- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2015

In the classrooms and dining halls at the University of Maryland, and on social media feeds everywhere, many people know Varun Ram as the Indian basketball player.

Not an Indian basketball player. The Indian basketball player.

“India’s a pretty large country,” the senior point guard said with a shrug. “So I think it’s cool.”

By “pretty large,” Ram means India is the second-largest country in the world by population. It’s home to an estimated 1.266 billion people, not to mention the millions more who were born there and have since emigrated elsewhere, as Ram’s parents did more than 25 years ago.

Despite the nation’s size, only one person of Indian descent — a 7-foot-5 center named Sim Bhullar — has ever signed an NBA contract. Less than two dozen such players have even made it to the Division I level, according to Hoopistani, a popular Indian basketball blog. And only five Indian-Americans, including Ram, play for a D-I team today.

Though ethnicity does not impact how they view themselves on the court, it does change their experiences. Sports are not valued in traditional Indian households, several players say, and in some instances, playing basketball is used merely as a reward for good grades.

Aspiring players first have to navigate these cultural norms, then deal with the perception that follows if they succeed. Some Indian-American basketball players say they have endured constant heckling from opponents and fans for most of their lives. Even in 2015, people of Indian descent are bombarded with stereotypes.

In this respect, Ram feels fortunate. He says his race has not defined his basketball career — though it has certainly helped shape it.

“I’ve heard things about Jeremy Lin growing up, the things he went through, and obviously there’s always a little bit of that going on,” Ram said, referring to the NBA player of Taiwanese descent. “But for the most part, especially here, everyone’s been really supportive. They just treat me like a basketball player.”

Cultural challenges

Kolandavel and Santhini Ramasamy were worried.

When their son, Varun, graduated from River Hill High School in Clarksville, Maryland in 2010, he had a 4.56 grade-point average and several academic scholarships waiting for him. A presidential scholarship at one school would have covered the entirety of his tuition.

But Ram, whose last name was shortened at birth, wanted to play basketball.

In high school, his goal was to play in the Ivy League. That was fine with his parents, who first and foremost wanted him to get a quality education, but when graduation came, Ram didn’t have any Ivy League offers. In order to get there, he believed he needed another year of exposure. He wanted to go to a prep school, essentially postponing his studies for a year to benefit his basketball career.

“I wasn’t so thrilled,” his mother, Santhini Ramasamy, said.

The Ramasamys emigrated to the United States before Varun was born, leaving India to benefit both their family and their careers. Kolandavel, Ram’s father, is an IT manager at the National Weather Service. His mother is a toxicologist at the Environmental Protection Agency. Ram also has an older sister, Anita, who graduated from Johns Hopkins University and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship.

Ram started playing basketball when he was 4 years old, later joining a local travel team and frequently visiting the gym behind his family’s home. Santhini Ramasamy always knew how important basketball was to her son, but she didn’t believe it should be his priority. She viewed it as a complement to his studies.

“He needed to play and get some energy before he could focus on the academics,” she said. “I just wanted him to play on a recreational side, but not so much focus on basketball. I wanted him to balance both.”

Ram’s parents ultimately agreed to enroll him at Winchendon, a prep school in Massachusetts, because they wanted to support their son’s passion. He then played one season at Trinity College, a Division III school in Connecticut, before transferring to Maryland, walking onto the team and earning a scholarship in 2013.

Ram said his parents were more supportive of his basketball career than many other Indian families would have been. Of course, they still took some convincing.

“The sports culture’s not really big in India, especially among Indians that migrated to America,” Ram said. “[The reason they immigrated] wasn’t because of sports, you know? It was because of hard work, education, wanting other opportunities and other careers. But it was never because of sports.”

Arizona State forward Sai Tummala, whose parents are also Indian immigrants, shares that view. While growing up in Arizona, he would routinely tell family members or friends about his budding basketball career and draw blank stares in response. His immediate family members didn’t understand why he valued the sport, or why he spent so much time practicing. They only saw basketball as something one does for fun.

“Whenever I see another Indian person playing basketball, there’s a lot of respect,” Tummala said, “because I know the challenges that it takes to overcome all those cultural boundaries and decide that you’re going to play.”

‘What type of Indian are you?’

In the summer of 1997, Pasha Bains was the only Canadian high school basketball player invited to the annual Nike All-American camp in Indianapolis, a designated showcase for top Division I prospects.

At the camp, Bains recalls, all of the players’ names were listed on sheets of paper alongside columns of information, including height, weight, position and ratings from scouts. In the last column, he saw that every player had a “B” or “W” listed next to his name ­­— every player, that is, except him.

Bains turned to his high school coach, Bill Disbrow.

“I don’t know,” Disbrow said, sarcastically. “What do you think ‘B’ or ‘W’ means?”

A little more than two years later, Bains was playing at Clemson. He is believed to be the first person of Indian descent to play Division I basketball, and he is almost certainly the first to play in a conference of the ACC’s caliber.

The first few months at Clemson were rough, Bains said. Though the student body was relatively diverse, it was also relatively segregated from a social standpoint. “White parties were white parties,” he said, “and black parties were black parties.”

Bains always joked that he was lucky ­­­— he could attend both types of parties. In the beginning, though, he didn’t feel like he fit at either.

Bains said his teammates at Clemson were always supportive and accepting of his heritage. Off the court, however, he was heckled by some and subjected to waves of questions by others.

“What type of Indian are you?” they’d ask.

“Do you pray?”

“Why don’t you have a dot on your forehead?”

“It was only a couple people, but I do remember those things and they did affect me,” Bains said. “They were very inquisitive because they hadn’t seen somebody like me, especially in the South, or somebody like me playing Division I basketball before.”

