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.