1. Briefly describe who you, Ashreen Mridha, are.
I’m Ashreen, I’m an athlete. I’ve been playing basketball for more than 15 years now. I started playing when I was in school, Sunbeams, and I used to play for the school team. I then played for a women’s club team named ‘Wild Cats’ as after I did my A levels from Mastermind which didn’t have a basketball team. Hence, I looked for other avenues where I could play. Then I went to North South University (NSU) to get my degree in BBA, and MBA eventually.
Universities in Bangladesh didn’t, and still don’t, have a proper setup for women’s sports, let alone basketball, and so I decided to create a women’s basketball team at NSU. I put up flyers around the university and recruited the university’s first women’s team. We played friendly matches here and there. I used to encourage my friends from other universities, such as BRAC, LCLS, Dhaka University, etc., to make their own team, and when they did, we played the first inter-varsity tournament. NSU was the champion and that was the beginning of women’s intervarsity basketball. All of these happened in 2009, which was also when I started playing for the women’s national team, formed by the Basketball Federation, and I was part of the team for about 10 years till 2018. Unfortunately, in 2019 I went through a bad ligament injury for which I have been inactive for 1 year. I am ready to go back to playing soon.
Gradually, over the years, I believe I became less of a basketball player and more of a sports activist for women. In 2018, I got selected for the Global Sports Mentoring Program, which is funded by US State Department and ESPN. I got a scholarship there and the program lasted for 2 months. They select 15 women who are affiliated with sports and train them as all these women are from countries where they are fighting for equal opportunities in sports. I was mentored by one of the NBA teams of US, The San Antonio Spurs and I got to know how a sports franchise works, every side of sports, and how developmental sports take place.
I always wanted to work on basketball development for women in Bangladesh, and the program really helped me to do just that. I was already working towards it, but I didn’t have an organization and was doing it with a few of my teammates/friends. Monika, a very close friend of mine, and I co-founded the Deshi Ballers right after I came back from the program in 2018.
I’m currently employed at Unilever. It’s been 7 years that I’ve been working here. I look after Surf Excel, one of the top premium detergent brands in Bangladesh.
I love to sing, and you may find a few of my songs on YouTube. I come from a family of musicians, both of my parents are singers, and my brother plays the guitar. I was also a part of a band when I was at NSU called ‘Silverlight’. But I never wanted a profession in music, I did it because I loved to listen to music so much. When I get the time, I have shows and concerts, but I just do it because it gives me a lot of joy.
I recently signed up for an all-women album with Fuad Bhai (Fuad al Muqtadir). 5/6 artists would be singing for that album and I’m one of them. However, the pandemic has slowed everything down, so we’ll start recording once everything gets back to normal.
Apart from that, I’m an animal lover. I currently have a dog, and I had various animals as pets throughout my life. When I’ll have the time and resources, I want to open up an animal shelter for those in need.
And on a personal note, I’m married to a national team athlete, Ibrahim. He’s currently an active basketball player and is one of the board members of Deshi Ballers.
2. What motivated you to form Deshi Ballers? Tell us about its journey.
I had been a part of the women’s national team for 10 years and as a result, I became very close with the Basketball Federation. I watched and learned what they do and how they run the organization. I observed how the system works and realized all that is wrong with it.
Basketball is still a very niche sport, and not as practiced as cricket or football. Hence the basics weren’t as developed as they should be by the federation. I always believed that having a very good national league is just as important as having a good national team. We did get the latter, and even though the team has been around for a decade, it still lacked certain opportunities to groom itself. And, if we had a better league, we would have had many amazing basketball players to choose from.
The men’s team has one big leagues-A first division League, along with a big a Defense League and women have neither for which there isn’t a scope for structural improvement; all their skills are because of them training themselves. So, if the Federation doesn’t help out, we face much more problems than we should. We never had our own coach, and the men’s coach used to train the women’s team. I had never seen a coach being shared between two national teams of a country. There’s also no proper recruitment process, and it always comes down to the handful of players that are interested, which is sad. The women’s team didn’t even have a team manager or a doctor/physiotherapist dedicated to its needs, and hence a lot of girls dropped out because of injuries.
So many of us were frustrated with all of these and wanted to change that but not all players are activists and I happily took the initiative to speak up for my team. Also, I had faced discrimination at times, such as when men were preferred over women because men had a stronger pool of players whereas women weren’t as athletically strong. This was based on women not doing as well as men during international tournaments, which happened because of not being groomed all year long. It’s a vicious cycle and keeps going on.
