NEW YORK – Indian basketball player Kavita Akula, 21, has become the first Indian-born female basketball player to get a full scholarship to a Division 1 (D1) college — Grand Canyon University — in the United States.
D1 is the highest level of intercollegiate athletics sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the US.
Akula has been dribbling her way to the top in the world of basketball. Born in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, India, Akula comes from a family of basketball players with her aunt and stepbrother being two of them, reported ESPN.
She was just 10 years old when she made the winning shot for her state defeating Kerala and was then tutored by Rajesh Patel, India’s leading basketball coach making her one of the best female players in the country.
Akula had always wanted to either play the sport professionally or coach it in India but her mom wanted more than that.
“I want her to stand on her own feet and lead a great life, and that would be hard in this small hometown,” her mother said to ESPN, hinting at the educational opportunities that her daughter wouldn’t receive in their hometown.
And so in 2010, at the age of 14, Akula was one of the eight Indian recipients of a basketball scholarship to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida where she not only received the opportunity to be in one of the best sports training programs in the world but also received an exceptional education.
Under the coaching of WNBA player Shell Dailey at IMG, Akula learned that in the United States there were many more opportunities for female basketball players than there was back home.
Dailey told ESPN that she was impressed by Akula’s outside shooting skills and after a game of H-O-R-S-E, a shooting game in which participants earn a letter for each shot made, she appointed Akula from point guard to shooting guard.
“I could see why [her coaches in India] would want her to play point guard, because she has excellent leadership skills and she is very clear in her directions,” Dailey said.
Akula ended up growing as a leader and during a bad practice in her first year at IMG, let out her frustration as she addressed the team saying “I want you to understand that if I get better, I am able to live a little better in India. My parents are able to live in a better house, and our life is just a little bit better. Whereas here these things are given to you, so you think these things are normal. If you take practice seriously, then I am going to become a better player, and then I can help my family live a little bit better back in India.”
During breaks at IMG, Akula played for Team India and played both on and off the court balancing her education and the sport as she didn’t want to disappoint her mother. She began to take interest in playing basketball at NCAA Division I colleges as her time at IMG was coming to an end. Her mother was also hopeful that her daughter could have a chance to earn a scholarship along with a degree from a four-year college in the United States.
However, soon after she graduated from IMG in 2015, Akula’s father died at the age of 48 and she immediately left for India to help take care of her mother and family. Her father’s death had crushed her and she lost the desire to go back to the United States and pursue her dream until a few months later she realized that she needed to finish what she had started.
Since a new school year was underway at the time, Akula took the help of her former coach, Dailey, to search for possibilities to play basketball in the United States and sure enough, within a week, Akula signed with Garden City Junior College in Kansas where they were in need of a guard and she was a good fit.
ESPN said that even the coach at Garden City JC, Nick Salazar, thought this was a right choice for Akula as “she looked like a tough and talented player when she got to Kansas, but the school was a ‘reality check’ and an opportunity for her to get ‘a little dirt under her fingers,’” he said. “She’s been playing basketball in Disneyland her whole life,” he added referring to the chances she got earlier playing for Team India and at IMG.
Akula started liking her new posting and set a school record for three-pointers in a game, with nine. She even had the chance to set a school record for three-pointers in one season but had to sit out for the last two games with a concussion. Salazar told ESPN that Akula was not only the most talented player on the team but the most valuable one too. “She is not flashy, but she does stuff that if you don’t have as a basketball team, you will fail,” he said.
Akula had changed; her more outgoing personality at Garden City JC was different from her introvert nature at IMG, something her teammates loved about her. She was starting to feel more at home in the United States and even started cooking and bringing chicken masala to her teammates.
Even though her coaches want her to go onto playing basketball at higher levels and Division I colleges like Minnesota, Illinois and Florida have shown interest in her, Akula wants to go back to India as she has a chance to play for Team India again at the FIBA tournament in the summer. She will start her stint with Grand Canyon University in September.
“I can’t wait to go eat gol gappes with my brothers and sisters, and spend time with my family,” she said to ESPN, as this would be her first visit back after two years.