Welcome to our Indian Basketball Pioneer series.
Each week throughout the month of April we'll be celebrating one of the pioneers of our game. The ones who helped elevate the game in our country. The ones who broke through glass ceilings and walked through closed doors. The names in the game, that should never be forgotten.
This week we highlight Geethu Anna Rahul.
Over the past few years, men have stolen the spotlight with a lot of "firsts" in Indian Basketball.
Satnam Singh Bhamara was the first Indian-born player to be drafted into the NBA in 2015. He was also the first Indian-born player to feature in the NBA D-League (now G League). In 2018, he became the first Indian-born player to play professional basketball in Canada in the NBL Canada.
Although he is associated with a majority of "firsts," there are other names as well.
In 2015, the duo of Amritpal Singh and Amjyot Singh were the first Indian-born players to feature in professional basketball in Japan. A couple of years later, Amjyot made the leap to the NBA G League while Amritpal made history by becoming the first Indian-born player to feature in Australia's NBL when he signed with the Sydney Kings.
In 2016, Palpreet Singh Brar was the first Indian-born player to be picked in the NBA's D-League Draft.
All these men have earned much-deserved attention and praise, but they weren't the first Indians to come close to playing professional basketball in the United States. That honour belongs to Geethu Anna Rahul.
Geethu, hailing from the Kottayam region in Kerala, is one of the most accomplished and arguably one of the greatest basketball athletes India has seen.
The WNBA tryouts
In 2011, about half a decade into her career, Geethu made history when she became the first Indian female basketball athlete to be invited to try out for three WNBA teams.
No male or female Indian basketball athlete had previously been invited to try out for an NBA or WNBA franchise. Participation or even consideration for the best leagues in the world remained a frontier that Indian basketball players had yet to achieve.
Geethu already had an established career in India but the WNBA was among the highest form of women's professional basketball at that time.
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Two key figures in making this happen were Troy Justice, NBA Senior Director of Basketball Operations in India, and Tamika Williams, head coach of the Indian women's team during the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China.
"They both liked my game. Troy talked about the chances of playing in the WNBA and Tamika Williams supported that," Geethu explained in an exclusive chat with NBA.com.
"She always told me that you have a game just like mine. I used to play as a 4 and you have the same game. They videotaped my games and training sessions as well, then Troy spoke to the right people in the US and got the invitation for the tryouts."
The three WNBA franchises that Geethu tried out for were the Chicago Sky, Los Angeles Sparks and San Antonio Silver Stars (Las Vegas Aces since 2018). In the span of a week, the Kerala-native had worked out with all of them and had some fond memories from each workout.
Chicago was first. She then flew to Los Angeles where she was one of 65 women attempting to make one roster spot.
"I noticed her the first day," then Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom said on Geethu. "I thought she was definitely fundamentally sound and she just lacked the aggressiveness, being a little bit more assertive, not being as soft, because if she had that, there'd be a lot of players in trouble. That's for sure."
"She has a beautiful shot, those types of things. But you get a little bit skeptical when she has to defend someone else and those types of things or being physical in the post or on the wings. She has to bring it out in herself."
With the Silver Stars, Geethu believed she would make the cut and impressed general manager Dan Hughes.
"[Geethu Anna] Jose was impressive with her shooting and astuteness while being put through numerous shooting, dribbling, rebounding, agility and offensive and defensive situational drills," said Hughes. "What was amazing to me working her out was her listening ability was tremendous."
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At the end of it all, Geethu didn't make the roster on any of the teams, but she wasn't one to feel dejected.
"I flew 16-18 hours for these tryouts," she told NBA.com. "I landed there and after a day off, the very next morning was my first tryout. It was really tough for me but as I said it, it was my dream which I never believed would come true - going to the United States of America for the WNBA tryouts. Wow ... I am happy that at least I got that opportunity."
The Indian communities in these cities knew the gravity of Geethu's achievement and greeted her with a huge reception in each city, including a felicitation and media session in Chicago, as well as the honour of meeting the then Mayor of San Antonio Julian Castro with the city's council members in City Hall.
Professional Stints in Australia & Thailand
Although Geethu didn't make the roster on either of the three WNBA teams, she had a very established and successful career back in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Leading up to the late 2000s, almost no Indians had played professional basketball outside India. Geethu played in Australia and Thailand, with the former being a very impactful period of her life. It's what helped her game grow by leaps and bounds.
"My three years in Australia have given me a lot of confidence and I'd think it was there that my dream of playing in the WNBA was born.''
It all began when she was representing India at the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
"Tim Mottin, who was the head coach of Ringwood Hawks, came to watch the Australian team play but he was early that day so he could witness a few more games and luckily it was our [India] game against Malta. I had scored 28 points in our win," Geethu shared.
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The Ringwood Hawks are a franchise in the NBL1, a semi-professional league in Australia. At the 2006 Commonwealth Games, India finished seventh out of the eight women's teams, but Geethu is referring to their 5-8 place playoff game against Malta.
"Tim liked my game and the way I moved, so he contacted Mr. Anil, who was reporting the news. Anil sir, then, asked me if I was interested to play professional basketball in Australia. At first, I refused the opportunity, but my family, friends and coaches convinced me to change my mind. I finally agreed and gave it a chance."
That chance turned out to be a life-changing experience for Geethu.
