Sanjana Ramesh living and thriving in 'isolation' in build-up to second season with Northern Arizona University

It’s almost easy to forget that Sanjana Ramesh is just 19. Articulate and mature, the teenager opens up about the awkwardness of giving advice to others, becoming an adult, and growing as a basketball player.

Amit Kamath November 24, 2020 21:42:20 IST
Sanjana Ramesh living and thriving in 'isolation' in build-up to second season with Northern Arizona University

Sanjana Ramesh warms up before the game against Portland in the NCAA. Image courtesy: NBA India

Sanjana Ramesh is 19. It’s important to state this because when she speaks, her words often belie her age. It’s important to reiterate this because at 19 she’s often among the first people Indian basketball players — with dreams of playing in the USA on an NCAA basketball scholarship or in prep schools — reach out to. Giving advice, the teenager admits, is a strange experience for her.

“It definitely feels strange to have others asking for advice. I’m like, ‘what I do I know? I just got here myself,’” she chuckles. “But I understand the importance of it, because when I was doing this process myself it was a little hard to go through it without knowing what to expect. I might not have the best advice, and everyone’s path to playing basketball in the USA will be different, but they can still take something from what I have experienced.”

Sanjana is the second Indian women’s basketball player from India to get an NCAA Division I scholarship, following in the footsteps of Kavita Akula.

After Sanjana earned the NCAA D1 scholarship in 2018 with Northern Arizona University (NAU), there has been a steady trickle of Indian women players heading to colleges or prep schools in the USA. Many of them credit Sanjana with helping them understand and navigate through the tough process in securing a spot with academic institutions in the USA.

Harsimran Kaur (University of San Diego) became the third Indian women’s hooper to get a D1 scholarship just earlier this year. Others learning the tricks of the trade in America include Vaishnavi Yadav (Pensacola State Basketball), Sunishka Karthik (Woodside Priory High School), Siya Deodhar (Life Prep Academy), Khushi Dongre (ASA College, Miami), Grishma Niranjan (Loomis Chaffee School, Connecticut), Ann Mary Zacariah (Life Prep Academy), and Asmat Taunque (Lawrenceville School, New Jersey).

“There have been quite a lot of Indian girls who have come to the USA recently. Not just them, I’ve been talking to players from the men’s side as well, mostly Princepal Singh and Pritish Kokate. I’ve just been talking to them about the process. I’ve been telling them more about the academic and the legal side than the basketball aspect. What kind of forms do you need, what kind of tests do you need, how your cover letter and resume should look like, how you should be contacting coaches,” she says.

A teen in isolation

Sanjana Ramesh living and thriving in isolation in buildup to second season with Northern Arizona University

In a year that has upended athletes’ plans and disrupted carefully-planned regimens like never before, Sanjana is living by herself in a foreign country, isolated to her dorm room most of the times, unless she’s at practice. She came to India in April, but returned to Arizona in July with an eye on her second year of basketball action in the NCAA Division I.

After returning, she says, everything has been vastly different. She cannot go to the gym barring a two-hour window. She cannot eat food at restaurants, but has to bring it back to her dorm room. Her classes are online. There are strict rules prohibiting against fraternising with friends who are not a part of the women’s basketball team. She cannot even play a pick-up game anymore with strangers.

“They want you to isolate yourself every day. I only hang out with my teammates. It’s kind of sad. We have our own classes and our lives, so we don’t even hang out with each other that much.

“I feel like your whole life has been turned upside down,” says Sanjana. “The strangest thing I’ve had to do is play with masks on, and warming up with them on. We’re being tested thrice a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It feels weird. We’ve been progressing every week. We started off with (training in) our own rings first. Then we started training one-on-one (after that initial week). Then two-on-two. Now we’re all playing together on the floor as a team. But it will still be weird (when the competition starts on Wednesday), knowing that you will be touching others, and breathing so close to each other during matches.”

NAU will start the 25-game season against the UNLV Rebels on Wednesday. Given how much is at stake, she understands the safety protocols she has to follow.

“It’s mentally and physically exhausting sometimes… always being isolated. It has been very hard. But I’ve been dealing with it really well. I’ve realised that more of an introvert and I like to stay inside than go outside.

