NAU has done its part to promote diversity and inclusion on its campus, with more and more students traveling hundreds of miles to make a name for themselves. In this instance, NAU Athletics has taken a step forward to show diversity, and this time it is on the basketball court.
Freshman forward Sanjana “Sanj” Ramesh, from India, is the first international player to be recruited for the NAU women’s basketball team. She likes the excitement she gets when watching a scary movie, much like the way her heart pounds with enthusiasm when dribbling a basketball down the court. She often spends her spare time watching movies featured at the NAU Prochnow Auditorium. Film fascinates Ramesh — the process of making films and the creativity behind the storylines. Although Ramesh is majoring in business management, she is taking a creative media and film class called Introduction to Documentary Studies with professor Mark Ford. In this class, students analyze documentaries and write creatively to help them gain an understanding of filmmaking. Ford said he appreciates the diverse perspectives she brings to the class.
“She tends to go above and beyond what I ask of the students,” Ford said. “She is not afraid to show me she is willing to do work ... I am really thankful to actually have her in the class.”
Ramesh loves to talk with and meet new people. She liked to put herself out there even if she was unfamiliar with her surroundings, especially when ESPN came calling in 2018.
Being on the big screen is almost every child’s dream and Sanj was meant to be in that spotlight. She sure didn’t mind all the news stories being written about her on ESPN or in The Times of India. She was already living a life you’d see right out of a movie.
Ramesh was born in Chennai, South India and moved to the state of West Bengal. Ramesh is one of those people who could try anything and be good at it; she is a natural-born athlete. Throughout her childhood, she played soccer, tennis and badminton. However, going into high school there wasn’t a soccer team, which was unfortunate or it was just fate. Basketball looked like an interesting sport but she never played a day in her life, so she decided to give that old basketball a bounce. Back then, she didn’t know that the decision was going to change her life. Within the next four years, she became NAU’s first international women’s basketball recruit and only the second India-born female player to ever be offered an NCAA Division I scholarship.
“I think the biggest thing for her is her potential,” Payne said. “This is a 6-foot kid [who] can get up and down the floor, [and] can get up and touch the rim.”
During the dog days of summer, Payne wasn’t kicking her feet in the blue saltwater of the Bahamas. Instead, she was traveling across the country trying to find her next MVP. She was contacted by a former colleague named Blair Hardiek, one of the global technical directors for the NBA Academy Women’s Programs. Hardiek worked with Ramesh when she attended one of the NBA camps in Asia. Refusing to let another team scoop Ramesh up, Payne stayed in touch with Ramesh through video calls over the months leading up to the recruitment process and signing day. The sun peaked from the horizon wishing Ramesh a good morning while her eyes struggled to open. That’s until she got the call from Payne.
“I was really tired, but when she called me I was so energized and ready for the day,” Ramesh said. “A month later she offered, and I couldn’t believe it.”
Without hesitation, Ramesh accepted her first college basketball offer to play on the NAU women’s basketball team. At 17 years old, she packed her bags and moved 8,000 miles away from home to chase her dreams.
“I remember telling myself, ‘OK I’m going to go in a month, I’m going to go in two months, I’m going to be there in a few months,’” Ramesh said. “Now that I’m here, I still can’t believe it. Honestly, it’s a surreal moment.”
Despite it being a surreal moment, Ramesh was alone in an unfamiliar land where the stars shined brighter than the sun and snow fell during winter. She didn’t have her little brother, mother or father to come home to after practice.
Ramesh and her mother were close, even closer than the nine months she spent in her mother’s womb. Leaving her family wasn’t the easiest decision to make, but they remained supportive of her dreams.
“My family isn’t very emotional, but they were happy for me and supported what I wanted to do,” Ramesh said.
She didn’t have the spices and flavors of the food she was used to eating. The only food she dared to try was the juicy, peelable and crispy chicken strips from Raising Cane’s three-finger combo meal. Everything was different.
Basketball in the United States was much different than what she learned in India.
Ramesh caught the ball, dribbled it through her legs and around her teammate into the paint. Just as she was about to make the jump shot, she plunged to the floor. She got back up with a dissapointed look and said “sorry.” The pressure can get to her head sometimes. Like the movie stars she looked up to, she kept herself motivated because she knows there’s a lot of young women back home she wants to inspire.
Her journey is still in the beginning stages and being in an unfamiliar place was scary at first. Regardless, Ramesh’s positive attitude has helped her transition become easier and has left a mark on her team.
“She’s super fun. She’s very positive. Her attitude is always on point,” senior guard Caitlin Malvar said. “I’ve never heard her complain. I’ve never heard her say anything negative. Having her around makes us not take things for granted.”
Payne said that not only was Ramesh’s attitude infectious, but the flu season was no match against her contagious smile. She could light up an entire room if she tried with the flash of a single tooth; she never stopped smiling. That’s why it was effortless in helping her feel more at home and a part of the team.
“Our team is very, very welcoming and they were excited,” Payne said. “The team got to talk to her through FaceTime a few times before she got here, so already building that relationship.”
Payne blew hard into the whistle during practice. The sound echoed from every corner of the court. Malvar passed the ball to Ramesh. Ramesh leapt into the air on one foot, lifting the ball like a lion cub and gently placing it into its crib. Teammates yelled “Yes, Sanj! There you go!” Malvar reached her hand out to give Ramesh a high-five. The two stood on the side of the court, as Ramesh nodded her head and Malvar whispered words into her ear.
“For her, everything she is going through this year is a learning experience,” Malvar said. “So, as upperclassmen and a leader on the team, I think it’s important that I’m one of those people who she can look to and lean on if she needs help.”
Payne has shown Ramesh a lot of encouragement, as well as her teammates, by believing in her talent as a ballplayer. Less than a year ago Ramesh tore her ACL during a game and she began to worry about her basketball career with NAU.
“[Payne] reassured me she still wanted me and they are very supportive, making sure I had everything I needed,” Ramesh said.
Her skills as a player are still developing, but she has plenty of time to shed her cocoon, spread her wings and fly.
“She’s a very athletic player who we felt we could develop throughout her career here,” Payne said.
Ramesh joined the roars and approving claps of the crowd. Walking out of the auditorium doors, she gasped at the sight of the stars in the blackened night sky. Her experiences in the U.S. are different from her life in India, but two instances remain consistent and familiar to Ramesh: The overwhelming comfort she had when watching scary films and the roundness of a basketball. Both reminded her she wasn’t too much of a stranger in this unfamiliar place after all. She was, in a sense, home.