Jagdeep Singh Bains: The incredible comeback of India's lion-hearted all-rounder

"Jaan Lagao!" (Play with Heart!) roared an exasperated Jagdeep Singh Bains as his team, Punjab, trailed against ONGC in the finals of Savio Cup invitational tournament in 2012. A leader who acts like a defibrillator for his team, his emotional tachometer is usually revved up and redlining. 

Some things never change. Five years later, playing in the UBA, Jagdeep squared up at the top of the key, letting the clock wind down in overtime with the game on the line in UBA Season 4 in the thunderous Sathyabama University Indoor Stadium, Chennai.

The stadium was so loud you couldn't hear yourself speak, with the roaring crowd thundering on the bleachers. Jagdeep's team, Mumbai Challengers, were locked in a war of attrition against Haryana Gold in the regular season. Neither team could create separation as the score was tied at 103 with seconds left in OT. A win would see Jagdeep's team to the playoffs and a loss would mean having to end the regular season in a winner-take-all game to qualify for the playoffs.

It was as if no time had passed between 2012 and 2016. To Jagdeep though, that period represented an eternity in purgatory. "I was in constant pain and I could barely move from the bed," said Jagdeep.

The shot- (click here for the video)

"We were about to go to Alex Scales (former NBA player), but I saw that I had a size mismatch against a big (man) and asked them during the timeout to let me make a play," recalled Jagdeep. "Alex said he'll be a decoy, hold the ball and pass it off to me so I could go to work." Jagdeep had a quiet 9 points and 5 rebounds in the game until that point, serving as the fulcrum around which the action revolved.

He seized up his man as the clock wound down, and took two hard dribbles to his right, making the defense commit to blocking off the lane. Without breaking a step, he spun in the opposite direction, pirouetting like a hulking ballerina to dive into the paint. The defense collapsed as help came to challenge the shot. He elevated hard, absorbing the contact, and banked in the game-winner. He bounced on the spot after making the shot, as if shaking off the years of frustration in a moment of delicious vindication and connected on the ensuing free throw to give Mumbai Challengers the lead for good. "Four years ago, if you told me I would be making a game-winning shot on live television, I would have laughed," said Jagdeep.

The rise

The course of Jagdeep's life took a significant turn in 2002 when he first took to basketball and met the legendary coach of Ludhiana Basketball Academy, Dr. Subramanian. "When I came to him, I was very raw. Bad footwork, couldn't dribble properly, let alone shoot. In just two months he changed my game completely. He would tinker with our shooting stroke and insist upon repetition of drills. I used to wonder why does he keep making us do these things, later I realized just how much it all helped me. When we finally won the gold at the nationals, I laid it at the feet of Coach Subramanian, saying 'Sir ji this is for you. I had to win it once for you."

"I love him like a brother. He can do everything on the court."- Yadwinder Singh (Haryana Gold), part of the first batch of Ludhiana Basketball Academy with Jagdeep.

Jagdeep's on-court moves are highly distinctive. A concrete sense of purpose fuels his every move and you get the impression that he's charted out his course to the rim down to every single step. He represents the perfect marriage of raw power and calculated precision on the basketball court. He doesn't so much dribble as pound the basketball hard off the hardwood to minimize the time the ball spends suspended between his hands and the floor.

Jagdeep had risen from obscurity and represented the tricolor, leading India from the forefront. He won a national gold medal, a gold medal in 3x3 at the 1st South Asian Beach Games, firmly establishing his name among India's top basketball players, and elevated himself among the Top four 'A-ranked' basketball players in India. 

The fall

An L4-L5 disc injury hit Jagdeep like a speeding truck, knocking him off the illustrious path he had carved for himself. "I was bedridden at the peak of my career. I tried physiotherapy for two years, but it didn't help. I could barely move at that point." After four years of intense therapy, he was finally able to move. He had applied to NIS to train to become a coach, but luck didn't favor him. "I know the game inside out, I thought I could learn from NIS about how to better impart what I know and learn what I don't about coaching and the sport. But they asked me to come back when I was fitter, stating that I would have to exert myself physically. I would have crawled across the court if I needed to."

Phoenix rising

While it took some time, fortune came calling for Jagdeep. "I stay in Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan. I was the chief guest at a local school event, the press clipping of which caught the eye of UBA. Initially, I was approached to take on a coaching role, but I wanted to try my hand at playing first." And the rest is history.

In his third UBA season (UBA Season 4), Jagdeep seamlessly transitioned from being the focal point of the offense to playing a reduced, but equally crucial role. With former NBA D-League player Alex Scales spearheading the Mumbai Challengers' attack, along with Inderbir Gill and Jimmy Scroggins forming the other two prongs of the spear, Jagdeep was the pole on which the prongs were mounted. He served as the backbone of the team on both ends of the floor, winning Player of the Game honors twice in regular season and twice in playoffs in UBA Season 4. 

After two seasons of battling valiantly but coming up short, this season Jagdeep and Mumbai Challengers finally won the UBA championship as they defeated Bengaluru Beast, led by Palpreet Brar and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, in 2 games. It was a fitting end to a dominant season which saw them finish with a league-best 5-1 record in the regular season and a perfect 4-0 record in the post-season. 

"I got to play against Amjyot after five years thanks to UBA. Having a professional basketball league in India is Dr. Subramanian's dream come true, and it's unbelievable to go up against players who were just kids some years back and are now among India's best," said Jagdeep.

Jagdeep was one of the nine players selected to attend the 1st Annual UBA US Pro Training Camp in Phoenix in November 2015. While he was sidelined with an injury during the camp, he was as involved as any player with his impact on his juniors who looked up to him and his work ethic. "I got my back diagnosed at the UBA US Pro Training Camp as well, the pointers I got were helpful in me regaining my form," said Jagdeep.

Today, Jagdeep is one of India's most respected veterans. His is a career which has seen gratification only after intense hardship and toil. With his optimism, he always feels that the best is yet to come. "India as a country needs to wake up. It is a boon that the players are getting an opportunity to compete professionally in a very competitive league in India, and they are also getting to make a name for themselves with the wide coverage. For now, I want to continue to play at a high level for some more years. Training and playing with Alex Scales in Season 4, I got to pick up a lot of pointers about how to maintain oneself, and I feel that I can now extend my prime a few more years"

At the age of 30, Jagdeep can be counted upon to give the youth across India a stellar example to look up to for years to come.