Amaan Sandhu was greeted by a very familiar tune when he walked into the basketball court at Monmouth University in the first week of August this year. “I walked into the gym for my first workout and my coach King Rice was playing a song for me. It was Mundian to bach ke rahi,” he says referring to the song by British Punjabi bhangra rap group PanjabiMC.
Rice, the head coach of the basketball team at the New Jersey-based Monmouth University had actually been playing ‘Beware’ --the JayZ remix of the song but it was a perfect choice all the same for Sandhu. “I was like damn! These guys know my song! That was pretty cool. It really made me feel welcome,” recalls the 19-year-old who plays as a center.
Sandhu was admittedly a little nervous ahead of his first workout session until then. Monmouth University, located in the American state of New Jersey, competes in Division 1 of the NCAA – the highest level of collegiate basketball in the USA and one of the prime recruitment pools for the NBA (50 of the 60 players who were drafted by the NBA in 2021 were from Division 1 colleges). When he committed to signing with the Monmouth Hawks earlier this year, Sandhu became the first Indian-born male basketball player to win a scholarship to a Division 1 team. Division 1 of the NCAA is incidentally the same level of competition that Commonwealth bronze medallist high jumper Tejaswin Shankar competed in – albeit in track and field.
The ultimate goal for Sandhu is the NBA, of course. A few Indian players have tried to realise that dream but without much success. Satnam Singh Bhamara was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 2015, he never played a game for the team and is now attempting a career in professional wrestling. Princepal Singh signed a developmental G League contract in 2020 but didn’t progress very far either. Neither Satnam or Princepal went through the NCAA route though – and it’s one that Sandhu hopes will bring him more success.
While Sandhu might be a trailblazer of sorts, it seems inevitable that he would be associated with basketball. Sandhu, who hails from Mohali in Punjab, comes from a family of basketball players. His father, Gurcharanjeet Singh Sandhu, played for the national team while his mother, Rajinder Kaur played for Punjab. His older sister, Aakarshan, has also played for the U-18 Indian team.
Standing at 6 foot 7 by the time he was 13, Sandhu was scouted by the NBA India Academy located in the Greater Noida suburb of New Delhi. Within a few years, on the recommendation of NBA Academy and one-time Indian national coach Scott Flemming, he joined the First Love Christian Academy, a school in Pittsburgh, USA. By the time he graduated, Sandhu had shot up to 7 feet in height and was already attracting interest from a number of colleges in America.
Sandhu did not always plan to take the college route. “I remember, back in 2018, when I joined the NBA academy. I ain’t gonna lie, I knew what college basketball was but I didn’t know what it is. I knew about the NBA and that’s about it. When I started taking basketball seriously, that’s when I started looking at what my options were. My coaches at the NBA Academy said college basketball was a good idea and that’s how I decided to go for it,” he says.
His parents, he says, weren’t completely enthused at first. “My parents didn’t know much about college basketball in the USA. So I had to educate them on how that puts me one step closer to professional basketball. My parents played in the 1990s and 2000s so they have no idea about college basketball because Indian college basketball is really small, It’s not even close to what college basketball in the USA is like,” he says.
There’s another reason for his decision as well. “I made them understand that I was getting to go to college for free and I’m getting a degree. If I graduate I of course will have a chance to go to the league but after that my degree is going to help me in whatever I decide to do,” says Sandhu who says he is planning to major in communication.
Monmouth was keen to have him over. “After my school, I had a couple of other schools who were interested in me but ultimately it was just Monmouth and me going back and forth. I’m an international student, so there’s a lot more paperwork involved. I had to wait for the NCAA to clear me before I could play for a D1 school. I loved the school and coaching staff. I saw the arena. I met the dean. One of the deans is from India too. I was talking to one of the seniors.I love the vibe. As soon as everything got over, I told the coach if I get cleared to play for you, I’m coming here,” he says.
For the most part, Sandhu has made the transition from Mohali youngster to American college student fairly seamlessly. With a vocabulary peppered with Americanised slang and an easy sense of humour, it’s hard to imagine he’s ever not been in the country.
“I ain’t gonna lie. I didn’t speak a word of English before I joined the NBA Academy in 2017. But that was the only way to communicate with my coaches who are all from the USA. I was like I can’t speak to my coaches if I can’t speak English. When I went to school in the states, I saw the way people speak and I picked it right up. I still speak to my family in Punjabi but sometimes even they say I’ve become an American,” he says.
