In a country where many aspire to become a cricketer, doctor or engineer, Kavita Akula decided to take a much different path. She aimed for a career in basketball, a sport with a low profile in India.
When she was young, Akula often rode with her brother on a blue bicycle three kilometers across her hometown of Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, for practice at the town's only court. Born into a family of basketball players - her aunt and stepbrother also played the sport -- Akula was picked to represent her state in a national 14-and-under tournament when she was 10. After losing in the semifinals, Chhattisgarh defeated Kerala in a thrilling finish to win a consolation game. A point guard, Akula made the winning shot, a layup in the final seconds that still gives her goosebumps.
Akula's play earned her recognition far beyond Bhilai - she was tutored by India's leading basketball coach, Rajesh Patel, and became one of the best women's players in the country. Growing up, Akula aspired to play basketball professionally or to coach the sport in India. But her mother wanted much more than recognition of her daughter's basketball prowess. She also wanted Kavita to get a great education, which Damyanthi Akula didn't believe she could get in Bhilai.
"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.
And so began Kavita Akula's journey - one that has taken her to a prestigious sports academy in Florida, a junior college in the middle of Kansas and soon, perhaps, to a major college somewhere in the United States.
* * *
When she was 14 in 2010, Akula was one of eight players from India to earn a basketball scholarship to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. She was in the same IMG class as Satnam Singh, who now plays for the Dallas Mavericks' Developmental League team. IMG not only offers one of the best sports training programs in the world, it has a good reputation for its educational programs. Although Bradenton is nearly 13,000 kilometers from Kavita's hometown, her parents decided it was worth it for their daughter to further her education and improve her basketball skills in the United States.
At IMG, Akula learned about myriad opportunities for women in basketball in the United States, where the sport is much more popular than it is in India. She was coached by former WNBA player Shell Dailey, who was impressed by Akula's outside shooting skills. Dailey recalled a game of H-O-R-S-E - a shooting game in which participants earn a letter for each shot made. Akula made every shot. Her skill from three-point range led Dailey to shift her 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, "but now she would have so many more opportunities."
Akula also grew as a leader. During a bad practice in her first year at IMG, Dailey said, the usually quiet and reflective player surprised the coach by asking if she could address the team. "I want you to understand that if I get better," Dailey recalled Akula telling her teammates, "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."
The team stood quietly for a few seconds, and then got to work. From that moment, Dailey said, the team knew how serious Akula was about basketball.
During breaks at IMG, Akula played for Team India. She started at point guard for the team that lost to Japan in the early stages of the 2014 Asian Games - an experience that taught her she had the ability to play against top-flight competition. "She'd gotten so good that they would not play a national team tournament unless Kavita was there," Dailey said.
At IMG, Akula worked hard off the court, mastering classes that included English, math and social science. She was keen to not disappoint her mother, who would frequently check on her grades. On pace to graduate, she had drawn interest to play basketball at NCAA Division I colleges such as Minnesota, Texas-El Paso and Florida. Her mother said she was exhilarated with the possibility her daughter could earn a scholarship and a degree from a four-year college in the United States.
But life had a different plan for Akula.
* * *
Shortly after her graduation from IMG in 2015, Akula's father died at the age of 48. She immediately left Florida for India to help take care of her mother and family. Heartbroken, she never wanted to go back to the United States or play basketball.
A few months later, however, she realized she needed to finish her journey. She couldn't quit. But by then, most major college schools had offered basketball scholarships and a new school year had started. Dailey helped Akula search for other opportunities to play basketball in the United States. Within a week, she signed with Garden City Junior College in Kansas. The school needed a guard, and the 5-6 Akula was a good fit. (Unlike in India, where junior colleges accept students after class 10 examination, junior colleges in the United States are schools for post-high school education.)
Garden City JC coach Nick Salazar said the career detour was important for Akula. 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," Salazar said, referring to her excellent opportunities to play for Team India and at IMG. "Some kids get to go to Disneyland only once in their lifetime."
Akula quickly adapted to her new environment. She set a school record for three-pointers in a game, with nine. If she had not sat out the final two games of the season with a concussion, she may have set a school record for three-pointers in a season. Although Akula wasn't the most talented player on the team, she was the most valuable player, said Salazar, who describes her game as "very meat and potatoes."
"She is not flashy," he said, "but she does stuff that if you don't have as a basketball team, you will fail."
Akula also won over teammates with her contagious, outgoing personality - a big change from her more introverted self at IMG. She had simply become more comfortable living in America, she said of the difference in her personality. Akula even went skydiving with teammates and loved it. A good cook, she also earned raves from teammates for her Indian recipes - her chicken masala was a particular favorite.
Akula's efforts on and off the court haven't gone unnoticed. Minnesota, Illinois and Florida are among the Division I colleges that have shown interest in her.
"She is a gifted kid with a great work ethic. She would be any coach's dream," said Dailey, who's confident Akula can play college basketball in the United States at a higher level. It may take time for her to find a perfect fit, Salazar said, because she isn't tall. But he also expects her to play at a Division I school. Before she moves on in the United States, Akula may play for India in a FIBA tournament this summer. It would be her first visit home in two years.
And there another's reason she's eager to return.
"I can't wait to go eat gol gappes with my brothers and sisters, and spend time with my family," she said with a slight American accent.