In front of a small, colourfully-decorated hut, a middle-aged woman combs her 17-year-old daughter’s hair into some semblance of order. The house is shabby compared with the sturdy old buildings around it, but it’s cheerful. The reason behind the cheer at the Shaikh household is the recent visit by documentary filmmaker Shankhajeet Dey.
“Now my daughter Aafrine will appear in a film. The director was very impressed with her skills,” says mother Mumtaz. Like many of the parents in Nagpada before her, Mumtaz sees basketball, and now the documentary, as a way out of poverty.
Dey, who is making a documentary on Indian basketball, visited Nagpada, a crowded, Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in south Mumbai that has long been known as the hub of the sport in the city, in December last year. And he found his subject in Aafrine Shaikh.
“While tracing basketball’s roots, Aafrine as a subject caught my fancy,” says the 37-year-old. Aafrine was playing in a game of the Monsoon League—India’s only basketball tournament in the rains, so that hoopsters don’t sit idle in Mumbai’s misty months—when Dey noticed her. “First, it was strange to see basketball being played in heavy rain and then she was dribbling and running flawlessly around the court like a fish in water,” says Dey. “She appeared to be the leader and was constantly encouraging teammates to get on with the game every time they lost possession to opponents,” says Dey, whose documentary traces the history of Indian basketball. The Delhi-based documentary filmmaker has visited various areas of the country where the sport is played.
Not unlike America, home of the National Basketball Association (NBA), where basketball offered an escape from ghettos, Nagpada’s youth too found ready release in the neighbourhood mud-courts. Last week, US Ambassador to India Timothy J Roemer visited Nagpada, where the Mastan Basketball Professional League for Men and Women was on till Saturday, and said he would bring Mumbai’s basketball talent to President Obama’s notice.
In Nagpada, it all started with Umer Shah and the maverick Abbas Moontasir and included players like Afzal Khan, Esmero Figueiredo and Gulam Rasool Khan—ace marksmen who could shoot the two-handed hip-shot accurately from the half-line. They were followed by other players, like Abdul Hamid Khan, Shahid Qureshi and Hanif Patel, who made it big internationally.
You can find just about everything in Nagpada. There are bookstores that sell rare Urdu books, and a wholesale market for lungis. Nagpada is also perhaps the only neighbourhood in India that has two basketball courts within a kilometre of each other. One belongs to the Nagpada Neighbourhood House (NNH), run by the Nagpada Basketball Association (quirkily called NBA), and the other to Mastan YMCA, the Central Mumbai branch of YMCA, named after Sufi saint Mastan Baba whose tomb is here. Both were built over 75 years ago, though Mastan YMCA never became as popular, in the absence of a guiding coach.
The NNH was established by American missionaries in the 1930s. “Earlier, volleyball was a rage here,” says Afzal Khan, a senior coach with NNH. “Then, decades later, an American basketball fanatic became director of the NNH. He started the shift to basketball,” says the 66-year-old.
“We would play under the light filtering through the grills of the Bacchu Khan court from the nearby gas-fuelled street lights and a huge crowd would assemble to cheer us,” says 67-year-old Abdul Majid Shaikh Ali, one of the founder-members of the Central Railways basketball team—the principal employers of the players of the area. Bacchu Khan, a legendary coach of the 1950s, made basketball a priority here over volleyball, and put players through rigorous regimens to make NNH a force to reckon with.
As basketball caught the fancy of Nagpada, it soon caught the attention of Bollywood stars too. “Actors Nadira and Mehmood would visit the court during matches. Kadar Khan, too, was fond of our brand of basketball,” recalls Ali. Local rivalry with Mastan—they say it’s even stronger than Indo-Pak rivalry, with Dimtimkar Road as the unmarked dividing line—also led to witty Urdu banter on both sides.
“Actor Tom Alter used to visit us, and even now, whenever he comes here, he plays for some time,” says Ali. “Cricketer Vijay Merchant supported the game here a lot. Those days, we would charge gate money by selling tickets. Merchant would buy hundreds of tickets and send mill workers to watch the game.”
