In India, national pride and international respect is everything. That is what drives its single biggest basketball goal: to find the first Indian-bred athlete who can make a legitimate NBA impact. While basketball in India is extremely popular, it has consistently come up short in the sprint to find the once-in-a-generation player.
Boston-area resident and former chemistry teacher Shaun Jayachandran, however, believes in running a marathon instead of a sprint, and says that India’s biggest basketball goal should be something entirely different.
“In India, there's a lot of focus around becoming a professional and getting paid. And so people are so worried about that top bandwidth that a lot of the love and purpose of the game gets lost,” Jayachandran said.
The desire to resurrect that love and purpose is part of the reason why Jayachandran founded an international non-profit organization called Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy in 2012. Based in Chennai, India, the organization offers a free two-week summer camp for Chennai-area kids. In this camp, the kids are not only given the opportunity to learn and play basketball, but they are also given valuable educational and social tools in an engaging and community-driven environment. In 2012, there were only 45 kids, but in recent summers, that number has skyrocketed to close to 500.
The ability to give kids a fun and stimulating environment in which they can grow intellectually and socially is ultimately what Crossover’s main mission is. Crossover hopes that by giving these kids the tools they need, they can be more motivated to achieve more while potentially breaking out of generational poverty cycles.
According to Crossover, 62% of Indian students drop out of school at some point and 76% of students don’t attend college after school. These high rates are what Crossover and Jayachandran are attempting to lower — and they have been remarkably successful. Of all the students that have gone through Crossover, only 15% of them ended up dropping out of school.
One might ask though, why basketball? And how does a combination of two completely different disciplines in basketball and education have this type of effect? Jayachandran's parents had the same questions.
“My parents, first of all, thought I was nuts for starting it, right? They're like, this makes no sense. You're taking basketball to India to impact education and poverty. None of this makes sense,” Jayanchandran said.
Ultimately, it is all about changing the mindset of the kids and their families. In the process, as a bonus, he was able to change his parents’ mindset too.
One of the keys of the program is that at least half of the participants are girls. Many boys grow up exclusively playing soccer and cricket, whereas girls usually do not. Basketball gives a level playing field to both genders because they both have little experience.
“This is one of the few times in life, you're both going to start from the exact same footing," Jayachandran said. "And we’re not just teaching hoops, and teaching leadership, but our focus is on gender equity as well."
Giving girls this level playing field is powerful because throughout their lives, they are sometimes told that they can’t achieve as much as boys. Through Crossover, they are given the same importance and the same tools as boys, and that goes a long way for their self-confidence and their motivation to continue their education.
Moreover, the boys in the program can see that the girls are able to learn at the same pace as them, and it breeds a mindset that they should be treating women and girls with respect, and the effect on girls has been astounding.
“Of the 1200 girls that have gone through Crossover, we haven't had a single girl report having to have go to child marriage or get pregnant,” Jayachandran said.
Jayachandran noted that this is especially impressive given the high national rates of young marriages and pregnancies in India. The statistic shows that girls who have gone through Crossover and their families often value education more than quick marriages, just by receiving this confidence.
This idea of dignity and respect isn’t just seen in the statistics. During one of the summers, when the Crossover kids were asked who their most favorite and influential basketball coach was, they overwhelmingly answered with Jayachandran’s dad.
“This was really strange because my dad doesn't play basketball, nor does he do any coaching. My dad checks the kids in when he volunteers. He asks, ‘What's your name? How are you?’,” Jayachandran said.
For the first time in their life, the kids met someone who actually cared about them and their stories. They saw someone who cared about their future and remembered them, giving them a sense of importance and dignity they didn’t have before.
Although Crossover promotes basketball, it is unlikely to find the first Indian NBA superstar. Instead of creating one short-lived national pride-inducing enigma, it is slowly but surely creating hundreds of future leaders who will be able to achieve something for themselves and their communities.
“I'm not selling you a magic bullet, right? We're selling you the 15 year dream, we're selling you the 20 year dream here. And that makes sense to people like, okay, I put into work, here's what's gonna happen,” Jayachandran said.
That is the true power of basketball and of sport. Although India should still want to find its NBA star, it should not be the main goal. Crossover and Jayachandran are working hard to change that goal, and at the same time, to improvinge outcomes for children in a country that has the world’s highest youth population. The possibilities are endless, and it starts with caring.