“Remember that basketball is a game of habits. If you make the other guy deviate from his habits, you’ve got him” – Bill Russell
Pursuing a career in sports is not considered feasible, especially for girls, and that too from tribal areas. Parents find it difficult to provide them two square meals a day, because of their socioeconomic status. It is my privilege to present Mr. Rajesh Patel, who dedicated his life to coaching tribal girls from underprivileged backgrounds having a patriarchal setup. He was the head coach of Chattisgarh women’s basketball team. He coached the girls not only to shine in National level competitions but also prepared them to face life bravely.
Being a player of basketball, he joined Bhilai Steel Plant under sports quota in 1979. He was a gold medalist in basketball coaching from the National Institute of Sports. His height of 5′ 5” did not allow him to excel in basketball, but he dedicated his life to coaching and producing champions of the sport. He set up a residential academy on the top floor of his house, where he devoted 16 hours a day in training which he took as his mission. Bhilai Steel Plant provided the pieces of equipment, and Rajesh put his heart and soul in coaching.
The tribal girls who could not imagine going outdoors, secured places in the Indian National team, their lives changed when they got government jobs under the sports(basketball) quota. Anju Lakra -a girl from the scheduled tribe, became a TT in the Indian Railways, under the guidance of Mr. Rajesh. She is barely 5’2”, but Rajesh proved that short height is not a barrier for excelling in basketball. He believed you need only two things to win -speed and defense. “Run and shoot like a bullet,” he would say.
Under his guidance, the Chattisgarh women’s team reached the senior National finals twice defeating the Railways team once. Another girl Seema Singh was knock-kneed and malnourished when she began playing at the tender age of eleven years. She cried when doctors told that she could not play because of weakness. Rajesh provided her regular nutritious meals and extensive training, because of which she got selected for the National team.
He coached thousands of girls, who became ace players and made a change in their lives. He had the credit of achieving many state level and national level awards comprising of Vikram Puraskar, Vishwamitra Puraskar, Veer Hanuman Singh Puraksar, SAIL Best Player Award, National Sports Time Award to name a few. He saw no limitations in anyone, whether height or physique. He instilled confidence in them. In the early days, he would pack ‘chhole, chikki and nimbu paani for children who never were in the habit of breakfast, The training sessions started at 5 am and would continue for eight hours. In spite of his limited means, Rajesh ensured that his players got the best. He even chased the state officials to get all necessary facilities for the girls.
He would uplift their morale by asking them to think about the many girls who cannot afford to play basketball. In April 2018, on his way to Ludhiana for the ongoing junior national championships, Patel suffered a cardiac arrest at Panipat—which proved to be fatal. He was only 62 years old, but the legacy he has left behind is memorable. He was called ‘Dronacharya of basketball’. A biopic is planned to be made on his life which will inspire millions. The movie is conceptualized by Raj Choudhary who co-wrote Gulal and Lara Dutta. A British Director will direct it under an International production house.