Francis D’Almeida Recalls…..

MEMORIES OF A GURU BEYOND COMPARE

Image may contain: 1 person, textWords become inadequate to tell the story of a colossus who had walked alongside our lives’journey.Such persons make their entry unannounced,cast upon us an indelible impression and then fadeaway gently.We are left behind to recall the tumultuous days of a glorious era gone by with nostalgia.

Mr.Ram Sundaralingam was a teacher,basketball coach,sportspromoter,broadcaster and dramatist who now has his name etched in gold in the annals of the noble history of St.Benedict’s College,Colombo. I first encountered Mr.Sundaralingam in grade six in 1958 when he substituted for our class master Mr.Nagalingam,as a relief teacher.Mr.Sundaralingam entered the class and immediately set about drawing a visual of a majestic peacock that filled the entire blackboard.His demeanor and jokes made us all realize immediately that he was a different personality.

“CoachSunda” as he himself preferred to be known,took over as the basketball coach in mid 1950’s from Mr.Brian Assey who taught Chemistry in the upper classes.

Mr Assey went on to coach hockey under the expert guidance of the legendary Indian teacher,,Rev.Brother Mathias.Soon the College reigned supreme among all schools in hockey and then went on to dominate the game at the club level. It was then that CoachSunda,and an Indian Graduate holding an All India High Jump record, took over the coaching responsibilities.By this time he had been fortunate to have undergone specialized courses in several East European countries in advanced coaching,thanks to the scholarship offered by the then Basketball Federation of Ceylon. No sooner he took over than it became apparent that Coach Sunda applied systematically what he had learned in the science and art of coaching.

His training made the Benedictine players not only win tournaments repeatedly but also made them earn the title,“CagerMagicians”. I recal lthose memorable days when a few inter college matches were played before schoolhours in the morning.

This enabled me as a tiny lad,together with the throngs of fellow Bens,to be mesmerized by the sheer artistry and the quickness of the Benedictine cagers who were simply unstoppable. Incidentally ,it was during this golden age that St .Benedict’s College stood proudly wearing the Triple Crown,in hockey-coachedby Mr.BrianAssey,in soccer-moulded by Mr.Albert Fernando and of course in basketball-guided by Maestro Sunda.

It is worth recalling that Mr.Sundaralingam went beyond his call of duty in school to create and to coach the Old Bens basketballt eam with encouragement from Mr. Premnath Morais and Mr.J.EBenedict,both stalwarts of the Old Ben ssportsclub. Soon the Old Bens became a force to be reckoned with Coach Sunda also inaugurated the“Pioneer Basketball Trophy”for interclub championships to give players from the Wester nprovince a higher level of competitive basketball. I recall a match played in those days at the basketball court behind the sports club building where the Old Bens encountered the American Peace Corps basketball team which also included some professional players .As the fierce battle unfolded be fore a large crowd of cheering spectators,the Americans soon realized that it was not going to be a cake walk as they had enjoyed against other club teams in the same tournament. As the match steadily edged in favour of the Bens,theAmericans began to display their irritation with their rough behavior. Despite frequent fracas and body play, the Bens achieved an emphatic victory against the American giants. What was remarkable during this entire episode was the calm attitude of Coach Sunda whose mind would have surely been engaged in quick strategic and tactical moves at which he was a master.Next day,the newspapers carried a screaming headline announcing the great Benedictine victory.Mr.Premnath Morais as the sports editor of the“DailyMirror” gave an interesting headline twist to the match-“BASKETBRAWL”.

Undoubtedly,The Old Bens Basketball Team went on to provide several SriLankan caps including Cosmos,Percy(Asia’sbestshooter),Malsiri,Rienzie,Milroy and several others. Indeed,what set apart Mr.Ram Sundaralingam was his wider pedagogic vision that went beyond the walls of the College. Basketball,being a bigman’s game needed a method by which even smaller children could take part in it,he thought.To solvethis problem he established the“MiniBasketballWing”that specifically catered to the under 12 kids.Guided by the International Federation he published a mini basketball manual, which prescribed two smaller baskets set on lower boards,smaller balls,to be played within a smaller court.In this new format all 10 players listed had to play at least a single full quarter.

The referee was called “the friend”and the coach was known as the“leader”. Soon,a mini court was built at the College quadrangle where friendly matches with other schools were played.Thus,the mini basketball programme came alive in 1965 and spread throughout the country within a few years.In retrospect,we see after 55 years how this visionary’s dream“to catch them young and train them right”, bore ample fruit.From this example,other Sports Federations too gained the idea of creating mini sports systems. Coach Sundaralingam went on to takeover the post of the General Secretary of the Public Schools Basketball Association in the early 70’s to make the body more vibrant and widespread.He also assumed the duties as the coach of the“All Island Combined Schools Team”.Later,he functioned as the coach of the junior and senior national teams. He was also an impartial referee who was called upon to control matches,which he did with firmness tamed with tact.

I came to be associated with Mr.Sundaralingam after I was elected as the Secretary General of the Mercantile Basketball Association.As my first task,I persuaded Coach Sunda to conduct a three month weekend coachin gcamp for 40 coaches including one from the Maldives.The practical sessions were conducted under the shade of the vast banyan tree at the college courts for four hours.Thereafter the theory sessions were held in a classroom where notes were provided .It was clear that he was sharing whatever he had learned earlier in the advanced coaching courses in the EastEuropean countries.

Apart from organizing and conducting the course,I too followed the programme. This enabled me to become a good coach and successfully win tournaments paving the way to become the National Coach later.Without doubt this first step helped me also to serve as a member of the National Olympic committee as a technical officer of the Asian Basketball Confederation. There is a little known fact that it was Mr.Sundaralingam who started basketball at Good Shepherd Convent,Kotahena. When I succeeded him,he gave me all the encouragement to take the Shepherdians to the very same heights that the Benedictines had achieved in the school,club and national levels. Coach Sunda was a man of many parts.He was a dramatist who went on to stage a Tamil comedy together with a popular Indian Actor in Colombo.

He was also areputed broadcaster presenting a weekly Tamil radio Programme for children every Sunday famously known here and abroad among the Tamil audience. No story about our beloved Guru could end without alluding to his extraordinary sense of humour.He could delight students and adults alike with his off-the-cuff jokes to bring hilarity even to a gloomy situation.Together with this rare talent,he combined the virtues of warm heartedness and simplicity that made him unique. As mentioned earlier,when this great Guru entered my Grade 6 class in 1958,I instantly felt that he was refreshingly different.

However,as time went by and as my association with him grew stronger,I came to the irresistible conclusion that he was also a great soul. What saddens me now is that this narrative of mine should have come much earlier, enabling this great teacher to read every line of it that would have made him feel honoured.This lapse on my part was due to the fact that I had lost contact with him since he left our shores.It is my fervent hope and prayer that Mr.Ram Sundaralingam will spend the rest of his life in peaceful serenity.

MAY GOD BLESS YOU ,DEARLY BELOVED SIR!!
FrancisD’Almeida