But as often the only Indian in the basketball teams he’s part of, it’s Sandhu who’s often the one giving lessons. “It was really strange when I came to college and my teammates and coaches were like--- hey Amaan tell us something about yourself and where you come from. Tell us about your background, your religion, and that sort of stuff. I found that crazy. Then you be thinking how, in India, no one really asked about it or they just knew already. Now you have to take the time to explain it to someone else. I also teach some of my teammates a few words in Punjabi too. Just a little stuff like ‘hi’ and ‘how are you’,” he says.
But for the most part though, it’s Amaan who’s doing the learning. Although Monmouth is just one of 358 Division 1 teams, the standard of play here is higher than anything that Sandhu – who’s already represented the Indian senior team at the FIBA South Asian Championships -- has played in before. “Don’t get me twisted. At the end of the day, College basketball is hard. It’s different than high school basketball and academy basketball. It’s different than international basketball. The style and physicality of the game is different than the way I played with the Indian team,” he says.
Sandhu’s still getting adjusted to the difference in levels. He has currently started seven of the 11 games Monmouth has played this season. He’s only averaged 2.1 points per game – the lowest in the Monmouth roster but has averaged 3.1 rebounds a match – the fourth-highest rate in the 10-member team.
He understands that the improvement will be hard but also knows that he has time on his side. “Right now, we just played a few games. College teams in the NCAA division 1 usually play older guys. Our team just has one senior(the fourth year of an undergraduate programme in the USA). It’s good. We as a team have grown and progressed and we have a long way to go. We are getting better. I’m one of the youngest guys as a freshman (first-year student). The role I’m playing, a lot of freshmen don’t even see the court and I’m starting for the team. It’s a blessing but I can’t take that for granted because the coach can take me out at any point,” he says.
So for now, Sandhu’s trying his best to give himself as much of a chance to be a regular in the side.
“There’s no two ways about it. You have to be a professional here because training at the NCAA level is very different from what I did at the NBA academy or high school or even the Indian team. The level of basketball, the intensity of workout and the speed of the game is really different. But you have to be a professional player period,” he says.
What complicates things is the fact that he’s got to balance his studies as well. “I ain’t gonna lie to you. I really don’t like hitting the books but I have to. So because of that I really have to plan my schedule. On Monday for example, I have classes from 11:40am to 1pm. So if I had a 7 am practice, then I’ll text coach If I can I work out with him individually at 6 am. I work out individually and by the time the team gets here, I’ve got 100s of shots off and worked on my individual skills. After I’m done by 8, I’ll shower and all. I grab breakfast at around 9. Between 9-1140, I’ll get some sleep and then see the phsyio or I’ll go to the trainer and ask if he can stretch me or something. After classes, I’ll grab some lunch and go to my room and chill a little bit before I go to my 330 pm practice. I’ll practise till 5:30pm and then shoot maybe a thousand free throws before I go to a 7:40pm class. Then I’ll be done by 9pm, grab dinner, go to my room chill. Do my homework. And then by 11pm, I’m kayoed (tired) and I’m sleeping until the next day. That’s how my day goes,” he says.
It’s hectic but, for Sandhu, it all seems worth it when he steps on court in the Hawks jersey. “It’s just really different when you compete here. In India, every court looks the same. Here the NBA and even college courts just feel larger. The intensity and physicality and the way the game moves is way faster than anything. The crowds are insane,” he says.
Ahead of what was his first match, Sandhu says the occasion almost seemed too big for him. “Here I’m this 19 year old and in my first match against Seton Hall I was up against a 25-year-old. I remember initially how nervous I was. The whole arena was packed. I was like ‘dang! this is my first college game. Coach is going to put me in. And initially, I wasn’t doing too well. I was thinking whether I’m really up for this. And coach was like what are you doing, you got to pick it up. And then I went in and got my first basket. I was really hyped after that. I was like ‘lets go!” he recalls.
Sandhu will be looking for more such moments in the years to come as he looks to break new ground in an unfamiliar environment. But he’s confident he will be able to pull it off. “It’s very different from anything I’ve done before. But at the end of the day, it’s basketball. I’ve been doing this for a long time. When I get the ball, I’m not thinking about where I’m playing. I’m thinking ‘lets just hoop.’” he says.