South Asian focused basketball league encourages teens to be straight shooters
When it comes to grassroots initiatives that drive the paint, the Toronto Tamil Basketball Association is an example of a winning hook.
Seven years ago, Shankar Bala found there were no sports leagues to keep post-university, post-high school kids active, in particular for the Tamil community.
In an attempt to stop gang violence, Bala founded the basketball league to unify the South Asian community from all corners of the GTA.
“I realized coming back home from university there was a disconnect between members of the community from the west end to the east end,” he said. “We felt the only way to bridge this is through sports.
“You come as an individual to this league, you get selected on a team, so you can be with somebody from all four corners of Toronto and you can become friends with them,” he added. “This is a way of eliminating violence, which kind of helps out through the years.”
But after year one, the objective changed for Bala, and his approach became more of a big brother role to the young men in his community.
“That was a fundamental principle, and after year one we said let’s add the educational aspect,” he said. “We want to make sure our guys finish school, high school and go on to university or college.”
There’s more than just outreach when it comes to the TTBA though. The level of competition is high, players are scouted from high schools, and every year a three-round draft occurs introducing new members of the Tamil community to the association.
Plenty of opportunity to grow, but Bala doesn’t want to over-saturate the talent pool.
“The thing is, there’s more growth, but we’re holding back because there are no gymnasiums in Toronto because most of them are booked through the school board and the second thing is we wanted to keep the competition level pretty high,” he said. “That means we can give a challenge to the guys playing in the league.”
The season is in full swing with 12 teams split into two divisions. Toronto squads include Etobicoke, Rexdale, Lansdowne, St. Jamestown, North York and Scarborough.
Even though the draft is long since past, coaches are still allowed to trade players.
“It gives the coaches focus during the year,” Bala said.
With the seven-year success of the basketball association, Bala and volunteers from the South Asian community have created a co-ed volleyball league as well as a women’s softball association during the summer.
“It kind of gives us more exposure, which we have never had as a community and we don’t have a professional athlete in North America that could represent our community,” he said. “Our guys do play sports, and we do good at it too if given the right training and exposure.”
Bala, who works full-time in the banking world, takes time out to give back to his community because he remembers how hard it was to balance sport with academics when first coming to Canada.
“When I came here at the age of five or six, my parents were old school, and they were more focused on education,” he said. “With me being an athlete I always wanted to play sports.
“I played on all the high school teams and I felt when I was done there was nothing else to do when I came out of university so I started this.”
Now he’s passing on his dreams to the next core of cagers.
This year’s tryouts proved to have one of the youngest turnouts Bala has seen. A majority of the 88 entrants vying for 35 spots were between the ages of 14–18.
“Usually it’s a bit scattered but a lot of the younger kids want to get more involved now,” he said, adding with a laugh, “more than half of them are 16 years younger than me and it feels like I’m in a totally different environment.”