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Indian Americans have made inroads into many spheres of American life but success in mainstream sports has been limited. Traditionally, sports careers have rarely been on the possibilities list for desi students. After Jeremy Lin’s success, however, attitudes may be changing among parents and children. Education often supersedes sports activities in terms of priorities, but parents are beginning to realize that it is a delicate balance of opportunity, sacrifice, talent and compromise.
As Lin-sanity sweeps the nation, the phenomenon of the Harvard-educated Knicks player has caught the eye of many an ambitious Indian American parent. Suddenly your child’s interest in playing tennis, soccer, or basketball is not just a transportation inconvenience and distraction from homework. It could be a ticket to the Ivy League and bona fide sports superstardom!
As a community, Indian Americans don’t have a cultural history of affinity with sports. The poor state of sports in India (with the exception of cricket) has given all of us heartburn at one time or another, especially as China, with similar population and developmental issues, has been so successful at producing world class athletes. In his article “Huff, Puff, Fall” for Tehelka magazine, journalist Suresh Menon rues that “Our poor standing in Olympic sports has little to do with genetics or nutrition or body structure or muscle fibre. We are not a sporting nation in the way Australia or South Africa or Canada is. [We] are part of a system that rewards mediocrity. The system is geared towards producing gracious losers, not aggressive winners.”
The lack of sports infrastructure and support in India, and cricket’s monopoly on national attention and advertising revenue has meant that Indian immigrants to the United States arrive with little or no familiarity with American sports like football or basketball. That unfamiliarity, coupled with the drive towards economic success that brought many of us here, has not boded well for our participation in mainstream athletics.
Still, Indian Americans in sports merit a Wikipedia entry, with representation in a fairly diverse list of activities. Are these men and women the exceptions that prove the rule that desis couldn’t care less about sports? Or are they trailblazers for future generation of Indian Americans who grow up surrounded by the hype, excitement, and opportunities to excel in non-traditional careers?
Going It Solo
Menon adds, “India’s best efforts have come in individual sports. No tennis federation or badminton association or chess federation can take the credit for the successes of men like the Krishnans, the Amritrajs, the Leanders, the Padukones, and the Anands. They emerged from the strong, unbiased, focused organization that has not been given enough credit—the family.” His argument about the success of individual athletes and family-based sports dynasties seems to be borne out in the United States as well.
Shikha and Neha Uberoi are sisters who benefited from that kind of unconventional parenting. Shikha has been ranked as high as 122nd in the world in tennis singles and was the first Indian to reach the second round of a Grand Slam. At the 2004 US Tennis Open, Uberoi became the second ever Indian female player in the modern era to win a round at a main draw Grand Slam Tournament, defeating Japan’s Saori Obata. Neha reached the highest singles ranking of her career on 29 January 2007, with a ranking of 196 and 110 in doubles.
When Shikha began learning tennis at the age of six, sister Neha, then three, tagged along. Both remember childhoods consumed by the sport. “When we started winning competitions in our early teens,” recalls Neha, “we began thinking of tennis as a possible career.” Neha had considered pursuing a career as a neurosurgeon, but success in tennis made that dream fade away. “Tennis can be a very myopic world,” she says. “It is hours and hours of training from the time you are about 9 years old. All you can think about is how to get better.”
The sisters agree that they benefited from the unwavering support of their parents, especially their father Mahesh Uberoi. Says Neha, “My father saw that we were talented at a young age and made a lot of sacrifices to make sure we could play tennis. My parents have a very entrepreneurial and non-traditional approach to life. And I do consider myself very privileged that my family had the means to support us while we chased our dreams.”
Says father Mahesh, “It would be so boring if all the pebbles on the ground were round. A nation is judged to a large extent by how its athletes perform. It is so disheartening that Indian teams never make it to the Olympics.” The decision to have his kids home-schooled while they practiced tennis for several hours each day was not particularly difficult. Of course, grades were never allowed to take a backseat.
Parul Panwar, mother of talented ice hockey player, Sahil Panwar, made the choice to put aside personal ambition for the sake of her child’s sports dream. Sahil is a member of the Blackhawks Squirt-A team—the top ranked in Norcal League—and recently got selected for the California BRICK-2002 State Team, one of the most prestigious hockey events available for players at the 10 and under age level.
