Thursday, December 5, 2013

For the Love of the Game

By Paul Thompson

Shahid Bhat was moonlighting as a physical therapy student at the University of Kansas when the idea that would change his life first dribbled into his consciousness. While studying at a campus library, Bhat used the database to look up the word ‘Kashmir.’ Although he was born and raised in Martin City, Bhat’s parents hail from Kashmir, a war-torn region of India that serves as a northern buffer for bitter rivals India and Pakistan.

Throughout his early childhood, Bhat and his family maintained close ties to their homeland. His parents maintained a residence in Kashmir, and traveled back every summer. His memories of those
years remain fond, but the region his family once called home became an inhospitable war zone in the late 1980s as tensions in the region escalated.

By the time Bhat entered the name of his homeland into the library database in 2006, he was 33 years old and hadn’t been to Kashmir since 1991. What Bhat found in his search was a book entitled Kashmir, Sunlight and Shade, by British missionary and educationalist Cecil Tyndale-Biscoe. Tyndale-Biscoe had set up a school in Kashmir in the 1890s, and had been partially responsible for introducing European sports like cricket, boxing, and soccer to the region.
 Bhat was immediately drawn to Tyndale-Biscoe, who he loosely compares to basketball inventor James Naismith, the University of Kansas legend from the same era. Eventually, Bhat wondered why he couldn’t do something similar in his homeland.

“I thought, ‘What if I can do for basketball what this guy did for other sports?’” said Bhat. “That was the genesis of it. What if I could bring basketball to Kashmir the way this guy brought soccer?”

Shahid’s epiphany didn’t come from nowhere; he had been a diehard basketball player for years. In fact, Bhat had fallen in love with the game instantaneously, gravitating to it as if compelled by magnetic force. Why shouldn’t the people of Kashmir experience that same joy?

Bhat was in seventh grade when a neighbor put up a basketball goal in their Martin City driveway, inadvertently setting off a lifetime passion in the unassuming 12-year-old. Although Shahid remembers having success in his P.E. classes growing up in the Grandview School District, he wasn’t blessed with impressive athletic ability. In India, academics are paramount, and there is little tradition in athletics. Despite boasting the world’s second-largest population, India finished the 2012 Olympics ranked in 55th place and failed to take home a single gold medal.

Bhat, though, took to basketball immediately. On the court, he found his identity. What he lacked in natural ability, he compensated for with an insatiable willpower. He remembers going to his neighbor’s house every day to practice, determined to improve. When the older kids in the neighborhood tried out for the team during that first year, Shahid volunteered to be the team manager, soaking up knowledge like a sponge. The next year he tried out for the team and made the roster, albeit barely. His basketball career had begun, but it was far from taking off.

“In 8th grade, I don’t remember ever scoring a point,” says Bhat, who at the time was barely over five feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds. “I was on the bench, and I was just happy to be there. I was too small and scared to shoot.”

John Kalliris, a neighborhood friend of Bhat’s who was ahead of him in school, remembers Shahid as a hard worker and a fierce competitor who left everything on the court.
“I remember he certainly had a lot of heart,” said Kalliris of Bhat. “He looked up to some of the older players on the team, and he had heart.”

While his dedication was never in question, Bhat was soon able to grow both physically and as a basketball player. He went to basketball camps during the summer, obsessing over the fundamentals of his game. Once school started, he would stay up late drawing up plays for his team.

“I was even scared to put my name on it, but I knew I wanted to be a coach,” says Bhat. “I was slipping plays underneath (the coach’s) door before my first class.”

Bhat started on the JV team as a sophomore, and looked poised to play on varsity during his junior year. However, his father, ever focused on academics, decided to send his son to Barstow High School to finish out his high school career. As a transfer, the devastated Bhat was forced to sit out his junior season. He started at point guard as a senior, averaging about 12 points and five assists per game, but Shahid never got the college scholarship offers he felt he deserved. He tried to walk on at Central Missouri State, but never gained traction. While he continued to get better and better, Shahid Bhat had seen his organized playing career come and go. He felt snubbed by the system.

“I knew I could perform well, but in my mind I was thinking, ‘Man, nobody wants a little Indian kid,’” said Bhat. “I had a chip on my shoulder. I was highly motivated to prove to people what I was capable of doing.”

As his basketball career was winding down, the situation in Kashmir had reached a boil. By the late 1980s, skirmishes between Pakistan and India had broken out in his native land.

“I would hear (my family) talking a little bit, and expressing concerns about what was going on there,” said Bhat. “So I would kind of pick up on it. But at the same time, I just didn’t care. I was more interested in my basketball practices. I had lost touch.”

