“For the last time, kid. I can’t teach you the game of basketball if you have no talent!”
The head coach of the Kendriya Vidyalaya (1) Basketball Team, Bhaskar, was extremely vexed with the continuous requests.
“But sir, I love the game! I know I can be a great player!” begged Lokesh.
“Look here, Lokesh Kumar,” said Coach Bhaskar. “Just having passion means nothing if you don’t have talent. Only a combination of hard-work and talent can push you into big leagues around the world! Just flaunting your passion and holding false belief in yourself can lead you into disaster. Your teachers keep telling me your academics are extremely poor! They have no clue if you can pass your 10th grade! How about you stop running around with a fake jersey written on a piece of paper taped to your back and go study for once!”
Lokesh’s face was burning with embarrassment. “He just had to bring up my academics, didn’t he?”
He sauntered out of the P.E room slowly and dejectedly.
“Good!” thought Coach Bhaskar angrily. “Can’t waste my time on his senseless drivel!”
But, another man in the room had been hearing the whole conversation.
His name was Shiva. He was an assistant coach.
And he felt sorry for Lokesh.
He was the type of guy who respected anyone with passion and willingness to work hard towards their goals.
He exited the room and found Lokesh walking away with heavy steps.
He followed the boy and tapped him on the shoulders. “Listen here, Lokesh Kumar. You really want to learn basketball? Maybe I can give you some advice.”
“Really, sir? You’ll teach me?” asked Lokesh hopefully.
Assistant Coach Shiva shook his head. “I can’t personally help you, or Bhaskar will fire me! But I can give you some advice…”
“What advice, sir?”
“You said Anuj Varma and the boys’ team refused to help you?”
“Yes, sir,” said Lokesh sadly.
“Have you considered asking the girls’ team for help?”
Shiva knew that the advice might not sit well with Lokesh. Why on earth would he ask the girls’ team for help? As much as he hated it, male pride and toxic masculinity was real. It would barricade Lokesh’s intentions of asking girls for help.
Looking down at Lokesh, Shiva was pleasantly surprised.
The kid’s eyes were shining hopefully.
“Do you think they’ll help me out, sir?”
“Why not? The girls’ team captain, Neha Srinivas, is a pretty nice person! If you ask her nicely, she may help you!”
Lokesh darted off towards the basketball courts, thanking Shiva loudly.
“Neha Srinivas,” he thought. “Could she be my chance of learning the game?”
Lokesh did not have to look very hard to spot Neha Srinivas in a crowd of female basketball players. She was the one girl who was surrounded by her teammates. She was the bubbly, perky, and chirpy one. Above all, she gave off the vibe of a team captain, the one player who commanded respect from her teammates.
He waited for an opportune moment to speak to her. Soon, the team got to practicing. Neha was shooting free throws on one end of the court while her team was running drills and playing defense. Lokesh gently walked up to her so as not to startle her. On getting closer, he noticed she was huge. At least four inches taller than him.
“Perfect,” he thought. “She’s probably great at basketball too!”
“Umm, Neha Srinivas?” he tried.
“Yes?” Neha turned around. She had to avert her eyes below to look at the tiny guy in front of her. Lokesh noticed that she had very confident, black eyes. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail and looked like she would be the best player on any team she played for.
Neha instantly recognized him. “Lokesh Kumar? Joker of all Trades?”
Lokesh really hated that nickname.
“I guess,” he said. “Can I ask you something?”
“I’ve been trying to learn the game by myself. But even after five years, I can’t even make a layup! Can you help me out? Can you teach me how to play?”
“Umm…sure, I guess.”
It was thus that Lokesh’s real training began. Neha wasn’t an easy instructor. She would often get frustrated with his inability to make simple shots and would run him through the mill.
Lokesh loved every moment of it.
He was finally learning how to play.
Neha would teach him footwork, shooting motions, defense, and passing. In a few months, the two developed a great friendship, to the point where Neha would invite him home, and to her basketball games. Lokesh felt that he learned a lot just by watching Neha play.
Her parents, however, didn’t approve of their daughter bringing a guy home and watching games with him. They would spy on the two like hawks, making sure nothing undue happened. Lokesh often felt that if looks could kill, he’d be long dead and buried.
One day, in his practice sessions, Lokesh managed to steal the ball from Neha, who couldn’t believe it. In just a few months, Lokesh had improved by leaps and bounds. He could finally do layups, shoot mid-range jumpers, and move his feet to keep up with her. Being chased by bullies for years had also made him very agile and tough. He could take quite a lot of pushing, bumping and pain. He seemed to have endless stamina. Neha raised both her hands. “High-five!”
