SHAHID AHMAD BHAT GREW UP playing basketball in the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri. Born in the US to Kashmiri parents who had migrated there in 1970, Bhat represented his high school team as a point guard. College and professional basketball seemed within striking distance—but it wasn’t to be. “Being only six feet tall, I guess there were doubts about my size and athletic ability to play major college Division One basketball,” he said. With no professional offers coming his way, he took a job as basketball coach at Barstow School, a prestigious private school in Kansas City. His life attained a reliable stability.
In May 2009, Bhat attended a family wedding in Jammu and Kashmir with his parents. Their trip coincided with a visit by JD Walsh, an American basketball coach who holds camps across the world. Bhat saw an opportunity to spread his passion for his sport in his home state. “I emailed [Walsh] and he agreed to let me volunteer,” Bhat said. “I became a tutor and basketball coach for the kids at one of the local orphanages.”
This stint so moved Bhat that he returned two years later, in the summer of 2011, determined to popularise the game in Kashmir. “I visited all the Srinagar colleges and high schools, and conducted practice sessions with their boys’ and girls’ teams,” he said.
Bhat decided to start a summer league at the Delhi Public School (DPS), Srinagar, which houses one of the few functional indoor basketball courts in the entire state. “Since I had met some local players in 2009 and 2010, they also helped me spread the word to their friends,” Bhat said. Word of mouth and Facebook publicity sufficed—in a region starved of sporting opportunities for young people, ten teams registered for the inaugural Srinagar Kashmir Basketball Association (SKBA) Summer Classic Basketball Tournament 2011, which ran for eight weeks in May–June. “The talent was limited, with only five or six serious young players,” Bhat said. “But before this tournament, there had been no basketball here.”
There were problems that cropped up in the course of this tournament. “The school authorities asked us to stop midway,” Bhat said. “They didn’t want students from other schools to use the DPS courts.” He convinced the authorities to let him complete the tournament; immediately after, however, he had to vacate the premises. Unfazed, Bhat returned to the Valley the following summer, shifting his practice sessions from DPS to other institutions in Srinagar: Kashmir University, Islamia College and Burn Hall School. “The courts were in a dilapidated condition, but at least more accessible to the general public,” he said.
By the time of Bhat’s visit this year, news of his work had got around. He appeared on a Doordarshan talk show, the popular radio channel Big FM and in local newspapers such as Greater Kashmir, Kashmir Life and Kashmir Reader. They all wanted Bhat to outline his vision for basketball in the Valley, with Greater Kashmir hailing the return of the “homeboy”. Despite the welcome media attention, difficulties persisted. “It was overwhelming for me to organise and officiate an entire league by myself for 90 players and ten teams, without any pay,” Bhat said. “So, after the inaugural league edition in 2011, I shifted to a knockout format with fewer teams.”
In April–May 2013, Bhat spent the mornings at Burn Hall School, Srinagar, coaching kids ranging from kindergarteners to tenth graders. In the evenings, he trained a select group of older players from high schools and colleges. He even held special clinics for girls on weekends, ignoring calls from people who claimed to be relatives of the girls to remove pictures of their training from the SKBA Facebook page. “These clinics had good attendance,” Bhat said. “Even two former women players turned up who wanted to reunite with the game after 20 years.” Now back in the US to replenish his income through coaching work, the 40-year-old will return to coach players in Kashmir in the summer of 2014.
Gopalakrishnan R is a lawyer by degree and an independent writer by profession, with a soft spot for stories on Indian basketball. He can be emailed at email@example.com.