Basketball’s new home in Shillong

Tucked away deep inside the heart of the campus, the indoor complex at the North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences in Meghalaya, hosted the women’s basketball final at the 2nd North East Olympic Games.

With nearly 1,500 spectators cheering them, Meghalaya lost to Sikkim 67-86 in the finals of women’s basketball.

With nearly 1,500 spectators cheering them, Meghalaya lost to Sikkim 67-86 in the finals of women’s basketball. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Tucked away deep inside the heart of the campus, the indoor complex at the North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences in Meghalaya, hosted the women’s basketball final at the 2nd North East Olympic Games.

The North Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences, or NEIGRIHMS as it is colloquially called, has stood on the outskirts of Shillong since 1987.

Over the past three decades, the institute would have come to the rescue of thousands of patients. Many would have used the educational and research institutes in the facility.

More recently, however, NEIGRIHMS has been nursing and nurturing a different kind of patient, and with peculiar interest. On Tuesday, the city witnessed it in the pink of health.

Tucked away deep inside the heart of the campus, the indoor complex at NEIGRIHMS hosted the women’s basketball final at the 2nd North East Olympic Games. The facility has also been home to the Meghalaya men’s and women’s teams over the past six months.

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“The reason why we’re here is that we do not have a dedicated basketball facility,” says Andrew Suting, the women’s team manager.

NEIGRIHMS is the temporary base of the team before the Indoor Stadium at the JN Sports Complex, worth Rs. 125 crore, comes up.

Before moving to NEIGRIHMS, the team practised at St. Anthony’s Higher Secondary School. It is the only other indoor basketball court available at the moment. The venue even hosts the zonal championships. But for a bigger event like the Olympic Games, the venue had to be grander, and Suting knew just the way out.

“I’ve got to thank Dr. C Daniala - the medical superintendent. He’s an avid basketball player himself and has been very supportive of the sport. He used to play with me in college, and the relationship has carried forward,” says Suting.

Patrons are difficult to come by in Shillong, where football takes the bigger piece of the cake. A lack of players and coaches picking up the sport makes the task tougher.

“Meghalaya had a basketball culture for a long time until football took over. Being a hilly region, small spaces allowed more room for basketball courts than bigger football fields.

“But over the last 10 years, there has been a drop. There was a shortage of coaches and obviously infrastructure,” says Suting.

Even with dwindling interest, the sport has found a lifeline in people who are dedicated to reviving the sport. Suting leads the way.

After working in football administration across the Indian Super League and the I-League, Suting switched to basketball. It was an attempt to translate the learnings from football into basketball, he says.

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“The experience helped in terms of understanding what a club needs to run, what the players require to perform at their best. That is translating well. We’ve reached a point where we’re hosting championships, and have spectators turning up,” says Suting.

Sikkim’s coach Sonam Barfungpa (L), captain Lima Lhasungpa, and fitness coach Tashi Lhamu Bhutia pose with the trophy.

Sikkim’s coach Sonam Barfungpa (L), captain Lima Lhasungpa, and fitness coach Tashi Lhamu Bhutia pose with the trophy. | Photo Credit: Abhishek Saini

On Tuesday, nearly 1,500 showed up for the women’s final. Unfortunately for Suting, Meghalaya lost. Sikkim ran away with the game 86-67.

Sikkim has a similar tale to tell. Just like in Meghalaya, people do not take up basketball here due to a lack of monetary benefits.

Post Covid-19, however, the basketball ecosystem in the state has seen a revamp. Something that the players and coaches feel made a difference in the women’s team clinching gold in Shillong.

“We’ve just started a league with the Basketball Association of Sikkim. Games take place every weekend. The competition is year long and teams contest the Playoffs at the end. Very similar to the NBA,” says the Sikkim head coach Sonam Barfungpa.

The top players from this league were brought into a month-long camp to prepare for the Olympic Games. The association even got a dedicated fitness coach to help with the preparations.

Given the monetary crunch in basketball, a lot of players continued to work day jobs to sustain themselves even while the camp was underway. The team’s captain, Lima Choden Lhasungpa, a teacher at a hotel management institute in Gangtok, is one such player.

“It was a hectic one month (of training camp). I used to rush to the court in the morning for the fitness drills, take lectures in the afternoon, and then return to court in the evening for practice,” says Lima.

“In Sikkim, basketball has been a seasonal sport. Players do not want to continue with it since it has no future. Players like me, who have played for so long, want to take the mantle and encourage younger players to take it up. The league makes a difference there,” she adds.

The association plans to implement a similar league for the under-17, under-19 and under-21 age groups, says Sonam. The example of the women’s team should expedite the process.

For Sonam and Suting, the past week in Shillong has been a modest reward for their efforts. It would encourage them to continue. Matching the quality of some other states in the country remains a tall order, they acknowledge. Ventures like the upcoming indoor stadium in Shillong will help that cause. And unlike a basketball game where every 24 seconds land a scoring opportunity, this shot will require a longer clock.

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