The celebration Friday night was like a movie scene to Varun Ram, teammates mobbing him in the middle of the court, cameras surrounding him, media members asking the former walk-on about his game-saving defensive play.
With Maryland clinging to a three-point lead in the final seconds of its NCAA tournament opener, Ram was summoned off the bench for the first time all night. The rarely used reserve promptly disrupted Valparaiso’s last-ditch attempt, allowing the Terps to emerge with a 65-62 victory, and the senior guard to emerge with the highlight of his athletic career.
But Ram — one of just a handful of Indian-Americans playing Division I basketball — had no idea about the similar celebrations taking place across the country. Like in Bristol, Conn., where Kevin Negandhi, the first Indian-American anchor at ESPN, was watching the replay over and over in a studio.
“I was beaming,” Negandhi said. “I’m obviously a bit older than Varun, but I felt like a proud uncle of sorts. It was like gosh, he’s doing this for so many of us.”
Or in a suburb of Boston, where Shaun Jayachandran – whose Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy uses basketball to urge Indian kids to stay in school – watched one of his counselors become a national star.
“It was a really proud moment,” Jayachandran said. “I was ecstatic.”
Or in Southern California, where Montgomery County native Shivram Vaideeswaran was covertly watching the game’s end on his phone during a meeting. First, the lifelong Maryland fan saw that his team had won. Then he saw that Ram was the hero.
“It’s kind of like seeing your own hopes and dreams come true a little bit,” Vaideeswaran said. “He’s living the Indian Terrapin dream.”
Ram’s name became the top trending topic on Twitter. He was profiled on ESPN.com and by the New York Post. His teammates couldn’t stop ribbing him, and his friends couldn’t believe what was going on.
“It was unreal,” Ram said on Saturday, during yet another wave of interviews. “I just kept having to pinch myself. Like, is this really happening?”
Ram isn’t a typical player for a Division I program, in too many ways to list. He has a 3.99 GPA while majoring in neurobiology and physiology. (His perfect academic record is marred only by two A-minuses, in organic chemistry and mammalian physiology.) He grew up as a devoted Terps fan in Howard County, and after spending a year at Division III Trinity, walked onto Maryland’s team despite being just 5-foot-9 – “with shoes on,” he joked. He has another year of eligibility, but will graduate this spring and might pursue a job in consulting. Between practices this semester, he’s studying principals of neuroscience.
And his parents – who came to this country in the late 1980s – weren’t exactly sure what to make of a kid who couldn’t stay away from the local gym, who played for a high-level AAU basketball program, and who wouldn’t give up on the idea of appearing on this stage.
“It’s beyond our understanding,” said his mother, Santhini Ramasamy, a toxicologist for the Environmental Protection Agency with a PhD in biochemistry. “He just took the initiative. No one ever told him anything. It’s just within him.”
After graduating from Clarksville’s River Hill High, Ram spent a year at a boarding school in Massachusetts, trying to increase his odds of playing Division I basketball. That isn’t the path most Indian-American kids follow, and Ram said some community members questioned his parents about their son.
“Just do what most Indian kids do, just go study, and your life will be okay,” Ram remembered people saying. “That’s why I’m so happy that my parents have been so great to me, because I think it’s opened people’s eyes. This is more than just a game. You CAN do so many other things with it. You CAN balance academics and sports.”
That’s what Ram told his father, an IT programming manager for the National Weather Service, when there were questions about arranging his academic schedule in College Park around basketball practices.
“I just said I think class is kind of more important than the game,” Kolandavel Ramasamy remembered. “Finally he said, ‘Daddy, for me to focus on studies, I have to play.’ Then right away I told him okay, if that is the case, please go ahead and play.’”
This is a story familiar to Negandhi and the other Indian-Americans who reveled in Ram’s moment. They know what it’s like to come from a community that treasures its doctors and lawyers and engineers, but that isn’t always sure about American sports, or about balancing athletics with academics. That’s at least part of the reason Friday night mattered so much to them: because Ram is excelling at both.
“I don’t want to overstate it, but it’s one of those impact moments,” Negandhi, the ESPN anchor, said. “Our parents, they go by the visual. The only way you can show them you can do it is by giving them an example. And the example was on national TV, making THE play of the game. That’s how we can change minds.”
Still, no one imagined this. After walking onto Maryland’s team three years ago, Ram eventually earned a scholarship. He’s become the de facto practice matchup for star guard Melo Trimble, harassing the freshman’s every move. Coach Mark Turgeon has inserted Ram into several games for short bursts of frenetic pressure, including during last week’s Big Ten Tournament.
But the final 13 seconds of Maryland’s first NCAA tournament game in five years was slightly different.
“A lot of people that I went to high school are just in awe of what’s happening,” Ram said. “They didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect it. It’s amazing.”
His mom – who was visiting family in India and arrived back at Dulles Saturday evening — called Friday night’s result “a miracle.” Sriram Gopal – a Terps fan from the District – recalled “a mix of surprise and pride and almost shock.” And Ram’s teammates were still smiling on Saturday.
“We weren’t surprised, but we were just so excited for him, because we know how hard he works,” Jon Graham said. “The man’s a hero to me.”