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In unlikely basketball odyssey, Varun Ram goes from River Hill to Comcast Center

Undersized and overlooked, Terps junior could continue to help team at point guard position

By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

9:58 PM EST, November 12, 2013

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COLLEGE PARK — Maryland point guard Varun Ram used to get stares from opposing guards who thought they could dominate him on the court.

When he played at River Hill in Clarksville and with a Howard County-based Amateur Athletic Union team, Ram said few opponents would take him or his teams seriously.

"I always got underestimated, even in Howard County," Ram recalled Tuesday. "It was like, 'Who's this small Indian kid? What are you doing? You look like a soccer player; why are you even playing basketball?' But I'd make my first move and they would say, 'Damn, he's quick.' When I played AAU, my whole team, we didn't look like we were that good. Other teams would laugh, and then we'd go out and kill them."

Ram said it was different Friday, when coach Mark Turgeon put him for two minutes in the first half of Maryland's 78-77 loss to then-No. 18 Connecticut at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. It felt almost surreal.

There were no stares from either of the Huskies' guards, Shabazz Napier or Ryan Boatwright.

"Just being on this team, for Coach Turgeon to have confidence to put me in the game, they must have thought, 'There must be something about him. He might not look like he's not good, but there must be some reason why he's playing." Ram said.

According to Turgeon, there are several reasons why. With sophomore Seth Allen recovering from a broken foot, junior Dez Wells learning a new position and freshman Roddy Peters adjusting to the college game, the 5-foot-9, 150-pound junior will continue to play this season.

"He can guard. He can run the team. He communicates. He plays hard. He gets guys in the right spot," Turgeon said of Ram on Tuesday, before the Terps (0-1) practiced for Wednesday's home opener against Abilene Christian (0-2). "He does a lot of things. I've just got to have guts enough to play him, and I think I will going forward."

Said junior forward Evan Smotrycz, who, like Ram, transferred to Maryland last year: "He obviously has come a long way, and he sets the tone in practice. I think he'll be able to help us, especially on the defensive end."

Playing for Maryland has long been Ram's dream. After moving to Columbia from Lexington, Ky. when he was in grade school, Ram would go nearly every day to a gym that "was literally in my backyard." He became obsessed with the game, and with a Maryland team that went to two straight Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2002.

"I had a little hoop on my door, and I'd watch Steve Blake and Juan Dixon do their moves on television, and when they'd go to commercial, I'd do the moves," Ram recalled. "I can't believe I'm on the same team as they were once on. There's so much pride and tradition in this program. When I first made the team, I wondered if the feeling would ever fade. It hasn't. I wake up every morning feeling so blessed."

Though the Howard County Youth Program Elite team he played on during high school, which featured current Georgetown forward Greg Whittington, finished third in a national tournament in Orlando, Fla., Ram did not receive a single scholarship offer.

"He had Plan A; he didn't have Plan B," said his mother, Santhin Ramasamy.

Ram's lack of size wasn't his only obstacle.

His parents, who came to the United States from India in the late 1980s to study and eventually started a family, didn't quite understand their son's obsession. Bill Napolitano, who coached Ram's AAU team, said it took a lot to convince Ram's parents to let him play. His mother is a toxicologist for the Environmental Protection Agency and his father, Kolandavel, is a computer specialist for the National Weather Service.

"They thought he was wasting his time. Basketball is not what they do," Napolitano said. "I had to talk with his mother a looooong time. He loves basketball, he's crazy about it. I said to them, 'It's something that's in him that you have to let get out. He just needs to do everything he can to fill that part of his life, and he'll end up being who he's going to be.' They did not think he should be playing basketball."

Begrudgingly, Ram's parents sent him off to a postgraduate prep school in Massachusetts. He hoped playing at The Winchendon School, where Maryland assistant Scott Spinelli was once the head coach, would lead to a Division I offer. His parents hoped it would help get basketball out of his system.

"I supported him because he was so passionate about it. I did give him one chance to go to Winchendon, but then he had to forget about it and go to college and do something on the academic side," said his mother, who shortened her children's last name to Ram at birth.

The Ramasamys thought their son's path be like that of their daughter, Anita, who gave up her own dream of becoming a classically trained dancer when she went off to the Johns Hopkins University, first as an undergraduate — later earning a Fulbright grant to study abroad — and now in her first year of medical school.

After playing a year at Division III Trinity College in Connecticut, Ram returned home to enroll at Maryland. He contacted Dustin Clark, Turgeon's director of basketball operations, and asked for a tryout.

"The first time I came in here [for tryouts], I had chills," Ram said. "I knew, even if basketball didn't work out, it was the right decision [to transfer]. With basketball working out, it made everything that much better. It was like icing on the cake."

Ram said all he does is play basketball and study. After coming to Maryland as a bioengineering major, he has since switched to physiology and neurobiology. With a 3.99 GPA — "I got an A-minus in Organic Chemistry II," he said — Ram still has hopes of following his sister to medical school.

Though he knows he might be mostly a practice player for the Terps later this season, Ram is also smart enough to realize that the biggest opportunity to prove himself could come in the next two months.

"I feel like I know my role on the team," Ram said. "I definitely feel like I can contribute on the court. Whether it's pressuring the ball, I try to do what I do well. I'm fast, I have a high basketball IQ, I try to get us into our offense, maybe when the game is hectic. It's all up to Coach. I've just got to be ready."

Even his parents, who will be at Wednesday's home opener, are beginning to understand.

"I think he gets energy from playing. Otherwise, life is boring for him. That's his motivation," his mother said.

don.markus@baltsun.com