Randip Janda on what we can learn from basketball trailblazer Harleen Sidhu

For Harleen Sidhu, the glory didn’t come easy.

Growing up in Surrey, B.C., the young basketball prodigy proved early on to be a phenomenon on the court, a star among the locals, kicking up hype wherever she hooped. But it took only a few years in the game for unexpected plot twists to begin cropping up.

There was the 2004 controversy, the one that saw her high school take B.C. School Sport to court for attempting to bench Sidhu during provincial championships, based on a flimsy technicality. Then there was the knee injury, the season-ending operation on a torn posterior cruciate ligament, threatening to cut short a dazzling career. And throughout it all, hanging just overhead, there was the intangible pressure that comes with representing a community, with breaking down barriers.

But in the end, there was Sidhu, unstoppable, taking her talents all the way to the NCAA, becoming the first South Asian-Canadian woman to play Division I ball when she suited up for the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

And now the pride of Surrey is getting her proper due, her story the subject of a new documentary, Press Breaker, which airs Friday, Dec. 9 at 3 p.m. ET on SN360, as well as 9:30 p.m. PT on Sportsnet One.

We spoke with Sportsnet 650 commentator and Press Breaker producer Randip Janda about the process of putting the documentary together, and what we can learn from Sidhu’s story.

[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

SPORTSNET: Let’s go back to the beginning. What was it about Harleen Sidhu’s story that compelled you to help tell it?

RANDIP JANDA: Harleen’s story is such an interesting one. I think a lot of people across the country probably haven’t heard of Harleen Sidhu. Even a lot of folks in B.C., outside of the basketball community, maybe don’t know the name. But they definitely should.

She came up at a religious school, a Khalsa school, in Surrey, British Columbia — a South Asian part of the city of Vancouver — and really was a phenom from elementary school all the way through high school … and ended up going to a Div. I school in Nebraska. It’s a story about a trailblazer that a lot of people in the basketball community might have known here locally. But across the country, she’s helped to motivate and helped to inspire people of a certain background — the South Asian community, but even non-South Asians. A local star working hard, going through her various ups and downs, and still being able to play at the collegiate level in the United States, at a big school like Nebraska, coming back to British Columbia and playing for the Canada West champions, UBC.

It’s a story of perseverance, a story of a trailblazer. Somebody that may not have got the headlines back in the early 2000s when she played high school basketball. But now certainly we want to shine a light on her and her story.

Tell me about the team you worked with to put this documentary together, and how this project first came about.

Going back to my days when I worked in news, I loved working on stories like this, where you’re highlighting somebody in the community doing great things. And it could have been at the highest levels, it could’ve been at the infancy of their sports career. The team that we have together here has that same passion.

Our director is Paneet Singh, who has been very prominent in the arts scene here [in B.C.]. He’s been a director in theater, he’s worked on various projects, podcasts and other films as well. Abubakar Khan is the producer and one of the writers of this project, and he’s somebody that’s got a lot of experience in the film space. And Bal Dhillon, he’s a local basketball coach — he’s the hoop-head, who has been able to really tell us the story, and helped us really get a couple layers deep with Harleen’s story. That’s really the four-person team, including myself, that has been able to work on this project.

We come from pretty diverse backgrounds ourselves — everybody’s got their own specialization, their forte, and it was a really enjoyable project to work on over a couple of years with these guys, just to be able to tap into their insight and go through the creative process.

The documentary aired for the first time on OMNI Television in August. In your conversations with Harleen since, what have you heard about how this process has been for her, and what it means to have her story told in this way?

Talking to Harleen throughout the process, talking to her family at some of the shoots as well, I think for them it’s surreal. Having especially the early part of her life documented essentially ‘til now — to be looking at her in those old tapes and her family videos of playing basketball tournaments, seeing her grow over the years in this film, to now having a family her own, now being a nurse and somebody who coaches at the high school level, it was cool to see from a distance.