Today, Bains believes people are more accepting of basketball players of Indian descent. Yet current players say problems persist. When Northwestern played at Xfinity Center last month, a fan near the section of seats reserved for reporters yelled objectionable phrases at Wildcats guard/forward Sanjay Lumpkin, making fun of his Indian last name. Tummala said he is still the butt of racist jokes.

“Growing up, I was always the only Indian person on every team I ever played on,” Tummala said. “I’ve gotten a lot of jokes, been heckled a lot, fans everywhere I’ve been — usually directed towards me being Indian.
Because they usually don’t think we’re that good at basketball.”

Ram said he has not frequently encountered those problems. He does, however, feel that opposing players tend to underestimate him. Maybe it’s his size — the fact that at 5-foot-9, he is usually the shortest player on the court. But maybe it’s the color of his skin. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two.

“That’s just how it’s always been,” Ram said. “I don’t really think people see me and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s going to be really good.’ But you learn to deal with that. Just try to prove yourself on the court every time.”

Cracked doors

“Have you played with anybody else of Indian descent?”

Maryland guard Richaud Pack hears the question and pauses, closing his eyes and then staring out into space. After a while, he grins.

“I mean, I played with one at the Jewish Community Center in rec league,” Pack says with a laugh, later adding that he played with another Indian-American on a high school travel team.

For many players on Maryland’s roster, Ram is the only person of Indian descent they’ve ever played with. For some, he might be the only Indian-American they know. On the court, this is a non-issue. But in the locker room, on road trips and everywhere in between, Ram is something of a gateway to Indian culture, an uncommon burden for someone born and raised in the United States.

Ram said some teammates have expressed a genuine curiosity in his heritage, asking him about everything from his favorite Indian dishes to how he was raised. Pack asks him about basketball in India, and the country’s national team. Ram travels overseas frequently and spent two weeks in Chennai, India, last summer, teaching basketball to children through the Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy.

As one of the few players of Indian descent in D-I basketball, Ram is asked to speak on behalf of his culture more than most. Even now, he and players like Lumpkin, Tummala and Southern California’s Samer Dhillon are, in many ways, pioneers.

“I think the hardest part of being an Indian basketball player is you don’t have a lot of role models that are ahead of you at this point, because not a lot people have done it,” Tummala said. “There’s definitely a pressure, like always trying to find someone to look up to and the way to do things. Because I don’t think a lot of other basketball players face the pressure that Indian basketball players do, in that you have to do really well in school — it’s expected of you — and then on top of that, perform well on the court and get to a high level.”

Bains, who now runs the DRIVE Basketball Academy in Vancouver, helped build the path for current players of Indian descent. But he also said the growth of social media has made a significant impact.

“Kids can be seen more for who they are, as opposed to back when we were growing up, there were more stereotypes placed on people,” he said. “The doors have kind of cracked, so I’d say just keep that pride and represent the Indian community properly. Don’t feel like you have to hide your heritage just to make it.”

A not-so-crazy ambition

Ram has only played sporadically this season, but his impact on the 16th-ranked Terrapins has not gone unnoticed. Against Iowa, he collected three steals in only five minutes of action. In practice, he runs the scout team and guards freshman point guard Melo Trimble every day.

Coach Mark Turgeon allows Ram to relentlessly press, and even foul, Trimble to improve his ball-handling under duress. Trimble said that level of defense has been an important ingredient to his own success this season, adding that Ram is “the smartest player I’ve ever met in my life. … I want to be like Varun.”

“He’s one of those guys where he probably won’t get the media publicity or things like that, but he’s the reason Melo Trimble can handle ball pressure as well as he does,” Pack said. “He may not play as much as other guys in the Big Ten, but I’d be willing to bet he’s the fastest guy in the Big Ten. So just guarding him every day and things like that makes all of us better.”

In the last line of Ram’s athletic department bio, he lists playing for the Indian national team as his craziest ambition. But it’s really not that crazy.

Last year, Ram reached out to Indian national team coach Scott Flemming, an American who previously worked as an assistant coach in the NBA Development League. Flemming has several skilled big men on his roster but has been searching for a true point guard. He watched Ram’s tape and knew it’d be a good fit.

“We don’t have that one point guard that can run our team and match-up athletically with the guards we face at the international level in Asia,” Flemming wrote from Delhi, India in an e-mail. “Varun has the quickness and skills that would make a real impact on our team.”

Unfortunately for Ram, his dream comes with a catch. India does not allow dual citizens to compete for its national teams, a “very political” issue that Flemming said has prevented at least 15 players of Indian descent, such as Ram, from participating.

Still, that doesn’t mean Ram hasn’t thought about it.

“I was born and raised in this culture. I feel like it would be a difficult thing to give up,” he said. “I haven’t completely ruled it out, but it is definitely unfortunate that’s the way it is now.”

Ram has one year of eligibility remaining at Maryland and was told by Turgeon he’d be welcomed back next year. He’s pursuing a double-major in neurobiology and physiology and eventually wants to become a doctor, but not in the next couple years. He recently applied for a few consulting jobs in the area with hopes of building his resume.

Whatever he ends up doing, Ram’s identity won’t change. He’ll always feel blessed that he was able to play for Maryland, representing his home state and cultural heritage at the same time. And to many, he’ll always be the Indian basketball player.

“I’ve always kind of taken it as kind of a chip on my shoulder, because there’s not many Indian basketball players,” Ram said. “But in terms of the way I train and my outlook, I really don’t like to think about it. Race is only skin-deep.”

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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