Finding Heart on a Basketball Court in Mumbai

By: Suhail Sheikh & Tyler Condit
“The simple and astonishing truth about India and Indian people is that when you go there, and deal with them, your heart always guides you more wisely than your head. There’s nowhere else in the world where that’s quite so true.” I read that passage from Shantaram two months into volunteering with Hi 5 Youth Foundation in Mumbai. Few things I’ve read have ever rang more true.

A few months prior I was doing my ‘dream job’ in New York City. The phrase “Show up with your whole self” gets thrown around in regards to office culture, and I was convinced I was doing that. However, in two months with Hi 5, coaching brilliant, strong, charming young people living in slums and orphanages around India, I was taught what it really meant to show up with your whole self, by leading with the heart (and not just my head).

I started seeking volunteering opportunities abroad because I came to a boiling point with the selfish impact of the work I was doing (selfishly benefitting already successful companies, that is). To be fair, that ought not to have disillusioned me. I work in marketing and branding, not pediatric surgery. But I realized, if I am putting ‘my whole self’ into my work, shouldn’t it be towards something that I believe in? Through a chance connection, I was introduced to Hi 5 Youth Foundation. As an Indian-American and lifelong basketball player/fan, it felt like a clear sign from the universe. Fast Forward to January 2019, my friend Tyler (who similarly was itching for something different) and I were en route to the Hi 5’s guest house in Mumbai where we’d spend the next 5 months.

Our first impressions were uplifting as the students rushed to high-five us before starting their warm-ups and screamed ‘ I Love Basketball!” A small cup of hot chai magically appeared in our hands as we observed our first session at Deendayal, one of the 14 municipal schools and community areas where Hi 5 runs its programs. There was a girl, Pallavi, who was visibly smaller and younger than her peers but had a deep focus in her eyes.
She ran harder and faster than her classmates, dribbled with more conviction, and aggressively went in for layups, fearlessly unfazed by the contact that awaited her. After practice, the kids circled around their coach, their coordinator and us.

While most instantly shied, a few mustered the courage to ask us questions like ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Where is America in relation to India?” and most commonly, ‘How do I get taller?’ Ty, with the help of the coach’s translations, asked the students to compliment one another on something they did well in during practice. After a second wave of nervous silences, the students made obvious praises for a basket or a pass Pallavi had made. She shyly accepted and returned praise to a classmate who seemed to have seldom felt that sort of praise. The joy that burst through their eyes was the first in a series of unlocking moments that burst open our hearts.
Over the next months we traversed Mumbai, meeting other exceptional students at the various centers. We ran sessions, (assistant) coached at tournaments, and refined Hi 5’s coaching curriculum. We were continuously inspired by the young people we met — by their drive to get better, charming confidence, or affectionate curiosity. We, in turn, invested more of ourselves into the work — spending off-hours researching drills and activities to teach sport and life lessons. Every morning we woke up, we couldn’t wait to start practice. And every evening, no matter how tired we were, no matter how much traffic we were stuck in, we felt infinitely grateful for how we were spending our time.
With each day we spent, our attachment to the students exponentially grew. We hung together after school with their coaches, learning about their school, families, and dreams. The students idolize their coaches, elevating them alongside their favorite Bollywood stars. We saw the level of investment the coaches and coordinators make towards their students’ futures – checking schoolwork, finding extracurricular opportunities, and maintaining relationships with parents. The students told us about the friends they’ve made through Hi 5, that the program has taught

them to be more disciplined at home – washing clothes and watching what they eat. Most impressively, they told us that when they encounter a challenge or a difficult subject, they think back to when they were beginning basketball and couldn’t dribble, and that through hard work they learned to dribble well, and how that fills them with the confidence to succeed.

We were also able to glimpse into the student’s lives off the court. Walking through the dark gullies (walkways) of the slums, we meet large families sharing small spaces and communal bathrooms. We saw the state of their educational materials, the absence of opportunities and the limiting messages society sent them. We were humbled to see how unfazed these young people were by all the hurdles in their way.

On some weekends we traveled to tournaments with select teams. The competition was largely made up of different private schools – schools with more funds and taller, stronger opponents. Hi 5’s students relished the opportunity to prove themselves, while also enjoying a field trip. In between games we went on snack missions, where the students taught us their favorite songs and the accompanying dances. During games, we saw these young people surpass expectations – that they and the others placed on themselves. They played with the physicality of underdogs to overcome their size disadvantage and communicated to work as a
team to stop star players. Win or lose (although often they won) our hearts rushed to see them enjoy the fruits of their hard work, all the sweeter with a trophy in their hands.

In our last weeks, Hi 5 ran its weeklong residential camp in Vajreshwari, a rural village about two hours north of Mumbai. After four months in the city, escaping to the calm, quiet village felt like a spa trip. The camp brought in the more experienced students from all over Mumbai. We woke up early to make the most of the time where the summer heat was bearable and jumped right into drills. We took breaks in the afternoon where the students rested and participated in character building activities with coordinators. The coaches took this opportunity to enjoy a delicious cup of fresh sugarcane juice. In the eventing as we all shared meals together, the students created bonds and truly started to feel like one giant family. After dinner we scrimmaged into the night, as if tomorrow morning was too far away. Each camp (one for girls and one for boys) closed with a talent show where students showed off their incredible singing voices and dance moves. It was moving to see so many aspects of their vibrant personalities.

The heart the students showed up with – for us, and more importantly for themselves – was eternally inspiring. Sure, they’ll eventually forget the proper techniques to box out or play zone defense, but what they’re gaining from Hi 5 is much bigger than that. Hi 5 is helping spark their resilience, ambition and paths to the future. They’re providing academic and career guidance, so that the young men and women can follow-through on their dreams and not just their jump shot. They’re teaching them that when you love something, there’s no ceiling to how well you can do it. Playing a small part in that effort has been my life’s greatest joy.
Ty and I returned to the states after teary goodbyes and an endless series of scrimmages that almost made us miss our flights. Both of us had gained newfound clarity on our own futures. We’re so grateful for the entire Hi 5 team for their work and eagerly wait to return to India, hopefully reading this makes you feel the same.

In the meantime, here is how you can support Hi 5 during the pandemic. With basketball (hopefully) just beginning to safely and gradually re-open, Hi 5 is focusing on providing food, education, and device support for its children in need.

Suhail Shaikh is a freelance brand strategist who focuses on social impact work and is (mostly) based out of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Tyler Condit is finishing his Masters of Education to be a teacher and coach in San Francisco