FROM AIZAWL TO CHICAGO: BASKETBALL WONDER LALHNEHPUIA CHHAKCHHUAK’S REMARKABLE JOURNEY
Although he was only six years old at the time, Lalhnehpuia Chhakchhuak has a crystal clear memory of being introduced to basketball. It was almost inevitable that he would become a player himself. Lalhnehpuia’s mother had played for her school team in Kolkata and his father was an executive committee member of the Mizoram Basketball Association. Little Lalhnehpuia made an instant connection, learning the basics from his mother. When he was eight, an American coach, JD Walsh, came visiting, teaching Lalhnehpuia the fundamentals of the sport. He was hooked.
“I started playing basketball by myself after setting up a hoop in the house,” he remembers. “Later, I started playing 2-on-2 along with my friends from the neighborhood. One of them introduced me to H. Laldinsanga, the only player from Mizoram who has represented India at the international level and had been coaching for a while. After training with him, I started taking basketball seriously.”
This zealous quest has taken Lalhnehpuia, still only 18, to an exciting pit stop in his young journey. Lalhnehpuia has now enrolled at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois, becoming only the sixth NBA Academy India male student-athlete to commit to a high school or college basketball program in the United States. The 6’1” Guard represented NBA Academy India at the 2018 and 2019 NBA Academy Games in Australia and the U.S., respectively, as well as the Point Loma Nazarene Team Camp in San Diego in 2019.
“We are certainly excited to add a player like Lalhnehpuia to our squad. In particular, we like his size at the guard position and as he continues to get stronger we can envision how he can become an important piece within our program,” said North Park head coach Thomas Slyder. “His ability to play at the speed and pace he prefers to play at is an important characteristic for a guard to have.”
Since whole-heartedly embracing the sport, Lalhnehpuia has steadily climbed up the ladder of success. As a 12-year old, he represented Mizoram at the sub–junior nationals in Nashik and started to showcase his standout ability, winning the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award and a Gold medal at a state-level inter-school tournament in 2016 and 2017. A key moment in his progress arrived a year later, when he participated in the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA program in Aizawl. Scott Fleming, the Technical Director at NBA Academy India, was immediately impressed, inviting him for tryouts in May 2018 that opened the door to the Academy for the teenager.
“I remember the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA program was held at an indoor stadium,” he says. “When I went there, there were different stations where the coach could see our skills. I could see where I had to make improvements in my game and that experience was really important for me, it was a stepping stone for me to be part of the NBA Academy India.”
“Programs such as these are really helpful as it inspires the young players, it makes them fall in love with the game,” he adds. “For the kids, to see different kinds of games was an altogether new experience. They were really happy to see different kinds of coaches, so they could showcase their talent.”
Since the program jumpstarted his journey, Lalhnehpuia has been keeping a close eye on subsequent seasons. This year, with on-ground sporting activities across the country largely coming to a standstill due to the ongoing Coronavirus crisis, the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA Program conducted a 12-week Live virtual clinics series, hosted by a stellar line-up of NBA, WNBA & NBA G League players besides legends and coaches who interacted with keen youth from across the country. Among those who conducted sessions was Tyrese Haliburton from the Sacramento Kings, who is among the three finalists for the NBA Rookie of the Year award. Haliburton highlighted how eager kids, like Lalhnehpuia was when he started playing in Aizawl, can continue to remain engaged with the sport despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic.
"I think these online sessions have a big impact, because I know for myself as a kid, when I was able to speak to people I looked up to, it meant the world to me," said Haliburton. "Those are conversations and talks that I'll cherish for the rest of my life. I think it's important, especially in a time like this where interaction is limited, and everyone has to stay inside, more than you would like."
Since its inception in 2013, the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA program has reached more than 11 million youth in 13,000 schools. Starting with two cities in 2013, the program has expanded to over 34 cities across India to date. The online sessions this season attracted well over 2000 participants over the 12-week period, and Lalhnehpuia believes that besides young players, coaches and Physical Education teachers who participate in such programs can upskill and help nurture talent further.
“In Mizoram, one problem is that we don’t have enough coaches,” he says. “When these sessions are held, those who are interested in the coaching line, they gain knowledge from international coaches which is really helpful for them. If that continues, I think we will have good coaches from Mizoram itself.”
For now though, Lalhnehpuia is preparing for life in the most advanced basketball playing nation in the world. An admirer of the legendary Kobe Bryant, he is hoping to chart a professional career in the sport but is also keen to pursue a degree in sports psychology. From a shy boy, who found it difficult to interact with other players, he has blossomed into a confident and measured young man, with hopes to not just achieve success for himself but also other aspiring basketball players from his beloved home state, keen to follow in his footsteps.
“In Mizoram, we don’t have much exposure for basketball,” he says. “We have one tournament for the youth once a year which can be quite discouraging for players because they can’t see a future in the sport. I hope that the Mizoram Basketball Association will come up with a plan and organise more tournaments for the youth so that they have a pathway to the professional level.”
“I am looking forward to this opportunity at North Park University that will keep me on the pathway I have set out on,” he signs off, as a journey that began as an enthusiastic six-year old kid arrives at a significant milestone.