"Ma'am, one selfie please?"
Practice time is over, and groups of excited young women-aged somewhere between 8 and 14-crowd around Alana Beard, their basketball tutor for the day. Until a few days ago, none of these schoolchildren had perhaps even heard of Beard, of 36-year-old WNBA star who is the two-time reigning defensive player of the league, a champion, a four-time All-Star, a former second-overall draft pick, and one of the most successful NCAA players ever.
No, today, Beard is done of that. On this warm afternoon at the Amar Jyoti Foundation School in New Delhi, Beard is the enthusiastic "Didi"-elder sister-who is teaching the kids defensive stances with dance moves, who is giving them high-fives at every attempt, who is making this foreign game of basketball seem fun and accessible.
Image courtesy: Karan Madhok
Most of these young players are either students at the Amar Jyoti Foundation-a mixture of differently-abled and able-bodied school-kids-or brought in from the Teach For India programme especially for this camp. Beard is in Delhi along with American NGO Crossover Basketball and Scholars' Academy for the 'Hoops Creating Hope' programme, with the mission to use basketball as a vehicle to inspire these children to greater things.
So, after another day of fun basketball activities, dozens of young girls approach Beard; some for photographs, some for hugs, some to get Beard's signature on their T-shirts, and some just to wave goodbye with a word of thanks.
"It's pure joy," Beard says after the day's clinic about the children's enthusiasm. "But it's more than that. Maybe they've never seen people before showing an interest in them and their betterment, and their success. And I think that means everything to kids. Like a simple high-five, or a simple fist-bump. Or a simple 'great job'. Their faces light up when [we] just give them that kind of encouragement."
"We don't know their stories. We don't know what their everyday lives consists of. But I can assure you, that it's not constant encouragement. And they get that for two-three hours a day here. That means a lot."
Crossover Basketball is a non-profit international programme, and they describe their objective is to "impact the education rates of marginalized communities in India through the use of basketball as a vehicle of change." Crossover has been holding their 'Hoops Creating Hope' programmes in India (mostly in Chennai) since 2012.
But it was only a few months ago that Crossover's founder-Shaun Jayachandran-was able to rope in Beard, a WNBA star. Beard says that she connected with Jayachandran at a fundraising event in Washington D.C. and was sold on his mission.
Over the past week, 'Hoops Creating Hope'-led by Jayachandran, board member Carie Small, and Beard-took their first trip to New Delhi. Over 140 kids, of which over 70% were girls, participated in their weeklong coaching programme, organised locally by 'ASSIST' in collaboration with the Amar Jyoti Foundation and Teach For India.
Work hard, HAVE FUN! Exhausted after #HoopsCreatingHope camp Day 3 but still smiling. Just the way it should be. pic.twitter.com/QpdyePsms3- Crossover Academy (@CrossoverBBall) March 27, 2019
Beard has taken part in coaching clinics like this before, most recently, she says, in the Philippines. "It was probably the best life experience I ever had," says Beard.
Coming to Delhi, however, was going to be different. Unlike the Philippines, the youngsters that Beard and Crossover worked with in India did not have an organic background for basketball. Beard insists that it didn't change her approach.
"I understand how to teach the game," she says. "So it's extremely easy for me to break it down, aspect by aspect, in terms of teaching footwork, teaching ball-handling. We haven't worked on shooting because I don't believe in moving forward if you don't really understand the basics and fundamentals of the game."
"I attribute that to my high-school coach. This guy I give a lot of credit for how my career has developed because he taught me the fundamentals from the very beginning. And he taught me to respect the game."
Image courtesy: Karan Madhok
From High School in Shreveport, Louisiana onwards, Beard has had a lot of great coaches, and even more life-changing experiences in her basketball journey. She played four years for Duke University where she won tournament championships every year and set a school scoring record. She was selected second by the Washington Mystics in the 2004 WNBA draft and emerged as a rising star in the league with multiple All-Star nods under her belt.
But in 2010, she tore her posterior tibial tendon, an injury that threatened to derail her career. "When the doctors walked in, they said that you will most likely never play again," Beard says. "And at that time, I was that kid who was just obsessed to become the best woman's basketball player to ever come. And I became disappointed a lot when certain things didn't go my way."
"That forced me to understand that basketball is only a small part. And then, it completely changed my way of thinking. It gave me balance and prepared me for other things."
Thus began Beard's long comeback, from a basketball club in Israel to the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks in 2012. Beard had slowed down as a scorer, but she re-emerged as one of the top defensive players in the league. In 2016, she was part of the Sparks team that defeated Minnesota Lynx to win the WNBA title, a Finals victory that included Beard hitting the game-winning shot at the buzzer in the pivotal Game 1 of the series. She continues to play with the Sparks, and over the past two years, has won back to back WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards.
But the heady highs were followed by some scary lows, and Beard's 2010 resolve to remain balanced and prepared for "other things" came handy when she nearly suffered another major career-threatening incident. A year ago, Beard signed a contract to play with a professional team in Poland during the WNBA offseason. In training camp before her season even began, she was hit inadvertently in the eye by a teammate and began to bleed out of her eye-socket. A frightful adventure followed- "the most insane experience of my life"-but Beard now looks back at it now with a dash of humour.
"If you were there, you would've had no choice but to laugh at the situation because of the way the process went down!" she exclaims. "I handled it in a way where I said: 'Alright, let's deal with it.' Nothing is ever out of reach. I feel I can get through anything."
Getting through 'anything', now, for Beard means planning the next step, where she is keeping herself "uncomfortable" (her words) by choosing a post-playing career in venture capital instead of in the basketball realm. With a myriad of different life experiences-career highs and threatening lows-Beard is in a unique position to advice the next generation, in basketball and in life, back home in the States or thousands of kilometers away in courts in India.
Grateful for the support and coaching of @Alanabeard20 in New Delhi this week! (Picture credit :@nxvya) pic.twitter.com/qOOq5T3Fl4- Crossover Academy (@CrossoverBBall) March 29, 2019
"This is what I tell all kids: if you don't love it, don't do it. Basketball teaches you so many life skills. A lot of people go through a lot of struggles. Because I have the skillset that basketball has provided to me, I feel I can handle anything."
"Athletes fail every single day," she adds. "We miss a shot. We get beat on defense. So, we have to deal with that failure. And we have to know how to get back up. But to kids, I just say: find a passion, and you do it 100%. Your parents shouldn't tell you to do it. Your coach shouldn't tell you to do it. You have to wanna do it. And the only way that I know is to work hard. And you'll eventually reach whatever goal you set for yourself."
The camp is over for the day, but Beard's newly-formed fans aren't ready to let her go yet. More pictures, more hugs, more high-fives. Most of her admirers are young girls, excited to find a new role model that communicated to them through basketball, beyond the other language barriers.
No, the majority of these youngsters are going to be basketball world-beaters. But through hoops, they've found a glimmer of hope; and through Beard's story, a roadmap of excellence despite the pitfalls on their way.