Nagpada isn’t your regular South Bombay neighbourhood. A bustling street filled with hawkers and food stalls, it is a place where escaping the traffic is almost impossible. But situated in the heart of Nagpada is one of Mumbai’s most historic basketball courts – the Late Bachoo Khan Municipal Playground.

This week, there’s a sense of euphoria in Mumbai as the National Basketball Association, the world’s best basketball league, will play its first-ever preseason game in the city. The games on Friday and Saturday between the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers are an effort to promote basketball in India. But despite the excitement, the state of the game in Nagpada represents a lost opportunity.

Under the beaming floodlights, a clutch of children on the court at the Bachoo Khan playground are being closely monitored by their coaches as they dunk, dribble and jostle their way past each another. This is the same court that has produced 15 international players, among them five winners of Maharashtra’s highest sporting honour, the Shiv Chhatrapati Award, and one winner of the Arjuna Award given out by the Central government to recognise outstanding achievement in sports.

“You step out and it’s a completely different world and once you step in, it’s something else,” said Taha Khan, who has been coaching children in the neighbourhood for seven years. “Go to any house in Nagpada, you will find a player who has his roots in basketball.”

The Napada Neighbourhood House basketball team in the year 1959. (Photo: Nagpada Basketball Association)

The playground was once the volleyball court of the Nagpada Neighbourhood House community welfare centre. When basketball first started being played in the neighbourhood in the 1950s, the director of the centre, an American named Longfellow, switched attention to the new sport.

But it was the arrival of coach Mustafa Khan Zahur Khan aka Bachoo Khan that powered Nagpada’s rise as a legendary basketball hub.

“Bachoo bhai was a volleyball player himself,” Afzal Khan, a former India international, told

Khan said that Longfellow appointed Bachoo Khan as the basketball coach on a monthly salary of Rs 35. “So after Bachoo bhai started coaching, the interest grew,” he said.

Afzal Khan represented the Western Railways for nearly 26 years and featured in 17 national championships. The 70-something veteran was also a former coach of the Maharashtra state and junior level teams. During his era, the Nagpada hoopsters would play bare feet on mud, including tournaments. The polycarbonated boards were originally made of woods and there were no floodlights during his time.

“Nagpada mein sabse bada basketball hi tha, cricket ka koi naamo nishaan hi nahi tha,” said Afzal Khan. Basketball was the biggest sport in Nagpada, there were no traces of cricket here.

He added: “We would not even get Rs 10 from our families while going to play nationals. We did not have shorts or banyans for matches but today boys have three kits, tracksuit, shoes and so many things. We would play so many nationals but never raised our collars.”

Former international player Afzal Khan represented India at the 1965 Asian Basketball Championship. (Photo: Nicolai Nayak / Scroll)

The lure of government jobs was one of the major reasons children from Nagpada started pursuing basketball. Western Railway, Central Railway, Customs, State Bank of India and many other organisations offered government jobs in the sports quota. Basketball was not only seen as a passion but also became a source of livelihood for many players.

“Getting a [government] job was a big motivation back then to take up basketball,” Fazal Khan, a national level player who represented the State Bank of India for 20 years, told “Now, there are very few but during my time, there were a lot of vacancies. If you played at the nationals, any team would come and pick you up.”

List of international players from Nagpada

Name Level
Late Umer Shah Senior international
Abbas Moontasir Senior international (Arjuna awardee)
Afzal Khan Senior international
Esmero Figueiredo Senior international
Gulam Rasool Khan Senior international (Shiv Chhatrapati awardee)
Abdul Hamid Khan Senior international (Shiv Chhatrapati awardee)
Riyaz Qadari Senior international
Hanif Patel Senior international (Shiv Chhatrapati awardee)
Late Shriatullah Khan Junior international
Thomas Fernandes Junior international (Shiv Chhatrapati awardee)
Mohamed Riyaz Junior international (Shiv Chhatrapati awardee)
Saed Bijapuri Junior international
Mohamed Ibrahim Senior international 
Mahomed Salim Senior international
Shahid Qureshi Senior international

A few 100 meters from the Bachoo Khan ground lies the Mastan YMCA court, run by the Central Mumbai branch of the YMCA. The aroma of kebabs from the stall at the entrance hovers around the ground which accommodates two large basketball courts. Spanning several decades, an age-old rivalry has brewed between the two sides.

“There was a coach under Bachoo named Iqbal Qureshi from our ground,” Afzal Khan said. “He fought with Bachhoo bhai and began coaching there [Mastan]. So he created a rift after dominating the coaching scene for a few years and that’s how the rivalry began.”

