With all the attention on football and cricket, basketball remains a niche sport in Bangladesh. Especially for women, it's difficult to pursue a career in basketball with organizations like BKSP training only the men.
But Ashreen Mridha, one of the forerunners of women's basketball in Bangladesh, seeks to empower women through basketball regardless of age, religion and socio-economic background. As a member of the national team, Ashreen participated in the first South Asian Women's Basketball (SABA) Championships in 2016, and captained the Kolkata-Bangladesh friendly series in India the same year. She became the first Bangladeshi basketball player to join the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP) funded by ESPN and the United States.
In this stressful time of Covid-19, the former captain of Bangladesh women's basketball team and currently the brand manager of Surf Excel at Unilever and an aspiring singer, Ashreen Mridha spoke to The Business Standard (TBS) about her life, basketball career and beyond.
TBS: Life has come to a halt due to the pandemic. How's been life over the past few months?
Ashreen: Last few months have been the slowest period in my entire life. For us athletes, it's quite unnatural to stay indoors for such a long time. I've been on a long break since September 2019 because of a ligament injury. I am on my feet now but I can't play. This is very frustrating. But I am taking this period for a lot of self-reflection and healing.
TBS: How did you get into basketball, especially when it did not have a proper structure?
Ashreen: I started playing basketball in 2000, when I was in grade four. The first time I was exposed to the sport when I went to observe the senior women's team's practice. My father was the in-charge of the sports management at Sunbeams School, where I studied. I used to observe what they did and tried to do those things by myself. That's how it all started and the rest is history.
I immediately joined the Basketball Federation Training School and trained there for almost two years. I continued to play for the school team till 2006. But there was no basketball team in Mastermind college. So I kept looking for opportunities. I started playing for a local club called 'The Wild Cats'. After I had joined North South University, I formed the first ever women's basketball team there. I organized a lot of inter-university competitions.
I played for the Women's national team from 2009 to 2018. I participated in the first ever South Asian Basketball Championship for Women that was held in 2016. Gradually I realized that I developed from being a player to becoming a sports activist for women.
TBS: What are the challenges an aspiring basketball player has to face?
Ashreen: Basketball is completely a niche sport in Bangladesh. You don't often see kids choosing to play basketball simply because they are not exposed to it. You cannot just play basketball anywhere. You need an engineered ground. There are not many basketball courts with public access. That is a huge drawback. Unlike cricket, you cannot ensure financial security playing basketball.
But the number of challenges suddenly go up when we talk about women. The first challenge must be the lack of support from the family. Still now, women in Bangladesh are often subjected to give up on their personal dreams. But parents should respect the decision of a kid if he or she wants to take up a sport as a profession.
Secondly, female athletes often have to face age discrimination. Female basketball players in our country are made to put an end to their career at the age of around 25. The basketball federation, the ministry and the organizations have a very primitive mindset when it comes to providing opportunities to female athletes across age groups. But I believe women need to be allowed to continue playing, either recreationally or professionally, as long as they are fit.
A team needs time to grow. We have participated in tournaments but could not produce the results. As a result, enough opportunities are not being given to us. But if we are not given enough time and space to learn and grow, then it's difficult to do well.
TBS: What steps can be taken to make women's basketball accessible to all parts of the country?
Ashreen: There are few simple steps that can be taken to do so. First of all, free camps should be provided for girls so that they can learn how to play basketball and develop love for the game. Secondly, tournaments should be arranged on a regular basis so that players can showcase their talent and skills. Third and the most important step should be decentralizing basketball from the Metropolitan cities because there are so many talented athletes spread across different parts of the country.
TBS: What are the highest points of your basketball career?
Ashreen: The highest point of my basketball career would be when I represented Bangladesh in the South Asian Basketball Championship for women. It was our first appearance in an international tournament. Though we lost all the games, we met and played against top South Asian players and teams. It was an honourable moment for us to represent Bangladesh. Every time when we stood on the basketball court and heard the national anthem, it got me all teary eyed.
TBS: You were the first Bangladeshi basketball player to join the GSMP funded by ESPN. Tell us something about the campaign.
Ashreen: Basically the GSMP is a five-week program in the United States. The curriculum includes some on-ground activities and some classroom sessions. The sessions were held in Washington D.C. followed by a stint with one of the top US organizations. I was mentored by Laura Dixon, the head of the external relations of the sports and entertainment management of The Spurs, a noted NBA team. I spent two and a half weeks with the team. I got to know inside out how a sports based organization works. As an alumni, I am in touch with them and that helps me gather resources for Deshi Ballers, a non-profit organization that I run. Recently I've nominated five basketball players for an under-18 program in the US and they all got selected. These resources help me put Bangladesh in such prestigious platforms. I highly encourage female athletes to apply for this program and I am ready to do my best to help them.
TBS: You are an artist as well. Is singing something that comes naturally to you or did you have any formal training?
Ashreen: I didn't have much of a formal training but I do come from a family of musicians. My musical journey began at home as both my parents are singers. My brother Shafaat Mridha is also a guitarist. My brother and I have been part of a band called 'Silverlight' for many years though we're a bit inactive now. I think my parents did all the hard work with learning music and I just happened to get all the attributes for free in my blood.
TBS: You have been promoting women's basketball through 'Deshi Ballers'. How did you come up with the idea of founding such a platform?
Ashreen: Before founding Deshi Ballers, I was doing a lot of work regarding basketball development anyway. I just didn't have an organization as such. I co-founded Deshi Ballers in 2018 with Monika (Gulnahar Mahbub Monika) with a hashtag 'The Court Needs Her'. We arrange a lot of camps and off-court activities as well to groom future female leaders in sports. Currently we are focusing on women only but we do have plans to work with men in the future because men and women both need each other to make the sport grow. With Deshi Ballers, we want to bring some changes to the system and ensure faster growth of basketball, especially for women.
TBS: How difficult is it to look after Surf Excel, Deshi Ballers and also balance the family life?
Ashreen: I wouldn't say it's easy. But it's not impossible. It requires a fairly organized way of living. As a manager of your own life, you have to be able to juggle different things simultaneously. It's all about the correct prioritization. I have, over the years, learned to say no when I need to. Because I don't want to overwork myself and lose my passion. I always make sure that none of the aspects of my work clash with each other. I believe every person has the ability to do incredible things in life if they put their heart and mind. It's very important to figure out your circle of close friends with whom you are in a positive zone. So I believe with some level of discipline and organization in life, nothing is impossible.