VANCOUVER, CANADA – JANUARY 2: Manny Malhotra #27 of the Vancouver Canucks and Michal Handzus #26 of the San Jose Sharks square off for a face-off as linesman Brad Lazarowich prepares to drop the puck during their NHL game at Rogers Arena January 2, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
“If you are not serious you don’t come on the ice,” says Panwar. “It is the most expensive, demanding, and fast contact sport. Parents have to be committed. We spend a lot of money and effort on training and travel for this sport. We travel all over the country to play in competitive tournaments.” She adds, “No Indian would spend three hours [a day] on hockey when the child could be studying, especially in the Bay Area.” The Panwars have cut down on their social interactions to a minimum because of lack of time.
“As much as I know, Indians spending these kinds of resources, dreaming that the kids will make it big in sports is not part of our culture. Our whole purpose in putting him in ice hockey was that we would rather he have a hockey stick in his hand than a cigarette when he is a teenager. Now he has made a name for himself. People know us as Sahil’s parents in the sporting community,” adds Panwar proudly.
Education, Education, Education
Both Shikha and Neha Uberoi are in the process of getting their degrees in Princeton, a fact that is surely gladdening the hearts of their parents. Says Mahesh with pride, “I would not trade that degree for a Grand Slam. This education will stay with them for life.”
Panwar is matter of fact about Sahil’s education, “Being a desi and living in Cupertino, studies are important. He loves hockey and he knows that he has to study to make it in hockey. We’ve told him that if his grades go down, the hockey stops. But that means this child’s life is focused around hockey. He is an intelligent kid but he studies before practice, and after practice. He manages to get through school with good results. His teachers are happy,” she shrugs philosophically.
How does he cope with the volume of work? “He doesn’t do anything for leisure,” says Panwar, “No Wii, no DS. But he doesn’t want to. He gets bored. If he has some free time he might watch the NHL channel or work on his moves in the garage.”
Nikhil Panu, who plays varsity basketball and varsity tennis at Harker High School in San Jose, CA, is equally focused on academics. His goal is to play college basketball but he acknowledges that “my number one priority is to get a good education at a great academic institution which also has a decent basketball program.” Panu’s sister plays Division 1 tennis at Pepperdine University.
After Jeremy Lin’s successful straddle of education and sports, kids like Panu are optimistic about having it all. But both Brandon Chillar’s and Manny Malhotra’s career arcs suggest otherwise. Chillar, who is one of four athletes of Indian American origin to ever play in the National Football League (NFL), is currently a free agent, after playing for teams like the Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis Rams. He went to UCLA on a sports scholarship but left without graduating when he was called for NFL training. “I figured that college could wait, but the NFL wouldn’t,” he says. Malhotra, who plays for the Vancouver Canucks (see the IC article, “A League of their Own,” April 2008) also quit school to play for the National Hockey League (NHL). After his first year in the league, he ended up getting his high school diploma, but continuing education has been put on hold. I asked him what his future plans were, since the career span of hockey players doesn’t typically extend beyond the age of 35 (Malhotra is 32). “I believe in living in the moment,” he laughs, “I’d love to play till the wheels go off. They’re going to have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming.”
I ask Mahesh Uberoi if reducing the emphasis on studies might have made it easier for his girls to achieve higher levels of success in tennis. His answer is categorical and revealing. “Let’s say they had won a grand slam. Then they would have wanted more. Where does it end? Finding that balance [between sports and education] is important. The world is way more than going around collecting wins. Their education will stay with them for life.”
Fear of Injury
While the overarching emphasis on education may be diverting kids from possible careers in sports, the fear of injury is surely another factor. When Meena Srinivasan’s high-schooler Vivek broke several bones in his leg during football training, her worst fears about the game came true. She was watching him at a game when she heard a loud crash and realized three kids had gone down. “I didn’t quite realize the gravity of the situation.” When she reached the scene of the accident and saw the leg completely bent out of shape, she realized how serious it was. She held it together till she reached the hospital where he was taken and only then allowed herself to break down. “It could have been much worse,” she says, in retrospect, speculating about brain damage. Vivek’s father admits to feeling a sense of relief that the injuries, in effect, signaled the end of his football ambitions. “He is running track now,” says Srinivasan. “I don’t think football is the game for him.”
“I was very apprehensive about injuries,” says Rohini Mohan, whose son Pranav joined the football team in his freshman year at high school. “I went to every single game to keep an eye on my child because I was so afraid he would get hurt. Home games, away games, I was there for every one of them.” Pranav switched to golf in the spring season.
“Hockey is a very physical sport,” says Panwar. Though players of Sahil’s age don’t encounter full body contact, he did hurt himself in an on-rink accident last year. “He was on the ground for two minutes without being able to get up. At that moment, the thought that went through my head was, that’s it, no more ice hockey. But the coach put him back on ice and he was fine.” How does she deal with the fear? “It is scary, but two of my boys play hockey, so I’m used to it. Being Indian, I tell Sahil, if you see a rough battle, just let it go, don’t fight, but he does what he needs to do [to be successful],”she shrugs.