Fazal Khan added: “Our rivalry with the Mastan YMCA players was like that of India-Pakistan. Bachoo bhai would never allow our players to play at Mastan.”

The Mastan YMCA ground. (Photo: Nicolai Nayak / Scroll)

Gaining popularity

As much as Nagpada made a name in basketball, the locality was also known for residents who were part of Mumbai’s underworld. Gangster Dawood Ibrahim himself used to live in Teli Mohalla, which is about 400 metres from the Bachoo Khan ground. While he was rising as a local goon, Ibrahim would travel with his gang to cheer the Nagpada Neighbourhood House team.

“Dawood [Ibrahim], his brother Shabir Kaskar and his gang would come to watch our matches, they had a lot of interest in us,” said Afzal Khan. “Tabhi unka naam nahi tha par woh bas ubhar rahe the. [They weren’t so famous back then but were just coming up.]”

The boys from Nagapada also started catching the attention of Bollywood stars and cricketers.

“[Cricketer] Vijay Merchant was the chairman of NNH,” said Afzal Khan. “Bollywood celebrities would also come for our matches. I remember us [Western Railway] warming up for an All-India tournament at Ramu Memorial and [actor] Kader Khan had no ticket to enter. We took him along with us and said he was the team manager, they allowed him inside.”

He added: “Nagpada was known for crime but the ones who played basketball were not involved. Bachoo bhai was a big charsi [dopehead] himself but wouldn’t allow even one of his friends to the ground. He would hang out with gangsters but made sure it never affected his trainees.”

The lost charm

After Bachoo Khan’s death on August 4, 1998, basketball in Nagpada slippedinto a downward spiral. There was no one to replace him. Afzal Khan remembers a conversation he had with Bachoo Khan on his death bed, two days before he expired.

“He told me that the game should stay alive after his death,” Afzal Khan said. “He wanted me to make a committee of national and international players and look after it.”

Rakesh Maria, the former Mumbai Joint Police Commissioner who also played basketball at the court, helped revive the basketball scene in the locality. Before the turn of the century, the Nagpada Neighbourhood House was renamed the Nagpada Cagers Association.

“After he [Bachoo] expired in, many of the senior players got stuck,” said Noor Khan, secretary of the Nagpada Basketball Association. “Some in jobs, some in family and many other reasons. And the ground was closed for quite a lot of years around the mid-eighties. It was on the verge of shutting down.”

His son Taha Khan used to coach around 200 players during the year but now hardly 60-70 children turn up.

“Today, there is academic pressure and no one comes out of the house, due to gaming and social media,” said Taha Khan. “Secondly, being the only club that is run for free is not easy. Bachoo Bhai was running the club as a good deed. We put in money that is leftover from our annual tournaments. We also run a district team. There is a lot of pressure on us. Once you’re free from that headache then you can concentrate on the game. Finance is not the only problem but a major one.”

The lack of good indoor basketball courts and top-notch equipment is another factor in the sport’s decline, said Taha Khan, who manages several businesses, including a sports company.

He added: “Nagpada is known as the cradle of basketball in India. But how many clubs own an indoor basketball court in the country? The irony is that we don’t even have an indoor court in Mumbai, the [NBA Games] are not even being conducted on an original basketball court. We can’t expect an Indian to make it to the NBA when we don’t even have a proper indoor court.”

The last player from Nagpada to represent India was Shahid Qureshi, but that was two decades ago. Afzal Khan believes that this is because of a lack of enthusiasm in the sport.

“We used to practice for 3-4 hours daily in the evening,” explained Afzal Khan. “We did it at Mastan YMCA when we were playing for Railways. No other Nagpada player except Railways would be allowed at that ground. In those days there were no floodlights, so we would keep playing till it eventually got dark. Nowadays, players practice for 15 minutes and get tired as if they have played for 10 hours. No one’s really putting in the effort. There’s no dedication and interest.”

Afzal Khan (R) playing a basketball match on mud court. (Photo: Nicolai Nayak / Scroll)

The number of government jobs on offer in the sports quota has also dwindled.

“If a player starts playing at the age of eight and after playing for 12 years, he isn’t getting a job. So what is the advantage?” said an NBA club member. “The basketball in the north and south regions are growing because they have vacancies. They are creating the opportunities, we [Maharashtra] are not doing that.”

Despite the NBA games in India, basketball in the country isn’t making much headway, said the enthusiast. “It will only come up once the participation and involvement of children will grow,” he said. “Major responsibility is of the Basketball Federation [of India].”