India Abroad, May 2011
Indian basketball star Geethu Anna Jose faces her toughest challenge yet in the WNBA tryouts.
By: Shobha Warrier
Even at 8AM, the heat at the Nehru stadium in Chennai was debilitating, sapping the body, draining the soul. But Geethu Anna Jose, 25, did not show it: bowed in concentration, she focused on her practice session, on for 2 hours already, with Troy Justice, director of India operations for the NBA.
Jose needs to ratchet up her game to new heights now that she is trying out for the Women’s National Basketball Association. The first Indian basketball player to be invited for WNBA tryouts, she has been invited by at least 3 teams: Chicago Sky, Los Angeles Sparks, and San Antonio Silver Stars.
Jose was born to a Catholic family in Kottayam, Kerala, June 30, 1985. Like many sportspersons from the state, she started out in athletics. As she grew in height, her interest moved first to high jump, then to volleyball. But because there was no proper volleyball coach at her school, she shifted to basketball.
“In our school (Mount Carmel) in Kottayam, there was some glamour attached to basketball. The school coach, impressed by my height, asked me to join the team. Once I started dribbling, I simply loved it,” Jose said, recollecting that transformative moment in 8th grade.
From then on, it was only basketball for her. She began watching all the international matches on television, and was known to look up to the Indian women’s team captain at the time, Ivy Cherian. Still, she preferred the more sinewy version of the game that men played.
“Men’s basketball was more aggressive and there was a lot of movement,” Jose said. “I wanted to play like those men. When I watched the NBA games, I was awestruck. I thought, is this really basketball? All of them seemed to be flying everywhere! From then on, it was my dream to be playing there.”
By the time she joined college, Jose had stretched up to 6’2″, towering over her classmates. In the Indian women’s team that she now captains, she is the second-tallest player (Harjeet Kaur has 2 inches on her).
Jose’s entry into serious basketball was fortuitous. She had just accompanied to Chennai a friend who was trying out with the Southern Railway basketball team. The team’s coach Prasanna Jayasankar, a former India captain herself, was impressed by Jose’s height and asked her to tryout. A shots through the hoop later, Jose found herself on the team.
“I had no plans to start working or becoming a professional basketball player at the time,” she said. “I only wanted to complete my degree and then start working. Here I was, at 17, being offered a job with the South Railway and a place in the team. I can only say it was God’s gift.”
She shifted to Chennai but soon homesickness struck, and she wondered if she ought to go back. But within months, by end of 2003, she was selected to the national senior team.
“That was unexpected. I had played for the national junior team, and I dreamed of playing for the senior team, but didnt know whether I would get selected. It was Prasanna Ma’am who took me from a school-level to a professional player,” she said. While the difference in standards was immense, she said she had no trouble making the shift.
Still Jose was no more than a ‘bench player’ in the first senior game. “I was waiting to be called, that didnt happen in the first game. Next was an invitation tournament in Malaysia, I stood there eagerly so that my coach would see me, remember me, and call me. He saw my enthusiasm and my eagerness to play and asked me to go in. I made a good defensive play that day. My coach was so happy that he gave me a gift the moment the game was over,” she recalled.
Since that day in 2004, she has been on the court. “Today, sometimes I feel like sitting on the bench and watching others play,” she said.
Awing the Ozzies
Jose gained serious international attention during the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Australia. She was the second-best scorer in the tournament and was anointed its ‘Most Valuable Player’. By the time she was back in India, she had an offer from Ringwood Hawks, a lower division team in Australia’s Women’s National Basketball League.
“I was too scared to go to a foreign country and stay there all alone. Then my cousin, who was studying for an MBA there, gave me confidence,” Jose said.
She had braced herself for a hard fight, but her first game in Australia turned out to be easier than expected. “There, only one player guarded another player, but here you are surrounded,” she said. But the single player she had to contend with was taller and brawnier than her – and doughtier in spirit than many she knew. “That was how I learned to be very strong,” said Jose, who went on to score more than 20 points in each game.
She won the Best Player of the Month award in July 2006; she was called over to play in 2007 and 2008, the year she won the WNBL Most Valuable Player award. She was invited again in 2009 also but could not go because, as captain of the Indian women’s team, she had to go for the Asian Games.
Those 3 years in Australia changed her game completely, Jose believes. “When you play with good and strong players, you also automatically improve,” she explained. “Here, I don’t have any competition. Other women players in India are scared to come near me because I can push them away with just a nudge. I have become that strong. My game is a real power game. That’s why Troy tells me to play with the men here and not the women.”
The Dream Comes True
From the time Jose heard about the WNBA, it was her dream to be part of it, a dream which she never expected to see come true. “So far, no Indian player has even gone for trials there. So, I never expected to go there. But there was a desire within me to go there at least for a trial. I used to pray to goad, please let me go for one trial. Here I am, going for three!”
Jose used to fantasize about playing in the WNBA. “I also have dreams of me shooting the ball and the team winning the game. I can’t believe that they are coming true,” she said. “I am nervous and excited.”
‘A natural next step’
Justice, who is critically overseeing Jose’s practice sessions, said Jose “has lots of natural basketball skills and instincts.”
“The reason she has been called for the trials is because of her talent,” Justice said.
On Jose’s chances of being selected, he said, “I can’t talk about that as it is up to the individual coach of each team. It all depends on the specific needs of each team. Maybe they have a position to fill and she can fill it. These are the factors that determine her selection. But I can say from my experience that Geethu is an international player and she can play in a variety of places. So, this opportunity is a natural next step.”
“Every player has strengths and weaknesses,” he continued. “Geethu has many strengths and there are areas she can improve upon. But remember, she is one of the very few selected people around the world to get the opportunity to try out for the WNBA. You have to be capable to be selected for a trial, and she has proved that she is capable. The experience at the trial itself is going to be incredible; a lifetime experience for her.”
He added: “I am very hopeful. I am very excited for her. I am her biggest fan!”