Injury also derailed Chillar’s career last year. Chillar tore his hamstring in July 2011.
Unfortunately, the NFL was on lockout at the time, which meant that the Packers could void Chillar’s contract without having to pay injury compensation. According to the NFL Nation blog on ESPN.com, Chillar told ESPNMilwaukee.com that he knew his Packers career was over the moment he heard his hamstring pop during a private workout and said he has “no hard feelings.” Chillar, who suffered several shoulder injuries and seven surgeries prior to the hamstring pop that derailed his career, says he rebounds well and is training to get back into the game that has caused him so much physical pain. His family understands; “I think they have become desensitized to it. After they realized that I do bounce back, they’ve been okay.” He adds, “You can’t think about injury while playing the game. Injuries are part of the game, but I try not to let any negativity in while on the field.”
Malhotra, whose sport is also known for a high level of “body contact” was also seriously hurt last year when a puck hit his eye in March 2011, requiring him to have surgery the same night. The injury kept him out of several games in the season and reignited a debate on mandatory visors for NHL players.
The risk of injury is not limited to team sports. Both Shikha and Neha Uberoi suffered injuries that proved to be setbacks to their career, Neha with a broken rib and Shikha with injuries to her rotator cuff. “The body tends to break down very easily,” admits Neha. “Knees, joints, these are the first to go.”
Exposure to the Sport
Coach Andrew Cotter of Moreau Catholic High School hypothesizes that it is lack of exposure that keeps the numbers of desis in sports down. “The kids who come try out for the team usually have a parent who is into the sport, or they have enjoyed watching games as kids.” His theory seems to be borne out by the career trajectories of sportsmen like Manny Malhotra, currently with the Vancouver Canucks NHL team. “Growing up in Canada, it is impossible to avoid [ice] hockey,” says Malhotra. He just drifted into playing the sport and realized it could be a vocation when he began excelling in it.
Parul Panwar agrees: “For the first two years Sahil was figure skating because we had no idea about ice hockey. Then one of my husband’s friends suggested we put Sahil in hockey. Once he started playing in Montreal we started hearing from people about how good he was and since then we have never looked back.” When the family moved from Canada to Cupertino for employment reasons, it seemed natural to continue in the sport. Adds Parul, “Sahil goes to a Cupertino school where 17-18 kids in his class are of Indian origin. When the teacher asked about their hopes for their future, every child wanted to be a doctor, engineer, etc. He was the only child who got up and said he wanted to be an NHL player. More than half the kids didn’t know what the NHL was.” Coming from a sports oriented community, Sahil initially struggled to transition to his new environment because the other kids couldn’t relate to him being a “jock.” He is one of the “cool” guys now!
As a new generation gets more and more into mainstream American sports, perhaps it is only a matter of time before the numbers of desis in professional sports start reflecting that passion and interest. Says Malhotra, “The way the game is growing, you see it in a lot more communities. The interest in the game should pick up correspondingly.” Parul Panwar also talks about the growing interest in hockey in California, especially in the Los Angeles area. Adds Cotter, “Indian American kids often come to me to discuss careers in sports that do not involve being on the field—kinesiology, sports medicine, sports law, these are some of the options they want to pursue that allow them to stay connected with the game.”
Table tennis has lately been propelled into the national spotlight. Rajul Sheth, Director of Sports and Recreation at India Community Center (ICC) declared that his goal was “to have a player from ICC qualify for the 2012 Olympics.” At the final trials for the 2012 London Olympics, recently, three North American players qualified. All three players were trained and sponsored by ICC. “This is the most exciting day of my life,” enthused Sheth. The players are Ariel Hsing, Lily Zhang and Timothy Wang. These young sports stars represent a new generation of players who follow their parents’ passion for the sport, having played table tennis in China and India before moving to the U.S.
Does Size Matter?
Chillar and Malhotra, who each have a Caucasian parent, are 6-foot, 200 lbs-plus individuals who are no slouches in the size department. At least two of Chillar’s desi predecessors in the NFL are of Punjabi origin like him. Sim Bhullar, the basketball player for the New Mexico State University who is considered to be the desi Jeremy Lin, has Punjabi origins and clocks in at 7 feet 5 inches. Sahil Panwar is tall enough to play with kids two years older than him. “Sahil is big for his age,” says Parul. “That helps.” With hockey being a fairly physical sport, Sahil’s size relative to his peers is reassuring to his parents.
