EXCLUSIVE

High Flying Bird - Pradyut Voleti’s quest to revolutionize Indian basketball

I glance at my watch.

“Defense!”

Every second seems slower this early in the morning.

“Slide right!”

Noida’s unforgivingly cold winter pierces my tropical skin.

“Slide left!”

The minute hand finally moves.

“Foot fire!!”

6:08 a.m.

A rumble follows: 200 youngsters drenched in sweat and breathing heavily, quickly move their feet while bouncing basketballs. Seeing the level of talent and grit on court, you could be forgiven for assuming this was a group of prodigious athletes.

They, however, aren’t.

Rather, this is a group of underprivileged kids who, led by a young visionary coach, embraced basketball just a few years ago.

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Dribble Academy, brainchild of Pradyut Voleti who is one of India’s top three basketball skills trainers, was established in 2014 at the National Education Mission Public School in Gejha Village, Noida with just “two bamboo sticks and a basket”. Before it began, Voleti used to visit the village often as it was located nearby and his driver lived in the village. Voleti recalls, “Every time I drove past the village with my driver, I noticed how incredibly quick the kids were. They were athletic; and my driver told me they had nothing to do. Some of them went to school, but most just loitered.” His driver often expressed helplessness and worry about the village’s kids since most of them had no direction and had little or no access to any form of formal mentorship.

So, Voleti decided to take matters into his own hands. He established Dribble Academy in Gejha as a way of giving the kids an outlet to channel their immense energy. Facilities were sparse in the beginning. A badly damaged cement patch doubled up as the court and Voleti reached out to friends, families and more affluent schools to get old basketballs and shoes. The initial group of students didn’t even have uniforms or shoes; they played instead wearing whatever clothes and slippers they had. But, despite the paltry initial response – a mere five students – Voleti was committed to spending at least a couple of hours each day teaching basketball.

Today, the Academy boasts of a fully functional and floodlit court with nearly 200 students. They come from varied backgrounds, some from the affluent neighbourhoods of Noida, but largely from the surrounding Gejha village. Voleti says, “Most of them are underprivileged, and a few come from homes where domestic violence is an everyday thing. I wanted them to use basketball as an escape.” Some of the kids he trains today are exceptionally talented and hardworking, possessing skills that even surpass some of our national team players.

When asked if these kids could match up to international players of their age, Scott Flemming, Senior Director of Basketball Operations, NBA India says, “I think many of them could. Because of the quality of training and the commitment, these young players have to improve every day.”

About half of Voleti’s students are girls. “They often work harder than the boys,” says Voleti. “Here [in the village] they are expected to stay at home. So their time on court is a chance for them to prove to themselves and the society that they have much more potential.”

How do the kids manage to keep up with Voleti’s tough, often maniacal pace and zeal? Without batting an eyelid, Voleti responds, “Kids are tougher than we give them credit for. Without a lofty goal, any form of training is useless. I am not just teaching them basketball. I am training future citizens of the country. I am training them to become the best in India.”

About the Writer

Jonathan Rego has a decade of experience in the Indian sports industry. Before starting Nation of Sport, Jonathan was head of content at NBA.com (India). Prior to that, Jonathan was oversaw stadium operations and team logistics at Mumbai City FC.@jonathanrego

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