The start of the third trimester, coupled with enthusiastic basketball fanatics, calls upon Regnart Elementary School’s basketball tournament season. Dubbed “March Madness,” the tournament combined players into co-ed teams. At the time, sophomore Anjali Singh was eight years old, chucking the basketball in the air in a wild frenzy.
“I know I definitely wasn’t good at basketball back then. I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Singh said. “I remember thinking it was really fun. The first couple years I played basketball… it was like the sport or activity you’d do in your free time.”
Though third grader Singh didn’t know at the time, this spark interest would kindle into a full-fledged ardor for basketball — hours of commitment, dedication and grit.
It’s sixth grade and Singh has a sturdier build — she’s a bit on the skinnier side and “a tad” taller than the rest. Decked in black Nike shorts and tennis shoes, she’s one of the 50 girls vying for a spot on Kennedy Middle School’s basketball team. Though this is Singh’s first step wading into competitive waters, she isn’t nervous in the slightest.
“I didn’t really have an expectation that I was going to make it,” Singh said.
But Singh felt the vibe of tough competition — that there were many skilled players. Among a few are the coach’s daughter, who has been playing basketball since second grade. She was in a league where she played the entire year, and Singh just wasn’t up to par.
There’s a court split in the middle into two half courts. The coach splits the girls to two groups of 25; the two groups are dispersed to a half court and then split into two lines. Players would run, pass the ball to a partner from the other line and cut for a layup.
Singh stands in line anticipating her turn as the players in front her dwindle down to three people, two people, then finally one person — it’s her turn. Her partner passes her the ball and Singh instantaneously thought she wasn’t going to catch it. Heart racing, Singh knew that she was supposed to cut to a certain spot on the half court, but she didn’t know where — the coach is beginning to get mad.
Singh’s partner passes the ball and Singh gives her the bounce pass. Her partner scores and the pair switch lines. Singh’s next mishap would play out as the deciding factor in the coach’s final roster.
“When I was going for a layup, I missed mine,” Singh said. “You know, you miss layups — you’re not supposed to do that.”
Any spectator could tell that the coach was cutting people already because he was moving “all the really bad” people to the half court. Each round, the process of elimination amplified; more and more players piled into the dubbed “bad” court. Then, the coach strides to the other side and he puts Singh on the other half court.
Oh, now I know it’s over, Singh thought, trudging to the other court.
The next preceding events — Singh isn’t exactly sure what had happened. Singh’s coach was talking to his assistant coach and they allegedly needed a certain amount of people for the next cut. The coach’s eyes swept through the half court, eyeing Singh and a handful of players.
“You three, come back,” he said.
“I was super happy about [getting back in],” Singh said. “I was so disappointed that I was on this side because I was playing with people that I felt like I was better than. That’s still something I still remember really clearly — that moment where he looks at me and he’s like, ‘You can come back in.’”
Singh made the basketball team, becoming one of the 12 on the team. At the time, 11-year-old Singh wouldn’t expect that she would be shedding sweat and tears with this close-knit family for the next three years of her basketball career.
Singh’s coach could be summed up in three words: “strong, patient, hard-working.” As Singh’s basketball coach is the high school varsity coach for Presentation High School, he taught her everything she needed to know about basketball: from cutting players and running a defense to playing aggressive.
“He was really hard and I remember some days I would cry and my mom had to email him in sixth grade about what’s going on,” Singh said. “When I was under his teaching I didn’t like him because he was so hard. But now looking back, I definitely wouldn’t be the player I am now if I didn’t have this coach.”
Swapping her tennis shoes out for a brand new pair of basketball shoes, Singh began with a rocky start. The players on Singh’s team have been playing for a lot longer and have been playing in “real leagues,” whereas Singh had started Cupertino Hoops, an all-volunteer basketball league. Singh could feel the rift between the starters and the benchwarmers, known as the “reserves.” According to Singh, the starters were their “own kind of friend group” — the players knew the coach in a “different way” than she herself did.
“I would see him as someone who’s really tough,” Singh said. “But I’m sure they thought of him as tough too, but they saw him as more of a helper. At the time, I didn’t really think he was helping me, but he was critiquing me. But looking back, that’s why I’m a good player now.”