Nikhil Panu, who began playing basketball in elementary school, admits that his height was a big factor in his decision to join the game. “I was taller than everyone else,” he says, “and that gave me a huge advantage initially.”
While height may have been the reason for Panu’s introduction to the sport, he is quick to point out that today he is just about the size of his peers, maybe a touch smaller. “My skills are what keep me on the team,” he says proudly, adding that the Harker basketball team, comprised mainly of Asians, tends to get underestimated by competitors all the time. The Harker team has a 18-9 record this year. “People are constantly surprised by our talent and the passion we bring to the game.”
Panu’s nonchalance about size is echoed by coach Cotter. “I don’t think Indian Americans are at any disadvantage physically,” he says emphatically. “We’ve got some very fluid and athletic kids in the Moreau basketball team who do just fine.”
Sports Franchises in India
The common perception that Indian Americans don’t measure up physically to their Western peers doesn’t appear to be shared by the organizers of the two most American sports—football and basketball.
The Elite Football League of India is an organization dedicated to the promotion of professional football in a country not exactly known for the girth and height of its people. With the support and backing of athletes like
Chillar and football legend Kurt Warner, and Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg, the league is trying to piggyback on the success of cricket’s Indian Premier League. The league envisions a day when an all-Indian team can compete in the NHL. Teams like the Bangalore Warhawks and the Mumbai Gladiators have already been created, and the league is launching an all-out effort to “establish a grassroots educational project to incorporate the game of football in schools beginning at grade school level extending to universities which will feed the professional recruitment efforts.”
The National Basketball Association (NBA) has also targeted India for its global outreach efforts. After the success of China’s Yao Ming led to an explosion of interest in basketball in that country, there is intense interest in finding an Indian hopeful who can galvanize the Indian population’s attention to a sport that has thus far remained within the confines of college courts. According to a December 2010 article in the New York Times, India’s rapidly growing middle class and its disposable income are factors that Heidi Ueberroth, the president of NBA International, says make the country “ripe for new forms of entertainment.”
Troy Justice, who runs the NBA Mahindra Challenge, a series of youth leagues and tournaments in five cities in India, believes the pool of talent is just waiting to be discovered. “Kids here have natural ability and talent but they are not given the opportunity to develop it.” As for finding the Indian Yao Ming, Satnam Singh Bhamara could be the guy. The 7-foot-plus giant from a sleepy village in Punjab had a breakout performance in October 2011 at the FIBA Asia U16 Championship.
Attention from the West and exposure to top athletes may be just what is needed to revitalize Indian sport and create a new generation of Indian sportsmen. Meanwhile, as new desi generations grow up in the United States without the financial insecurities that motivated the career choices of their parents, and as the entrepreneurial spirit that brought many of us to this country finds expression in non-academic endeavors, the possibility that there will be many more desi sports stars doesn’t seem quite that remote. Young athletes like Nikhil Panu and Sahil Panwar are just a few manifestations of the passion and commitment we desis bring to whatever we set our minds to, and thanks to pioneers like Manny Malhotra, and Brandon Chillar, and yes, Jeremy Lin, professional sports may be a viable career alternative for our kids, with many more Panus, Panwars, and Uberois in the wings. If I was a gambling sort, I would bet on brown.
Vidya Pradhan is a freelance writer who hosts the weekly radio show Parent Talk on KZDG 1550 AM. She also runs the community blog Water, No Ice and was the editor of India Currents from June 2009 to February 2012.
Is This the Desi Jeremy Lin?
7-foot-4 center Sim Bhullar is widely considered to be the next Asian basketball hope, now that Yao Ming is retiring from the Houston Rockets. Bhullar caught the eye of college recruiters with his 7-foot-11 wingspan. His unflinching attitude towards physical contact makes him a valuable commodity to teams, though his limited lateral skills leave other observers skeptical.
Bhullar was recruited for the New Mexico State University team. He is currently “red-shirting,” i.e. taking the year off to work on his conditioning, and will join the basketball team as a freshman next year. Coach Marvin Menzies thinks Bhullar has potential as both a college player and a professional. “I see a huge upside for him in basketball,” he says. “I am very optimistic.” Bhullar’s critics contend that his extra-large frame and weight are a liability, but Menzies believes it is only a matter of Bhullar finding the weight where he is most comfortable. The New York Times carried an extensive article on this basketball hopeful in July 2011, speculating on the impact of Bhullar’s success on interest in basketball in the Indian and Indian American community. Says Menzies, “He is the only Indian American athlete I have come across. But if he is representative of his community, I better start looking at Indian Americans more carefully!”