Eastern exposure: Dalip’s story

March 29, 2011
By


Meet Dalip, seen here with St. Peter’s guard Steven Samuels. Photo courtesy of St. Peter’s College Athletic Department via S.R. Smith Sports Photography.

A few days before moving to New Jersey, I came across a story that I felt needed to be told, a story of a man named Dalip Bhatia. He is believed to be the first Division I men’s college basketball coach in the country of Indian descent. He serves as an assistant coach at St. Peter’s College, a school that as fate would have it would later make its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament — losing to Purdue to the first round of the Southwest region — since 1995 after winning the MAAC conference tournament earlier this month.

As luck would have it, I had the time to work on such a story as I searched for a full-time job after earning my master’s degree in January. I also had the fortune of everyone associated with the St. Peter’s men’s basketball program welcoming with open arms in early February to spend an entire day with them in spite of the uncertainty of when and where the story would be published. Now, I am thrilled to report, I have a full-time job and the time for me to chase down stories like Dalip’s has come and gone. And tonight is actually my final night in Jersey City before heading north to Hoboken.

But I didn’t want to close this past chapter in my life without getting his story out to the rest of the digital world — the storyteller in me would not allow it, not after everything Dalip has gone through to make a name for himself. And so I present to you his story after the jump.

Dalip looks on and his team practices the latest wrinkles in its preparation. Photo by Stephen Schmidt.

In the pursuit of passion: Indian-born coach takes unorthodox route to Division I basketball, history

By Stephen Schmidt

It was a slate-gray, frigid day in Jersey City, like so many others before and after it in recent months. Ice-trodden streets and sidewalks forced St. Peter’s College’s urban campus to delay opening its doors for a few hours.

By the afternoon, though, the men’s basketball team made it to one of the practice courts in the Yanitelli Center to prep for a critical weekend road trip to the equally tropical destination of Buffalo, N.Y., to play against Niagara and Cansius in early February. At the time, the Peacocks, a team that finished 38-82 the past four seasons, found themselves only behind Fairfield in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference standings with a conference mark of 8-3.

Toward the end of the practice, the team went through shooting drills as a game clock ticked down—eliciting a bellow from a coach that belied his rather small stature.

“There’s two minutes, fellas! Don’t falter on energy! C’mon!… GAME SPEED!”

That, in essence, is the creed of Dalip Bhatia. No one can ever accuse him of such a crime. He runs his life at game speed, as if Mountain Dew courses through his veins. With him, there’s always two minutes on the clock. Or less.

“I was always a high-energy kid,” he would later say. “It’s all-natural. I always knew I wasn’t the biggest kid, or the strongest kid, the fastest kid, so I always had to go at a different speed for me to be competitive and succeed.”

When you’re a 5-foot-4 Indian male basketball coach attempting to carve your name into a sport built on the lanky limbs of others who do not share your ethnicity, your work ethic is one of the few tools within your grasp. It helps you cut down the stereotypes that tend ensnare those who meet you.

C’mon, you’re a short Indian guy. What do you know about basketball?

Then they see the fire dancing around your pupils. And they hear your story about how you much you’ve sacrificed to look into skeptical eyes.

“I know that’s going to always be a stereotype that’s going to follow me around, probably until my coaching career ends, but I have no problem attacking that through hard work, perseverance and showing players that what I’m doing, at the end of the day, is going to help them on the court and off the court,” Bhatia said.

At 28, Bhatia is believed to be the first Division I men’s basketball assistant coach of Indian descent in NCAA history. He was promoted last June following two seasons as the team’s director of basketball operations. Neither the NCAA, the National Association of Basketball Coaches nor USA Basketball keep such records relating to the ethnicity of coaches. Dan Drutz, the assistant athletic director for communications at St. Peter’s, reached out to representatives of all 32 Division I conferences to search for others in Bhatia’s demographic. No one came forth with any names. Bhatia’s ultimate dream is to become the first Division I head coach with that distinction.

“He’s a good starting point,” said Marlon Guild, a fellow assistant coach at St. Peter’s. “That stereotype is there but he goes above and beyond that to do the best job he can. For us, he’s been great, so he’s definitely somebody for other guys to say ‘You know what? He’s there doing it. I can do it as well.’”

Akash Jain, the senior director for business development and partnerships for the NBA’s initiatives in India, certainly has heard of Bhatia’s name and his efforts at St. Peter’s. Members of the New York metro Indian community informed Jain about seven months ago.

