A peach chiffon sari trailing, hair let loose and flowing in slow-mo, sun set over the basketball court on the picture-perfect horizon of a summer camp. Just like Kajol in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai – her favorite movie, that’s how Geethu reckoned comebacks in basketball looked.
Geethu Rahul nee Geethu Anna Jose did not expect a basketball court scene where a teammate was straight slapped and went down wincing in pain, while the opposite team gnashed teeth and gleefully completed a basket with loud cackles, on her return to the sport from motherhood at age 36.
“The referees didn’t even care!” Geethu recalls amidst horrified giggles, adding after another bout of laughter, “only if someone kills you, they will probably give a foul in 3-by-3 basketball!”
A mother of two children now, Geethu jokes that her kids are going to end up watching a ‘rowdy player version’ of their mother on court in the 3×3 format, adding she has no choice but to adapt to the rough, physical manifestation of basketball, a sport where the 6’2″ was India’s best in 5X5 till 2013.
One of the cleanest rebound defenders of her time – some might say far too gentle in her bearing on court which went against her in a demanding WNBA trial in the US – the 36-year-old is fending the cultural shock of free-for- alls of the 3X3 format, learning the tricks of the licks.
Stopping some elbows and palms flying about at each other apparently breaks the players’ flow of 3×3 play, so refs let them get on with it, as long as the tempo is ceaselessly continuous. Geethu took a week to gulp down the ‘sacrillege’ she will witness.
“In my 20 years of playing 5×5, I never saw anyone get away with slapping an opponent and the ref casually carrying on. The first 3-4 rounds I was zapped,” says the former top-scorer of the Asian Championships in a field of Chinese and Korean giantesses, after she turned out for Kochi Stars in the 3×3 franchise league PBL last month. “But I realised anyway refs are not calling fouls, so I’ll also start doing the same and whack about anyone stopping me,” she says feinting menace. “There’s no respect anyway, so these young girls will help me become rough,” she continues, amused.
Aryan, 7 and Aradhna, 5 are about to find out that Mummy who returned from a tournament in Chandigarh, has quite literally learned to brawl without compunction.
Basketball and Bollywood
A Bollywood buff all her life, she would be delirious if any movie of the 90s and noughties, referenced the sport she was India’s best at. “I was a huge Shah Rukh fan after Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.”
Geethu even named her children with filmstar-kid names. “See, you don’t really see a lot of basketball in Indian pop culture. Except in basketball scenes in movies. I was an even bigger Abhishek Bachchan fan because he played the sport in real life. So my first-born son was Aryan, and instead of Aradhya, I named my daughter Aradhna,” Geethu says. “We are Christians, so we never had such names. But I was a big movies fan, so it had to be these ones.”
She married a former state-level tennis player and now dentist, Rahul, who told her she’d had enough years sitting at home being a mother. And that she should get out of the house and resume playing basketball since she had been so good at it and loved it to bits.
“His name being Rahul, like in the movie, might or might not have firmed up my decision to marry him!” she giggles, “but he’s the reason I seriously considered returning to the sport. I was a little hesitant. As someone who played sport he understood how hard it must be to have reached that top level and then suddenly quit.”
Quit on a dream she indeed had, when she met Rahul circa 2011 after India had defeated China for a gold medal in 3×3 at Qatar. “See, marriage and kid, everything is blissful. My jersey number was 14 and I became a mother in 2014 and I was content. But you know how basketball is. Whenever I saw girls playing on the court, I’d get this very bad urge to play. When I asked him, he said I must go ahead and leave the kids to him. My mother helped out. I do feel terrible when the kids call up and ask ‘amma, when are you coming home?’ But the game never leaves you,” she says.
Post-childbirth, she needed to lose weight though it seriously only started to happen when Aryan, 7, started packing her gym bag and told her, “Don’t you have to go to the office? Why are you being so lazy? Come let’s go.”
“They have become my strictest trainers. They once heard their father and now lecture me about how I need to go to the gym so I can be fit to play on court. They look at my plate and make me eat veggies. It’s all reversed. I’ve just introduced them to basketball. Let’s see,” she says.
It wasn’t that Geethu didn’t have a fulfilling India career, though the WNBA trials not working out – for it would’ve been a breakthrough – is something she’ll wonder about for years. “I finally won the Arjuna award and thought it was time to leave,” says India’s center for a dozen years – the star that the rest of the Indian team revolved around.
Yet, at a time when all other sports were witnessing franchise leagues take off, basketball just didn’t get moving back then. And it gnawed at her.
Marriage after two years of courtship seemed like the logical next phase of life. “You know I kept waiting for a basketball league to happen, but it just never did. So when I saw the promos of the 3X3 early in March with Rohit Bakshi as promoter I knew I couldn’t miss this chance. There was a tingle in my spine that said no matter what I want to be part of this and I can’t stay away from basketball any longer. Still it took a week to get into training.
I’m gonna be 36-37, so I’m just happy I could finally be a part of a professional league. It was well organized and both foreign and Indian players were given the same respect and treatment,” says the former Indian Railways mainstay.
It was also a merry gathering of her contemporaries, creaking joints, luminous brains, rimless three-Ps and all. “I felt the same excitement we used to when Railways traveled to the North for Nationals, and initially it was tough to say Bye to my children. But I got into game-mode as soon as I saw the court,” she says.
3×3 might be a fast-paced blur, but Geethu reckons the Daddies & Mummies still had it in them to match step, even if the pushing and slapping took some learning. “There were 4 of us mothers there – Smriti, Steffy, me. Even in the men’s teams, it was nice to catch up with old players, they’re all fathers now – Vishesh (Brughavanshi), Jagdeep (the stylish Punjab player who never joined a pro team and stayed loyal to the state), and Aravind . Of Course we’ve all changed. Yes, the speed took time, but we have maturity and can control the tempo of the game. A good mix and match of young and old makes for great 3X3. It’s fast and great to watch,” she gushed.
Breathless but happy
Geethu wasn’t quite prepared for the exertions initially when she began training, thinking it’s just 10 minutes with substitutions aplenty. “A 12 second clock for touch, rebound, attack and shoot with no individual fouls and just 5 fouls on the team. How tough could it be? But, nah. The physicality and speed killed me. But it’s breathless and exciting once you get into it,” she says. 3Ps are counted as 2 on the half-court format and there’s 1 point inside the perimeter.
“You know I enjoyed defense and taking rebounds gave me the most exhilaration,” Geethu says like a classical player who knows defense is more satisfying in basketball than shooting.
Returning to Chandigarh where she had played several national tournaments when young, was another high point. “There’s beautiful memories of playing basketball in Punjab. People there just love the game, and it’s very different from anywhere else. The hospitality was great, and I could relive my youth,” says the former star, who easily tallied 30+ points individually in her heyday, and was known for her fadeaway hook shot.
Geethu stresses that 3×3 doesn’t lend itself to rewinding and threadbaring like the 40-minute domestic classics against Delhi or Chhattisgarh or Kerala used to when she led Railways, and later India. “It’s all over in 10 minutes or first to 21 points, so you don’t sit and dwell. If you ask me exactly what happened, I won’t be able to tell you! But I felt like I was back on my court. I’d think of Aryan and Aradhna as soon as I stepped out. But in those 10 minutes it was just like old times,” she says.
For someone who followed rules assiduously and rarely got into foul trouble, she returned home to her children in Kochi, with plenty of tales of flapping arms, that might or might not have struck an opponent, all told with a wink and a wicked smile.