As she dealt with the lifestyle differences of living in Australia, she was lighting up on the court.
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In 2007 till 2009 the Hawks had this superstar leading the way. Tim and Maree Mottin were able to catch up with Geethu Anna Jose (Rahul) today in India. Geethu is considered to be Indias greatest ever female basketball player. She finally received her MVP awards that were presented back in 2008.
She represented the Hawks for a couple of seasons. One of those seasons, she won the Most Valuable Player award and was also the league's top scorer.
"To tell you the truth, the experience in Australia really changed my game as well as my life. The initial year was not easy for me. Food, climate, I mean, everything except the game."
During her time in Australia between 2006 and 2008, Geethu was also selected to the Big V All-Star Game. What followed was a chance to play for the Dandenong Rangers in the Australian Women's National Basketball League.
However, on personal grounds, that chance didn't materialize due to an unfortunate situation back home.Employed with the South Railways, she wasn't granted the leaves to play in the league.
"I came back to India for a week. I left my luggage in Australia only and came back for a week to play a tournament for Railways but then things changed and I couldn't go back. I had to resign from my job to go back and then the decision-making became very difficult. I am a player and if I get injured, then what happens?" Geethu told Firstpost.
"I lost my father when I was 21 or 22, so the family responsibility was on my shoulders and I needed to make the right decision, but it was tough to decide which one was the right call. There was this fear about leaving the job and playing professionally. Everything was booked, even the tickets for our friendly matches," recalls Geethu.
Her stint with the Hawks - arguably her greatest achievement outside India - made her the first women's basketball player to play as a professional in Australia.
"If I stayed and played WNBL in Australia, I would have definitely made it to any WNBA team for sure."
Off the back of her play in Australia, in 2013, she accepted the invitation to participate in the inaugural women's professional basketball league in Thailand alongside her national teammate in Anitha Paul Durai.
Decorated career for India
A fan of the "high-jump" in her childhood, Geethu changed sport given the lack of an athletics coach in her school. That shift was also made in part to her height, standing as tall as 5-foot-11 in her early teenage years.
"Thankfully we had a coach, otherwise, maybe I would have left that [basketball] also," Geethu said.
Using her height to her advantage, she rose up the ranks in the domestic circuit from school basketball to the U-17 Kerala team to the senior team to the decision of joining the Southern Railways in 2004.
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With Southern Railways, she won medals in four Federation Cups (Gold in 2005 and 2012, Silver in 2007 and 2011) and 11 All India Railway Championships (eight Gold, two Bronze, one Silver). In the Senior Nationals, she dominated with the Railways and led them to 11 championships in 13 years, including nine in a row.
She dominated the Asian Basketball Championships in 2007 and 2009, winning the top scorer award in both editions, a recognition she credits to her time in Australia.
Evolving with the Game
Even with all the accolades that she has accumulated in the 5-on-5 format, Geethu's game transitioned smoothly to the 3x3 format.
She was a member of the silver medal-winning Indian squad at the first-ever 3x3 Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam in 2009.
Scoring 11, she led India to a 17-14 victory over China in the gold medal game at the first-ever 3x3 Asian Beach Games in 2012. A year later, at the first-ever FIBA 3X3 Asia Cup in Doha, Qatar, she led India to the gold medal, beating Mongolia 21-4.
Adding these 3x3 medals to her tally, it was difficult to ignore Geethu's contribution and accomplishment in the game since she began.
In the matter of a year, she received the recognition she deserved from her state as well as the nation.
In 2013, she was awarded the prestigious Jimmy George award by the Government of Kerala. In 2014, she was named alongside other winners of the Arjuna Award, an award given by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports to recognize outstanding achievements in sports.
It marked the first time a basketball player had received the honour since Parminder Singh in 2001.
Not done yet?
Many years after Geethu's last international 3x3 tournament, the mother of two stepped back into the format.
She was named the All-Star of the Kochi Stars in Season 1 of the first-ever 3x3 women's league in India - 3X3BWL. She wasn't part of the roster as a token to just participate. In Round 2 and 3 of the 3X3BWL, the Kochi Stars were crowned champions with Geethu competing in Round 2.
Comeback Is Real. Kochi Stars 🌟 are 3BLW Season 1, Round 2 #champions! #LetsGetGold🥇#3x3 #3x3BL #Season2 #3x3India #IndiaBasketball pic.twitter.com/gMfmmJuPTW- 3X3BL (@3X3BL) August 10, 2019
Later in 2019, she represented the Kochi Stars at the FIBA Asia Quest 3x3 - India Qualifiers in Bengaluru. The Kochi squad won the women's division, earning the opportunity to represent India at the FIBA 3x3 Asia Quest 2019 Final, where they were eliminated in the quarterfinals.
She hasn't officially announced her retirement yet but insists it has gotten more and more difficult to return. A mother of two, with both children under the age of 10, Geethu is as or more worried about the time away from kids than the time she'll have to invest to get fit to return to the sport.
What about coaching then, a transition her good friend and recent Padma Shri winner Anitha Pauldurai has made as an assistant coach on India's Division B?
Geethu expresses her inclination to step into coaching but reiterates how that could only be something she would choose after her children had grown up more.
Until arguably the greatest Indian basketball player of all time makes that decision, all we can do is wait.
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