Suddenly, Neha grabbed his hands, her dark eyes widened with surprise. “How did I not notice?” she asked. “Your hands, they’re so big! They’re like baseball gloves!”
Lokesh knew this, of course. His hands had been his number-one source of inconvenience. He couldn’t do any delicate tasks like threading a needle or picking up tiny objects. It drove his parents mad. He couldn’t even fit his massive hands inside his pockets, and had to use two long, wiry, fingers instead.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Why the useless observation though?”
Neha’s eyes were glinting. “You don’t understand! Hands this size can be one of the biggest advantage for a basketball player! You can palm the ball (2)! You’d be great at defense! You can fake shots like nobody else!”
“Absolutely!” said Neha. “You’re tough, fast, and have big hands! Great start!”
“So I’m no longer the Joker of all Trades!” said Lokesh. “I have big hands!”
“Nah, forget that, your new nickname is Alien!”
“What? Why Alien?”
“You have huge palms, long fingers, and move weirdly! Alien is perfect!”
“Wait, I move weirdly?”
Neha laughed. “Come, on, Alien, play defense against me!”
This was the toughest part. Neha was much bigger and stronger than Lokesh. She easily bumped him away and scored. Lokesh fell hard on his back. He looked up to see Neha staring down at him, eyes shining mischievously.
“Come on, Alien,” she teased. “You let me body you out of the paint again! Absolutely no strength!”
“Come on, now. Get up, and play offense. Score against me!”
“Fine,” grumbled Lokesh.
He tried everything possible to score against Neha but found himself unable to shake her off. She would stay with him and block him. She even stole the ball from him a couple of times. “Of course, she’s a team captain!” thought Lokesh, frustrated with the happenings.
Lokesh entered the paint again to find Neha obstructing him again. With no other alternative, Lokesh could only think of one way to score against her.
He backtracked his steps, moving a few feet away from her. Then, he charged forward like a bull. His feet kicked off the ground and propelled him into the air. Neha jumped up too, sensing his intentions.
“Wait…” she thought, as gravity pulled her down.
“How is he still in the air?”
Lokesh flew towards the basket, grinning. He raised the ball above his head and put the ball directly into the rim with both hands above it. The ball went in with a satisfying THUNK. He hung on to the rim for a few seconds before letting go and falling back onto the ground.
Neha was staring at him in absolute disbelief.
“Where were you, and what were you doing for all these years?” she thought. “If you’d asked me for help a few years ago, you would have been a star by now! Do you even understand what you just did?”
He’d just dunked on her!
Exam season arrived, and all other activities were shut down. This was the time for some serious study and preparation. The students who got good grades would get into good institutions for their senior secondary studies. The others…they’d have to suffer.
Lokesh spent hours each day with his face in his books. But nothing seemed to be going inside his brain. Mathematics, especially, was a nightmare. He felt that if he could clear mathematics, he could clear anything.
Finally, the days of the exam dawned. Lokesh somehow managed to scrape through all the question papers, though mathematics was still really bad. All he could do was hope…
Finally, on results day, he opened up his test scores. His heart dropped when he saw what had happened.
Social Science: 50
He’d just barely passed.
His dad was going to kill him.
The phone rang. Lokesh ran to answer it. “Hello?”
“Dude! I topped the state! Your friend Karan Singh came second! They’re going to give us an award for it! Isn’t that cool? Hello? Alien? Hello?”
Lokesh couldn’t reply. He was tearing up. In those few seconds, he’d lost all his confidence. He’d lost all motivation. He suddenly felt he didn’t even deserve to talk to Neha. His academics had ruined everything about him.
He felt unworthy.
Unworthy of everything.
Unworthy of even playing his favorite game of basketball.
“I’m useless after all. I probably won’t even be good at basketball, no matter how hard I try. It’s just the same as everything else, including studies!”
He’d let go of his dream.
He hung up the call and walked away from the phone.
That was the last time he’d ever talk to her in years.
He could never even tell her how he felt about her.
1. Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV): It is a system of central government schools in India that are instituted under the aegis of the Ministry of Education, Government of India.
2. Palm the ball: To grasp the ball with one hand by extending the fingers around its surface. This allows some players to grip the ball in their hands and perform moves that others can’t as they cannot hold on to the ball. Famous NBA players who can/could palm the ball include Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kawhi Leonard.