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Basketball and India

Shelly Upadhyay - A star is born

Shelly Upadhyay
Shelly Upadhyay (Shiv Nadar School)

One day, during a practice session at the Shiv Nadar School in Noida, Coach Kunwar Brahmaditya Singh Panwar organised a friendly game between the school's boys' and girls' teams. The two sides set up a small bet to decide this battle of the sexes: the losing side would have to buy juice for the winners.

For Shelly Upadhyay, the girls' 17-year-old point guard, any competition-even a casual 'juice bet'-had to be taken seriously.

"She took it very competitively," said Panwar. "She guarded the boys really hard, and one of them mistakenly crashed against her. She fell down and hurt her clavicle."

The girls won the game.

Fifteen days later, even with the broken clavicle, Upadhyay tried to convince the coach to play again. "She is very competitive," Panwar repeated. "She doesn't like losing."

Her teammates, classmates, and other staff and students at the school know about the myth of Upadhyay now: how this small village girl beat the odds to become an exciting basketball prospect. Basketball got her a scholarship to a top school, a place in the state team, opportunities in camps abroad, and helped lay out a roadmap for others like her to follow in her footsteps.

Originally from the village of Gheja in Noida, Upadhyay comes from a humble household. Her father was a driver and mother a homemaker, and no one in the family had heard of basketball until an NGO in Gheja-Dribble Academy-began to give evening hoops lessons for free to kids from low-income households, like hers.

"My friends started going there, so I went too," Upadhyay said. "I didn't need further convincing: I saw the dedication in my friends to play the sport, and that motivated me, too."

Upadhyay said that she enjoyed dribbling the basketball from the first time she picked up the sport, and the Dribble Academy's founder-Pradyut Voleti-told me that he saw the origins of a good point guard very early.

"She was a really good ball-handler from the beginning," said Voleti. "And she has since improved on it drastically. In the beginning at Dribble Academy, we only had one hoop, so we spent a lot of time on the half-court doing dribbling drills. We used to go to different schools and do dribble showcases."

It was during one such visit that Upadhyay realised that she had the skill to turn this pastime into an obsession. She won a Skills Competition in another school in New Delhi, rising above with her superior dribbling and lay-up drills. But as she spent more and more time with the game, she said that she suffered some complaints from back home.

"In the beginning, there were some problems," she said. "I used to get shouted at by my mother for going to play too much. She used to tell me to stay home and study."

But, little did her mother know, Upadhyay's skills were shaping her for greater things. With Dribble Academy, Upadhyay took part in a novel sports scholarship programme by the Shiv Nadar School. She was the most impressive performer in the game-and thus, was recruited to join one of the elite schools in the region in Class 8th.

"My family was happy and supportive after that," she said. "Now, they're happy that I play basketball." Upadhyay's younger sister, too, followed in her footsteps to embrace the game.

Over the last few years, Upadhyay has developed into an exciting young prospect. Off-court, her demeanour is the book-that-must-not-be-judged-by-its-cover: she is small (5'2"), thin, and sits with her shoulders crouched, as if embarrassed to be in the room. She speaks in soft monosyllables and rarely asserts herself in the conversation.

But on court, however, her game transforms her entire personality. She plays bigger than her small frame. She attacks confidently and communicates with her teammates. She dominates.

MORE: A day in the life of Pradyut Voleti

Her current coach-Panwar-remembers a major milestone of Upadhyay's young career. While playing in last year's the Win Mumby Basketball Tournament in Mussoorie, Upadhyay's team fell behind by 20 in the crucial semi-final clash. The young guard, then, took it upon herself to script an unlikely comeback, scoring 42 points and ensuring Shiv Nadar made the final. Although they lost the final, Upadhyay's heroics ensured that she was handed the Most Valuable Player trophy.

From Gheja, basketball has taken her all over the country-and abroad. Over the past few years, she has also begun to represent her state team (Uttar Pradesh) at the youth level and played in domestic nationals. Most recently, she went with several of her schoolmates to mountain town of Kopaonik in Serbia for the YUBAC basketball camp, where young players from dozens of other countries came to train. Upadhyay made a name for herself, winning the camp's lay-up and shooting challenge.

"She is our school's best prospect because of her work ethic," said Panwar. "So, if we have practice at 4 in the morning, she'll be the first one there. She'll even beat me to school sometimes!"

According to the school's principal Shashi Banerjee, Upadhyay's dedication has been infectious around the school. "She made us all believe in ourselves," said Banerjee. "because she can work very hard. And that's a message - she's become an icon of fortitude for others around her. In a school where most people come with a sense of entitlement, to know that hard work is important at the end of it."

In less than five years, Upadhyay has gone from a basketball novice to a high-level guard for her state. She came from a background traditionally not associated with sporting excellence, and through a set of good coaches and fortuitous circumstances-from the Dribble Academy to the Shiv Nadar School-was able to succeed in a game she hadn't even heard of before.

Furthermore, Upadhyay's success can't be studied in a vacuum; she is proof that, in the unlikeliest corners of the country lies potential, waiting to be honed and moulded into greatness. It has been encouraging, in recent years, to see a great number of grassroots programmes sprout up around India. There could be many more Upadhyay's coming through the Dribble Academy system, or international NGOs like the Crossover Academy hoping to make a change in young lives in India through basketball, or the NBA's own Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA programme, or so many more.

The most encouraging side-note of Upadhyay's basketball success has been the academic benefits that have come through it. Basketball got her a scholarship in a respected school in the region, and everyone from her school's teachers, coaches, to the principal raved about the improvement she's made in the classroom, too. The demure, quiet girl even displayed a radical shift in her personality when she campaigned for student elections and was elected as her school's Vice Sports Captain.

Her coach, Panwar, has seen her development up close, and now hopes that she'll continue to make improvements and perfect her game.

"She has court vision, but if you look at different situations, if you are on a press, there are court vision can lack. Something that is important is using both hands to pass the ball. And strength to cross the court, to make cross-court pass has to improve. She organises a game well, but she has to do it much better: how to use the clock, how to re-set a clock, that's something that we are trying to work on."

Upadhyay told me that she had no role model in basketball when she first started the game. But that changed when she encountered Raspreet Sidhu, the head of sports for Shiv Nadar Schools, and one of the star players for India's national team. Her other hero is Diana Taurasi of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, one of the best ballers in the world.

Two years ago, Upadhyay and several of her schoolmates travelled to Bengaluru to watch Sidhu and the rest of India's national team win Division B of the FIBA Asia Women's Cup in dramatic fashion. The experience left young Upadhyay with great memories-and further motivation.

"It was my first time seeing a big tournament like this," she said. "I know it will take me some time to reach this level, but I also want to play there, and play like this."

"I want to become a professional player… Play for India first… And then: the WNBA."

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