One hot Sunday in September, about 1,000 people, mostly of Punjab Indian descent, gathered in a corner of Cunningham Park in Fresh Meadows. Watching from a half-circle of metal bleachers, they cheered as a man felled another in a tackle on the green pitch before them.
On a stage at the bottom of the field, a group of people wearing orange and green badges sat beneath a sign that read “Punjabi Virsa Sports Association.” They drank spiced, milky tea and ate deep-fried, honey-coated sweets.
All were there to watch kabaddi, an Indian sport that’s something of a blend of tag and wrestling, and is said to be thousands of years old.
Though the sport is popular across South Asia, kabaddi fans in Punjab consider themselves by far the most dedicated. From December to May, tens of thousands of people crowd into stadiums across the Punjab state to watch some 200 tournaments.
As Punjabi communities have mushroomed outside of India, they have brought their sport with them, as a way to reconnect with home. Now there are tournaments around the world, including in Queens, which hosted two this year.
To an outsider, the game is not easy to understand, but one will always find a kabaddi fan willing to explain. Vachiter Singh, a 14-year-old student at Aviation High School in Queens, eagerly outlined the rules to this reporter as a match was played between New York and England.
A line is demarcated down the middle of a circular pitch. On either side of the line stand two groups of 10 men each, wearing nothing but shorts, turbans and beards.
First, a group of four players on one side, known as stoppers, link arms in preparation for “the raider,” a lone player from the other side who must make an incursion into enemy territory.
He has 30 seconds to complete his mission: tag one of his opponents and return to his own side unscathed. The raider quickly darts toward the stoppers, tags one, then turns and sprints back to his side. If lucky he makes it back, but if not, he’s tackled and pinned by a member of the opposing team.
During this particular match, either result pleased the crowd, which often burst into applause. Then a man in traditional dress stood atop the stage and performed briefly on a double-barreled dohl drum. Two 20-minute halves are played, and the team with the most tags and successful tackles wins.
New York’s team, which on that Sunday joined visitors from California, England, Ontario, British Columbia and India, is only 2 years old. Its members practice at Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto Park, a small park in Ozone Park — the heart of the city’s Punjabi community.
Unlike teams from larger, more established communities in Canada, California and England that get support from local businesses and fraternal organizations, New York’s team doesn’t have a sponsor. The players work day jobs. But they remain on the team because the “mother game of India,” as they call it, is in their blood.
While that may be so, it didn’t help the team: on that Sunday in September New York lost to every team but one, a team of Canadian-born policemen from the Ontarian town of Peel, who came to play an exhibition match.
After England’s team beat New York, its captain, Jatinder Singh, said, “I think they’re a bit inexperienced.” But, he added, building a team takes time.
Small beginnings do not indicate small ambitions, however. Bal Singh, the burly and bearded 28-year-old captain of New York’s kabaddi team, came to the U.S. from India 10 years ago.
The Richmond Hill High School graduate and truck dispatcher at the Port of New Jersey always makes time for his fledgling team, which he hopes will one day be a full-fledged sports club.
It would provide players’ health insurance, a little league team and a full-time coach brought from India. All he’s lacking are community sponsors, but he and other players are optimistic they will come.
“It’s going to grow big-time,” said Jeeva Singh, a 27-year-old construction supervisor who plays with Bal Singh. The community seems to like the sport, and fans are often willing to shell out for their favorite players, particularly when they are injured in a full-contact sport that's played with no protection.
At a New York City tournament last April, a player from Chicago who broke his shoulder during the game was showered with cash from fans who knew he didn't have health insurance.
“He ended up with $18,000,” said Bal Singh, telling the story that was later repeated with delight by Vachiter Singh, the 14-year-old. “There’s a lot of money in this game,” the boy said.
A player from New York, Baaz Singh, 26, was similarly bailed out after breaking his leg in Chicago. A restaurant worker, he did not have health insurance, and ended up with two metal pins. When asked if he considered quitting he shook his head. “It’s in his blood!” said Jeeva Singh, smiling at his teammate. “Even when you break your leg.”
Prizes are big, too. The winning team in September took home $10,000 — most of which was provided by community and business sponsors of the Punjabi Virsa Sports Association.
During the fall, kabaddi’s off-season, the New York team meets weekends at Rizzuto Park. Although they only have the opportunity to play competitively several times a year, they try to practice regularly. A chilly Sunday in early October found some team members at the park, but they were now dressed in more than just shorts.
“If you want to play kabaddi, you have to come to the park,” Bal Singh said, adding that being a skilled player takes more than just time. “It’s practice, but it’s God's gift also.”
*Editor’s note: Singh is a common last name in northern India, and requisite as a middle or last name for male followers of the Sikh religion. Those quoted in this story are not related