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Basketball and India

Amritpal Singh: The Big Comeback

Amritpal Singh
(NBA Getty Images)

The story began with Amritpal Singh-all 6-feet-10-inches of him-in a hotel room, all by himself, in Australia. He was crying.

The story continued with Amritpal Singh-all 6-feet-10-inches of him-wiping away all comers at the Red Bull Reign 3x3 national finals in Mumbai, dunking on opponents, sneering, rebounding, winning, making experienced basketball stars look like junior schoolers around his domineering presence.

MORE: Results from National Finals of RedBull Reign

Playing for the wildcard entry team Northern Spartans, Singh did what he was most accustomed to doing: win. His team went undefeated through a busy Sunday afternoon of games in Mumbai to emerge as champions and win their pass to the Red Bull Reign World Finals in Toronto, Canada later this year. The performance was another encouraging glimmer of hope from a player who, at one time, couldn't see if he would ever play ball at a high level again.

Rewind back to a year ago. At age 27, Singh was at the peak of his basketball career, and almost the peak of any basketball career ever experienced by an Indian player. He had captained the national team, helped India to massive international victories, played pro in Japan, and become the first Indian to play professionally in Australia's National Basketball League (NBL). And in April 2018, he was on the cusp of playing in the Commonwealth Games, back in Australia, for the first time in Indian colours.

But then, just a day before India's first game against Cameroon in Gold Coast, Singh felt what he could only describe later as his left foot "sticking into the floor." He twisted his knee and fell to the ground. Soon, an MRI would tell him that he had torn his ACL in his left knee, an injury that could derail the career of most basketball players at any level of the game.

So, while his teammates prepared for the uncertain world without his talents, Singh was at where we began our story. In that hotel room, all alone. In tears.

"For three days, I didn't leave my room," Singh confessed. "I just cried. I had already played in the Australian league and felt there was a 100 percent chance of another team bringing me back for the next season. But now, I was going to miss the Commonwealth Games and my chance at the NBL. I cried a lot. I couldn't see ahead at my future.

"This was the worst moment of my career."

And as much as Amritpal missed the Indian team, Team India missed him back: without him, India lost all three of their preliminary stage matchups at the Commonwealth Games and were knocked out in the preliminary stage.

Singh returned to India and had surgery on his knee in New Delhi. For the next few months, he said that he was completely 'sun', paralysed and bed-ridden, moving just to wash-up for a brief period every morning before succumbing back into bedrest. He spent the time with his family in his home village of Fattuwal near Amritsar, Punjab for nearly three months.

"I couldn't walk," he said. "I couldn't put any weight on my left knee. I didn't know what was going on."

But Singh did find hope in his close circles, his family and close friends-including fellow Team India star Amjyot Singh-who helped him get through the toughest of times. "My friends really supported me a lot," said Amritpal Singh. "Amjyot motivated me, he's a good friend of mine. I have friends who I played with in ONGC, in Punjab, who helped me through. Everyone told me, 'It's no big deal - you can come back strong, you are a strong guy.'"

When he finally got back on his feet, Singh returned to Delhi for his rehab, where he shacked up with another basketball friend-Harsh Malik of Income Tax-and attended physiotherapy to begin getting his footing back.

The gloom-and-doom of 2018 got a pleasant turnaround for Singh when he tied the knot towards the end of the year. He still hadn't stepped out on a basketball court since his injury, but lurking on the horizon was India's biggest domestic basketball tournament, the Senior Nationals, in Bhavnagar, Gujarat. Hungry to return to the game he loved, Singh decided to take a risk. He decided to suit up for Punjab.

"The Senior Nationals were starting just within 20-25 days of my marriage," said Singh. "I hadn't stepped out to the ground even once till done, but I hoped to play. I started to believe in myself and my fitness. So, for just four days before the tournament, I practiced once a day."

In Bhavnagar in January this year, Singh was back on the court for the first time in competitive action. He was rusty. He was slow. He wasn't fully fit. He had a long way to go.

MORE: Recap of the 69th Senior Nationals in Bhavnagar

And yet, he was dominant. Unstoppable on both ends of the floor, Singh helped lead Punjab's charge to a prestigious gold medal and their first Nationals victory since 2011. He ended up as the MVP of this tournament. Even at his most vulnerable, there were no answers for him.

"I felt that had completed a strong comeback, winning the MVP at such a big tournament," he said. "It was a big moment for me."

But the success came at a small price: Singh again felt an extra strain on his knees, and once again, decided to take some time off the game to rest and recuperate. Five months passed before he returned to the court once again, now in the 3x3 format, leading another team to another title at the Red Bull event in Mumbai, chasing more glory.

With the horrors of last year behind him, Singh is now looking forward to improving his game and returning back for the national team in full force.

"I'm still not fully fit, and that is the one thing I have to focus on right now," Singh said, sweating and panting between the quickfire 3-on-3 games at the Red Bull Reign Finals. "I'm a little slow right now. I'm not even attempting to do a fast movement for now. I've decided to play slow only!"

Nothing about his journey, however, has been 'slow'. Singh is now 28. It's been a decade since he first picked up the game of basketball, which, in the grand scheme of things, is shockingly recent. He was a late bloomer, transported from the farms of Fattuwal to polished hardwood courts around the world. He has already completed his great leap. So, the injury in Australia now seems like just another hurdle that he leapt over.

And there will be more hurdles in the future. This week, he will be suiting up to play in the Federation Cup in Greater Noida. Later, he will look forward to the Red Bull Reign World Finals in Canada. Then will return to India to suit up for the national team again for more international events. And will have to defend Punjab's national triumph by the start of the next year.

And so on and so forth. The story isn't done yet. The comeback is complete. But the grind goes on.

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