In general, Singh never got much court time in middle school and spent a majority of the season warming the benches — Singh’s first game was less eventful.
“I don’t think he put me in until the last quarter maybe, it was like a couple minutes,” Singh said. “I just went in there. It was scary. I hadn’t played against people and luckily our first game was not a really tough team. It was scary to have a really good defense. We did scrimmages within our own teams so I was used to the pressure because definitely our starters are so good and they’ve played with me.”
As the season progressed, Singh began to feel the intensity of competitive basketball. Listen to the podcast below to hear moments when Singh felt the intensity of competitive basketball get to well being:
Singh was fine as a reserve — she knew that she couldn’t be a starter. In actuality, Singh felt that sporting the sidelines, if anything, was a breather. She would be “so nervous to do basketball” that warming the benches was a relief rather than a weight.
“Sometimes I felt really relieved that I wasn’t put in,” Singh said. “It’s just really hard — I was so nervous to play basketball in middle school. I would be so nervous to play.”
Sixth grade season was beginning to draw to a close. Singh’s team was triumphant — the team won the championship. As the team won game after game, Singh’s coach gave her sporadic opportunities to step foot into the court.
“He hadn’t given me so many opportunities to play throughout the entire season,” Singh said. “Each game I felt like I was getting more playing time; I was definitely being put in a lot more. I improved a lot not just skill wise but calming down. I was still nervous for the final game.”
Singh stopped comparing herself to the starters by the end of the sixth grade. They’ve been playing at a formal basketball club for so long — Singh accepted it. Instead, she drifted closer to the reserves and the four to five people around her skill level.
When the off season rolled around, Singh, alongside four to five of the reserves, didn’t play club during off season but rather played recreational basketball in their free time. Since Singh’s team graced the season with a victory streak, Singh hadn’t felt the “pressure of losing” — it was fine that Singh didn’t play club, as she didn’t think it was important for her to do it.
For 30 minutes daily, Singh would go outside and shoot in the hoop in front of her house’s driveway. To stay fit during the off season, Singh did a multitude of biking and playing outside in sixth grade. However, her goals at the time weren’t concentrated in outperforming every player on her team but rather taking small steps.
“I knew that I couldn’t beat the starters, but I just felt like I had to beat the people I was friends with [on the team],” Singh said. “I just had to make sure that I was on top of them because it would be starters, that one really good girl, me and then the rest of the people. My goal was to just beat the better half of the reserves.”
The same field house, the same people, the same coach — Singh is back in tryouts as a taller and lankier seventh grader. However, she wasn’t nervous in the slightest since she knew the coach first-hand. The once 50 people vying for a spot on the team had plummeted to a short 15 players.
In seventh grade, the coach took the same set of people that were on the team the year prior. Singh felt there was “no need to tryout, because he took the exact same people.”
Seventh grade hit Singh with a unpredictable shock— she felt that everybody improved, deducing that it could’ve been club training, conditioning or Singh simply falling off her radar.
“It wasn’t like I was upset that they’re better than me,” Singh said. “It was just, ‘Wow, you guys are getting really good.’”
Looking back, Singh pinpointed her hardships at the time — she felt she was straggling behind her teammates and ambitions.
“Back then, I felt like everybody and most people knew what they were doing,” Singh said. “Definitely the starters — they knew the plays and they knew what they were doing. I wasn’t really on top.”
As a team, Kennedy advanced playoffs round one — Kennedy later qualified for finals. The team they’re competing with was Egan and both teams lurked close in scoring by the numbers for the first three quarters.
In the fourth quarter, a player from Egan shot a far backboard three pointer. According to Singh, the shot was coincidental and not on purpose. Final point.
Singh is sitting next to the coaches on the benches when the head coach shook his head infuriatingly and fumed:
“S--- man! S--- MAN!”
In playoffs, the team lost 3-5 against Egan and didn’t qualify for finals.
For Singh, the rundown was remained identical to sixth grade: minimal court time and nervousness clawing at her insides at every game.
February briskly rolls around, which means one thing: basketball club season. The year is 2015 and it marks the first year of Singh’s club career. In seventh grade, Singh played for basketball club Cupertino Hoops on Team 64.
“Club was so different,” Singh said. “I was on a team that was nothing compared to my school team. My school team is twenty times better than my club team.”
