Aju Jacob is a calm man. He sits still while he watches India take on Kazakhstan. Two players from his team - the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) - are on the court at the same time, while a third is on the bench. He tries not to let his pride show. But his eyes betray him. It is fascinating to watch his self-control; disciplined to avoid involuntary reactions, be it in moments of pain or joy. This game is the highest stage for his players. They don the tricolour. He has every reason to be puffing his chest with pride. The Indian team, after all, were on their way to a famous win in Bengaluru as they defeated the favourites Kazakhstan to win the Division ‘B’ Finals of the 2017 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup.

Not Jacob. It is not his style.

43 years old, Jacob was born and raised in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. He studied at Christ Nagar English Medium School, known for academics and not for promoting sport. “I guess I was an exception there,” Jacob laughs. “I first started playing the game seriously only in college. It was a way to become popular. So my dream then was to make the college ‘A’ team.”

His late start to the game meant he had to put in more effort than the others to prove himself at Mar Ivanios College, a basketball powerhouse. “I had to work twice as hard. I even made the university team. Eventually, I got into KSEB on a sports quota. That’s when I realised I wanted to compete with the best in the country. I wanted to train harder. I wanted to play for India. The support from the department was great.”

Fate, however, would not be on Jacob’s side. At a tournament in 2006, he landed awkwardly, instantly rupturing both his anterior cruciate knee ligaments. “Both my knees were operated. My doctor said there is no possibility of me playing competitive sport anymore.”

The Next Phase

Jacob joined KSEB in 1998 and played on the main team until the injury in 2006. His love for the game was at an all-time high at the time. He did not want to lose that momentum. He chanced upon a six-week coaches training camp at LNCPE (Lakshmi Bai College of Physical Education) and enrolled himself and got offered the task of coaching the women’s team.

Aju Jacob in the center (Courtesy: Facebook)

“I had six players, to begin with,” Jacob recalls his first team, all of whom were in their mid-twenties. “They were incredibly talented and had excelled at every level from school, to college and university. But they were past their prime. They wanted to get married and settle down as soon as possible.”

Jacob, however, does not miss a beat to credit that first batch. “They were mature. They taught me how to become a better coach. Basketball wasn’t a priority for them anymore. So keeping them motivated was a huge task. Learning to deal with that made me a much better coach. We worked as a unit. We made each other better.”

Slowly, steadily and surely Jacob built a team that is a basketball powerhouse till date. The KSEB women’s team is a ten-year success story. Almost immediately upon taking up the job, Jacob convinced the department that they needed to recruit the best, not just in Kerala, if they needed to become a top-tier team. KSEB bought into his vision and gave him the green light for his ambitions. That support allowed KSEB to become one of the best teams in the country today.

Jacob has seen four of his players play for India: Stephy Nixon, Anjana P.Geetha, Jeena P. Skaria, and Grima Merlin Varghese. The latter three were part of the Indian team at the 2017 FIBA Women’s Asia Cup; Jeena and Grima put up a valiant performance in the Finals, scoring 34 of India’s 75 points in that memorable final.

Dream to travel

“I want to spend a year coaching abroad. I am drawn to European coaches. Whenever I see them, I feel like I have not achieved anything,” says Jacob.

“They have a lot of knowledge to share. They want to share it. I spend my days contacting them by email or Facebook, and they are always happy to share knowledge, techniques, and tactics. My dream is to travel and work with coaches overseas for some time. To coach with a great school or college coach. And then bring back what I have learnt to India.”

His first experience learning under an international coach came at a basketball clinic with the Serbian Alexander Bucan in 2009, one of the first coaches to open up Jacob’s mind to what is possible on a basketball court.

Jacob is a sponge. He wastes no opportunity to keep learning, sometimes spending up to 3 hours a day on learning and gaining knowledge. “When I started coaching, I used the same techniques my school and college coaches taught me. But Bucan fired me up. The biggest lesson Bucan taught me was to consume some form of basketball every day. Video, books, articles, whatever. Unless you do that you won’t improve. Know and learn something new every day,” he says.

Bucan is among the few international coaches that left their mark on Indian basketball and its coaches. Jacob credits him, Troy Justice (former Director of NBA India), and Francisco Garcia (former coach of the Indian women’s team), for his passion for coaching.

“Every time coach Justice visited Kerala I made it a point to meet him, even for a short time. I was constantly seeking to improve, and he was always ready to help. Coach Garcia raised the level of the women’s game to great heights. I have learnt so much from him that I cannot thank him enough,” he adds.

Tell Jacob that he is among the best coaches in India and he calmly disagrees. “I never feel like that.” What about the fact that four of his players made the national team? “Most of the coaches I come across boast a lot about their player’s achievements on social media. I do not like to do that. For me, the credit has to go to the coaches at the school and college level. They spot the talent and develop the players. I am lucky to get great players. The players already excelled in school and college. Once the girls get on my team, my only job is to polish them and to hone them to perfection. Yes, I am proud of them. But I also feel extremely lucky to work for these girls.”

The way forward for Indian basketball

Indian basketball is on a gradual upward rise towards prominence in India. And while many things are going right, lots can be solved. The pragmatic Jacob would rather focus on two important and immediate changes.

“We need to increase the number of players. If the quantity increases, naturally the quality increases. Everyone says cricket dominates other sports. I say we should learn from cricket. They have marketed in a way that every kid and every adult wants to watch and play cricket. Unfortunately, basketball is restricted to the PE period. There are still millions of Indian kids who have never played basketball,” he says.

Infrastructure, a thorn in the side of sports development in India, doesn’t necessarily concern Jacob. “In the Philippines, people have put up hoops on coconut trees and play. It is their national sport. That is the craze we need to develop. The more people that play the game, the more interest will be there, the more it can grow.”

How about the quality of coaching in India?

“Yes. That is the second thing that needs to improve. Now that BFI has started helping with FIBA-WABC coaching certification, Indian coaches need to educate and cooperate with each other. The problem with most coaches in India is that we think we are Gregg Popovich (the legendary NBA coach). We think we are the final answer. We are not open and ready to discuss basketball.”

Knowledge sharing

A FIBA Level 3 coach himself, he illustrates the positive impact such cooperation could bring about. “Look at the foreign coaches. I have had the opportunity to work and learn from them. They are very open. They love to discuss basketball. We have to learn the basics from a good teacher, and the basics change every day. International coaches are not ashamed of admitting they have learned this stuff from great players. That culture is missing here.”

Jacob isn’t wrong. The culture of sharing knowledge or even camaraderie was almost non-existent. Elite basketball players in India rarely took up coaching, a profession that pays astonishingly poorly. Coaches then, and some even now, were largely PE teachers with a diploma or degree in physical education.

That is slowly changing now. FIBA is taking India very seriously by building a large base of certified coaches. Younger coaches are stepping into the profession, and elder ones are adapting. The exposure to international coaches and the dawn of the internet - as a means to learn how to become a better coach - have certainly helped.

Jacob is optimistic. “Some coaches now understand we have to work together if basketball has to improve in India. We have to do this for the game and the players, not for ourselves.”

Sure. But it also pays to recognise the work and efforts of selfless coaches like Jacob. Coaches for whom this isn’t just a job or a game. It is a way of life.