Bhat’s family went back to visit Kashmir in 1991, but their trip was cut short due to the violence. It would end up being Bhat’s last visit for almost 18 years.

“We’re supposed to go for one month,” he said. “Instead, when we get there, the streets are packed with army and there’s not a single tourist in sight. At night you can’t go out; it’s a shoot-on-sight curfew.”

Bhat’s family left Kashmir early, and he didn’t think much about Kashmir for years afterwards. He  college, coached and scouted basketball at Barstow, and went through what he described as an artistic “bohemian” period. Over the years, his family would occasionally go back to Kashmir, but Bhat had declined to accompany them; his interest in the region had not yet been piqued. But then came that curiosity, the library search of 2006, and with it the tantalizing notion of continuing his basketball legacy.

In 2009, Bhat once again got an opportunity to go to Kashmir, for a relative’s wedding. This time, he quickly agreed to go, intent on checking out the basketball scene. Although Bhat had carved out a niche as a sort of rec league all-star, he was never satisfied with the conclusion of his playing career. In Kashmir, Bhat saw an opportunity to teach others while also controlling the last act of his own career. In May of 2009, Bhat flew to Kashmir with his parents.

“I was totally flying blind. Google only returns so much,” he says. “I didn’t know if there was even a court in Kashmir. But I knew once I went there, I was going to make an effort to try and get involved.”

At the wedding, Shahid saw a teenager wearing basketball shoes, and approached him to see where games were played. The teen told Bhat that he attended Delhi Public School (DPS), and that there was a basketball court on the grounds. Bhat quickly got permission to run a basketball practice at the school, and stopped by in the days before he departed for America. He found immediate interest from the students at DPS, who were actually fans of the NBA. But when he gathered a handful of the students to run a practice session, he realized that the “players” had little to no formal training.

“Even a lay-up line became a complication," says Bhat. “This is when I start to get and education in basketball in India and Kashmir.”

After coaching about 10 players during his first practice, Bhat saw more than 25 students join his training session when he returned for day two. The following day, he began coaching a group of girls as well, splitting the court in half in order to give both genders equal time. Despite the low talent level, he was shocked at the response that an American with a basketball had received on the other side of the world. Before he left, Bhat handed out his email address to some of the more committed players and made tentative plans to return to Kashmir the following year.

Having seen the state of Kashmiri basketball first-hand, Bhat realized that he was probably the best player in Kashmir. A thought occurred to him: could there be an opportunity, while bringing the sport he loved to his homeland, to continue his own basketball career on the other side of the world?

“I’ll be the James Naismith, the Bill Self, and the Andrew Wiggins,” says Bhat of his perspective at the time. “I’ll be the best player, the coach, and the person who organizes everything. I still wanted to play basketball. I wanted to see if I could play with the best players in India.”

When he got back to the U.S., Bhat began doing research on professional basketball in India. Though there was no professional league, he noticed that there was a tournament called the Senior National Tournament, which pitted the states of India against each other in a yearly bracket. Bhat found that Kashmir’s state, called Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), was one of the weakest teams in the field.

“India is towards the bottom in Asia. Asia is towards the bottom in the world,” explained Bhat. “Within India, Jammu and Kashmir is the worst.”

 Immediately, the wheels started turning in Bhat’s head. He had already planned on going back to run basketball camps, but what if he could lead his home state to a victory in the country’s biggest basketball tournament? Bhat couldn’t think of a better way to end his playing career.

“I thought they would love to have me. Why wouldn’t they?” asked Bhat. “It’s like LeBron James showing up on your doorstep.”

When he went back to Kashmir in 2010, he hoped to meet with the J&K basketball team to offer his services to the roster. But upon his arrival, he instead got caught up organizing a tournament for the students at D.P.S. During the tournament he refereed every game, and ran practice sessions between contests. Surprised at the number of entrants and enthusiasm, he went on to form a rec basketball league.

“My mission was to put a good face on Kashmir, which had been troubled for many years,” said Bhat. “I was motivated to see this through. I was sacrificing everything I wanted to do in the U.S. in order to save the money for Kashmir.”

It was then, though, that Bhat encountered his first problems in Kashmir. Jealousy at his efforts mounted among the staff members at the Delhi Public School, and Bhat was required to stop running his league at the school court. He found a new venue, but also ran into trouble there while coaching girls. As he worked on drills, a group of men sauntered out to the court to take pictures of the players
in attendance. Sensing the girls’ collective discomfort, Bhat asked the men to leave. The simple request turned into an argument. Bhat was ultimately asked to discontinue his league once again, and felt that the issue had become political.

