The tall frame of Gulam Abbas Moontasir stands out in the narrow by-lane with mushrooming slums that leads to the Nagpada Basketball Association courts. The ground has the distinction of producing almost a dozen internationals and many more national-level players. The 75-year-old Moontasir is one of the biggest names to emerge from the Late Bachookhan Municipal Playground.

Moontasir’s elder brothers were more inclined to body building but the youngster picked up basketball at the age of nine thanks to a group of friends and insists that he was a very bad player and can’t really explain when the transformation really took place.

“I was very bad. As an athlete, I just couldn’t run. Any child could have beaten me straight away but I don’t know I got into it. One thing we did because of our elder brothers was that they put us into weight training in the 1950s,’ says the man who captained India in the 1969 and 1975.

The strong foundation soon became the bedrock of Moontasir’s style of play as he was known to dominate play with his sheer physical presence as the Nagpada hoopsters began to first dominate arch rivals Mastan YMCA and then the state and national scene.

“It was physical but isn’t basketball also a physical game? I’ll tell you, some of my friends. For eg, Narsimha Sharma, who is in the US now, would tell me, ‘just grab the ball, you don’t have to push in your weight.’

“When I started out Napgpada was not a big name in basketball. It was known for its volleyball. But slowly we made a name for ourselves... The first tournament we won was under 5 feet. We beat Mastan YMCA in 1953. I was 11 years old. After that of course Nagpada picked up basketball.

“In 1957, before I was 16 years, we won the men’s state championship. And we were Nagpada ‘B’ team, not Nagpada ‘A’ team. We beat them in the finals in 1957. I was selected of course for the state team also then it was Bombay. Next year, I was the captain of the Bombay state team in nationals and I was ranked 3rd in the country in the men’s section,” explains Moontasir, who went on to ply his trade at the national and international level for three decades and became the first player from Nagpada to be honoured with the Arjuna Award in 1970.

Railways boost

His career really blossomed after he joined Western Railways as the side boasted of the country’s top stars and Moontasir was the pivot around whom the team revolved.

Ask him about his own memorable game and Moontasir prefers to speak about the worst one rather than the best. “It was in Bangalore. It was so bad that the children you see [points at youngsters dribbling in a basketball court] would have played better. I just couldn’t hold the ball. People always ask me about what my best game was. I say, I remember my worst game which I will never forget in my life.

“I don’t know why. I would double-dribble, I would fall down, I would lose the ball,” stating these were the kind of games that one needs to learn from.

Never the one to mince words, Moontasir was suspended twice for his run-ins with the referees and lost out almost three years of his career.

“Twice I got suspended for arguing with the referee. And I was suspended for three years. Arguing with the referee. Not abusing, not hammering, not doing anything. Just arguing with the referee I was suspended for three years. Anyway I did come back after that,” he adds.

He made his international debut during an exhibition game against Australia in 1960 and the high point of his career probably came in 1970 when Moontasir became the first Indian to be named in the Asian All-Star team after a brilliant showing in the Asian Games in Bangkok.

“We were supposed to tour Europe but we didn’t,” he says with little regret, adding he then tried to move to United States of America to make a career in basketball but things did not materialise.

“In fact, I had applied for an overseas scholarship in America. But unfortunately they said ‘We don’t give scholarships to overseas students.’ And then in those days I had to pay $3000 which I didn’t have. So I didn’t go,” he adds.

Moontasir, who played his last nationals for his employer at the age of 44 and continued playing competitive basketball for four more years, insists that even if had got a chance to go to America he would have had to work extremely hard on his fitness to match the standards of the players there.

A stickler for hard work, Moontasir uses the phrase “working very very hard” almost a dozen times during the half-an-hour interaction and goes on to explain why he would appreciate an Ivan Lendl more than his idol John McEnroe.

“Between McEnroe and Lendl, who do I think I appreciate more? Lendl. It was because the guy had no talent. It was sheer hard work. If McEnroe had worked as hard as Lendl, he would have had 30 Grand Slams,” he adds, before stating that the Indian players who are trying their luck in USA’s National Basketball Association League will have to really step up on the fitness front or would not stand a chance.

This is also why, Moontasir did not really venture into coaching after his playing career apart from working with the Western Railway women’s team.

Even today he visits the Nagpada Basketball Association courts occasionally and those running the show definitely want him to provide some inputs to the young trainees who are looking to make a mark on the domestic scene.

But Moontasir, who has even acted in a few feature films, isn’t really interested. “During our playing times we were told that a basketball player never walks on the court but runs. I don’t see that kind of intensity in these players now.”

The 75-year-old insists that even the Basketball Federation of India isn’t providing enough exposure and game time for the players to mature and excel. “We are far away from world standards. But we can definitely be among the top five in Asia and that should be our primary aim,” he signs off.

Watch the full interview here: