nagpada and Nagpada is the main breeding ground for Mumbai’s basketball players,” Iqbal Qureishi tells me a couple of days later, when I meet him in the early evening at the Mastan Y, to the sound of the muezzin calling the neighbourhood to namaaz. Mr. Qureshi, or Iqbal-bhai as his students call him, is the Head Coach at the Mastan YMCA basketball team and is a man who is serious about his calling. We talk a little about the history of basketball in Nagpada and the role it plays in the community today. Why basketball? Why here? What emerges is an account that underlines the peculiarly urban nature of this sport, the reason why it is popular in poor city neighbourhoods from New York to Mumbai.

Basketball was first introduced to Mumbai by the YMCAs. In the mid-1940’s, an American missionary group set up an institution called the Nagpada Neighbourhood House, which, much like the YMCA’s, was designed to provide various kinds of services to young men. The sports coach was one Mr. Longfellow, a basketball fan who immediately saw the felicitous possibilities in arranging a marriage between his favourite sport and the cramped space and limited resources of the Nagpada community. The needs were minimal — one patch of earth (much smaller than would be needed for cricket or football or hockey), two posts with boards and buckets, one ball. Add adrenaline, testosterone and muscle. Stand back.

With the arrival of the legendary Bachoo Khan, basketball in Nagpada really took off. Of this formidable man, formerly a volleyball coach until he turned his sights on promoting basketball, many stories abound. “Bachoo Khan was a real bhai. Even all the local dadas were respectful of him,” Shahid Qureshi, a recent star product of Nagpada tells me. Bachoo-bhai was not necessarily an authority on the game, but by sheer force of his personality he would will the most athletic kids of the neighbourhood onto the court and make them train hard and perform well.

And this is precisely what made Bachoo Khan a force not just on the basketball 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 Nagpada Neighbourhood House were rare and seized upon. People also realized that keeping their children on the courts meant that, at the very least, they would be off the street and less susceptible to the various malevolent temptations on offer. Institutions such as the Mastan Y and the Nagpada Neighbourhood House, and the game of basketball generally, play a vital role in the community. “Why do you think we have this Monsoon League?” Iqbal-bhai asks me. “If we were to just allow these kids to run around for the three month duration of the monsoon then who knows what kind of new friends and new circles they may fall in with.”

Iqbal Qureshi moved from Nagpada Neighbourhood House to Mastan YMCA in 1978. He now is something of neighbourhood figure, the way Bachoo-bhai was. It is quite clear that all his players respect him immensely. “Everything I am I owe to Iqbal-bhai,” 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, in fact. As I sit by the court talking to Iqbal-bhai, I notice that every kid who walks in makes it a point to come up to where we are all sitting and shake each of our hands and greet us. Some do so mechanically, but some have a real sparkle in their eyes. The first few times this happened I perceived it as an annoyance. After several kids, ranging in age from about 9 or 10 to about 15, had come up to us and shaken our hands, I saw what was happening. This was yet another little practice that Iqbal-bhai had instilled into the kids, a habit that, through sheer repetition and practice, was meant to encourage civility and politeness. While there was something draconian about such an attempt to micromanage their behaviour, I was also moved by the simplicity of the gesture, by what it revealed of the concern Iqbal-bhai and the other coaches had for these children. “We often know and care more about the whereabouts of these kids than their parents,” Iqbal-bhai remarks, as though he were reading my thoughts.

I reflect upon what is now obvious: because the club draws heavily from the neighbourhood, and because the neighbourhood is predominantly Muslim, the vast majority of players playing in the two Nagpada clubs are Muslim. At Central YMCA in Colaba, most of the serious players tend to be Catholic. I ask Iqbal-bhai if this ever results in any kinds of communal tensions during intense games. “Absolutely not,” he tells me. “When we go to play in Indian Gymkhana [in Matunga, where most players tend to be South Indian] we get maximum support, and when they come here, they get all the cheering.” I remark to myself that this is extraordinary.

Why basketball? I asked Tom Alter, the well-known sports writer, to speculate on possible reasons for the popularity of the sport in this area. Mr. Alter has been involved with the basketball scene in the Mumbai Central/Agripada/Nagpada area for more than 15 years now and, between 1984 and 1994, played for a team from the YMCA International Centre in Mumbai Central. “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 in other dimensions of their lives, he says, young boys in areas like Nagpada are drawn to a pastime where the rules are clearly drawn and where winning and losing depends entirely on one’s own abilities and efforts. Add to that the gritty, essentially urban nature of the game — with the concrete courts and buildings looming up around — and the opportunities for grandstanding it provides to young bucks from the neighbourhood, and its easy to see why this sport appeals.

