Like a string of pearls let loose, the balls bounce. The kids slap their palms on the balls to keep them rebounding, but the momentum soon phases out. As the balls roll around, a few give it a kick and shy away from the coach’s glare.
The rest dribble their way around with a common ecstatic expression that nullifies the difference in their familial background that can be seen on their feet — a few with sneakers on and a few left bare.
Shaun Jayachandran, founder and president, Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy, kneels down before a kid down to his eye level and gives him a lesson or two about obedience. The kid retorts in Tamil, while Shaun continues in his accented English. At some point, the blank face reflects a sense of understanding and the kid nods. Satisfied, Shaun pats his shoulder and moves on to the others.
A safe distance from the kid, who is now seen obliging to his coach, Shaun says with a wink, “I understand Tamil, the kid doesn’t know that.” The reason Chennai students now have the fortune of having volunteers coming from the US to inspire them through basketball for free is Shaun’s parents, who are both from Chennai. “I like basketball. I give importance to education. I love my parents. I get to serve all the three through this event,” says the Chemistry teacher and basketball coach from Boston.
‘Hoops creating hopes,’ as the event is called, clearly referring to the hoop through which the ball is shot in, has the participation of nearly 197 students from 15 schools across Tamil Nadu this year — all this without a circular or introductory pamphlet. With his second workshop in Chennai, Shaun says that the event has become a lot bigger. “Initially, there were just three coaches who came down to teach, now we have 13,” he says, pointing at his team members at the indoor basketball stadium of American International School. The team, a medley of passionate basketball players, comprises high school students who had reached out to Shaun through the social media sites. Their dedication doesn’t end there.
Two of the volunteers, young enough to be in their eighth grade, even had a shoe collection drive back home in the US, so as to provide those for the ones who can’t afford it here. With no local sponsors, the crossover team has had to manage its finances themselves largely with the support of charitable funds from the US.
Back on the court, the kids are asked to stand in two lines, facing each other. “Who can show me how to do a bounce pass?” asks Raj Mundra, a volunteer, who manages the students from schools that come under the umbrella of Teach for India (TFI). A couple of hands shoot up. “Come forward, tap your feet, look into the eye of the opposite person and pass the ball,” shouts Raj. After the initial faltering, the kids become proficient. Following this is the chest ball.
“Leadership, character, communication, teamwork,” Shaun counts the four elements on his fingers. According to him, a sport like basketball can help kids bring out these values, while teaching them time management as well. Keeping a ball for more than a few seconds in hand is a violation. That's the same with the other aspects of life.
Adding on to this, Raj explains, “At the personal level, they need to know how to manage the ball and dribble. Then come the strategic moves and passing the ball, which focus on team work. The classroom lectures from the coaches will further help build their personality.”
According to Shaun, when compared to the kids in the US, Chennai's youngsters are more timid. “They are scared to say things because of a fear of going wrong. This is unlike in America, where there is more of collaborative learning and discussion,” he says. When it comes to sports, according to Shaun, again the scene is disappointing as most parents do not allow the kids to take part in sports once they reach their tenth grade.
Talk about timidity. “Pogalena adichiduven (If you (ball) don’t go in, I will beat you),” a kid screams at the ball, trying to hit a shot. Ramabhadran Iyengar, a TFI fellow, explains, “They haven’t seen a basketball before.”
He adds, “They think that basketball is just about shooting the ball into the net. It’s not so. It’s more about making the right passes at the right time.”
Another bunch of students from financially backward families belonging to Caldwell Higher Secondary are seen dribbling the balls with passion. “We have travelled 600km from Tuticorin to participate,” says Kirubharan, a member of Caldwell Basketball Club. Saravanan, who was once a Tamil Nadu State Basketball player, also accompanied them.
A loud whistle has the kids huddling around Jonah Travis, a volunteer. The hall reverberates with the chorus of kids shouting his name as he takes long steps and marches to the hoop and does a turnaround jump shot. As the ball gets swallowed into the hoop, tiny hearts are filled with hope – hope of being a John Travis themselves someday!