Rajesh Srivastava: A Success On And Off The Basketball Court

Saturday mornings at the Andheri YMCA basketball courts in Mumbai are peculiar. While children practising on one end is a given, what makes this day of the week different is a 50-year-old man on the other end — fit as a fiddle — nonchalantly draining three-pointers. From a distance, his laidback attitude may fool onlookers, but upon closer inspection, you’ll realise he is counting every make. Welcome to the unassuming world of Rajesh Srivastava.

An Early Start

Born in the city, now famously known as ‘the cradle of Indian basketball’, Srivastava holds the distinction of being the first player from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh to don the Indian colours. The son of a Railways’ employee, Srivastava lived with his parents in the quarters opposite the Railways’ sports complex.

Srivastava loved sports and was drawn to athletics and cricket in particular. However, late in the evenings, he found himself sitting in his balcony and staring at the floodlit basketball court. “I never considered playing basketball. I only joined because the seniors practising there asked me to try the sport,” Srivastava says.

Srivastava began practising with the Diesel Locomotive Works (DLW) Railways’ team. As fate would have it, he grew fond of seeing the ball go through the net. “Basketball challenged me mentally as well as physically. I wanted to master it.”

A young Rajesh Srivastava in his Team India track suit. Image courtesy: Rajesh Srivastava

Hours of repetition bore fruit and in 1978, Srivastava broke into the U-13 Varanasi district team. But he was nowhere close to being satisfied.

Putting In The Hard Yards

During evening practises with the Railways, Srivastava came across Mangat — a hockey player for the Railways team. “Mangat was 5 ft-8 in, but jumped high enough to touch the rim with his head. I knew I wanted to jump as high as him and decided to mimic his training.” Srivastava joined Mangat for his morning practises at 5 am, running 10–15 kms before returning home in time for school. The extra work paid off and in 1980 he broke into the Junior Indian team where he often outran, outjumped and wore down his teammates in scrimmages.

In 1981, his hustle and dedication at the junior level led to a call up to the Senior India camp at the age of 16. He immediately realised that he was in the presence of greatness, with legends like Abdul Hamid and Ajmer Singh taking him under their wing. In 1982, Srivastava was named captain of the Junior India team. The very next year, he broke into the senior India rotation under the captaincy of his mentor Abdul Hamid.

A New Chapter

1985 was an important year for Srivastava’s development. He decided to move to Malleshwaram, Bengaluru to pursue his engineering degree from RV College of Engineering. To ensure his complete focus on studies, he made himself unavailable for Team India duties. His practise hours reduced and hence his physical prowess and dominance diminished. “I was finding it difficult to compete with even local players. My stamina and fitness were my major strengths. My fundamentals were never the strongest.”

Srivastava’s move to Malleshwaram coincided with the golden era of Malleshwaram basketball. There Srivastava saw international players like SV Ganesh, G Dilip, RT Viswanath, and many more share the same court. Srivastava knew he was at the bottom of the pecking order and needed to work his way up. “Those guys weren’t as physically fit but somehow always outplayed me. Their games were refined and had finesse.”

Rajesh Srivastava (second from right) with another India basketball leged Shahid Qureshi in Singapore. Image courtesy: Rajesh Srivastava

Srivastava had found a new challenge — refining his game. He spent hours on the sidelines observing players, and picked their brain to learn new techniques. “SV Ganesh rarely played basketball, but still always outrebounded everyone every single time he stepped on court. He taught me the importance of positioning for rebounding.” Srivastava grew exponentially and became a much more complete player. In his four years there, he represented Karnataka every single year.

The ‘Crossover’

In 1989, Srivastava completed his mechanical engineering and got placed at Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO), Bihar. Upon joining, TISCO encouraged Srivastava to play for their corporate team and he complied. He represented Bihar and made his comeback into the Indian squad. However, he felt his work was suffering. “Due to India camps, I was away for over six months at a stretch and once I was back, I felt I was losing touch with the work I was hired for.”

Srivastava was in a dilemma: either to quit and become a full-time player or to carry on in his current job. During this critical phase of his life, he received guidance from his boss, who told Srivastava, “Nothing stops you from contributing towards the sport [even] if you stop playing [actively].”

With his boss’s advice etched in his mind, Srivastava knew he had to find a balance and decided to move away from mechanical work. “I needed something mentally stimulating and began exploring my interest in software.” In 1994, Srivastava put in a request seeking a transfer to the software division of the Tata Company. To his happy surprise, his request was granted.

Basketball And The Corporate World

Srivastava stopped representing India in 1996, but continued to represent Bihar state until 1998. Currently 50 years ‘young’ and still in the best shape of his life, he often takes on the younger players of the Andheri YMCA and teaches them the ropes of the game, while successfully managing his software career. Now working at Mastech Digital, he sees a lot of parallels between the corporate world and basketball. “The rules of both the worlds are the same — Success at any cost!”