There’s also age and marital status-related discrimination against women. A girl is considered to be unfit to play for a team if she crosses a certain age, and I think this happens in other sports too. You’ll see men playing even after they’ve become 40 but when a woman reaches an age of around 30, there’s this automatic misconception that the woman isn’t fit anymore, and it gets even worse if the woman gets married or has children.
In Bangladesh, people still think that women are supposed to take care of the family and shouldn’t play for long even though we’ve seen various women around the world prove them wrong such as Serena Williams breaking a record after giving birth to her child. And this type of age discrimination shortens the career of an athlete which isn’t fair.
Another thing is that retired women players aren’t becoming coaches or referees, which shows that there is a lack of women in leadership positions. The Federation doesn’t even nominate or encourage female players to get a degree in coaching, and only invite men to workshops to learn such skills.
So basically, to bring a change in all of these, I believed that a youth-lead initiative could help. I understand that the sport is still new in the country, the Federation had some limitations in the kind of opportunities they could create for girls. So we still decided to come up with a better system of our own.
The first initiative of Deshi Ballers was in 2018 where we hosted a summer tournament with 5 teams. We always saw events for men taking place frequently and nobody was doing anything for women. And we changed that and branched out to other activities. We are teaching young girls to play and have a training program for experienced women who had been playing for years but nobody wants to give a chance to anymore as they’ve crossed a certain age. We are also doing outreach programs and going to different regions to help girls train. We even watch matches together and analyze and implement those tactics when we later practice. Furthermore, we take classes so that these women can become coaches after they’re done being basketball players.
3. How do you reach out and recruit potential talents? How do you train them?
At Deshi Ballers, we have a program for senior athletes, and by that I don’t mean by age, I mean we look for basketball players who have certain years of experience. It could be someone who played at school, someone who played till they were in university or someone who plays basketball as a hobby but isn’t a part of any team. We don’t have any age limitations, but we look for players who at least have the basic skills and an intermediate level knowledge about the sport.
We take about 20-25 players every month and we reach them via promotions on social media. We send out a Google form where they just have to put in their information, and we contact the ones we feel are best suited based on their experience. Then we start the training at Gulshan Youth Club on Sundays and Tuesdays at 7pm - 9 pm. We have an American coach Caleb Earnest who is also a teacher at The American International school in Dhaka. He’s a good friend and mentor for us and we got to know one another through basketball in Dhaka. His wife, Purity Odhiambo is also a basketball player and played for the Kenyan national team. The two of them really help us a lot with running our practice sessions.
Deshi Ballers have a plan to have teams of different categories who can be sent to various tournaments and camps. At tournaments, we have a limited number of teams that we can take. On 3 on 3 competitions, we usually have 12 teams as the event lasts for a maximum of 2 days.
We also have two Facebook groups named ‘Dhaka Women’s Basketball’ and ‘Chittagong Women’s Basketball’ just to have girls who play basketball in one place. The one of Dhaka is actually pretty big now and we’re still building up the one for Chittagong, encouraging people to sign up and play.
Apart from that we do PR promotions and news regarding our tournaments get published on Dhaka Tribune and Daily Star. Our community is still small but we are growing, so word of mouth really helps. We often reach out to schools and are connected with all the coaches who send players to participate at the tournaments.
We usually have camps for specific organizations or schools. We give them guidelines as to what we’re looking for and they set up booths to go through the registration process on our behalf. This way we’re not really choosing the participants for the camp, the school is. We believe that anyone who is interested should attend as the camps are for those who had never played before, but there’s usually a limit of around 30 people as more than that may be a little crowded.
The most important thing about recruiting female players is to really connect with them one-on-one and convince them that coming to the court is worth facing all the trouble. I have personally brought former players who couldn’t play anymore for this reason or that, and we’re training them as we can really use and learn from their experiences.
4. How is Deshi Ballers contributing to today’s youth fitness and woman empowerment?
Fitness is a question of habit, and it is something generations of Bangladeshi people have not taken seriously. Even now, most parents won’t think it is necessary to workout regularly, regardless of you being a male or a female.
At Deshi Ballers, we are trying to promote the idea of regular practice to do well at tournaments. There are players who have personal trainers now whom they go to for skill development, and it is a habit we are trying to groom.
Female athletes don’t have the habit of watching a lot of matches or tournaments. Personally, I didn’t grow up watching them either because I didn’t have much access to the internet but now all sorts of games and highlights are available on YouTube for them. So, we host watch parties of NBA, WNBA and NCAA games to learn from them all together.
