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
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
Kolandavel and Santhini Ramasamy were worried.
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.
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.
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
“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
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.
said his parents were more supportive of his basketball career than
many other Indian families would have been. Of course, they still took
“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.”
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?’
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
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?”
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.”
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.”
“Have you played with anybody else of Indian descent?”
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.
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
“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
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
“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
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.
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.”
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
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
Still, that doesn’t mean Ram hasn’t thought about it.
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.”
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.
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.”