On my book shelf is a trophy for a sport I never played from a country I never lived in. My name is on it, right below the word “Memento”, as if I needed a reminder that playing roll ball in India would be worth remembering.
It was 2012. I was headed to Mumbai for another assignment and wanted to find something unusual to write about. I read a few stories about a hybridized form of basketball on roller skates developed in nearby Pune and fell in love with the idea of a truly homegrown sport. Most of the major sports in India come from elsewhere. Rugby, cricket and even what many consider the national sport, field hockey, all originated in England. But roll ball, which is, in its own way, being exported to almost two dozen developed countries, came from India. Besides, hardly anyone had written about roll ball. It seemed a perfect assignment, until everything went wrong in Pune.
My first emails to the International Roll Ball Federation met with sparse replies. They didn’t seem to believe that an American journalist was really planning to come to Pune to write about their sport, or especially understand why that might be a good thing for roll ball.
Roll ball – India’s truly homegrown sport. Although most Indian players use quads, the sport’s logo shows a player wearing inline skates. Photo Courtesy of the International Roll Ball Federation.
Siddharth Mehta got it. He was helping to promote the sport through Let’s Play Sports Management Company. It was Mehta who showed me around Pune, a software hub about 100 miles southeast of Mumbai. It’s a place where many of the customer service workers you talk to on the phone are based. A bustling city continually under construction, Pune and its young residents are on the move. The older people tend to get left behind and the middle-aged, like roll ball founder Raju Dabhade, struggle to keep up. A former national speed skating champion, Dabhade zooms around the city on a motorbike, but life for him and his cohort can be a stagnant and lacking opportunity, even for someone who invented his own sport.
I met him at a dinner that included half a dozen other roll ball players and promoters. Dabhade was the easiest to overlook, a diminutive and quiet man. It was a big, raucous event, and that first night he and I barely got a word.
Dabhade used to deliver newspapers on roller skates
His story, and that of roll ball, came to me in snippets over the next week: from his students, his children, his friends and, occasionally, from Dabhade himself. In the third floor apartment he shares with his wife and two children that doubles as the federation’s headquarters, stacks of papers tied with rope document the sport’s brief history. Dabhade’s 20-something daughter, Rucha, told me about how her father used to deliver newspapers on roller skates. He rose through the ranks in roller speed skating and later, after retiring from competitive skating, became a physical education teacher. But the competitive edge never left him. He set his sights on creating an all new sport, he said with usual bombast, something that would “make a name for India… a game born in India that will be the pride of India’s sports identity”.
The idea for roll ball came to him one afternoon in 2003 when an errant basketball interrupted his skating instruction. Roller skating on old school quads is still popular in India and ball sports are always well liked. So he decided to combine the two. The result is hard to visualize for the un-initiated. Two teams of six players each whiz around an outdoor basketball court on roller skates, slowing only to dribble, pass and launch a basketball-like ball into a hockey-like goal.