The Bacchu Khan court is hardly 400 metres away from Yakub Lane, where Dawood Ibrahim, the underworld don, grew up. “While he was emerging as a local goon, he would sometimes follow the NNH team to Matunga’s Indian Gymkhana to cheer the team,” recalls an old-timer. But he hastily adds that this does not mean the sport had the patronage of criminals.
NNH’s big moment came in the mid-1990s, when it caught the fancy of top cop Rakesh Maria, the former Mumbai Joint Police Commissioner (Crime) who now heads the anti-terror squad (ATS). Maria has played matches here in the past and has helped many a local talent find a job with the police force on sports quota for his Mumbai Police team. Thirty-two-year-old Anwar Memon, now a constable with the Mumbai Crime Branch, is one of them. The shooter was a street vendor, selling tomatoes to help his father manage a household of 10 siblings. “When the sunlight faded late in the evening, I would wind up my street shop and go to the Bacchu Khan court. There, one day he (Maria) noticed me playing and asked me to apply for a job under sports quota,” says Memon, who played for the police team for a decade, till last year.
But while the NNH has produced players of international repute, Mastan YMCA has struggled over the years. “They never had discipline,” says a former player on condition of anonymity. So when the girls decided to take to the courts three years ago, they found NNH’s Bacchu Khan court more favourable. “Here nobody passes comments when we are playing and we feel more secure,” says a woman player.
IT WAS when they saw how basketball landed boys jobs and helped change their fortune that the girls of Nagpada decided to join in. Aafrine Shaikh is one of the girls who decided to take the plunge against the wishes of many Nagpada residents. Till five years ago, it was unthinkable for a girl to be seen playing on the Bacchu Khan basketball court, even if they wore trousers.
“Steeped in deprivation, the area had long ago realised the importance of playing basketball when their youth got government jobs on sports quota after excelling on the field,” says Abbas Moontasir, legendary Indian hoopster, former India captain and the only Arjuna awardee from the area. “Now some parents have pinned hopes on their girls to help them out of their poverty,” says the 68-year-old who took over his family business after retirement from the game.
Some residents still don’t approve, but objection is slowly drowning in the roar of applause that rises from the Bacchu Khan court every evening when the girls take to the court. The girls, determined to establish themselves in the sport, ask their coaches to treat them as they would treat boys. “They tell me I can scold them when they make mistakes, like when I coach boys,” says NNH coach Abdul Rashid Shaikh. “They want the same drills as the boys’ to be followed.”
But the road ahead is long. “They started playing just a few years ago. Success will come only if a bunch of women players stays together long enough to form a team and play well,” says Moontasir. “It can inspire parents to send their daughters to play and ensure that they stay with the sport for a long time.”
Aafrine’s father is one of the parents who is happy with his daughter’s choice. A taxi driver who was once a basketball fan, his poverty crushed his love for the game but he managed to inculcate the same passion in his two daughters, Rehana and Aafrine. Rehana gave up the sport to pursue academics and Aafrine’s younger siblings Sumaiya and Aamir Hamza have little interest in basketball. Aafrine, though, chose the dribble and the daily jaunt to the floodlit court.
“Aafrine will give us a good life,” says Mumtaz. Their hopes are not misplaced. Just a year ago, their daughter became the only girl to earn admission to class XI on sports quota in the commerce stream of Burhani College. Thanks to the efforts of Abdul Hamid, one of the finest hoopsters the country has produced and coach of the national women’s team. “Aafrine is a talented girl. I have seen her in a few state-level matches she played for the NNH. I wanted her to continue playing in college too and Burhani does have a girls’ team,” says the man famously known as ‘Babu Sir’.
Aafrine, however, couldn’t continue for long—soon, the girls’ team in her college was disbanded. “The other players in the team want to concentrate on their studies,” says Aafrine, who juggles college, housework and basketball.
The angry young man of Indian basketball
One of India’s best ball handlers of his day, Abbas Moontasir is fighting fit at 68, with healthy skin and twinkling eyes. The face of Nagpada basketball and an Arjuna awardee, the five-ft-11-inch, 94 kg former player says he learned from rivals as much as he did from teammates. Son of a carpet merchant, Moontasir detested losing. “Every mistake I made haunted me later in the evening. I would keep going over what had gone wrong,” says Moontasir, who played in 25 national championships in his career—20 as captain of Bombay, Maharashtra or the Railways.
