Coach Jaspal Dhani on a mission to put India on the global map of wheelchair basketball
For Jaspal Dhani, who left India for the United Kingdom as a child, the return to his birth country was a huge moment in more ways that he had ever imagined.
"I was born in Punjab and moved to the UK in 1997. I came to Mumbai on work in 2004 and fell passionately in love with India," recalls Dhani.
The trip also motivated Dhani to look at ways to awaken the disabled community in India. As Co-founder, Chair and Coach, GLL & Aspire London Titans Wheelchair Basketball Club, Dhani is a strong advocate of using sports a means of inclusion and he decided to bring that expertise and passion to India.
I have a background in disability nights, advocacy and campaigning and I felt that disabled people are not actively campaigning for civil rights. I started playing basketball when I was 12-13 years old and I realize that the one thing communities understand is sports, either as a participant or spectator. It brings people of diverse backgrounds together and if you look at the inclusion model, it's also about bridging the gaps. - Jaspal Dhani, Wheelchair basketball coach
Dhani, who is a wheelchair user, had benefitted immensely by playing wheelchair basketball and he decided to bring that passion to India. He started holding camps in India, holding the first one in 2013 at Vishakhapatnam and Chennai.
A meeting with Dr Ketna Mehta, who is the founder of Nina Foundation, an NGO that works with spinal cord injury patients, led to the first camp in Mumbai in 2014. He is presently in the city to hold the second camp and is happy to see the progress made by players.
"Since the last camp, the female players have gone on to represent India at international tournaments in Bali as well as at the Asia Cup. I see a lot of potential and talent here among people with disabilities. There is an appetite here that makes it very enjoyable to keep coming back."
The camp, which is being held at the Mumbai University grounds in Kalina, has been kept open to players from across India. While many of them are seasoned players, some have less than six months experience, which can make the training a slightly challenging affair. "The level of understanding and capability can be polar opposites," says Dhani with a laugh. "As coaches we have to think very hard about how to include less experienced players with older players."
Thirty players are at the camp, with many of them showing great promise. The biggest challenge they face is to develop the game. The lack of access to regular training at accessible courts with the right type of sports wheelchair is a major barrier.
Regardless for players like Inshah Bashir from Jammu and Kashmir and Sakshi Chauhan from Uttarakhand, the experience has been invaluable.
"This is my first time in Mumbai and I have loved every bit of it," says 25-year-old Inshah.. "The coaches are so good and have taught me new techniques to improve my game. I have also learned how to communicate better with the rest of the players while on court. The most important thing I have learned is to be a team player."
Sakshi, 21, who plays for Haryana, says she has learned new techniques as well as communication skills. "I started playing just a month back and this camp has been awesome. I learned how to shoot, and dribble and this will help me do better at future games."
For more seasoned players like Nisha Gupta, who is a member of the Maharashtra women's team that recently won the nationals, the camp offered the opportunity to get tips from international coaches.
"The coaches are teaching us exercises and advanced techniques, which has been very useful. When we have national camps, only some people are selected for camps held by international coaches. Others' miss out so this has been great. I am so grateful to Nina Foundation for organizing this camp."
Dhani hopes to take wheelchair basketball to a higher level in the country. "The game is still at its infancy in India. I am looking into the future. We need to do longer camps so we can develop their skills better. We will come back and do a longer one."
With dedicated coaches like Dhani, the future of wheelchair basketball looks promising.