The Basketball Federation does not really groom players all year round, be it in regards to skills or fitness. So, most of the girls rarely go to the gym.. And when we watch female star athletes ensuring that they workout 1 hour a day, it really inspires us to do the same. Once a month we have a fitness bootcamp with, Anne Sherman, a former gymnast currently working at the US embassy Dhaka, and we take part in various strenuous activities at the American Club for 1 hour or so. We encourage girls to work out by themselves every weekend and gradually increase the number of days.
Right now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, all our outdoor activities are cancelled, but we have started conducting virtual fitness bootcamps every Tuesday. We all join the Zoom call as Coach Anne leads the sessions from USA. We even give out weekly workout plans that we also share on social media. It is a list of work-out tips and how to exercise in just 30-40 minutes. The players inform us about their progress which we again share on social media for people to learn from their fitness stories.
It gets really hard to maintain a fit body when you’re stuck at home for this long, but majority of the ones taking part in our fitness initiative are working out almost every day. It is important for athletes to stay in shape so that when the pandemic ends, it doesn’t take them more 3-6 months to get perfectly active again.
We see our players encouraging each other by playing some fun games. We’d see someone doing 10 pushups and then nominating someone else to do the same, and the cycle goes on. We’ve also seen the sport help our players with their emotional well-being as their friendship grew and they become sisters looking out for one another.
So overall, we believe that we are doing a great job at promoting fitness and sports for females. Women face a lot of barriers when joining a sport and so it is important to keep encouraging them to continue on this path. We are training a new generation of basketball players who’d feel empowered to take leadership positions such as coaches and activists someday.
5. Tell us about the activities and the upcoming events of Deshi Ballers.
We have 5 different activities at Deshi Ballers:
1) ‘Leaders on Court’ is the weekly training program at Gulshan Youth Club that I already talked about. We have been doing this for almost 2 years now.
2) ‘Car-Free Street’ is actually an initiative of Surf Excel where the road in front of the Parliament Building is emptied from 8 am to 11am on the first Friday of every month so that people of all ages can come and participate in outdoor activities. There we take a small corner to teach basketball to little kids aged 5-12, and our objective is to just introduce basketball to youngsters who never played the sport before. We showcase how to dribble, pass and shoot, teaching them the very basics, and also give out flyers of Deshi Ballers to their parents.
3) ‘The Newbies’ Camps’ which we’ve done with Jaago schoolkids so far. We hope to go to different institutions where girls may be interested in playing basketball but for some reason aren’t being able to learn. We’d do this to continue making a larger pool of young players.
4) Tournaments such as the annual 3 on 3 tournament on International Women’s Day. We do it once every year, but we are planning on hosting tournaments of such magnitude at least 3 times a year. This is because tournaments are the occasion for players to come together and get to know one another. It is the best opportunity for them to flaunt their skills and get to be a part of the community.
5) Outreach programs where we go to different cities and we try to engage with teams outside Dhaka. And one of the biggest goals of Deshi Ballers is to decentralize basketball from metro cities by helping those who are interested in basketball to continue to take it seriously, like the time we went to Mymensingh. We want them to see the players in Dhaka as a benchmark and aspire to become even better.
We are planning to organize the first women’s league in Bangladesh. It could be a professional league, semi-professional league, or even an amateur league – it doesn’t matter, we want to get started. We are looking for sponsors, team owners who are interested in buying teams, and some form of fund generation in the league so that players can earn remuneration through playing basketball. So, the League is the number 1 priority on our list.
We also want to carry out a female coach program to train and certify our senior players to become coaches when they retire as players. They could also become trainers for teams or of young kids looking for coaches. We often listen to parents saying that they don’t want to send their daughters to organizations but want personal trainers to coach them at home. And so, we want our senior students to be able to do that.
We even want to host leadership workshops for women with entrepreneurial mindset so that they can do wonders in the sports sector and even beyond. Furthermore, we want to conduct a workshop with parents to understand exactly why they aren’t letting their daughters play basketball or any sports and how we can help them to find solutions to their problems. The solution is never to stop someone from pursuing sports, it is to make everyone feel comfortable and safe at the training sessions.
6. Please share any two of your memorable experiences with Deshi Ballers.
Honestly it is very difficult to pinpoint just two because I enjoy my work making a direct impact on people’s lives. It is a very fulfilling job even though it requires a lot of my time and effort. But if I must, they’d be:
1) The first basketball camp that we did with Jaago. There’s an interesting story that happened for us to end up working with them. I saw someone share a photo of a group of girls who had just graduated from the Jaago school and there was a basketball court in the background of the photo. It immediately caught my attention as Jaago was doing tremendous work to help underprivileged kids go to a school from where they were also graduating, and they even had a basketball court for girls, which seemed amazing to me.
