03.01.14 5:00 AM ET
The NCAA’s First Sikh Basketball Player Memorialized at the Smithsonian
Growing up in South Texas, Darsh Preet Singh overcame adversity and discrimination to become the first turbaned Sikh to play NCAA basketball. The Smithsonian Institute is honoring Singh’s contributions by publicly displaying his jersey and sharing his story.
Darsh Preet Singh had lots of sports heroes growing up, yet as he explains it, he was always aware that none of them looked like him.
“Even when I was a kid, I remember wondering what my ceiling was. I loved sports, but I never really saw Sikhs who were professional or college athletes,” he said. “I always wished I had role models and realized that lots of other kids probably felt the same way, so I challenged myself to see how far I could go.”
Darsh recalls entering high school as “that scrawny player with rec specs,” and over his four years, he sprouted up several inches, filled out in the weight room, and grew into a starring role on the varsity team. But the road was certainly not easy.
“My teammates and coaches were always so welcoming, and I can’t say enough about how much they supported me as we traveled around South Texas. I remember my coach standing up to a referee and another coach who challenged my right to play. I remember my teammates standing up to opponents when they would say offensive things. There were even times when our fans would stand up to opposing fans when they would taunt me.”
Darsh served as team captain his senior year and collected various honors, and as his high school career wrapped to a close, he wondered about his basketball future.
“I accepted a scholarship to focus school at one of the best academic institutions in the area, Trinity University. I wasn’t really planning to play, and I honestly wasn’t sure if I was good enough. But I convinced myself to at least tryout and was just so happy when I saw my name on the list of people who made the final roster.”
Darsh received little playing time as a “freshman walk-on,” yet he quickly endeared himself to the Trinity fans and became the fan favorite. At home games during his first year, every blowout win would end with chants of “We Want Darsh,” and the crowd would burst into raucous cheers when he would rise from the bench to check into the game.
True to form, Darsh was not discouraged by the lack of playing time in his first year and committed himself to improving his game. Over the next three years, Darsh’s dedication and work ethic helped him earn an integral role on the squad, a leadership role as team captain, and the profound respect of his coaches and teammates.
“My initial impression of Darsh was that there was no way someone who looked like him could be good at basketball. I was totally wrong,” teammate Michael Tobolowsky admitted. “By getting to know Darsh, I grew to appreciate and respect him as a basketball player, and more importantly, as a friend who I truly love.”
Another teammate, Michael Gilb, describes how he came to develop more respect for Darsh due to how he carried himself in the face of discrimination.
“We played basketball in the South, and Darsh had to face stuff on the court that none of us had to deal with. Half the time, we had to fight the refs to allow him to play in his turban. But he handled himself with the utmost class and dignity, and he did something that no one in his community had done before. He’s a role model, not only to his community, but to all kids playing sports across the country.”
Darsh realizes he has been seen as a role model for people of various backgrounds, yet he is still not fully comfortable with the idea. On Feb. 26, as he walked around Beyond Bollywood, the Smithsonian exhibit celebrating the greatest achievements of Indian-Americans in this country, Darsh reflected on how he felt like a child among giants.
“The whole thing is a bit surreal, to be honest,” he said. “A lot of the people on the wall in that exhibit were childhood heroes of mine. They’re the ones who paved the way for me and made it possible for my parents to immigrate to America. I have always felt thankful to those pioneers and entrepreneurs, and it’s hard for me to believe that my contribution ended up on the wall alongside theirs.”
While Darsh sees himself as “regular guy who just loves playing basketball and serving his community,” his teammates across the board agree that—like their friendships with him—it’s about a lot more than basketball.
“An exhibit in a cherished and visible American forum like the Smithsonian has the potential to touch many communities, especially school aged children,” teammate Pete Garatoni said. “My hope is that a young basketball fan from a predominantly black or predominantly white community sees Darsh' jersey and a picture of him on the court with other ‘normal’-looking basketball players and goes home with a new, more inclusive view of normal.”
Darsh shared a similar sentiment of challenging stereotypes and inspiring children while standing near his jersey in the Smithsonian. He also shared his vision for the future.
“I feel blessed to be able to serve society while doing something I love. I wanted to show kids around the country that we can blaze our own trails and overcome any challenges that come our way. I’m so honored that people look to me as a spur for progress, and I understand that we still have a long way to go. From that point of view, I hope my jersey in the Smithsonian is replaced by one of a turbaned Sikh who plays in the NBA. I would love for that to happen in the near future.”