It was at the state-run Ludhiana Basketball Academy (LBA) that Satnam Singh Bhamara picked up the nuances of basketball. Not only did he go on to represent India; in 2010, at age 15, he became the youngest to feature in the senior team.
After a four-year training stint in America, Satnam scripted history on Friday by becoming the first India-born player to be picked in the NBA draft. Till date, LBA has produced around 40 international players and of the current 37 trainees, 30 are national medallists.
There is another aspect to this high-performance training centre. The living conditions here are pathetic.
Mess in bad shapeThe mess is in a bad shape, and most of the times the water cooler is dysfunctional, which means the trainees have to walk a distance to fetch drinking water. Most of the toilets are sans doors, and the pupils are dependent on one partly-functional toilet. Since there are no taps for bathing, arrangements have to be made to fill the tub from the water supplied to urinals.
The rooms are in a similar state with non-functional air coolers a regular sight. Some private contributions led the Punjab Basketball Association to install six air-conditioners but steep electricity bills led to their disconnection. Non-operational for a few years now, all of them need major repairs.
Two dilapidated stations and some weights are all the trainees have for a gym.
"We are here because this is the best training centre in the country and we hope one day we will be able to shine like Satnam. Had it not been for our passion for basketball, none of us would have been able to stay here for a day," a trainee, who was part of the Indian squad for last year's junior Asian Championship, told HT.In that particular meet, of the 12-member squad, five - Arshdeep Bhullar, Dildar Singh, Anmol Singh, Akashdeep Hazra and Gurinder Gill - were from LBA.
The LBA is supported by the Punjab sports department and it provides the trainees daily diet worth Rs 200, free accommodation and has appointed two coaches at the centre. But the irony is that the government provides meals only from July to March when the colleges are open.
As training is a continuous process and the mess cannot be shut even for a day, the Punjab Basketball Association (PBA) uses its resources and contacts to generate funds to run the mess for the remaining three months.
"We can't send the trainees home for three months just because the mess is closed. Stopping training will defeat our purpose of producing top-class cagers. With our resources and by using contacts we collect Rs 3-4 lakh annually to bridge the gap," said Teja Singh Dhaliwal, secretary-general of PBA.
"The residential wing of the trainees also needs repair, and we are trying to generate funds at the personal level so that some basic repair can be done," he added.
When contacted, Punjab director-sports, Tejinder Singh Dhaliwal, said, "We know the conditions at LBA are not up to the mark. We are in the process of upgrading them and very soon things will improve. It's a prestigious academy and the trainees will be provided with the best facilities, including better living conditions."
Still, nursery for India's best talent
The LBA may be in a rundown condition, but it has been at the forefront of producing top players since it was launched in 2002. Since its first-batch trainees Jagdeep Singh and Yadwinder Singh made it to the junior India squad in 2004, no team, in any age group, has left India without the academy's players. Till date, it has produced around 40 internationals and many have got jobs in the government and public sector as well as paramilitary forces.
The academy came into limelight during the 2011 Asian Championships in Wuhan, China when half the men's squad was from the academy.
"We started the academy with the aim of not only producing top-class players, but also to lift India's basketball standard. Satnam's draft in the NBA is proof that India's standard is on the rise and we hope to see more Satnams coming up in the future," said former basketball federation president RS Gill, the force behind setting up LBA. "Former India coach S Subramanian was the person behind its rise. He was the first coach-in-charge and because of him many youngsters, including Satnam, have been able to make a career," added Gill, remembering Subramanian, who died in 2013.
Though the academy's initial focus was Punjab basketball, it expanded to cater to the entire country. There are also players from Haryana, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir in the academy. Though the residential areas are in poor shape, the training facilities are good. The indoor hall has wooden flooring, and besides the coach employed there, a retired Sports Authority of India coach and a former player help out on a voluntary basis.
"We started the academy with the motto 'tall and talented'. In search of tall players, we are ready to go anywhere," said Teja Singh Dhaliwal, secretary of the state association. "Recently, we chose a boy from Jammu, he is 7'1"."
Satnam is not the first trainee from the academy to find stardom. Two of its pupils, Amjyot Singh and Amritpal Singh not only play for the national team, they also play in the professional league in Japan. India player Jagdeep Singh is also from this institution.
The decision to start the academy was taken over concerns that basketball standards in Punjab were falling. For the first year, the state association funded the training and after that an NRI from Punjab, Harjinder Singh Dhanoa, started contributing Rs 50,000 per month. His assistance continued till September 2006, when the Punjab sports department took the academy under its fold.
(Photos by Keshav Singh, HT)