I then knocked them but I didn’t get any response. I was really looking forward to knowing about these girls playing basketball, but nothing happened. Then, a few months later, I was invited to a dinner at the house of the US ambassador to meet Alice Wells, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, as only people who went on US-department sports programs were invited to talk to her about sports in Bangladesh. That’s where I met Korvi, the founder of Jaago. After lunch when I was roaming around and talking to everyone, I told Korvi about the photo that I had previously come across, and he connected me to one of their school program coordinators over email. I later went to the Jaago office and got all my questions answered.
So, the girls have an open space, but the basketball hoop is broken. They often play football as the Football Federation did a camp there a few years earlier. And, we thought of doing a Basketball camp since the girls seemed so interested in sports. After many evaluations, we decided to do the camp not at their school but elsewhere. To find the perfect venue, we contacted American School, one of our service learning partners who let us use their facilities for initiatives and students as volunteers for our events. And so, we had the camp there and those 3 hours were some of the most fulfilling moments of my life as I felt I was turning from a sports athlete to a mentor and was able to teach something to a completely new generation of girls.
2) When I came back from the Global Sports Mentoring program, a lot of young girls from my community reached out to me, asking me all about the program and telling me how they wished they could attend it as well. And, I always looked for opportunities to send people from Bangladesh to abroad on such sports related endeavors. So, a few months back, when a sports digital program in US for athletes under 18, I contacted the embassy to tell them that I wanted to nominate a few players for that. It was supposed to be in the US, but due to COVID, it has become a visual program for now.
We nominated 5 of our girls and all of them got selected. They’re so excited and share what they learned in class every day. It’s a course on leadership and how young people can take and build initiatives in their local communities. And one of the girls, Farzeen Ghani told me a story about when we used to regularly play in Gulshan Youth Club, and Deshi Ballers didn’t exist, she came to play there and didn’t know anyone. And apparently, I had told her to play on my team as I saw potential in her to be a great athlete, which really inspired her to regularly play with us. And eventually when I went to Global Sports Mentoring Program, she got very excited and apparently even posted on social media that one day she’d also represent Bangladesh on an international platform.
So, when she told me all of these, I realized how the simplest words of encouragement, that you may not even really remember, has the power to completely change someone’s world. She faced challenges of her own as a teenager, and amidst all of that, she picked sports as a pillar of strength in her life. That’s something I really appreciate about her and the story was a moment of self-reflection for me. Because of the way I encouraged her, I helped this girl climb up the ladder to participate in such a prestigious sports program. I felt like my job is done, and now I want people to encourage others like I do so that even when I’m gone, this support system continues on. I want the people who I’ve inspired to build on those values and do and become even better in life.
7. Do you have any plans to affiliate with the National Basketball Team?
Of course. Almost all of the women at Deshi Ballers who are working for the women’s team have played for the national team, including myself and Monika, the other co-founder of Deshi Ballers. Those in the national team understand the problems in the system better and how to improve the situation. We’re designing our activities in such a manner so that so that we can take Bangladesh to a prestigious position in the world of sports.
The national team is obviously supposed to showcase the best players in the country, we can’t have someone in the team because she’s related to someone rich or powerful. And to choose from a pool of the best athletes, we need a regular league system where the players would be practicing all year long. And if the Federation is looking for new players for the national team, they should definitely reach out to Deshi Ballers for our athletes to participate in tryouts.
The national team is a big platform for an athlete. When I first started playing when I was younger, I didn’t think about being a part of the national team some day because it didn’t exist. But when a boy starts playing cricket, he obviously looks up to Shakib Al Hasan as a role model. I may not be the best, but I’ve learned a lot throughout my journey and changed lives, and maybe a young female athlete will want to be like me someday too. So, we want to create that kind of inspirational figure. If you spend your whole life playing basketball but you never even get the scope to participate in the tryouts for the national team, that won’t be fair to you.
When we’ll be done grooming various coaches and trainers, we want them to be certified by the Federation, and so of course we want to be affiliated with them. A senior player can also become an assistant coach for the national team, helping the head coach run regular practices. When I retire, I’d love to take up the responsibility of being the national team’s head coach/assistant coach. Not just a player or a trainer, a senior retired female player can also become the national team’s manager. For a women’s team to have a female manager is pretty important as a Bangladeshi female athlete may not want to share her issues with a male coach, which is quite normal.
Deshi Ballers has opened doors to work with the Federation because when we work together, we will be able to reach greater heights and faster. The Federation shouldn’t see us as a threat as we’re all working towards the same goals, and we also want to help them if they ever feel as though they don’t have the correct resources or manpower.