And just the love that not only the film has received, but I know Harleen has got messages from all over the world to congratulate her on the film, and also, most importantly, congratulate her on her journey. That is the reason that we wanted to make this film. It was sharing Harleen Sidhu’s story, which is an inspiring story, a story that maybe some people in the community knew, but didn’t know to this level, didn’t know to this degree.

I know it’s important to Harleen to act as an inspiration — it’s been something that she talked about over the years, even after her playing days were over. People in the community, in the basketball community, young women, come up to her and say, “It was so awesome to watch you play basketball. You inspired me.” So I think the moment of seeing yourself and seeing your journey play out on the screen is one thing, but also to see the impact that Harleen had and continues to have on young ballers across the country —especially in B.C. — I think it’s a pretty special moment for her as well.

Learning everything you have about her journey in the game, what do you think basketball fans, and Canadian sports fans in general, can take away from Harleen Sidhu’s story?

There are a couple of things to take from Harleen’s journey. There were a lot of ups and downs through the process of her career, whether it was at the high school level, whether it was at the collegiate level, you know, politics of basketball, sometimes even racial elements make their way into this conversation. But also the ups and downs of injuries, and understanding what your body can give you and what it can’t. So I think from that perspective — the perseverance, the resiliency of an individual, what it takes to be playing at the highest level, that drive that is required — that’s one thing that I hope people can really appreciate about Harleen.

But also look inward and say, ‘If there’s somebody out there that can do that, we can all do it.’ More than anything, I think Harleen’s story is a story about representation. This is a young woman who came from a part of the city of Vancouver which didn’t really get the respect for basketball, back in the early 2000s, that it deserved. And coming from that community, that heavily Punjabi South Asian community, she helped put Punjabis on the map, put South Asians on the map, from this area. She wasn’t the first one, but she definitely added to that conversation with the Pasha Bainses of the world and others that had done it before.

She was a trailblazer and she continues to be a leader in the basketball community. You know, if you see it, you can be it, and Harleen’s a great example of that. She was able to work her way up, people looked up to her, people were inspired by her. That’s what I look at when I look at her journey — this is an individual that put the community on the map, and continues to do so by paying it forward as a coach, and being a successful high school coach at a basketball academy to this day.

We’ve seen basketball enjoy a period of incredible growth in Canada. How does Harleen’s story tie into the growth we’re seeing specifically from South Asians in the game, and how important is it to tell her story for all the young South Asian hoopers out there?

I think it’s extremely important. It’s not only about playing the game, playing basketball, growth in the game. Whether it’s on the East Coast or West Coast, in the Prairies, it doesn’t matter — it’s also looking at everybody having access to the game. Everybody getting an opportunity. And with the rise of more and more leagues for men and women across the planet, I’m hoping that this story helps to inspire and opens up the game for a lot of people, regardless of their gender, regardless of their background.

That’s the story we wanted to tell here with Press Breaker. That, you know, Harleen Sidhu is one person, and she helped inspire so many people. She helped inspire her community. And she also helped inspire a bunch of other Harleen Sidhus.

The documentary looks back at some of the history of South Asians in the sport that came before her, including her dad Jay Sidhu, and his experiences on the court. Hearing these stories, what stood out to you about the experiences of South Asians in the hoops world?

You know, the basketball community is very tight-knit. So, throughout this process of talking to people, whether it was Harleen’s family, whether it was her husband, Manny — who’s a great ballplayer himself, and helps to run their basketball academy alongside her — or whether it was many other people in the community, like Pasha Bains, who played Div. I basketball in the ’90s and was somebody that, to this day, is really important to the basketball scene in B.C., it’s a very tight-knit community. And even through her rise, when Harleen was hitting the levels that nobody else in the community had before, there was support along the way. There were people, whether it was in the media, whether there were people on the ground level in the community, whether there were supporters from the Khalsa school or other schools that she attended.

So it was great to see the history of the game in the community. And just the buzz — if we go back to the early 2000s, she was a phenom here in Surrey. The comparison that’s been given is, ‘Can you imagine if a LeBron James-level of phenom was growing up in your own community?’ That’s the buzz, in the early 2000s, that was felt in Surrey high schools.