Playing down to par in a “chill atmosphere,” Singh was considered a valuable player to the team. Starting from the bottom, Singh’s court time surged as she was an official starter for Team 64. In the school team, Singh would be too be considered valuable, but just not to “much of an extent.”
Kennedy’s basketball program offered the competitiveness and vigor contrary to the lightweight club setting. Singh’s school coach was a “scary dude” — the girls would do drill after drill with no questioning or interruptions.
On the contrary, the coach for Team 64 was a nice woman who was close with all her players — the team would do club bonding.
“I just went there to get more practice,” Singh said. “We played games and all, but I wasn’t going there and feeling more. I was feeling a lot less pressure than school.”
This time, she’s used to it with familiarity. Stepping on home
grounds for the third time, Singh details that eighth grade tryouts were “the best tryouts compared to sixth and seventh grade,” as her fundamental skills improved.
But there was a problem.
“The problem with eighth grade tryouts was that I think only 10 people tried out,” Singh said. “And he took eight people. Which for a basketball team, because you have five starters and that means three reserves — eight people you never take that on any team. At least coaches should take 10 to 12. We were really shocked that he took eight people.”
The coach took the exact same people he’s been taking since sixth and seventh grade. The rest of the people didn’t try out or weren’t taken under his wing. Singh never knew why her coach did that.
With two years of experience behind her, eighth grade is where Singh’s nerves subsided and her restless tension dribbled away. Listen to the podcast below to hear Singh’s input on her mental growth in basketball.
Listen to the podcast below to hear Singh’s opinions on having played with the same set people for three years at Kennedy and two years at Cupertino Hoops.
The starter, the daughter of Singh’s coach, the “really good one”
left Cupertino. Another quits basketball. Another moves. Another three players take the next step and make varsity. One by one, the players trickle out of Singh’s grasp.
For the first time in three years, she’s alone. She’s down to square one, as if she was reliving her novice sixth grade years over again.
“It’s a new coach, you need to prove yourself to that,” Singh said. “Versus seventh and eighth grade tryouts, I had already proved myself to the sixth grade coach so it was not stressful. In ninth grade, these coaches — I really gotta show what I’m worth.”
Listen to the podcast below to hear Singh’s description of her ninth grade tryout.
“I broke my hand in December of that year. So I didn’t play that whole season.”
It’s winter break, two months after October tryouts and a while after preseason tournaments. The junior varsity team were running off campus. As Singh was running, her foot tripped on a sidewalk crack and she tumbled on her hand. Singh’s entire pinky bent in a atypical angle. Up to this date, Singh’s pinky can’t stretch entirely straight because it was broken from that incident.
“Before I fell, I don’t know if this is déjà vu, but I felt like while I was running that I was gonna fall,” Singh said. “I scraped my entire face too. I wasn’t thinking about anything — I was just hurting. I wasn’t thinking about basketball. I wasn’t thinking of my dominant hand breaking and my school. I wasn’t thinking about any of that.”
Singh’s devotion for basketball didn’t falter, as she attended every practice and every game. At the scoreboard or at the reffing table doing shot clock, Singh affiliated herself with every miniscule detail involving basketball — all except playing on the court.
Singh especially felt the emotional relapse of her injury during a home game with Saratoga High held on January, approximately a month after her injury. The MV JV basketball team trailed close with Saratoga the entire game, either down by two, up by two or tied neck to neck with Saratoga.
MV ended up losing by four points.
“Everybody after, including me, told me … my starter friends were like, ‘If you played, we would’ve won,’” Singh said. “That sucked. If you see your teammates doing really well, automatically you want to contribute more. You see people scoring so much. You see people having fun with what they’re doing and we’re winning, definitely that environment is going to make you want to play better.”
Throughout Singh’s athletic career, the thought of warming the benches was ingrained into Singh’s mentality. Singh would question herself:
Oh, I didn’t want to play basketball. Playing this is so nerve wracking — why do I choose to play this?
When Singh broke her hand, she realized it was karma. The same voice murmured at the back of her mind:
Now you literally can’t play basketball, how is your life going now?
At the time, Singh’s mental state was “frazzled” and overturned. A multitude of family problems coupled with Singh’s underperformance in school surfaced Singh’s pent up stress.
