How many of you have heard of Jimmy George, the greatest volleyball player India has ever produced? Unless you’re from Kerala, one would reckon not many. His sister-in-law and legendary long jumper Anju Bobby George is perhaps a more popular figure in Indian sports.
During Indian volleyball’s golden period in the 1970s and ‘80s, it was this 6’ 2” human spring from Peravoor, a small town in Kerala’s Kannur district, who led the charge against some of the world’s best teams.
Ranked amongst the 10 best attackers (spikers) in the world during the mid 1980s, George took his talents to the professional leagues in the Middle East and Italy. Even today, Italy is home to one of the best professional volleyball leagues in the world.
Kerala’s very own
Born on 8 March 1955 in Peravoor, Jimmy George was the second among eight sons born to Joseph and Mary George. He grew up in a household where passion for volleyball was strong, since Joseph was a talented university-level player in his youth. In fact, four of the eight George brothers would go on to represent Kerala at the nationals.
But Jimmy George was more than a natural athlete and excelled in many sports, including swimming and chess. With a sharp mind for academics, he got admission into a Government Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram. But volleyball was always his first love.
Barely 18, he was captain of the Kerala University team, and would go on to lead them to four successive All India Inter-University Championship titles between 1973 and 1976. During this period, he also broke through into the Indian set up and was selected for the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran. India didn’t get past the group stages, but George’s talent at 19 was undeniable.
In 1976, he eventually dropped out of medical college to concentrate on his burgeoning volleyball career and found employment with the Kerala Police.
JIMMY GEORGE, was Indias greatest and one of the world’s best volleyball player, on Nov 30th 1987, parted with us.Arjuna Award at 21,indoor stadiums and a street in Italy&India.God Hermes for Italians.Your memory is a keepsake from which we will never part.@KirenRijiju pic.twitter.com/d3ScuMC7xY— Anju Bobby George (@anjubobbygeorg1) December 1, 2020
A ‘fan favourite’
It was an encounter with Russian coach Sergei Ivanovic Gavrilov that convinced Jimmy George to become a professional player.
In 1976, Gavrilov held a one-week training camp in Thiruvananthapuram, which George attended. Impressed by his talent, Gavrilove advised him to turn professional and three years later, he was signed by the Abu Dhabi Sports Club.
This made George the first Indian volleyball player to turn professional. During his three-year stint in the Middle East, he was adjudged the best player in the region. In 1982, he was signed by the Italian club Pallavolo Treviso, thus becoming the first Indian volleyball player to ply his trade in a European league. The stint in Italy gave George the opportunity to play alongside and against some of the best volleyball players from around the world. In the nearly six seasons he played in Italy, he became a fan favourite for the different clubs he represented.
Besides the high level of competition, he also got the opportunity to experiment with different playing styles, an experience he unfortunately couldn’t impart to his teammates in India.
What made him world class?
Speaking to The Indian Express in 2009, his ex-teammate Ramana Rao, said, “He had what is called the absolute jump — more than a metre above the ground — which in the 70s and 80s was very rare in India…Volleyball is all about defying gravity, but Jimmy’s was the most stylish jump because he managed a little air-rest where he could stop in flight for a fraction of a second.”
Going further, the spiker/attacker brought the jump service to Indian volleyball, which is today standard practice in the world game, and a general level of professionalism.
“Besides his jump, what was also several notches above any other Indian was his tremendous mental power,” recalled national coach GE Sridharan, who followed George to Europe and played setter [a position on court] on his Italian club teams, to The Indian Express in 2009.
“Jimmy was into meditation well before it came into Indian sport. When he came to the court after his quiet thought, we could just watch the stored energy explode. The whole mind and body came as one when he jumped into the typical body arc,” he added.
When the Seoul Asian Games came around in 1986, George was among the 10 best spikers/attackers in the world. In the tournament, he played his heart out.
On the morning of the bronze medal match against defending champions Japan, he reportedly told his teammates about “20 times” that India would win. “He started attacking from the first or second point, and kept asking for the ball. That day he blasted the ball like anything and even scored off some wrong passes,” recalled Sridharan.
Besides Sridharan, another player on that bronze medal winning team was PV Ramana, who is badminton star PV Sindhu’s father.
‘Of universal brotherhood’
George’s life and career were cut short 35 years ago on 30 November 1987 following a road accident in Italy, where he was playing in the top division of their domestic league.
His death at age 32 also marked the end of Indian volleyball’s golden era. In his lifetime, he displayed remarkable talent and represented Kerala at just 16, won the Arjuna Award at 22 and led India to a bronze medal finish in the ‘86 Seoul Asian Games.
His death came as a rude shock to his family, friends and his fans in both Kerala and Italy. When his body was brought home, thousands came out to pay their respects.
He was a hero to many in his home state. In fact, his last recorded match on Indian soil, which was organised in Peravoor, saw him team up with his brothers to play a match against a Kerala select six side in honour of their father, Joseph. The George brothers won that match.
His legacy lives on in Kerala even today with the Jimmy George Sports Hub, formerly known as the Jimmy George Indoor Stadium. Over the years, several volleyball tournaments in the state have been named after him as well. But his legacy not only lives on in Kerala, but also Italy.
In 1993, an indoor stadium was named after him in the town of Montichiari in Brescia province called PalaGeorge.
During the inauguration of the indoor stadium, the then-mayor of the town wrote a heartfelt letter that captured his legacy, “Jimmy George has left his high human values and morals not only in the world of sports but also in our whole community, especially among the youth. The dedication of this prestigious stadium to his name should convey a meaningful message of faith in the universal brotherhood,” the letter read.
“Therefore, on this occasion, I would like to express through the high officials to whom this is addressed, our feeling of appraisal and gratitude to the noble Indian people who have offered us, in the figure of Jimmy George, a shining and solid example of high universal values. The circumstances may help to build up more friendship between the two nations and can be a symbol of love and peace for all the people,” it read.
In fact, a street near the Coletto Club, one of the Italian teams he played for, close to the major metropolitan of Milan, was also rechristened after Jimmy George.
It’s truly one of the most remarkable stories in the history of Indian sports.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)