As part of his job, Jain tries his best to keep track of anyone of Indian descent tied to the game who could possibly serve as its ambassadors as the NBA continues to help make basketball the second most popular sport—behind almighty cricket—in the second most populous nation in the world (with close to 1.2 billion people). Others on his list include Vivek Ranadivé, a software mogul who has a share of ownership in the Golden State Warriors, and Harleen Sidhu, a junior forward on Nebraska’s women’s team, who is believed to the first Division I female player of Indian descent.

“We’re going to definitely tap into any and all expertise that we can in the U.S. to be able to grow the game in India,” Jain said. “We’re going to want to find people that are obviously passionate about India and want to give back there.”

Bhatia is ready to do his part to advance a sport that the Basketball Federation of India estimates that 5 million citizens already play. “Absolutely,” Bhatia said. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to spread the game in India.” That number continues to skyrocket as exposure grows through a series of NBA-co-sponsored community leagues with Indian automotive company Mahindra in five cities—which have a 25 percent increase this year compared to the inaugural campaign last season—and the addition of two TV stations that show two NBA games a week each. The eyes are growing. Now Jain and company wait for the fire within them.

*****

Photo courtesy of St. Peter’s College Athletic Department via S.R. Smith Sports Photography.

Passion. It’s the one of the first words that comes to the minds of those coaches who have mentored Bhatia, as if it’s a tangible entity that accompanies him like a sidekick.

“You’re taken in by his passion,” said one coach.

“The kid just crackles with intensity. He’s passionate,” said another.

It’s the only explanation of why he chose this road not taken—and to further paraphrase Robert Frost—how he hopes that makes all the difference between a safe career route, one that could be netting him six figures by now, and one that he was guided to by his heart. That heart of his also comes up quite frequently through word association.

“He just has a heart. He listens… and he sacrifices a lot,” said St. Peter’s senior point guard Nick Leon, talking about the man who spends close to 100 hours a week working two jobs for the school during the season, one of which is pro bono. Remarkably, his eyes are bereft of dark circles underneath them.

Four years ago Bhatia quit his job as a senior auditor at a well-known accounting and consulting firm to take a five-figure pay cut for the chance to cut his teeth as a Division III men’s college basketball coach—only to become a volunteer assistant coach a season later. How does a 20-something young professional with a burgeoning future in the corporate world willingly trade in riches for the rags that he grew up with? How could he sit at a BMW dealership and come a few swipes of a pen away from a new black 3 Series, only to change his mind and stay with his trusty beige ’99 Nissan Altima that he leased in high school?

“I said ‘I really want this’ but I didn’t want to make the financial commitment because I always thought if I ever got into coaching, I couldn’t have that expense every month,” said Bhatia, who still has the same car with about 188,000 miles on it. “It was always in the back of my mind.”

So was she. A gold heart-shaped locket often sits tucked under whatever shirt Bhatia is wearing, but on occasion it will flash along his neck line. The locket has never left since cancer took away his mother, Promila, in July of 2003. It contains two photos of the woman who raised Dalip, her only child, mostly by herself in a modest home in North Brunswick, N.J. “It was hard on me. My relationship with my mom was very strong,” Bhatia said. “She was like my best friend. I lost my whole life when my mother passed away.”

The locket that Dalip wears each day that contains two photos of his deceased mother. Photo by Stephen Schmidt.

When a brain scan first discovered a tumor that was slowly stealing her upper thalamus in May 2003, she was given three to six months to live. She lasted six weeks. Bhatia was a junior at nearby Rutgers working on his accounting major. Upon first hearing her diagnosis, one of Promila’s biggest wishes was that her son would graduate from college and get a good job. Like so many other Indian parents, she placed a heavy emphasis on all matters related to the best education possible for Dalip. Neither she nor Bhatia’s father ever pressured their child into what could be called the “Final Four” of safe professions for Indian sons and daughters.

“In most Indian cultures, a lot of their parents want their kids to be lawyers, doctors and engineers, or finance professionals,” Bhatia said. “And my mom never steered me toward any of that. She wanted me to do what made happy as long as I was on the right path to being successful on whatever I did.”

*****

Although a rising middle class and an increased interest in professional sports have made it more socially acceptable for Indian youth to dream beyond the more established career paths, walking down Bhatia’s career path remains a tough sell in India.

