Jennifer Azzi interview: Hall of Famer talks about NBA Academy India women’s programme, Sanjana Ramesh's success and more
Azzi spoke to Firstpost about Sanjana Ramesh’s success, how India can improve the path for young prospects, and which players have already caught her eye as the next “big things”.
Originally from Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the United States, Azzi excelled for Stanford University in her college years, winning an NCAA championship.
In 2009, she was named in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and from 2010-2016, she served as head coach of University of San Francisco women’s basketball team.
The point guard starred for the USA’s national team, winning basketball world championships in Malaysia and Germany and, on home soil, the 1996 Olympic gold in Atlanta
The size of a standard FIBA basketball court are 28 metres by 15 metres, but for Hall of Famer Jennifer Azzi, the bouncing ball stretched out the dimensions to all over the globe. Now, that journey finds Azzi making annual stop-overs in India, where she is leading the second NBA Academy India women’s programme at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Complex in Greater Noida.
Originally from Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the United States, Azzi excelled for Stanford University in her college years, winning an NCAA championship, two Pac-10 titles, and a host of individual honours. The point guard starred for the USA’s national team winning basketball world championships in Malaysia and Germany and, on home soil, the 1996 Olympic gold in Atlanta. Professional basketball took her to Italy, France, Sweden, and then back in the US with the newly-launched WNBA in the late 90s.
In 2009, she was named in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and from 2010-2016, she served as head coach of University of San Francisco (USF) women’s basketball team, leading them to a huge turnaround in her six years at the helm. Soon after she stepped down, Azzi and her USF assistant Blair Hardeik were named global technical directors for women’s programs across all of the NBA’s seven academies around the world.
Her first official visit to India, then, was in May 2018, when the Academy — which otherwise only boards male players around the year — launched their first, short women’s camp. The camp was a glittering success, and was followed immediately by the Basketball Without Borders Asia camp also at the NBA Academy in Greater Noida. A number of young Indian stars made giant leaps, including women’s camp MVPs Sanjana Ramesh and Vaishnavi Yadav.
Bengaluru’s Ramesh has since become the poster-child success story of the Academy and the camp, winning the BWB Asia MVP award soon after, and then making history by becoming only the second Indian to be offered a full NCAA Division 1 scholarship to play for Northern Arizona.
So, when this year’s women’s programme was announced — from 22-25 January, 2019 at the same location — with a brand new set of female prospects and an evolving curriculum, a few constants remained from the previous year to keep the ball rolling. Ramesh and Yadav returned to guide the girls with their experience from the previous year, as did much of coaching staff.
And at the helm of it all, once again, was the globe-trotting Hall of Famer — Azzi — ready to impact, motivate, and spark change for the best young players in Indian basketball.
I spoke to Azzi on the first day of the camp at the NBA Academy about Ramesh’s success, how India can improve the path for young prospects, and which players have already caught her eye as the next “big things”.
How is this year’s camp building and improving from the experience of last year?
Last year was our first year coming here, so we didn’t know what to expect. It was impressive to all of us to see the talent that potential that is in India. I think, being able to expose young girls and boys at a young and earlier age, the potential is limitless. Even out of last year’s camp, to see a player like Sanjana Ramesh get scholarship to play in a top university in the United States — it’s a pretty huge success. If players in India want that as a potential, that is great. If they want to stay in India, that’s fantastic as well. It’s truly just about elite development and growing the game.
Were you surprised by Sanjana’s success — the NCAA scholarship — after last year’s camp? What was your reaction?
I wasn’t surprised at all. Coaching at University of San Francisco and going from being a pretty poor team to winning a championship, both coach Hardeik and myself have seen that a lot of our success was due to also bringing in international players. The trend in the United States — if you look at every Division 1 college for men and women — is that you see international players on the roster. And that’s just growing because the game around the world is getting better.
How do you think now Sanjana can further improve her game?
I think Sanjana’s like any other player, like an American player, that’s going to college: it’s the next level physically. Every young player has to get stronger, faster, better in every way to go to the next level. So, she’s no different to a high-school player coming out of the United States.
Sanjana and Vaishnavi Yadav have returned to the camp after last year. For the rest of the first-timers: what was the process of selecting them for the camp?
With every country we go to, every region, we work with the basketball federations. We look at that pool of players who have played in international competitions for their countries. And then, we have an NBA team here in India, so we take their input. We have an operations team in New York that also look at different players. Sometimes we get asked to look at videos. So, the process has a lot of different parts to it.
Do you see any other young women in this year’s camp with the potential to follow in Sanjana’s footsteps?
Absolutely. Just in the first morning I saw so much potential in Harsimran Kaur. You can see it in her eyes how she takes in coaching. She’s playing hard and she’s talented. She’s already on my list. Vaishnavi Yadav and Grishma Niranjan both have a tremendous opportunity too.
After spending considerable time with elite young Indian players, do you see any specific strength of young women from this region?
If anything, it’s the mindset and coachability. To get good at basketball, you get out of it what you put into it. Look at a player like Steph Curry in the NBA, not the biggest or the best athlete, but he put the time in. So, dealing with young women here in India, I think the sky’s the limit because they’re willing to work and willing to learn.
What more do you think that India needs to do to improve our talent-level here?
Building more infrastructure from a young age. That’s the advantage we have in the United States, that we’re exposed to basketball very young, and there’s organisations and systems in place. I think what the NBA is doing with the Basketball Schools and the Academy (in India) are steps towards that process.
In your own career, you’ve found success at the highest level around the world. What would be your advice to young Indian women looking to you for inspiration?
My advice to young Indian women is the same as that to boys and girls around the world: take what you learn from being coached, from coaching, from watching games on television. Now with the internet, there’s no reason you can’t watch skill-work videos and get the knowledge. But once you have the knowledge, what do you do with it? You have to practice over and over and over again. It’s about repetition. My greatest advice to young people is, you have to do things when no one else is watching. You have to do things by yourself. I had to tell my players at USF when I was coaching in college is, even with shooting, you have to get bored to get better, because you have to do things over and over. If you can master your skill, you can make it.
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