8. How are you managing your time to follow your passion while maintaining a successful professional life?
In order for me to manage 2-3 types of projects, I have to be an organized person as otherwise, it’d be almost impossible. Of course, different people have different tricks and manners to manage their work and have various levels of pressure or enthusiasm. I guess I’d say that I’m very lucky to find things to do that I love. There’s a saying, “Do what you love, and love what you do”, and I’m blessed to have found those in my life.
I work for a detergent brand that encourages kids to be interested in games and sports. I am very passionate about the purpose of this brand and I enjoy the type of work that I get to do. I also have a good team to support me. Apart from my professional career and my sports career, I have been blessed with a lot of amazing human beings. I had the chance to become friends with amazing athletes, work with great mentors, and met so many different people who’ve given me different perspective in life. The work I do with Deshi Ballers is very fulfilling, it lets me get a good night’s sleep, haha. And, I grew up loving and respecting music. I never wanted to make money out of it, music just feels like the perfect form of expression sometimes. But I just might try to release an album someday, like everyone keeps asking me to, but now I just sing recreationally.
Since I got married, I have two families. It is a bit difficult to work on various projects and simultaneously give enough time to the two sets of parents that I have now, and moreover I live in a joint family. But it gets easier as I maintain a very strict calendar and mark everything down, as otherwise I forget everything. And something that I’ve done all my life is that I write down tasks on a white board, which I refer to as ‘micro-wins’ and consider my top priorities. The white-board is placed on the back of my bedroom door so that I can see them at the end of the day, and the tasks don’t ever seem challenging to me as they are things I genuinely want to do.
So, organizing is important but so is time-management. If one thing overlaps with another, my entire day gets delayed which is why I don’t get along with people who are late. I appreciate people who are punctual because when I say 7 o’ clock, I mean exactly 7 o’ clock and by 8 o’ clock I’m supposed to be somewhere else.
Another important thing would be prioritizing, and you have to learn how to say no if you already know that your time, mind, and soul belongs some place else at that time. For example, if my mom needs me, I’d cancel everything and be at home with her. I don’t like my mind getting diverted by things. When I’m working, I focus on that, when I’m playing, my focus is on the game. It may be hard, but you have to train your mind to not get distracted and after years of practice it gets very easy to do so.
You may have around 1000 friends, but there will always be a handful of people who mean the most to you. Be wise when choosing those people as to be a positive person, you’ll have to be around positive people. You don’t need successful friends; you need genuinely supportive ones.
Also, in order to manage things in your life, you’ll have to take care of yourself first, which I learned the hard way. There was a time when I used to think about others than myself and hence, I went through many physical ailments in my life. So, unless you’re feeling your best or are your fittest version, you won’t be able to do anything. I work out for at least an hour a day, I drink lots of water, and try my best to get enough sleep. I take care of myself so that I can be of better service to others. I think my life is unique, it is filled with service-related work towards others, and I genuinely enjoy it.
9. How can one get involved with Deshi Ballers?
There are 4 ways:
1) If you want to play, and this is currently for females only, you could sign up for our programs and follow our social media pages for more details about our camps and tournaments and to receive regular updates.
2) If you want to volunteer, you’d find a volunteer form on our page which you’ll have to sign up with your contact information so that we can call you for our future events. If you can’t find it, just knock us, we’ll send you the link to it.
3) If you want to work in the core organizing team, you’d find us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or LinkedIn, and you can just knock us wherever you feel comfortable. We are very responsive and would get back to you with whatever information you may need.
4) If you want to share ideas or opportunities, you could email us at email@example.com and we’d reply as soon as possible.
We have recently recruited 5 new people to work for Deshi Ballers, would love for their names to be included here. We call them Game Changers - Social Media Planner - Sabik Mahmud Khan Content Designer - Ayesata Siddiqui External Communications - Farhat Nazmul Merchandise & Sales - Nabila Islam Niva & Tawsifur Shezad.
10. What is the ultimate goal of Deshi Ballers?
We are working on a lot of projects through Deshi Ballers, but the endgame is to empower women through sports because there are a lot of studies to validate that sports can be beneficial for people and women affiliated with sports tend to do better in life.
Bangladesh is lacking in female leaders, and we’re trying to portray sports as the voice for women in our country. We want to make change-makers and increase the number of Bangladeshi women participating in sports, particularly in basketball. We want to provide opportunities that aren’t biased or discriminatory due to age, race, religion or socioeconomic background. We want to create an ecosystem that lasts forever so that more and more people of every generation take sports seriously or get affiliated with it, and continue to share their values of right and wrong even when its founders are long gone.