“That mentality is spreading, but I still think it’s a long, long way to go because in India we still don’t have that sort of social security, almost,” said Karan Madhok, who heads the BFI’s communications and public relations efforts while writing content for his “Hoopistani” blog and the NBA’s India site. “Most people in India, especially the class of Indians who can be targeted to compete in sports…  really don’t have the luxury of taking chances.

“If they try at basketball and then they fail and then they realize ‘We haven’t made the most of our youth and haven’t got our education in something safe’—that would not be something we would be able to do.”

What India needs, Madhok said, are “proven examples” in sports that are comparable to other professional pursuits. Indian youth can look to professional cricket players in this regard, but that’s it. Having a player of Indian descent in the NBA would go a long way to aid the situation. Some pundits have begin pinning that aspiration on a 7-foot 15-year-old, Satnam Singh Bhamara, who is currently playing at IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton, Fla. with a group of other promising boys and girls who were discovered in India.

“Our perspective is that there is no real time line to it,” added Jain, who will be moving to India full time within the next months as soon as the league chooses a suitable office location. “We do think it’s not if, but when. Our focus continues to be on the grassroots and growing participation and growing the game at that level. When that happens, we think that will be a byproduct of all the things were doing now to grow the game and grow the popularity of the NBA.”

As far as having the first Division I men’s player of Indian descent hit the hardwood?

“I think it could be any day now,” Bhatia said.

“That will happen,” Guild added. “I think ’Lip’s kind of proved that from a coaching standpoint. All it takes is for someone to give you a chance.”

*****

Bhatia’s memories of living in India as a small child are blurry at best. He does recall the light blue shirts and navy pants that composed the private Catholic school, Our Lady of Good Counsel, that he attended as a 4-year-old Hindu boy in his birthplace of New Delhi “because it was the best education of where we lived” before his family left for New Jersey in 1987.

A young Dalip hams it up with his mother. Photo courtesy of Dalip Bhatia.

His mother was always his Lady of Good Counsel. She saw how athletics mixed with academics would keep her son on the straight and narrow.  When he wasn’t at school, doing homework or listening to New Jersey Nets’ games on the radio—there was no cable TV or video games in his house—he played soccer and baseball, but his boundless energy was mainly reserved for basketball.  “For me, it was always my escape,” Bhatia said.

Bhatia remembers being cut from his high school’s freshmen team as if it happened last Tuesday. He began practicing as much as he could “to prove that the freshman coach made the bad decision.”

In spite of his arms drowning in his warm-up jacket, Bhatia played on the North Brunswick High School varsity team for three years as a backup point guard to Mensah Peterson, who would later help lead Fairleigh Dickinson to the NCAA Tournament in 2005.

Bhatia proved to be one of the toughest defenders on his high school team. Photo by Dalip Bhatia.

“His actions and his demeanor on the court basically said ‘You will not outwork me,’” said longtime North Brunswick High coach, Ed Breheny, who recalled how Bhatia would stick to teammates like Velcro on defense during practices—especially Peterson. “Eventually his skills started to catch up to his determined state of mind.”

After high school, Bhatia’s hunger for being around the game could be quenched at first by serving as a volunteer assistant coach for Breheny’s squad. Beginning in his freshman year at Rutgers, he would help out with clinics, practices and even give input in the locker room at halftime. Still, he could not stray from the finance route after becoming a licensed CPA. He landed a job at the Parisippany, N.J., offices of Deloitte where he had interned. For a guy who grew up without much, he had the world in his hands when he received a paycheck. A force within him, though, kept him from spending hardly any of his newfound money, from not driving off the lot in a black BMW to let the world know he had made it.

He knew another journey was about to begin, one that could require every last penny from his savings account. The second guesses had told him so. And while the idea of such a dramatic career began to crystallize, Bhatia was doing quite well with Plan A, so much so that he would eventually turn down a job offer to work at a New York hedge fund firm that would have added up a to a salary close to $100,000 when factoring in a healthy bonus.

No matter. He recalled other advice from his mother before her passing: Work hard, surround yourself with good people and pursue your dreams. He was all in, hoping that his basketball acumen would one day catch up with his desire to be a college basketball coach.

*****

Ed Breheny received a call in late August 2007 from Bhatia, expressing interest in pursuing college coaching. Given that many of the summer basketball clinics were coming to a close and most college jobs had been decided for the upcoming season, Bhatia’s timing could not have been worse. Still, the coach who has been at the same school for 22 years went through his lengthy list of contacts. Breheny put Bhatia in touch with Andrew Theokas, the director of operations for Western Kentucky who at the time was an assistant coach at Columbia. Theokas, served as an assistant coach for Breheny, knew what it was like firsthand to try to break into the Division I game without having played in college.

