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Andheri YMCA: Where Basketball Is More Than Just A Game

Andheri YMCA: Where Basketball Is More Than Just A Game Court Chronicles

Joota kya dekh raha hai, game dekh,” giggles Amar Gaikwad. (What are you looking at my shoes for, check out my game instead!)

The line, Gaikwad says, is his favourite memory playing basketball at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) sports complex in Andheri, Mumbai. “I was never a person who spoke trash, but if someone looked down at my torn shoes, I had to let them know, ‘Who’s the boss!’” Gaikwad, now one of the most successful school coaches in Mumbai, says he owes it all to the game he learnt on the outdoor court at Andheri YMCA.

The Co-ordinates

Andheri YMCA opened in 1964 with an intention of providing top notch coaching in multiple sports. Located in DN Nagar, near the Versova Police Station in Andheri West, the YMCA is one of the largest among the nine branches of the Bombay YMCA. Flanked by a Boys Home on three sides and a tennis court on the fourth, the YMCA’s basketball court was constructed in 1995.

More Than Just Basketball

The very first court had an asphalt base, and the children living in the Boys Home took to the sport like fish to water! Allowed three hours of daily play time by the Home, the kids looked to make the most of it. However, playing on the hard surface under the blazing sun proved challenging. “We either played with torn shoes or barefoot, and as the court was hot we would get blisters. To save our feet, we would squeeze our chappals inside our shoes,” says Gaikwad, recalling his Boys Home experiences. It was a jugaad (improvisation) move that he believes, showcased their street smarts.

Soon, at the behest of the YMCA members and with the availability of funds, the surface was re-laid to concrete and floodlights were installed. But the Boys Home kids had to continue sweating it out in the middle of the day. There was one incentive to improve though: the best among them would be selected to play in the evenings against the regular members of the YMCA. “Evening sessions were great for us. The members would often support us by providing us with shoes to play. It was always competitive,” says Ganesh Chawan, another alumnus of the Boys Home who too is now a professional coach.

The Andheri YMCA basketball court at noon. Image credit: Advait Poddar.

 

While initially, basketball had been introduced by the YMCA purely as an activity for its members, the realisation dawned that it was a perfect tool to develop youngsters’ all-round personalities. “While practising our basics, we were often taught things like communication, teamwork and selflessness. Things that holds relevance for us even today,” says Chawan.

Despite having a strong team from the get-go — comprising majority of players from the Boys Home along with a few kids from the neighbourhood — the Andheri YMCA club side opened on a losing streak. All this changed when Peter Norrel, a basketball coach from Switzerland, arrived. “We learnt the right way to play basketball under coach Peter. He taught us everything we know and teach the children today,” says Chawan. Soon after, the young boys of Andheri YMCA began making a name for themselves, winning local tournaments and with many of its squad members getting selected to the district and state teams.

After Norrel, former India internationals and legends like Rajesh Srivastava and Abdul Hamid have taken it upon themselves to regularly play and guide the others at Andheri YMCA. “Just like we had Peter sir, these guys are blessed to have Rajesh sir and Babu sir [as Abdul Hamid is popularly known] and just like us, they have the best seats in the house to watch them in action,” says Gaikwad.

The balcony of the Boys Home, which overlooks the basketball court at Andheri YMCA. Image credit: Advait Poddar.

 

Replicating The YMCA Andheri Model

The example set by YMCA Andheri is one that is inspiring many others throughout the city of Mumbai. All branches of the Bombay YMCA now run free basketball coaching sessions for underprivileged children. They are using the sport not just as a vehicle for physical development but also as a means to inculcate moral values for holistic growth. The YMCA-Boys Home model has also been replicated by its former graduates Chawan and Gaikwad who have launched their own NGO called ‘360 Life Changer Charitable Trust’. “While my income from coaching may not rival incomes of those working in big companies, I finish each day with a smile, knowing that I made a difference by sharing my knowledge of basketball with the children,” says Gaikwad.

Over the last 22 years, the basketball court at Andheri YMCA has seen over 5000 kids from the Boys Home and from the local neighbourhood train there. In doing so, the court has worn multiple hats, from being a classroom that teaches life lessons, to transforming into a daily battleground for evening pickup games, to becoming a competitive venue that hosts Mumbai’s budding athletes. But above all, YMCA Andheri has had the unique legacy of being a career-defining lifeline to over a dozen kids from the Boys Home, who have gone onto become full-time basketball coaches. These grassroots trainers are ‘paying it forward’ by bringing other marginalised children from India’s ‘maximum city’ under their care, away from the mean streets and towards a more secure future.

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