When basketball becomes a way of life

March 18, 2017 — by Harshini Ramaswamy

I was introduced to basketball at age 8 when my parents signed me up for “City Hoops,” a program for elementary school kids. I initially didn’t think much of the sport — it was just one of the many my parents had signed me up for as a kid.

As I grew older, though, basketball grew in importance even as I lost interest in other sports. Soccer, swimming and tennis faded into the background, and I spent most of my evenings shooting hoops. I soon emerged as a standout player from my stints in National Junior Basketball from fourth to seventh grade.

My height and speed gave me an advantage over other players in my age, and I became the top scorer in every team I played on. I lived for the special pats on my back awarded solely to me from the opposing team’s coaches, and as a result, I played for the spotlight.

I cringe thinking about the cockiness I displayed in elementary and middle school. I found that even though there is no “I” in team, there is an “I” in “win.” I played an individual game, often refusing to pass to my teammates because I was overconfident in my abilities. I would bashfully look down as people complimented my skills, but on the inside, I would greedily hoard their praise.

That all changed when I attended a basketball camp in Sonora with Saratoga High’s JV basketball team in seventh grade. As a seventh grader playing with the high schoolers, I swelled with confidence because I believed I was special playing at a more competitive level than other kids in my grade. But after every game that camp, I was beaten down.

The JV players were much better than I was. I was blocked, shoved and pushed down on those courts, instilling in me a fear of high school basketball and hurting my confidence. I cried in secret almost every night and became timid and unsure of my game.

Entering high school, I considered not trying out for the school team. A large factor that had played into this decision was the fact that my older sister, Dharini, had been a star player, making the varsity team as a freshman, and I was afraid I couldn’t live up to the reputation she had built.

She had been one of the best guards the school had ever seen — her name was in the top few of nearly every record in rebounds, points, steals and assists. I felt many eyes on me and an unseen pressure to play extremely well as a freshman. I lived in her shadow when I entered school as the girl known as “Dharini’s little sister.”

Even after making the JV team, I also realized I was no longer the tall kid who could reach over the other little kids and get the rebounds. Suddenly, I was one of the shortest centers in the league. I knew that if I really wanted playing time, I would have to step it up.

I threw myself into the work required to improve by staying after practice to take extra shots, going on the weekends by myself or with my coach Danny Wallace to work on post moves, watching videos on technique and playing one-on-ones with my sister whenever she returned from college. I was determined to work hard and the results showed on the court, but as sophomore year came around and I found myself on the varsity team, I was still missing the confidence I once exuded.

Being benched certainly didn’t help either, though it was what I expected and knew I deserved. Although I got playing time, I was not in the game long enough to develop a rhythm or find the flow, getting pulled out abruptly at times in favor of our main scorers.

At my lowest points, I did not even feel like a part of the team. I felt as if I had not earned my spot and the success of the team did not feel like a success for me. Perhaps it was because of those days as the “star” of my childhood basketball teams, yet in time I would realize it was my own negative attitude that separated me from the team and that I should have focused on the “bright side.”

Playing on varsity gave me the opportunity to to play with bigger and faster girls whose defense beat me down more times than I would like to admit. Yet all this did was increase my determination to find a way around them.

I began to savor the contact and welcome the many bruises forming on my knees, finding a release from the anger, frustration and self-hatred I felt and finally feeling as if I was working for my playing time. When I was inserted into the starting lineup this year as a junior, the familiar anticipation and excitement to prove myself returned, especially with the encouragement and the trust placed in me by the team.

I wanted to have a fantastic year with the team filled with the seniors I’ve known and loved since I was in fourth grade, girls like Rachel Davey, Aryana Goodarzi, Maxine Parr, Jenny Qian, Natasha Ramakrishnan, Yianna Spirakis and Rachel Won. Though we did not end the season the way we wanted to, I did not regret any of the time spent with this team. The night of our last game, I cried into the arms of my teammates, who understood the pain that comes with seeing a person for the last time. Though I do pass them in the hallways and will for these last few months, the bonds felt on the court will never be what they once were, and should be properly mourned.

I also have them to thank for creating an atmosphere that made me to comfortable to play and laugh on the court for the last few years. Not many people find their “niche” at high school, and however clichéd it may sound, mine was there with my team on the court. I have never experienced anything like it in my life — a group of people who push each other beyond the court to become, with no other way to put it, our best.

Coach Mike Davey has also taught me important lessons: Above all, work relentlessly to get what you want and always have a positive attitude when going forward in life. There is no other coach who cares more about his players, enough to put me in situations in which I had to learn to become comfortable being uncomfortable because he knew and believed in my skills better than I knew myself. He taught me that “victory goes to the vulnerable,” and I would not be the player I am today if it had not been for the guidance of Wallace, Davey and our assistant coach Aron Mitsunaga.

It saddens me to say goodbye to these current seniors I love from the bottom of my heart, yet as the upcoming varsity players began to enter the room during a postseason lunch meeting, I began to feel that familiar electric excitement at the prospect of another season. I look forward to learning who they are and becoming a team with the same bonds as the special one this season.