In an unfortunate turn of events, Rajesh Patel, the head coach of the Chhattisgarh State women’s basketball team across various age-groups, passed away earlier this week due to a cardiac arrest. He was only 62 years old. However, he leaves behind an extraordinary legacy.
Not only did Rajesh push his girls to great success across all age groups at national level competitions, but he also helped transform many lives. Many of the girls in Patel’s coaching programme, backed by the Bhilai Steel Plant and a residential academy he set up on the top floor of his house, overcame underprivileged backgrounds and a patriarchal setup, to thrive in the game and life. Besides success on the court, these girls also earned a better future for themselves through government jobs (that sponsor basketball) and the Indian national team.
“Most of us were tribal girls who suffered from malnutrition and didn’t look anything like athletes. I belong to a scheduled tribe, but Patel sir ensured that I became a high-ranking railway officer, a TT, on the basis of my basketball skills. He really saw no limitations in anyone—physique or background,” Anju Lakra, the former India international told The Indian Express (TIE).
“He helped us break free.”
Thanks to his contributions, the Chhattisgarh women’s team reached the Senior National finals twice, famously defeating the Railways on one occasion. The players and coaches who had the privilege of learning under Patel’s guidance, have also gone onto making significant contributions to the national team with their speed and solid understating of the fundamentals.
Despite being barely 5’2″, Anju Lakra tells the publication that Rajesh saw no deficiencies even though height plays a significant factor in the game. “He took the height out of the equation. He said you need only two things to win a fight—speed and defence. Run and shoot like a bullet, he would say,” Lakra recalls. This is the same message Rajesh imparted to the thousands of girls he coached.
Another India international, Seema Singh, was knock-kneed and malnourished when she began playing the game at age 11. Doctors had told her that she couldn’t play sports. Not only did Rajesh build up her physique by feeding her regular meals at the academy, but also developed her game to the extent that she made it to the national team and became part of the Chhattisgarh side that defeated the Railways in the Senior National finals.
“I cried after doctors told me that I couldn’t play sports, but sir made me run on sand. He made me eat properly. From struggling for two square meals to travelling abroad, from being nothing to a respected railway TT with several promotions only because of basketball, he changed everything,” she told TIE.
“Life would’ve stayed plain—nothing exceptional. He gave us confidence, and this was when Chhattisgarh was just born as a state,” she goes onto add.
Before he became a coach, Rajesh was a player taken onboard by the Bhilai Steel Plant on sports quota in 1979. However, standing at a short 5’5”, he could never really establish a long-playing career. Instead, he dedicated his life to coaching and spent 16 hours a day in the academy he helped establish. With assistance from the Steel Plant, which provided equipment, Patel went about the business of transforming lives. Despite his limited means, Rajesh ensured that his wards got what they needed to remain strong. He would chase down state officials to get whatever facility necessary for the girls.
The stories of Anju Lakra and Seema Singh only provide a fragment of the immense contribution that Rajesh made to the lives of thousands of other girls who came from difficult circumstances.
“He always told us to think of people who could not afford to play basketball, and reminded us that we were privileged to be able to play,” says another player who had the honour of learning under him.
Rajesh’s life will soon be depicted on the silver screen. The movie, conceptualised by Raj Choudhary, who co-wrote Gulaal, and Bollywood actress Lara Dutta, will be directed by a British director under the banner of an international production house, reports TIE.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)