Remembering Jimmy, who soared higher than anyone before or since
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Jimmy represents a golden era of Indian volleyball that makes old timers misty-eyed when asked to comment on the falling standards of the game in the country.
"He had what is called the absolute jump — more than a metre above the ground — which in the 70s and 80s was very rare in India. It still is," says Ramana Rao, Jimmy's former team mate. "Volleyball is all about defying gravity, but Jimmy's was the most stylish jump because he managed a little air-rest where he could stop in flight for a fraction of a second," he adds.
While Indians had every reason to gape at this home-grown brilliance, Jimmy also had a considerable international fan-following during his six seasons as a pro in Italy — one of the best volleyball leagues in the world. Among the many firsts that the spiker brought to India was the jump service, and the generic professionalism. "Besides his jump, what was also several notches above any other Indian was his tremendous mental power," remembers national coach G E Sridharan, who followed Jimmy to Europe and played setter on his Italian club teams.
Jimmy George was not your usual attacker. And Sridharan (called Sherry because the Italians found one consonant too many in his name; Jimmy was easy) believes the explosive burst came from his mental toughness. "Jimmy was into meditation well before it came into Indian sport. When he came to the court after his quiet thought, we could just watch the stored energy explode. The whole mind and body came as one when he jumped into the typical body arc." Jimmy's transformation from a meditative monk to an explosive attacker also lifted the team to new levels.
India benefited greatly from Jimmy's Italian stint, winning an Asian Games medal at Seoul in 1986. Considered amongst the world's top-10 attackers while heading out to Korea, he was a man possessed on the morning of India's bronze-medal match against defending champion Japan. "He must've told each of us some 20 times that we'd to win. He started attacking from the first or second point, and kept asking for the ball. That day he blasted the ball like anything and even scored off some wrong passes," recalls Sridharan. And, that's a setter confessing.
Poignantly, the tributes haven't stopped coming from Italy, where Jimmy rose to lofty heights. Sridharan travelled there recently and found a lump in his throat when club members at Treviso (a club that Jimmy helped enter the top-rung Serie A1) inquired about Jimmy's wife and son — born two months after his death. An indoor stadium at Montichiari, Brescia, was named after him, even before Trivandrum offered its salutation with its own stadium. And a street off Coletto Club, close to Milan, has been christened Jimmy George.
Former international Amir Singh, who believes that the only way out of its slumber for Indian volleyball is an Italian coach, says that the foreigners he's played against have often wondered: Jimmy George. Where did that bolting ace come from?
In Kerala, Jimmy George is a memory that needs to be taken to the next generation, through his old videos. Brother Sebastien, who played with Jimmy in his last match (Kerala Police vs Titanium) in India, has compiled tapes of Jimmy's games to be distributed around schools and colleges.
Team mates remember Jimmy for his enthusiastic and endless rounds of blind-chess and memory games in between matches. The CD rolling out a Jimmy George retrospective should be a good excuse to remember India's finest-ever spiker. That's the kind of bounce-back Indian volleyball desperately needs.