In mainland India, misconceptions about the people from the North Eastern part of the country are common. And when it comes to basketball, this lack of familiarity has led to pertinent stereotypes.
People from the North East are often thought of as short in height, which leads many to believe they can’t play basketball at a high level. And this has resulted in the unfortunate reality of a near total absence of North Eastern players in India’s national basketball teams.
However, 24-year-old Nima Doma Bhutia’s selection in the Indian team can finally change that.
Earlier this November, it was announced that the Sikkim player had been named in the Indian women’s squad for the FIBA Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournament from November 14 to 17 in Malaysia.
Nima’s elevation has been far from easy. From 2015 to 2019, the 5’ 7’’ tall Nima had been invited year after year to around seven Indian team probables camps, only to get rejected at the final stage.
“It was very difficult for me, but I love my dream to play for the country more than these rejections,” Nima told Scroll.in before the Olympic pre-qualifiers. “I knew that if I give up I will be letting down my coach, my parents and all the basketball players from the North East, especially girls.”
Nima’s long-awaited international debut was not only a personal milestone, but a larger triumph of a unique and thriving basketball ecosystem of a remote hamlet in the Eastern Himalayas.
The girls of Gangyap
Back in 2007, the then 12-year-old Nima was among the first batch of girls to pick up basketball at the newly opened Eklavya Model Residential School, Gangyap, located in West Sikkim’s Tashiding village.
The school’s Principal Sidharth Yonzone, being a huge NBA fan, had taken personal interest in introducing basketball as an extra-curricular activity, even doubling up as the coach.
After playing on a small mud court, Nima and her friends carved out a proper court with their bare hands, literally subjugating the world’s greatest mountain range to their collective will.
This same willpower translated into spectacular triumphs for the ‘Girls of Gangyap’, with EMRS winning the CBSE National School Championship twice, in 2011 and ‘13, beating fancied sides from Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
As the star player of her EMRS team, it was clear that Nima was ready for the next step – competing against India’s best women’s basketball players in the Senior National Championships. However, her state of Sikkim was still awaiting formal affiliation with the Basketball Federation of India.
Left with no choice, after graduating school, Nima moved to Madhya Pradesh and joined the Lakshmibai National Institute of Physical Education in Gwalior. This gave Nima the chance to finally participate in the National Championships as a member of the MP State team, which in turn, led to her first India camp appearance in 2015.
Nima’s selection has been as much a cherished dream of her EMRS coach Yonzone, as it has been of Nima herself.
“Now the goal is for ‘NimDo’ to cement her place in the Indian team which will then open doors for her other Gangyap teammates like Rinchen,” said Yonzone in a telephonic conversation.
The player he is referring to, Rinchen Doma Bhutia, is also studying at LNIPE, and like Nima has captained the MP State team.
“Nima is already considered a role model here [in Sikkim and its neighbouring areas],” said Yonzone. “In the Paljor Namgyal Girls School in Gangtok, the students have posters and cut outs of Nima in their hostel rooms. I have travelled with Nima for camps to Gangtok, Kalimpong and Darjeeling and have seen boys and girls queuing up for autographs.”
Prior to Nima, there had been only one player – male or female – from the North East to ever wear India colours. That player was H Laldinsanga, a flashy 5ft 8’’ point guard from Mizoram who represented India in a single tournament – the Middle Asia Zone Qualifiers in Delhi back in 2005.
After Laldinsanga, another Mizoram player, Lalrina Renthei, is being touted as the next big name from the region. Like Nima, Renthlei too was called to the Indian camp but thereafter, has fallen out of favour. Now 28, Renthlei is running out of time to make his much delayed India debut.
Replicating football success
India’s eight North Eastern states have a proud history of contributing international level athletes in sports like football, boxing, weight lifting and gymnastics, to name just a few. India’s football team, in particular, boasts of over half a dozen players hailing from the North East alone.
Can the national team selections of players like Nima (and potentially Renthlei) finally put the North East firmly on India’s basketball map too?
Eight years on since their maiden National School Championship victory, the success of the ‘Girls of Gangyap’ has by now been well documented and publicised. The continued ascendance of players like Nima will mark the next chapter of this Himalayan hoops story.
The writer is also the founder of Ekalavyas, a basketball media and promotion company.