New Delhi: Khushi Dongre’s journey from the town of Aurangabad to the ASA College’s basketball team in Miami, Florida was by no means an easy one but the 18-year old has no intention of slowing down any time soon.
Dongre has represented India in the FIBA Asia U-18 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament, played in Malaysia in 2019 and was also part of the Indian team for the U-16 Women's Asian Championship India 2017 Division B.
Her ultimate dream remains to play in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and, given the sheer dedication the youngster has shown in her craft while overcoming personal demons in the process, one wouldn’t bet against her achieving that dream sooner or later.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life – issues caused by friends and family, something I faced at a very young age,” she told News18 Sports in an exclusive interaction.
“For me, life is like a game of basketball. Whenever I see a challenge in front of me, I try and cross them and when I feel like it’s hard to cross them, I shoot a three pointer! For me, basketball and my life are one in the same thing. The sport has helped me a lot,” she added.
From Studious to Sporty
However, basketball was not a sport the self-professed ‘studious kid’ loved from a young age – her first forays into the world of sport came via gymnastics and wrestling.
“When I was into gymnastics and wrestling, my dad used to love seeing me play since he is a sports lover himself.
“I come from a family of wrestlers too; my grandpa and uncles have wrestled at some level. I wasn’t too interested but I definitely liked it."
An unfortunate accident brought an end to her time with gymnastics but she was never too far away from the world of sport and soon took up wrestling.
“One day when I was in the third grade, I hit my head during gymnastics and needed stitches. After that my dad said, ‘you’re done with gymnastics now’ and I said okay!
“Then I wrestled for a bit in my dad’s club in Aurangabad. He got me there mostly to work on my overall fitness.
“I was a studious kid so I wasn’t too into sports at the time, but I feel like it’s a hereditary thing with me. My dad – who was my first coach – worked hard on my fitness.
“I just enjoyed the way people play basketball and my father used to encourage me to play anything; it didn’t matter which sport. That’s how I started playing basketball.”
Work Hard, Play Hard
Her early motivation to get better at the sport came from being underestimated by her senior peers. Dongre didn’t like the attitude of the elder players and decided to do something about it.
“One time when I was playing my seniors mocked me, saying ‘what are you gonna do’. You know how seniors are! I was nervous and got back home and talked to my dad about this behaviour which I didn’t like.
“He told me the only way to shut them up was to work and play hard. And I did! We started training the next day.”
However, just because she is no longer an active participant in the world of gymnastics and wrestling doesn’t mean the lessons she learnt in those times are no longer of any use.
Basketball as a sport is demanding on the body but for Dongre, the transition came easier due to having been a part of sports from an early age.
“When I did gymnastics, it helped with my flexibility and that does help in basketball. My wrestling training contained a lot of footwork so that also came in use.
“My dad encouraged me to be an all-rounder and work on everything; I changed a lot of positions from my state level days to national level days and did it easily.”
'Daddy's Little Pehelwan'
Encouragement from her father remains a common theme of the conversation. In her Twitter bio she describes herself as ‘Daddy's little pehelwan’ and, according to Dongre herself, this extends far beyond the realm of just sporting training.
“I come from a background where women aren’t necessarily given a lot of importance. But my parents raised me differently.
“My dad especially deserves a lot of credit for that. I will thank him every day for what he has done for me, not just on Father’s Day.
“He supported me through everything! He told me ‘you can do anything you want, I am always there for you’.
"At a certain time in my life I was dealing with depression – I felt like I didn’t want to do anything at all for about a month.
“It was my dad who pulled me out of that and helped me through it all. He is supportive and encouraging. He instilled a positive mindset in me and taught me that it is okay to make mistakes; the best way to get over a mistake is work harder. As a result, I am now an international-level basketball player.”
Sports in India - A Work-in-progress
She does, however, also recognise that children in India need more than just encouragement from parents if they are to take up sport as a profession.
Indian society in general places more importance on studies – hardly an ideal way to breed elite sporting talent. It is even harder for girls, who are in many cases not even encouraged to play.
As someone who has been through the rigours of the system, Dongre feels that change must be brought about in two ways: not only should more opportunities be given for girls to play sport, but it must also be inculcated into the school curriculum so that children can learn from a young age itself.
“I guess girls in India need the same opportunities that are given to the boys. I think more tournaments and championships for the women is the need of the hour.
“If a men’s team is playing 10 games a year, women’s teams play maybe 2-3 games. So it’s hard for the girls to cope that way and then play well on the bigger stage.
“Plus we always see sports as an optional or extra-curricular subject in schools, but I think it should be a proper subject where students are taught everything about various games.
“If they learn early, they might aspire to the NBA or WNBA, NCAA or even the Euro Leagues when they are teens. We need to start from the base,” she signs off.