For 18-year-old Riyanshu Negi, basketball seems to be part of a bigger design.
The youngster from Roorkee in Uttarakhand was always a keen athlete, with his father and grandfather having played football for the Indian Army and encouraging him to play sport. Like most Indian teens, he spent his time playing the more popular and accessible sports of football and cricket.
But when a few peers suggested he try out basketball when he was in his early teens, his life took a new direction. The journey has since taken him from a small town to the NBA Academy in India and now to the United States of America on a scholarship based on his skill with the ball.
Negi has signed with DME Sports Academy, a prep school in Daytona Beach, Florida. He is just the fourth male student-athlete from the NBA Academy India to be part of a high-school or college basketball program in the USA.
The teenager is evidently excited about the opportunity, which could open a path to the prestigious college football circuit in the States.
“I am really happy because this opportunity is great for me, I am excited and can’t wait to start the new chapter of my life,” Negi told Scroll.in.
Negi has been to China and Australia to play basketball as part of the NBA Academy Games and an Asia Pacific Camp. But the USA, a country where the sport is arguably the most popular, is a completely different ball game, pun intended, and he is aware of it.
“I’m focusing on improving as a player, a student and a person. It is tough but I’m ready to put in that work and hopefully if I keep on doing that, I might have a chance to play college basketball. Right now I want to play college basketball after graduating,” he added.
The Indian, who is 6’3’’, got this opportunity on the basis of video footage and some help from the NBA Academy.
“I graduated from the academy 2019 and someone named Amir Ali, who lives in the US, saw my videos. He texted me saying he wants to help and connected me with the DME people. I sent my videos and highlights to them and after watching them, they were willing to give me the full scholarship,” he recounted on the procedure to get there.
It is a long way from Uttarakhand, where he first started playing at Delhi Public School.
“I used to play cricket like every teenager in India. My friends used to play basketball and once there was a tournament, they asked me I wanted to play. I was about 13 or 14…I was short and I was quick so they suggested I play basketball. I said I’ll give it a try and luckily I performed well in that tournament, and got selected for the state team. That’s how I started playing,” Negi explained.
Part of the inaugural class of student-athletes identified through the ACG-NBA Jump Program in India, he has represented and captained Uttarakhand in youth and junior nationals in the last few years.
His family backed him completely, even though he chose a path different from his father and grandfather. Both are Army men and war veterans, having been part of the Kargil war and Bangladesh war respectively.
“My father played football professionally, my grandfather too. So they really wanted me to play some kind of sports and were very supportive about basketball.”
The big push to pursue the less-popular basketball as a legitimate career option in India – where sports, in general, is often considered a poor life choice – came from a combination of talent, family backing and the chance to be part of the NBA Academy in India.
“My perspective of basketball changed when I entered the academy because in India we don’t usually focus on fundamentals,” he said of his time at the academy, “I was groomed as a shooter and tender and my basketball IQ got really good. It was a huge step for me. I really learned a lot, not just about basketball and I learned about my body and how take care of it as well.”
The big challenge in the professional set up was the intensity of training and the change in food habits.
“Initially, it was tough for me, it was tough for everyone when we started. We never had that kind of training when we back at our home. So it was tough for two or three months, but then we get used to it and adapted,” he recalled.
Missing butter chicken and oily food, in general, was another setback. “I remember that we used to have Indian food only on Sundays,” he said with a laugh.
But the two years have prepared him for the bigger challenges ahead when he starts his course next year. “Because of the pandemic, things are a little slower. I have contacted friends who are there, they have short practice as of now but I don’t what the situation is now,” he said.
But when he does get there, he is determined to take all the shots he can.