“Since the principal himself was a non-Kashmiri Indian, he sided with the (men),” said Bhat. “Jammu is a pro-Indian city, they had always discriminated against Kashmiri people, and held them down. I didn’t know that until I got there and saw it myself.”

The divide between Jammu and Kashmir was fully apparent when Bhat reached out to the official J&K basketball team, called the J&K Police. Essentially, the team consisted of a group of aged police officers from Jammu. Bhat contacted team representatives, asked to train with the team, and offered his services on behalf of his country. But the J&K Police team did not welcome Bhat with the open arms he was expecting. In fact, when Bhat practiced against the team, they took offense to the way he dominated the sessions.

“I was hearing things like, ‘Why are you even here? Maybe you couldn’t beat anyone in America,’” said Bhat.

It soon became clear that the team had no intention of adding Bhat to the roster. Instead of embracing him, they perceived him as a threat.

“I would have been the first player from Kashmir to ever play for the J&K state team. Jammu had always represented J&K basketball. Jammu had neglected Kashmir,” said Bhat. “That was the end of my association with J&K Police. None of these guys are Kashmiris, and I could see already that they didn’t want me on the team.”

Bhat’s dream of playing for his home state was quashed, but he remained committed to growing the sport of basketball in Kashmir. He set up the Srinagar Kashmir Basketball Association (SKBA) to keep running camps, hoping to attract the best players in India. But as Bhat’s visits to India and Kashmir grew more frequent, resistance to his efforts increased. His training sessions were more frequently disrupted. Imitation leagues emerged with the intention of taking attention away from Bhat’s activities. Supposed friends began taking Bhat for granted, or worse, angling for favors or payouts.

“Guys started to create their own Facebook pages to try to squeeze me out. They didn’t even play basketball,” Bhat said. “It was an education I got in my homeland. The young people are trapped, and they only know a cycle of jealousy, revenge, and agitation.”

By the summer of 2013, Bhat had made inroads at Kashmir University, where he was allowed to hold practices and tournaments. He had even lobbied for the school to build a new, cutting edge public basketball court. He quickly learned though, that a project such as that would take more than just a passion for the sport.

“After four or five meetings, I could see that it wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. “I could see that if I greased some palms, it would move along. But I wasn’t in a position to do that.”

The troubles came to a head in 2013 when Bhat was holding a tournament at the university. When he decided to play in a two-on-two tournament he'd put together, Bhat received disparaging comments on his SKBA Facebook page for the first time. Some local Kashmiri’s felt that they were being shown up by an American imposter. During one particularly scary conflict, a group of ruffians rode a motorcycle onto the court where Bhat was holding a practice. The men confiscated his basketball, holding up the training as they refused to return it. Exasperated and hoping to avoid a serious incident, Bhat walked to a nearby market to cool off and get some juice. When he returned, he’d found that the men had ripped down the rim he was playing on, effectively ending his practice. Bhat was furious.

“I never went back to that Kashmir University court after that,” he said.

Bhat once again was forced to finish up his practices at a different school, which he rode a bike 40 minutes each day to get to. Away from the controversy, Bhat once again found solace in coaching.

“I really enjoyed working with those kids,” he says. “When I saw the looks on those kids’ faces, that’s all I ever wanted.”

But by this time, Bhat had nearly reached his wit’s end with the distractions surrounding his efforts in Kashmir. When he last left his homeland in the summer of 2013, he didn’t know if he would ever return. The man with an immeasurable passion for the sport of basketball had grown tired of a culture that wouldn’t reciprocate that passion. This fall, mere months after a frustrated Bhat had most recently left his homeland, a brand new, state-of-the-art indoor basketball court was built in Kashmir.
For Bhat, the construction provided a sense of validation. The new public court represents an olive branch; an example of progress in a place bereft of it. Someday, probably soon, Shahid will be back in Kashmir, and he’ll get a chance to play on the court he’s long fought for.

“I wanted to raise the standard of basketball in Kashmir and in India,” says Bhat. “I think my efforts in Kashmir had a lot to do with that court getting built.”

With the new court in tow, the door that Bhat has struggled for years to break open has finally creaked ajar. Any person in Kashmir now has the opportunity to fall in love with the game Bhat has dedicated his life to. For another person, that alone might be enough. But Shahid Bhat is not satisfied; perhaps he’ll never be. His focus has shifted once again, locked in on another goal, another dream. Buoyed by the news of the world-class court, Bhat is re-energized. But he’s now shifted his focus again, turning to another sport that hasn’t gained traction in Kashmir.

“My whole focus has shifted to introducing American football to Kashmir, and possibly even learning from my mistakes in the past,” says Bhat, eyes flickering with enthusiasm. “I have no idea where that’s going to lead me, but I’m excited.”

No comments:

Post a Comment