Three years ago, 14-year-old Princepal Singh walked into Ludhiana's Guru Nanak Stadium complex looking to change his life by pursuing his sport of choice.
In about a week, Princepal will make his debut for the Indian basketball team at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Hong Kong, where India will face Malaysia, Thailand, hosts Hong Kong and a representative team from southern California in the Super Kung Sheung Cup International Championship.
It wasn't basketball that Princepal had originally travelled from his village in Dera Baba Nanak, Gurdaspur for, though. "I was always keen on playing some sort of sport. I used to love running as a kid, and then I got hooked on to volleyball," he says, remembering the day when his height of 6'6" caught the eye of coaches from the famed Ludhiana Basketball Academy. "When I went to Ludhiana, I wanted to enrol for the volleyball academy, but the basketball coaches took me under their wing, and I just started playing basketball from that day on."
The initiation into basketball was a tough one, especially since Princepal admits to having no knowledge of the sport before he began playing. He says his first coaches taught him the "ABC" of the sport, and reminded him, simply, that this game is "all in the mind". His graph since 2017 has been outstanding, though, beginning with selection in the nationwide trials to the NBA Academy India in 2017. Much of the rapid improvement in his game was down to interacting freely with senior players and idols in Ludhiana.
"I used to look at players like Palpreet Singh and observe their game, and wanted to play like them," says Princepal, who now measures up at 6'10", just like international idol Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. "The way Palpreet defends and blocks is something I want to be able to do."
Hong Kong won't be Princepal's first outing in an India shirt, having played an Asian U-16 tournament in China in April. India lost all three group-stage matches, but Princepal returned an average of 22.7 points and 13 rebounds per game. Those performances brought him opportunities to be coached by some of the world's best - first, as part of NBA's Basketball Without Borders Asia Camp in May, which had 65 other young players from across 16 countries, and then as one of three Indians included in NBA's global camp in Treviso, Italy, in June.
Senior team ambitions were first fired up, says Princepal, when he captained India at the U-18 Asian Championship in Nonthaburi, Thailand, in August. Heavy defeats to South Korea and Syria followed an 83-80 loss to Chinese Taipei, and a quarterfinal playoff defeat to New Zealand had its own lessons. "Badhiya team hai. Unki fitness aisi thi ki thodi galti kar ke haare hum (They are an excellent team. Their fitness levels were such that they punished us for the slightest mistakes)," he says.
With some growth in height still expected to occur, Princepal, who was referred to as the 'Next Big Singh' by FIBA after his showing in China, is aware of the need to keep himself injury-free, especially as a "bhayankar (horrific)" injury at the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, where he now trains, left him needing to recover for two weeks. "I was jumping to shoot, and trod on someone's foot when landing and did my ankle in."
Princepal is contracted to attend the NBA Global Academy for the next two years, located in the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) campus, where 13 student elite athletes from across the globe are undergoing training from coaches who have worked with clubs in professional leagues, national teams and age-group sides. Language can still be a hindrance, especially with the amount of travel and staying abroad now required, but Princepal falls back on his ability to learn new things, and the wider Punjabi community, saying, "In Australia, Punjabis run into me on the street and like to click pictures with me. They appreciate that I am making Punjab and India proud."
The biggest support comes from home, though, with Princepal's parents never having played any sport seriously themselves despite his father Gurmej Singh being a six-footer, and his mother Hardeep Kaur just two inches shorter herself. "They keep track of all my performances through live streaming. Whatever the timing of the game, they have never missed watching me in an India shirt," he chuckles. "Sometimes when I am home, they make me watch the repeats as well. It teaches me where I need to get better."