Beginning his international career in 1960 against a visiting Australian side returning home from the Rome Olympics, Moontasir represented India in six international series and events during his two-decade-long career.
Moontasir didn’t shirk from taking on the authorities, something that never allowed him to become the coach of the national team. In one incident, Moontasir was dropped after performing exceptionally at the pre-Asian championship in Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan in early 1975, which was a trial run for the Asian Basketball Championship (ABC) to be held in Bangkok. In the six-team pre-Asian event, the Railways team won, riding on an excellent performance by Moontasir, but when the team for the Asian Championship was announced, his name was missing. The then Basketball Federation of India president R Vaikuntham, upset at this omission, made him captain in the ABC. Moontasir played brilliantly as India finished fourth, the best ever performance by an Indian team. Yet, just six months later, when the Indian team was to go to Pakistan for an invitation event, Moontasir was dropped again.
The angry young man, whose feints and bullet-passes got thousands thronging basketball courts, quit the scene when he was dropped again two years later from the ABC team in 1977. A good physique landed him roles in two Bollywood films. He fought Amitabh Bachchan in a boxing ring in Naseeb in 1980 and in Desh Premi he played a villain who smuggled girls to Dubai. Moontasir also wrote a book, Principles of Basketball, in 1979.
Moontasir says players tend to remember the bad days more than the whizzing blur of the happy moments. “In 1978, I was playing for Western Railways at an All-India basketball tournament in Bangalore, where, in one of the matches, I performed very badly. I just couldn’t hold on to the ball. I will never forget the misery of that day,” he says.
International players from Nagpada
Umer Shah: Famed for his two-handed shooting, Shah represented India at a quadrangular event in Lahore in 1960. He died in 2001.
Afzal Khan: Now 66, Khan was part of the Indian team which was to take part in a quadrangular event in 1962 in Tehran but the team couldn’t go due to lack of funds. Khan finally played for India in the 1965 Asian Basketball Championship in Kuala Lumpur. A double-handed shooter, he was a favourite of India’s then coach Lourojee Mummar.
Gulam Rasool Khan:
He represented India at the Asian Basketball Championship in Bangkok in 1970. Honoured with the Shiv Chattrapati Award in 1971, he was a shooter and a good defensive player.
Abdul Hamid: Hamid was coach of the Indian women’s team till sometime ago. Known for both his offensive and defensive play, Hamid, now 52, he played at the 1977 Youth Asian Basketball Championship in Kuwait and later on went to play for India in six different international series.
Riyaz Ahmed Qadri: Qadri played for India at the 1975 Asian Basketball Championship in Bangkok. Now 59, he was known as the ‘master under the basket’ as he was famous for rebound attacks.
Hanif Patel: He represented the country at the Youth Asian Basketball Championship in Kuwait in 1977 and later played for the senior team at the Hong Kong Asian Basketball Championship in 1983. An offensive player, Patel, now 52, coaches the Central Railways team.
The late shooter represented the country at the Youth Asian Basketball Championship in Seoul in 1970.
Esero Figueiredo: A good double-handed shooter, he played for India at the 1965 Kuala Lumpur Asian Basketball Championship. Figueiredo, now 64, was known for his jump shots.
Thomas Fernandes: A good attacker, he played for India at the Youth Asian Basketball Championship in Seoul in 1970.
Mohd. Riyaz: Known for cutting and dodging opponents, he played for India at the Youth Basketball Championship in Kuwait in 1977.
Saeed Bijapuri: He was part of the Indian team that played at the Youth Asian Basketball Championship in Bangkok in 1981.
Shahid Qureshi: He played for India at the 1987 Youth Asian Basketball Championship in Qatar in the under-16 event. Later, Qureshi played for the senior team in the Beijing Asian Championship in 1989 where he was the youngest player in the tournament. He was also the first-ever professional player from India who played in the Sweden and Singapore Leagues.