Nearly two-and-a-half decades ago, Digya and Raju, two lanky youngsters who enjoyed playing cricket, changed to basketball at the YMCA facility in their Chembur neighbourhood. It turned out to be a life-changing switch for the two who were brought up in modest families.
At the time, Rakesh Maria, was scouting for talent to create a basketball team in the Mumbai police. They were chosen among the probables and not long afterward they were training hard for the team and also on the beat, their jobs secured in the police.
"What we are today, we owe it to Maria saab," says Rajendra Kadam, who is posted at Nehru Nagar police station. He was on the team for 14 years and played several matches alongside his boss, now the Mumbai police chief. Today, Kadam is putting his young son through the paces.
"His (Maria's) presence on court would inject life into the game," says Digambar Wadkar. The police naik, who is at Dongri police station, recalls the 1995 final against the Aurangabad range as one of the defining moments in his playing career.
"We lost the final by a thin margin. As the match ended, saab's little son Kunal who was sitting on the bench started crying and the entire team broke into tears. But saab came up to us and cheered us up saying we had played like a good team," Wadkar remembers.
These are stories of just two from among more than 120 sportsmen Maria has recruited in the past 25 years. Many of them have even gone on to play the nationals.
"Wherever Maria was posted he would build a team," says Gopichand Khamkar, who was picked in 1998 as a player. Today, he is coach of the Maharashtra police team. During Maria's stint as railway police commissioner, the railway police team was the rage on the Mumbai basketball circuit.
The basketball court at Ghatkopar where Khamkar coaches the team is a part of a multi-sports facility Maria helped to set up.
In a force where officers are not known to share space with the constabulary, Maria overcame the separation and played along with his boys. "Saab would play under the ring, giving his best all over the court," says Khamkar. Maria's 6ft-3inch-tall frame would certainly have been a big asset.
"On the court or off the court, he treated all as equal and never made us conscious that we were playing alongside a senior officer," the coach says.
For the man, whom many regard as their godfather, sports is simply a way of life. "Getting on to the field and playing with the boys helps me understand them and their issues better. Sportsmen are team players and team spirit is a big quality even in the police force," says Maria. He emphasizes, "A sportsman makes a better policeman."
Ravi Nair, associate secretary of the Maharashtra Basketball Association, appreciates Maria's contribution, which he says has given a boost to the sport in the city. "Whether as an administrator or a selector, Maria has stayed involved with the game despite his busy schedule," says Nair.