I was in the check-in line at the New Delhi airport one afternoon when I heard some commotion from the far end. From the distance, I couldn’t identify the cause of the hysteria that followed: men and women screaming in jubilation, forgetting their usual travel routine to chase down a celebrity.
It didn’t take long for the message to reach the lady behind my check-in counter: Virat Kohli, the Indian cricket captain and nationwide heartthrob, had graced the airport with his presence. He took a different flight to a different destination, and I never got to see him in person. But the hysteria, the undeniable electricity in the air, made the moment memorable.
After a temporary pause for bedlam, normal schedule ensued.
The basketball star who no one recognised
Winters in Delhi are always colder than one expects them to be, and it’s at midnight on a chilly November evening when I end up sharing travel plans with another Indian sports captain. It’s platform 16 by Ajmeri Gate at New Delhi Railway Station, open to all elements of the environment and the populace, where I ran into the most-accomplished basketball star in the country: Vishesh Bhriguvanshi. The shooting-guard was taking the same overnight five-and-a-half-hour journey on the Nanda Devi Express with me to Dehradun; by sheer coincidence, we had even bought tickets for the same AC three-tier compartment.
Bhriguvanshi and I also share a hometown – Varanasi – and I’ve known him from his early days of becoming an Under-18 Most Valuable Player of the international Basketball Without Borders camp in New Delhi in 2008 till he became team India’s captain and most-steady presence at the international stage. Bhriguvanshi was by himself, unbothered and undisturbed in a quiet corner waiting for the train to pull up. I was the only one to recognise him: my reaction to this chance meeting was with hugs and selfies, tweets and Instagram posts.
I spoke loudly as we chatted in the train that night, hoping that fellow travellers would understand and appreciate the unknown celebrity among them. But of course, no one was interested; outside the niche basketball obsessives in India, Bhriguvanshi is largely an unknown figure. He was dressed in a simple green shirt, carried an old sports backpack, and wore his trademark full-beard over his face, and nothing expect for his slightly taller height – six-foot-four – made him stand out. That height which had been Bhriguvanshi’s gift on the basketball court for nearly a decade was unfortunately a curse on the train: his foremost concern that night was hoping for a berth where his legs would fit without having to buckle in his knees all night.
Bhriguvanshi smiled at my attempts to get him attention. Even for a leading basketball star like him, anonymity in India isn’t an exception, it’s the norm.
Lots of plans but no hype
Basketball has big plans for India. The Basketball Federation of India calls it the fastest-growing sport in the country. Earlier this year, the Managing Director of NBA India Yannick Colaco told me that the American league is investing big on basketball in India and has aims for it to become the “clear number two sport” in the country. Those invested in basketball are hoping that India follows China’s blueprint, where the success of superstar names like Yao Ming and a domestic league have made the country the world’s largest market for the sport.
And yet, despite these efforts, the average Indian has little knowledge of the achievements of India’s national teams or recognise star names like Bhriguvanshi, Amjyot Singh Gill, Amritpal Singh, and more. The most popular Indian basketballer in recent years has been Satnam Singh, a seven-foot giant from Punjab who was recruited to play high school basketball in the USA and became the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA in 2015. Since then, the 21-year-old has played in the NBA’s Development League and became the subject of the Netflix documentary One in a Billion.
But Satnam, taking time to focus on his career overseas, hasn’t been part of India’s national team since 2013. He hasn’t been responsible for the team’s rapid rise at the Asian level over the past few years: India, ranked outside the top 50 in the FIBA World Basketball Rankings, have defeated Asia’s top team China twice in international competitions, won the Lusofonia Games gold at home in Goa, and secured their best international performance in twenty-seven years with a seventh-place finish at the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge in Iran.
It helps to be tall and athletic in basketball, and a lot of credit for India’s success can be attributed to the never-ending supply of big talented players scouted from Punjab in recent years. Satnam Singh got drafted to the NBA. Palpreet Singh Brar was drafted to the D-League. Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh became two of the continent’s most respected bigs and found success in professional leagues in Japan.
And then there’s Bhriguvanshi, the smaller (in relative basketball sense) player from Uttar Pradesh who used technical skills and leadership to overachieve in the land of giants and by 25, become one the country’s most-important players.
A difficult pathway to to the top for Bhriguvanshi
Bhriguvanshi was born in Varanasi in 1991, the son of educationalists: his father was a biology teacher at the Udai Pratap College and his mother a school principal. Vishesh, however, found a different calling: by the time he became a teenager, the Sports Authority of India brought in coach Amarjeet Singh to head the basketball programme at the UP College. Under Singh’s tutelage, the UP College turned into an unlikely nursery for Indian basketball, producing the talented Singh Sisters (Divya, Prashanti, Akanksha, and Prashanti), all who played for India, and other international players like Trideep Rai and Arjun Singh.
Bhriguvanshi became emblematic of Varanasi’s golden era, finding domestic and international success as a teenager, earning national captaincy by the time he was 19, and soon becoming a stalwart for the national team.
Success wasn’t an easy road coming from a conservative city like Varanasi, as another Varanasi-born India captain Trideep Rai told me in an interview recently. “The biggest challenge playing in Varanasi in 90s was not having enough role models, not only for ourselves but also for our parents,” Rai said. “And being a boy in that region you have to be careful for career choice as one is not only answerable to parents but also to whole society.”
