In the wake of the Rio Olympics, there is much to be said about sport in India. From politicians to authors and columnists - everyone seems to have a say in the matter, more so when there is criticism to offer up on a platter. What speaks louder, however, are stories wherein sport wins the heart not for awards or money or even fame but for the love of the game and the opportunity it presents. This is a story of Shaily Upadhyay, a 12-year-old girl who has found hope in the shape of a basketball. Her love for the game and her persistence has won her a 5-year-long 100% scholarship at Shiv Nadar School in Noida.
Shaily Upadhyay was one of the first students to join Dribble Academy, a specialised basketball coaching program started by Pradyut Voleti. Voleti has a Masters in Clinical Psychology and has trained with Ganon Baker, a prominent skill developer from the US. He felt that the focus on the fundamentals of Basketball was very weak, and with the training he had received, he believed he could make a difference in the way the game was played. The Academy started with 5 kids in Noida, and over the course of three years Voleti has reached out to 1000 kids and over 20 boarding schools across India.
Soon after setting up the Academy, Voleti founded The Gheja Village Project wherein he would take a basketball and his love for the sport to rural children in India. He felt that these kids had a lot of energy, but lacked outlets that could channel it. The instances of alcohol abuse in these areas are exorbitantly high, and Voleti felt that basketball could be a way to harness children’s energy and keep them from straying off the path. “The children come out to play, they sweat, they exert themselves, and they get a good night’s sleep,” he tells us. “I wanted to empower them with the knowledge of Basketball, and through basketball realise the importance of education, teamwork, honesty, discipline and sacrifice.”
Shaily was one of the first kids to join the project, and she had a knack for the sport right from the start. Voleti says, “Within the first month of her training, you could tell there was something different about this girl. She would wake up at 4:30 am every morning, and wouldn’t stop. There were times when I couldn’t make it to the court, but she would be there; ready to go.” Shaily’s father works as a driver in a society in the NCR region, and he couldn’t even afford to buy her the right shoes that would help improve her game. With the help of Voleti and the Academy, she tried out for a spot at the Shiv Nadar School in Noida - and she got it. Her admission was based entirely on her basketball skill. She now plays in an indoor court and her life has changed forever. Upadhyay was also selected to play at the district level (Noida), and her team was ranked 3rd at the district level where she was recognized as a key performer. Most recently, she has been selected to play for the Uttar Pradesh under-14 national team.
Voleti couldn’t be prouder of her, and say’s that she is an inspiration for all village children playing the sport. His journey, however, doesn’t end with one child’s success. “If I can give the rest of them half of what she has got, I will be happy,” says Voleti. This is in the hope that the government and schools recognise the importance of sport and good training, and invest in sport that so clearly can leave an indelible mark on a child’s life.