Shooting High

The national aspirations of a decorated girls’ basketball team

EMRS players form the majority of the Sikkim state team. Bijoy Gurung
01 September, 2014

AT SUNRISE ON A COLD FEBRUARY MORNING,18-year-old Nim Doma swept stones and leaves off a basketball court perched high on a hillside in western Sikkim. Around her, 11 other teenaged girls, all dressed in jerseys and shorts, did the same. They worked briskly for a few minutes, then put the brooms aside. Next they picked up basketballs, and started running drills. Morning practice had begun.

Doma is the star of the “Girls of Gangyap”—the basketball team of the Eklavya Model Residential School in the small village of Gangyap, about a six-hour drive west of the Sikkimese capital, Gangtok. The EMRS squad is one of the most explosive school teams in the nation. Since 2011, it has reached three consecutive finals and won two golds in the under-19 category at the CBSE National Championship, a basketball tournament for all the 15,468 public and private schools affiliated with the Indian government’s Central Board of Secondary Education. In all three years, Doma, who plays as a shooting guard, was named the tournament’s most valuable player. The girls are so dominant in Sikkim that they have formed almost the entirety of the state womens’ team in recent years. Yet despite such success, bureaucratic hurdles mean that the Girls of Gangyap are not eligible for selection to national teams for their age groups.

Less than a decade ago, few in Gangyap even knew what a basketball was. The village is home to slightly less than a thousand people, most of whom are poor farmers from scheduled tribes such as the Bhutia, Lepcha, Limbu, Tamang and Sherpa. Basketball arrived here with Sidharth Yonzone, a self-described “die-hard” fan of the US-based National Basketball Association league who grew up partly in western Sikkim. In 2007, when EMRS was founded as a free residential school funded by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Yonzone was appointed its principal. To share his love of the sport, he started to train interested students. While the boys were more drawn to football, the girls took to basketball with great passion. Soon, Yonzone became the head coach of the girls’ basketball team. “I had to teach them basketball from scratch,” he said over the phone in March. “I must give many of them credit for learning so quickly … I guess they fell in love with it. Now, all of them are also in love with the NBA, and the WNBA”—the women’s equivalent of the NBA.

The EMRS team has made a habit of overcoming disadvantages. “We never had a basketball court other than a tiny, makeshift mud-and-stone court for six-and-a-half years,” Yonzone said. “A new court was built just last year, and the girls helped out the construction crew to build it, carrying stones, sand, cement and more.” The girls have also learned to cope with relatively taller opponents from other states. Their strength, Yonzone said, lies in speed, and in creating rapid counter-attacks. “I ask the girls to make a run whenever they can, in order to take a commanding lead as early as we can,” he said.

The team’s rapid success has caught many off guard, including Sikkim’s basketball administrators. The sport’s official authority in the state, the Sikkim Basketball Association, is not recognized by the sport’s national governing body, the Basketball Federation of India. As a result, Sikkim does not compete at BFI-sanctioned state tournaments, at which players are evaluated for national selection. Jigme Wazalinpa, a former member of the SBA’s executive committee, told me in July that when the organisation was started in 1992, its members never thought “that a time would come that our players could compete on the national level.” The SBA, he said, has been slow to promote basketball in Sikkim, and has neglected opportunities beyond the state’s borders. After a schism in 2013, a group of former SBA members formed the rival Basketball Association of Sikkim, with plans to apply for recognition from the BFI.

Back in March, I spoke to Roopam Sharma, the CEO of the BFI, about Sikkim’s status. Sharma said the organisation would welcome any application for recognition from a representative body from Sikkim. Sharma has made public promises to bring BFI-sanctioned school and college basketball leagues—part of the organisation’s collaboration with IMG Reliance, a joint venture between Reliance Industries Limited and a US-based sports marketing firm—to Sikkim and other northeast states. That would help athletes from EMRS and other schools in the region to show the nation’s top scouts what they can do.

Doma told me the present obstacles would not faze her. “I want to keep playing the game in college and beyond,” she said. “My goal is to represent my country in basketball one day.”