You knew Harleen Sidhu. You knew what she was about. And even making this film, when we announced what the story would be, I got so many messages saying, ‘Oh Harleen, I remember her from back in the day!’ Or, ‘I know her, she used to be a great baller!’ There’s a lot of pride in Harleen’s story.

You of course have some experience as a trailblazer yourself with the history you just made, becoming the NHL’s first full-time radio colour commentator from the South Asian community. What did it mean to you to find out you’d broken that barrier, and what has the response been from the South Asian hockey community since you did?

It’s been amazing. You know, working in the game of hockey for over 10 years now, whether it was behind the scenes as a producer, whether it was working on Hockey Night in Canada Punjabi, whether it was switching over to Sportsnet 650, I’ve really enjoyed the journey. I’ve learned so much from some great mentors, and I’ve been a recipient of a lot of love from the community, whether it’s the South Asian community or the [hockey] community at large. So, you know, this is a pretty special moment for me in my life.

Any time the league that you cover, the league that you looked up to growing up as a kid —playing video games, playing ball hockey, collecting hockey cards — when that league gives you a shoutout to say you’ve made history, that was a special moment for me. The most important thing for me here is absolutely I want to do the best job I can. I want to improve every single day, that’s my focus, that’s something that I will continue to do.

But I also hope that this opens the door for a lot of kids coming up, like Harleen’s story. She can look at her experience now and say, ‘I helped to motivate a few kids along the way.’ I hope I can look back at some point and say, ‘Maybe that moment, maybe that acknowledgment, maybe the fact that folks can see me on television and now hear me on those game broadcasts on Sportsnet 650, that there’s people out there saying, “Okay, this guy can do it, I got a shot at this, too. There’s a place for me in this game.”

So, it’s a truly an honour, and a lot of hard work’s gone behind it as well, a lot of help along the way. But I’m super proud of the opportunity and super proud of the moment.

Having that link with Harleen now, with both of you being trailblazers for South Asians in different corners of the sports world, has it impacted how you understand her story and the journey she went on?

I look at high-level athletes and they’re doing their thing, they’re the best in the world at what they do. There’s high-level training. I really love what I do, but I always say, “Hey, I watch a sport for living.” And that’s not to put down what we do, but I always see them as different. But I can see some parallels for sure — I think any time you’ve earned an opportunity to work in an industry and you’re one of the first in your community to do it, there’s a lot of responsibility there.

So for me, I can understand, looking back at her journey — I know when she went to Nebraska that she felt some pressure of playing at a Div. I school, away from home. You know, with that opportunity comes responsibility, comes pressure.

On the broadcast side of things, I take every show, every broadcast extremely seriously — I love to have fun, but at the same time, this is a job that I respect. This is a profession that I respect. So, I bring the best effort I possibly can.

Given the role that you hold and the opportunity that you have, to represent the South Asian community as you are, do you feel a sense of responsibility to ensure stories like Harleen’s continue to be told?

The importance of telling these stories is something that I really, really value, something that is important to me. It’s important because there’s so many stories, there’s so many great, inspiring, compelling stories in the community that need to be told — not only the South Asian community, but across the board, many communities.

The importance of these is that we share each other’s background, we share these stories. There’s sometimes a thought that a sport is new to a community, or that a community is learning a sport. Harleen’s story is a classic example of, no, basketball has been in the South Asian community going back to the ’60s and the ’70s. There are people that influenced Harleen and the way that she played, her uncles and her dad — there’s a rich history there that we can celebrate. Harleen’s story is a rich history we can celebrate. I think telling stories like this inspires the next generation to say, ‘Hey, we have a rich history in this game. I’m not new to this. My community is not new to this. We have a vested interest, and we’re more than observers — we can be participants.’

This is our first project and it’s had a lot of great success, we’ve had some great feedback. But we hope this is just the start. Because there are so many great stories to tell, so many inspiring stories still out there. So, I really do hope there are more opportunities to tell these stories, and that the Harleen Sidhu story is just the beginning.

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