Missing out on club basketball and an interruption of everyday life coupled with parading a cast proved to be a inconvenience. Though Singh couldn’t pinpoint exactly when her hand heals in time, Singh took off her cast in March. Weak and frail, Singh’s hand was in no condition to get back to rigorously dribbling a ball. After taking off the cast, Singh was sent to physical therapy.
Sporting rings on her fingers, Singh’s hand was healed and was gradually getting stronger with time — Singh could steadily hold a pencil. However, her attention wasn’t diverted to plunging headfirst back onto the court.
“I knew that I was going to play in the summer league, but I wasn’t looking forward to getting back on the court mostly because I was scared I would hurt myself again,” Singh said. “[I didn’t want to have that] mental state again or mess up in school again.”
Singh’s hand injury made Singh’s mom “sketch” about playing basketball — Singh’s mom didn’t want her daughter to do summer league.
“I don’t even know if I want you to continue playing,” Singh’s mom said.
“Let me see how it goes. You know I haven’t played in so long,” Singh replied.
Singh went to the first open gym held in the field house and stepped foot on the court for the first time in five or six months. According to Singh, “it was the first time [she] had to pack my basketball things, throw in [her] shoes, throw in [her] clothes.”
Singh entered the field house, slipped into her basketball shoes and criss-crossed her laces — the feeling was foreign. Having long wore her shoes, it was “weird” for Singh to get in gear as she didn’t wear her shoes to play but rather spectate. In her time of recuperation, Singh was refining her control with her left hand through dribbling with her non-dominant hand.
Though Singh had been regularly exercising her left hand, she wasn’t rigorously exerting herself. During open gym, Singh was tentative and “overly cautious” with her play.
“You know when you defend, you would put your hands out to grab?” Singh said. “I wouldn’t put my hand out that much because it would just break. My hand was hurt for so long. I didn’t feel like I wanted to use my hand to help playing.”
Singh is a right hand shooter, and with her hurting her right hand meant that Singh couldn’t practice her shot. Thus, her shot was uncoordinated in comparison to her former shot. Backpedaling, Singh reflected that she wasn’t “back to square one.” Her skill level was as good as the end of eighth grade due to her unforeseen hiatus.
From this injury, Singh learned resilience through the blows — a mishap can fuel the resolve to drive ambition.
“After injuries or after a setback, you’re able to get back to what you were before,” Singh said. “Even if an injury happens, or some life changing things happens and you’re at a low state in your life, you can get back to the stage you were at.”
“There are some days where I’m like, ‘This team isn’t as bad as people think,’” Singh said.
The team is notoriously bad — the team takes losses by at least 20 points for almost every game. Singh knows it. The team this year is notoriously worse — the players with “more skills” advanced to varsity. Singh knows that too.
“Nobody on the team is dedicated to continue working … Me and the captains would talk, especially this year. We would talk about how, ‘Damn, if we won a game then I think that the outcome would be so different,’” Singh said. “So we would try so hard to win games but we were so close. On one game we lost by four. That sucked. I cried after that game because I really wanted to win that game.”
As one of the three captains on junior varsity basketball this year, Singh felt the team’s losses take a toll on her.
“My coaches would put a lot of pressure on me and I wouldn’t say blame, but say ‘You’re losing,’” Singh said. “The coaches would put a lot of pressure on me specifically. Let’s say we’re in a game and I haven’t scored any points and it’s third quarter. The coach will come up to me and be like, ‘You need to score. You need to lead.’”
Singh is confident, and isn’t afraid to showcase the “prove you wrong” mentality the team fosters at every practice and every game.
“We go out, and we go in our team and we’re like, ‘We want to show that,’” Singh said. “There are teams that we’re going to play and that we’re going to lose. They’re just that good. We’re like, ‘Hey, let’s get out there and only lose by 10. Let’s go out there, and everybody score.’”
From all the highs and the lows drawing to present time, Singh has learned to drown out criticism and backlash surrounding the team and her as a player.
“I would say, don’t listen to other people,” Singh said “Because there have been times where people said … especially this year. Everybody makes fun of our team, jokes about how we suck. But if you let that get to your head and how you’re going to play then you’re just going to contribute to them and that stereotype that you’re bad.”