“You don’t want to take the risk. I’m in the USA and what if I actually do get coronavirus ? That’s not a situation I want to encounter, because I don’t have the same support system as I do back home. So it’s a necessary sacrifice. Besides, if one of us gets COVID-19 on our team, we will have a 14-day shutdown. We cannot practice. We cannot play with each other. We cannot play any other teams. We are hoping to play all 25 games.”

For Sanjana, this is a year of high expectations. She wants to average 10 minutes and six rebounds per game, and end up as the leading shot blocker in the Big Sky Conference. “My goals are very detailed. I do have expectations, but I feel like I shouldn't keep them that high for this year. The chance of cancelling a few games is a possibility because of how the COVID-19 situation is here.”

On top of that, her university coaches also expect every player from the team to have a 3.3 GPA out of 4. Sanjana admits she was never too interested in academics when she was young. “But now that I am here… you also mature as a person… I started realising that I have an interest in academics and basketball. What is also driving this interest is fear. I don’t want to be the only one left behind. In my team, we have all been set team goals: all of us need at least get above 3 GPA!”

To cope with these extraordinary times where social distancing has become the norm, many athletes have been spending more time on social media as they try to replace face-to-face interaction. In the NBA bubble in Orlando this year, LeBron James famously broke his self-imposed yearly routine of staying off social media during the playoffs.

Sanjana, though, has gone on a hiatus from social media. Instead, she says, she read up a lot on the Black Lives Matter movement in the past few months. The NAU student-athletes took part in marches held all over the USA in the aftermath of the shooting of George Floyd.

“When I was completely isolated, I was always on my phone. I didn’t really like that. There’s so much more to accomplish when you’re not on your phone all the time. At the end of the day, I realised that being on social media really doesn’t help me accomplish anything. Social media is not an important factor for me in my life. I’m not going to feel happy that I got 5,000 followers or something. As a kid, you’re excited when you get a like. Now, I feel like I have matured,” she says before correcting herself. “Matured is not the right word… I’ve changed.”

Changes

In the one academic year that she spent at NAU, Sanjana’s game has changed too. She’s one of the tallest players in her team, and is required to play in the power forward or centre role, being tasked with posting up, taking mid-range shots, and rebounding.

“In India, I was more of an all-rounder. There are no specific goals. I could be the ball handler, I could dribble all the way, I could shoot or do anything I wanted to do. Here, you’re challenged. I’m not going to be taking three-pointers or dribbling through people during a game. My role is different.

“The idea is that you should become the best in one area of the game, rather than being average in all areas. Once you have become the best you can be in that area, then you can start working on other aspects. In the USA it’s a little more advanced. They have a system for defence, offence, transition offence. In India it was a more freestyle system, barring some states like Tamil Nadu,” says Sanjana before adding, “I don’t want to brag, but I have become a lot stronger. I can play more physically by using my body.”

Sanjana remembers when she first started to play with her NAU teammates. The style of playing was a lot rougher than she was accustomed to. Some senior players, she says, would keep their elbows out, just to hit you and scare you when they got the ball.

“That’s just to toughen you up, I guess,” she says. “It was a little hard in the beginning. They would play very rough… I mean just your own teammates, especially your seniors! They want to show their seniority.”

Sanjana says she would complain a lot when training sessions got too physical. But her coaches would never call even clear fouls in training sessions. “It is really frustrating. But I am grateful for it, because it helps in games. In games, it is very strict: even a little contact, and a foul gets called. But in training, I can get hit, pushed, thrown out… I know that I am prepared for that as well in games, if it happens.”

Ask her if she has any advice to give to youngsters looking to follow in her footsteps, and she says, “There are so many situations here where you feel like giving up. You’re going to miss your parents, people won’t understand what you’re saying, you won’t understand what others are saying. Sometimes I feel like it’s not worth it. But you need to persevere.

“You’re becoming an adult. You will be treated as an adult. It’s a new country, and you have to deal with everything on your own. You just have to embrace the process of getting into adulthood.”

It’s almost easy to forget that Sanjana Ramesh is just 19.

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