Bhriguvanshi confirms battling through family expectations. “First there was pressure from my family, they wanted me to study more and focus on my academics. But I had to take a risk. You need to take a risk in life. For me, it was a mixture of hard-work and luck.”
Bhriguvanshi basketball’s skills earned him a job with Western Railways, where, like most other national athletes in India, he had to play two roles. On court he was a shooting guard, capable of creating for himself and others. Off the court, he was a railway ticket checker, posted in Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh where he led this double life, working four hours a day checking tickets at the Ratlam Junction.
“It was fun back then,” Bhriguvanshi said. “I was only 18 or 19 years old and had a lot of energy.”
Bhriguvanshi helped India won a 3x3 basketball gold medal at the 2008 Asian Beach Games and has played in every major FIBA Asia Championship for India since. He won three consecutive national champions domestically with Indian Railways. In 2011, he was hired by Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and shifted to Dehradun, where he began to represent them and the Uttarakhand team. With Uttarakhand, Bhriguvanshi won three more nationals. Now in the prime of his career, he has found respect and admirers across the continent for his domestic and international performances.
Bhriguvanshi is a do-everything kind of player, able to play any perimeter position on the court with ease, excel as a ball-handler, a shooter, and in his explosive drives to the basket. His combination of intelligence, skills, and experience has him standing heads and shoulders above his competition; Bhriguvanshi is usually the best player in any domestic event he takes part in.
“My sense of the game has improved a lot,” Bhriguvanshi said of his on-court evolution. “I have learnt how to beat the opponent mentally. I play with a mentality where losing is out of the question.”
Juggling a complicated calendar
A male basketball superstar in the United States has a streamlined schedule. Six months of regular season NBA basketball, followed by, if they are lucky, two months of the playoffs. During the summer, the cream of the crop occasionally get to represent their country at major international competitions. Otherwise, they rest, recuperate, and prepare for the next season.
But in India, where there is no full-time professional league, most of the top players are semi-professionals whose annual calendars are complicated jigsaw pieces, brought together with an ambition to maximise basketball opportunities as much as possible. For Bhriguvanshi, life is spent on the road: in September, he led India to a historically-successful performance at the FIBA Asia Challenge in Iran.
Later that month, he headed to Maldives to play in a short professional league and win the title for the “T-Rex” team. In October, he was in an ONGC jersey playing at the FIBA Asia Champions Cup in China. In December, he carried India to a best-ever third-place finish at Hong Kong’s Super Kung Sheung Cup and was named the tournament’s best shooter. In January, he helped Uttarakhand win the Senior Nationals gold in Puducherry.
In February and March, he played his first season at the UBA Basketball League for the Bengaluru Beasts in Chennai and Goa, where he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player and led his team to the final. Back with ONGC, he helped them win a fifth-consecutive gold medal at the Federation Cup as MVP in Coimbatore. Next, he is heading to Mizoram for a two-week “Super League”. He will go to Australia for the National Basketball League tryouts in the summer. When he gets back to India, he will join India’s national camp – most-likely at NIS Patiala – for the FIBA Asia Cup in August in Lebanon. And so on and so forth.
Unlike the Railways, ONGC doesn’t require its sports recruits to actually contribute to office work until they retire. Bhriguvanshi is officially an HR Executive with them in Dehradun but only needs to show up to office for “important work”. The focus, thankfully for him, remains completely on basketball, where ONGC has some of the best facilities and coaching available in the country.
But even with this complete dedication to the game, basketball fame is a rare thing. His greatest fan following is on Facebook, where he recently got his page verified. His recent stint with the UBA – which is broadcast live on Ten Sports – gave his fans nationwide a chance to watch his dominance instead of simply hear of its legend.
“Vishesh is a big star in the umbrella of Indian basketball, but ‘big’ is relative,” said Jamie Alter, sports editor at The Times of India. “He is not recognised on the street, in malls or at airports. How many people know him within the basketball following that India has? A sportsperson like Vishesh, for all his success on the court, is going to be recognised only when he’s visible far more than he is today. With the advent of the UBA there is at least the chance for a different audience to tune in.”
“To drive more attention to the likes of Vishesh, there needs to be an improvement in the standard of Indian basketball, more FIBA events in the country, and more games need to be televised,” Alter added. “But since it’s not a lucrative sport, advertisers won’t flock and hence channels won’t be interested. People are going to be attracted to someone and something they see a lot of.”
‘My motivation is to play well for India’
Bhriguvanshi was at the airport in Mumbai a few weeks ago, transiting in his many travels after playing in the UBA Basketball League Finals in Goa en route to the Federation Cup in Coimbatore. He sat alone as usual, unrecognised and undisturbed, until an elderly gentleman approached him in the airlines lounge.
“He told me that he had seen me play on Ten Sports for the UBA and wanted to compliment my game,” Bhriguvanshi recalls. “This never used to happen before, but now, there are many more moments of recognition when I travel. I was surprised: he didn’t look like someone who followed Indian basketball!”
Athletes like Bhriguvanshi who choose non-cricket sports as a career have become familiar with public anonymity. In sports that don’t bring the visibility and lucrative opportunities, there is little that these athletes can control beyond their own motivations. And Bhriguvanshi’s direction, as always, points towards the national jersey.
“My motivation is to play well for India,” he says. “As long as I’m playing, I want to bring a good standing for the country.”