As those from The Garden State often do, the two met at a diner in North Brunswick and chatted for about 90 minutes about all things related to the matter at hand, especially the financial hit he would most likely have to endure. “I didn’t paint him a pretty picture,” Theokas said. “I painted him a real picture.”

The gray colors on Theokas’s canvas, though, would not be enough to deter Bhatia. His sincerity and preparation impressed Theokas enough to immediately place a call to a colleague of his, Rob Kurzinsky, whom he had worked with at Columbia. Kurzinsky had accepted his first head coaching job at Kean, a Division III school southwest of Newark, after serving the previous year as the top assistant during John Dunne’s first year at St. Peter’s. “I said ‘Rob, listen to me. Meet with this kid and let him help you,’” Theokas said.

Kurzinsky offered to meet with Bhatia on Labor Day as a way, the newbie would later find out, to instantly test of his dedication. Bhatia had Kurzinsky’s attention when he mentioned his previous career track. “You’re taken in by the fact that, OK now [he’s] given it some legitimacy because he’s saying he’s willing to give up all of this lifestyle,” Kurzinsky said. He knew a fellow nose-to-the-grindstone guy when he saw one and later agreed on a four-figure amount of compensation that would be, in Kurzinsky’s words, “peanuts” compared to his last job.

After one season at Kean, Kurzinsky realized that Bhatia would be able to bend backward for a program through meticulous attention to detail “at a high level,” so he called Dunne. “I said ‘This is your guy,’” Kurzinsky said. Given that the two coaches considered themselves to be cut from the same cloth, those simple words were all that needed to be said to get Bhatia a Division I ticket. It was a Dunne deal, one could say.

So Bhatia leaped one step closer to his goal, but went from making peanuts to nothing in a volunteer role. He began breaking down film all hours of the night and handling all of the team’s affairs away from actually coaching or recruiting players.  As luck would have it, Bhatia was able to get part-time job managing and overseeing recreation center student workers to help supplement his income during his second year at St. Peter’s. After all, his car can’t fueled by passion alone for the 90-minute round trip commute to his North Brunswick.

Although Bhatia is now beloved by everyone on the team and nearly everyone on campus—“He’s probably one of the most popular people around here,” said senior guard Wesley Jenkins—he was originally met with some skeptical eyes as well. That skepticism soon faded away.

“When you first meet somebody and they’re kind of short or exceptionally tall, whichever it may be, you’re like ‘Oh,’ but over time you don’t see that,” said Dunne, who himself stands 6-foot-3. “You don’t see 5-foot-4 over time. You just see a guy who’s loyal and hard-working and that has the team’s respect, which is most important.

“If you give somebody a task, one guy might kind of half fulfill it, another guy might do exactly what you ask. Then there’s the guy who does that and a whole lot more—he’s that guy.”

Added Breheny: “You can have the greatest résumé in the world, if [players] sense that you are just going through the motions, they will read that. You cannot fool players. And so in Dalip’s case, I’m sure that that passion just oozes out of him. There’s no way those St. Peter’s kids can be in that gym and not understand where he’s coming from and his love for the game and his love for his job.”

That’s a fair statement. “He brought a lot to the program just because how he treats us. He treats us like we’re his own kids. He’ll do anything for us,” Jenkins said. Players can attest to how Bhatia has always played the role of a hungry sponge, especially during games.  “The bigger the game, the more you look at him and he’s on his toes,” junior guard Brandon Hall said. “Dunne is like ‘Yeah, Nick you got to bring it here. Wes, you got to come off the screen.’ He’s like lipping it. It sort of looks like he’s trying to get the words out before Dunne.”

Bhatia has a way of floating in the phrase “at the end of the day” into his dialect with an accent that reflects the 23 years he’s spent in New Jersey working on his version of the American dream—as countercultural as it may be.

At the end of the day, if there are a few Dalips in India, the game, which Madhok estimated could reach 10 million participants in five years, will grow at an even more staggering rate. And no matter what happens to Bhatia’s aspirations of becoming a Division I coach, it won’t be because he faltered on energy or effort.

“I would never crush anyone’s dream, but certainly it’s not easy,” Dunne said. “That being said, man, I wouldn’t count him out for anything.”

 

 

 

 


 

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