On the final day of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Asia 2018 camp in Greater Noida last week, 17-year-old Sanjana Ramesh never left her compatriot Vaishnavi Yadav’s side.

Yadav had injured her knee ahead of the final day of the camp and could not participate in the All-Stars game that was organised between two teams featuring the best players, picked by the coaches.

While Sanjana played the final and later received the Most Valuable Player award for her performance, as soon as the game was over she rushed back to Yadav’s side, who was sitting in a corner watching the proceedings. She even hesitated to leave Yadav’s side when all the campers were called over for the final awards ceremony, before the latter convinced her to go.

It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that Sanjana was picked as the captain of the Indian Under-16 team last year for the Asian championship Division B. And get this – she had never played for India before. Imagine being picked as India captain in your first tournament with the national team.

Natural leader

Originally from Chennai, the Bengaluru girl was among many players from around the country who were picked for the national camp for the first time, ahead of the Asian championship. “I helped the other girls with things like the language barrier, so I guess the coaches saw how I was helping the team and that’s why they picked me [as captain],” she said.

Sanjana went on to lead India back into the Asian top tier. She was one of the stars, along with Vaishnavi, and Pushpa Senthil Kumar, in the Division B final against Malaysia, which India won 64-48. Playing for the India U-16 team was “the best experience of my life”, but Sanjana has set her targets higher.

At 17, the 5’8”-tall girl is one of India’s brightest prospects in basketball. Earlier this year, she even made it to the senior national camp for the Commonwealth Games but did not make the final cut. She is now “looking to work harder and come back stronger” for the Asian Games camp later this month.

Sanjana hopes to put whatever she learnt at the NBA Academy to use during the national camp. “Playing for India, national coach Zoran Visic had already taught us the basics, but we learnt how to perfect it here [at the NBA camp],” she said.

Sanjana was among 18 of the best female basketball prospects from across India, aged 17 and under, who were picked for the NBA camp. The inductees received training from Olympic gold medallists Jennifer Azzi and Ruth Riley, former Women’s NBA player Ebony Hoffman, and former college coach Blair Hardiek, along with former India captain Divya Singh.

“We learnt how to get the small details right and that makes a big difference. We learned how you can help in the team’s defence, how to put pressure on the ball, basic fundamentals. I will share whatever I learned with my fellow national campers,” the 17-year-old added.

Along with basketball training, the NBA also conducted a workshop for the campers on how to get into the American college sports system – the NCAA, or National Collegiate Athletic Association. Sanjana is just entering Grade 12 and plans to use the coming year to prepare her college applications. She wants to get into an NCAA Division 1 college, which is the highest level of intercollegiate athletics in the USA.

Sibling rivalry

And to think that Sanjana would never have even played basketball had it not been for sibling rivalry. Sanjana played many sports such as football, tennis and badminton for recreational purposes but never took any of them up seriously. Not until she was 12, when she wanted to prove to her elder brother, who played football for his school, that she too was good at sports.

“My school did not have football, so I tried out every sport and basketball seemed the most fun sport to play and that’s why I stuck to it,” she said, adding, “thankfully,” after a pause. Sanjana’s brother went on to become a lawyer, but she got hooked on to basketball. “At first, I just played for fun in school, but then I started getting passionate about the sport.”

In no time, she was on the national circuit. Four years after playing basketball for the first time, she was in the India U-16 team. Now, it’s time for the next level.