All these reasons notwithstanding, however, the game thrives in Nagpada simply because it's there. And because Nagpada is quintessentially a neighbourhood. Everyone I spoke to told me that they started playing basketball because they either lived across the street from the court and used to watch people play there everyday, or because their brother used to play there, or because someone like Bachoo-bhai or Iqbal-bhai caught them one day and made them get onto the court. The courts in Nagpada are inextricably embedded in the neighbourhood – if you live there and are a young man with 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.


To find a counterpoint to the Nagpada scene, I went to Indian Gymkhana in Matunga, another ground that has produced great players and that has also been the site of epic basketball games. Most people seem to agree that Nagpada and Matunga have been the main breeding grounds for Mumbai’s basketball talent. Indian Gymkhana is set in a wooded middle class neighbourhood that is dramatically different from Nagpada. Low, comfortably picturesque buildings circle the Gymkhana; their paint is peeling, but they have a certain 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 largish ground that is used for cricket and football. But when I show up there one evening, the basketball court is empty. I spoke to Mukund Dhus, a veteran of the Matunga and Mumbai basketball scene and the Honorary 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 physical and aggressive game whereas Indian Gym usually plays a technique-oriented game. I pose the same question I did to Iqbal-bhai, as to whether the communally specific nature of the major club teams ever results in any kinds of tensions. He vociferously concurs with Iqbal-bhai and maintains that there never is any friction of that sort. In fact, he tells me, the great thing about basketball and about sports generally is that they transcend these kinds of 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 are more middle class and have different options for their evening activity. They can play tennis, badminton, cricket or football (all at the Indian Gymkhana grounds). Moreover, their middle class background means that, for them, basketball can only ever be a hobby, a pastime. First on their list of priorities is studies: getting good marks on the whole phalanx of exams to be taken, getting into the right engineering colleges or medical schools. In recent years especially, 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 there, the chances of their becoming great players are slimmer since they simply won’t be able to devote enough time and energy to the game. 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 reason the Nagpada boys are more hungry is 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 relative lack of great players from Matunga in recent years might have to do with the changing structure of the 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 in tennis tournaments here. The maidan, which used to be lush green grass, is now brown and rutted and uneven, making it hazardous for any game of cricket. The tennis courts appear to be in a state of 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 having moved out, first to places like Chembur, and now even further, to Mulund, Thane and Vashi. Mr. Menon maintains that the newer entrants into the neighbourhood don’t place as much emphasis on sports for their kids; at least not on basketball. Several of the 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.

A comparison between the current state of the two main clubs/gymkhanas in Matunga is illuminating. Indian Gymkhana is a classic middle class club. It is somewhat ramshackle and has absolutely nothing ostentatious about it; but it has a certain genteel, mellow charm, which is enhanced by its marvelous location. Matunga Gymkhana, on the other hand, which used to be a similar place, has now gone in for a thorough makeover. In fact the whole place is rubble right now. But in its place is going to be erected a posh club, with expensive membership fees and all sorts of luxury services. This contrast embodies the transformation in the demography of the neighbourhood. The old middle class is having to make way for new entrants with money to spend.


If basketball 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 in areas like Nagpada, basketball offers an entrée into a white-collar life where they can continue to play the sport they love. As with other sports in the Indian system, large companies and government agencies hire promising athletes on generous terms where the “job” is essentially a sinecure, allowing the player to spend as much time as needed in practicing and participating in competition. On the basketball front the biggest supporter is Indian Railways, the behemoth that is the world’s largest employer with a staggering 1.4 million employees. Indian Railways alone, it turns out, fields about 13 or 14 teams in basketball, and more than 20 teams in marquee sports like football and hockey. Other major employers include Income Tax, Central Excise, TISCO, and various banks.

To learn more about this, I set off to find Mr. Abbas Muntasir, Mumbai’s Mr. Basketball and Arjuna Award recipient (the first person to receive this prestigious award for basketball). In the days before I finally met him, he had acquired a definite mythic quality. When I told people I was writing a story about basketball, almost invariably the response, delivered in a hushed tone, would be “Well, have you spoken to Abbasi yet?” or, even more maddeningly, “Well, have you seen Abbasi play?” Due to circumstances, I was not able to even contact him, leave alone actually meet him, for a few days after I started trying to track him down. Unable initially to acquire his telephone number, I had to go through a series of go-betweens, who had to “visit his usual haunts” in Nagpada to try and trace his whereabouts. When I finally met him one evening at the Nagpada Neighbourhood House, a certain enigmatic aura had attached to his persona, to complement the almost legendary status that he already occupied.

In person Mr. Muntasir (or “Abbasi” as he is affectionately referred to) is anything but enigmatic. He comes from a family of Kashmiri carpet merchants, but that business is now defunct. 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 Mr. Alter had said to me about him. “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 is going to drive past you to the basket, then no force on this planet is going to stop him.” I decide that even with almost thirty years handicap, I wouldn’t take any bets on my being able to defend the ball against him, or on my preventing him from scoring.

We sit watching the Railways team practice at the Nagpada Neighbourhood House. As a Sports Officer with Central Railways, 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. I reflect on the manner in which the space of the court somehow inscribes a certain form of sociability into the space of the neighbourhood. Despite the great differences between Nagpada and Matunga, what we’re doing – sitting around a court watching a game, with passers-by on the street also pausing to check out the action – happens in both neighbourhoods and probably every place where there is a court. 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. Mr. Muntasir does not like to lose. In fact, he doesn’t even like other people thinking that he’s going to lose. He tells me of an episode in Bangkok, during the Asian Basketball Championships in 1975. He and the rest of the Indian team were in their hotel lobby when a local resident came up to them and asked them if they were the Indian basketball team. On hearing an affirmative reply, the local made a disparaging sound and gave them a thumbs-down. “China number one,” he said. This so infuriated Abbasi that he immediately pulled out all the money in his pocket and bet the local that India would finish on top. Meanwhile, of course, his heart was in his mouth since China was heavily favoured and India was not even a contender. In any case, India ended up coming in fourth, an unprecedented high finish.

Such qualitative reasoning apart, however, there are also structural reasons offered for the decline in stature of Indian basketball. I spoke to another Nagpada legend about it, fittingly enough in the public canteen at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Abdul Hamid Khan, also known as “Babu”, now works at Central Railways. Of a younger generation than Mr. Muntasir (he is about 42 now), Babu and his older brother Ghulam Rasul Khan (a.k.a. “Papa”) grew up in the building next to Mr. Muntasir, the sons of a coal merchant. Their home also overlooks the Nagpada court, and they too went on to become basketball legends.

“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 practically still in the cradle, at the young age of 15 – Babu appears embittered with the way the Indian sporting establishment treats basketball players. And one gets the sense that it is not simply the relative paucity of monetary compensation that bothers him; 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 youth today are simply not that hungry. They don’t have that itch to be on the court all the time, to keep practicing jump shots until that magical moment when you’re stroking them, when you know that the shot is going to be good as soon as it leaves your hands. He tells me that when he and his brother and Abbasi 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 dreamy look in his eyes, they 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 through basketball and about basketball’s prospects. I’m sitting with Shahid Qureshi at his office in his family’s business – the Super Taxicab Meter Manufacturing and Repairing Co. in Nagpada – watching him taking care of business. Shahid is 28 and is one of the recent star international level players to come out of Nagpada.

At a bulky 6’2” or so, Shahid is an imposing figure, as much for his size as for the aggression and intensity that emanates from his body language. When he played professional basketball in Sweden, his teammates and opponents used to call him “Djor”, which is Swedish for “the Bull.” I know, having had the misfortune of trying to “guard” him on a couple of occasions at pickup games in Colaba. [I was playing him physically, a strategy I’d adopted since he seemed to be scoring over me at will. My new strategy proved equally ineffective – on one occasion he somehow managed to launch himself in the air for a jump shot while, in the same motion, delivering a powerful elbow to my chest. The shot went in and I was left doubled over in pain]

Shahid has played at the National and International levels and now has a job with TISCO. But he too is not overly enthusiastic about the support that players get. The money is not enough, there is not enough respect, there is too much politics. He has suffered a brutal injury to his knee and is about to go to the United States for a surgery that will attempt to reconstruct the ligaments in his knee by transplanting muscle tissue from the hamstring of another person.

However, the institutional structure of basketball aside, everyone is still crazy about 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 quite a bit, 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 on the next day, ready to bang some bodies.


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