“Ladies and gentlemen, introducing 5ft.9 guard from Clarksville, Maryland…Number 21 VARUN RAM!”
If I told you I interviewed a basketball player, other than the obvious giveaway from the publication title, the chances of you picturing a 5 ft.9 Indian Tamil person would be quite low and reasonably so. These exact odds are what 22-year-old Varun Ram faced when he decided as a kid that he wanted to play basketball beyond just the hoop in his driveway.
Born in Kentucky, but growing up in Maryland, Varun was introduced to the game when his uncle bought him a Little Tiikes set for his fifth birthday. As his uncle jokingly called him Michael Jordan, a young Varun took it to heart and aspired to be as great as the basketball legend. He started practicing routinely and rigorously, first on his own before starting to play on different teams, including competitive traveling teams. Fast-forward to 2015, Varun Ram now plays for the University of Maryland, a Division 1 team ranked 12th overall in the U.S. This is certainly a feat for Varun, who just a few years ago was told he would have no shot at an opportunity like this.
“Senior year of high school was tough on me. I put on a lot of pressure myself because I wanted to play Ivy League basketball. It was my dream since I was in middle school. I applied to every single Ivy League school and got rejected from all of them on the same day. I think I cried for three days straight.”
He even took an extra year of high school to give recruitment another go, with tentative offers rolling in from a few Ivy League schools but at the end, he was told that once again there would not be a spot for him. “I had reached out to the coaches and they would tell me that I was either not big enough or they were looking for other types of players or some of them wouldn’t even respond to me.”
He ended up playing for a Division 3 basketball team at Trinity College in Connecticut for his freshman year before making the decision to transfer back to his home state to the University of Maryland. “People were telling me that ‘you know if you come back to Maryland, you’re going to have to quit basketball. There is no way you’re going to be able to play.’ And I kind of accepted it but I told myself that I was going to try as hard as I can to make the team and if I don’t make it, then at least I tried. I could sleep at night knowing I tried.”
The summer prior to his transfer, he trained every day, not knowing whether he would have the opportunity to try out for the University of Maryland’s basketball team or if there was even a spot available. Regardless, he wanted to be prepared and this preparation snagged him a tryout and shortly after, a place on the team.
“To someone looking in, it doesn’t look like a big deal but to me, all I knew was basketball. I was practicing every day- almost all my time was devoted to it. So when I didn’t get into the Ivy League from high school, I felt I had failed. But to be able to take a blow like that and continue to wake up and still strive to make it…it taught me to never quit.”
Little did he know that shortly after making the team, he would experience another particularly high in his career: getting put on a full scholarship, which is already rare for athletes recruited from high school but even more so for athletes that are walk-ons to the team.
Just when I thought I couldn’t be more impressed, we move on to his academics. Varun is currently majoring in neurobiology and physiology and holds a 3.99 out of 4.00 GPA. As I insisted this was clearly because of his parents, he in return insists that he has a genuine drive to do well in school. In fact, if you can’t find Varun on the court, he’ll most likely be off studying for school.
“Basketball is my escape from school. When school gets tough, it’s nice to have basketball and vice versa. They counter balance each other. I’m a perfectionist in a certain way. If I think I can get a certain grade, I won’t stop until I do. Personally, I want to do well. That’s what’s going to get me to the next level in my life.”
Speaking of which, I ask what he thinks the future will hold for him, possibly professional basketball?
“If I was going to play professionally, I would probably play overseas. It’s not my number one goal though because I know at one point basketball will end and I’m trying to brace myself for that as well.” He mentions that he might want to try public health consulting amongst other things. “I don’t want to settle. I don’t want to be average. I want to be great. If it’s not basketball, whatever I do I want to be great at it.”
One piece of advice he offers to anyone pursuing a goal, “If you really want to do something, don’t let someone tell you that you can’t do it. When you fail, don’t let it stop you. Keep trying. It’s cliché but you have to work hard. That’s what I pride myself in. I wasn’t the biggest or the strongest but I worked the hardest. I out worked everyone and I made sure of that. That’s what you can control. I can’t control these other things.”
He also can’t control the huge fan base that has grown since his arrival on the team, particularly amongst the South Asian community who has strongly supported him at games. To wrap up our chat, I naturally had to ask…
“So, do you have any groupies?”
He smiles. “A little bit, a little bit,” he laughs, just before he heads off to another day of training.