Connecting Kids with the Game I Love

by Saahil Raina

Helping others value sports

It was December 27, 2019 and the solar eclipse was about to mess with my plans. I had landed in Bengaluru, India the night before, unaware of the astronomical milestone the next day. During the beginning of my junior year, I was starting the Triple Double Initiative, a program to use sport, basketball in particular, to help bridge social, political and gender divides around the world. Our very first camp involving boys and girls from a local village was supposed to start in one hour when we got two pieces of bad news. First, the parents of the kids would not let them play outside during the eclipse because of superstitious beliefs. Second, girls, in particular, were not allowed to leave the house that day because the eclipse would cast an evil spell on them. Months of planning were about to go down the drain. But, let me backup a bit.

I am passionate about sports and its potential to mold the lives of youth in a positive manner. My lifelong love for basketball has allowed me to make friends, engage with people across cultures, and helped me learn about many aspects of life from perseverance and triumph to failure and loss. A few summers ago, I volunteered for a local basketball non-profit that brought economically disadvantaged children from across Boston to Fessenden and taught them academics in the structure of a basketball camp. Having enjoyed that experience, I thought why not create something similar to bridge divides around the world, starting in India, the country where my parents emigrated from. Soon, the Triple Double Initiative was formed.

The goal was to initially focus on gender and political divides by conducting a camp for poor kids in one of the schools in Bengaluru to expose them to the sport of basketball and allow them some structured athletic activities that were sorely lacking in their school. My ambition was to eventually do similar camps across India and other parts of the world focusing in particular on bringing children together from across different divides: religious, caste or political. If they could play basketball together, they could learn about each other and the fundamental human similarities that we all share but we easily forget. I did not know how to even begin but started talking to lots of people to get ideas.

Through one of my family members in India, I was able to contact the former captain of the Indian Women’s National Basketball team, Akanksha Singh. Singh had her own foundation, and thankfully, she agreed to collaborate with me remotely. Over several weeks, she and her team scouted for sites, identified a school and worked with the Principal of the school to plan the logistics. Initially, the Principal insisted that the camp would only be for boys because “girls don’t need to play sports.” I was adamant that we would have a camp for all students and wanted to expose the sport of basketball to the girls as much as the boys. In fact, there was no better role model for the girls than Ms. Singh herself. Once we were able to overcome that hurdle we found out that there were too many children interested and sadly had to choose kids, given the capacity of the court. I worked with Ms. Singh to devise “tryouts” which she and her volunteers conducted. These tryouts were not your typical basketball tryouts. These tryouts were testing to see which of the kids were physically capable of participating in the camp. They consisted of timed sprints, measured jumping, and other ways to determine basic athleticism. Once the tryouts had concluded, 50 boys and 50 girls were picked. We then realized the children did not have any athletic gear to play in so I got to work, getting help from a renowned local designer David So in designing Triple Double T-shirts and getting over 125 of those T-shirts made in a rush order. Thankfully, my efforts at raising funds from friends and family were bearing fruit because the costs were starting to add up. We packed the T-shirts in a very large duffle bag, took an Uber to Logan Airport, checked the bag and our luggage directly to Bengaluru and were on our way.

The camp was held over two days. The morning of the first day, I woke up jet-lagged to all the WhatsApp messages about the eclipse and the parents wanting to cancel the camp. We scrambled to reach out to the international school to get permission to move the camp to their indoor court from the outdoor court. We were not going to relent on the non-participation of the girls. It was either both girls and boys or nothing. Thankfully the fact that the students would be inside during the entire eclipse helped our case. I imagine the chance to get a free T-shirt and a free meal, naturally, were factors as well.

We waited patiently in the indoor court waiting for the students to arrive. Ms. Singh had recruited some young volunteers who were passionate about basketball and wanted to help run the camp. I went through the drills that would be performed at the different stations with the volunteers who were in charge of the different stations. We would start with a warm-up that all the kids would do together. They would then be split into different groups and rotate between stations where they would do various drills like shooting in a line, dribbling while moving, and basic chest and bounce passes to a partner. Finally, we would conclude with a defensive drill to give everyone a chance to run around and let out whatever energy they had remaining.

The children filed into the court in a neat line, big smiles on their faces and eager to get moving. They were in the 10-14 age group, but looked far younger. I had not seen such an enthusiastic and eager group of children. They had boundless energy, and the day raced by. They dribbled, shot baskets, passed to each other, and ran, all with energy, enthusiasm and a big smile on their faces. After the session was over, they wanted me to take selfies with them and then send it to their parents’ cell phones as they did not have phones.

We had begun planning to host a week-long camp at Bengaluru, and shorter camps in Hyderabad and Chandigarh this summer. It is unlikely that will happen, but I do want the children in Bengaluru to have access to a hoop so I will be fundraising to provide them with a basketball hoop so they can keep the basketball momentum going.