The temptation is to let Dr. Nilesh Mehta write his own column about his recent national championship victory. After all, as an occasional sports correspondent for a newspaper catering to South Asian readers, the Vista Health System oncologist has covered world championships and interviewed one of the sports world's biggest stars.
The doctor shares his Facebook profile photo with Sachin Tendulkar, the retiring cricket legend whose last game on Thursday was heralded around the globe. In a cricket world where reverent fans gush, "I haven't seen God, but I've seen Tendulkar," Mehta boasts photographs of himself interviewing the Michael Jordan/Babe Ruth/Muhammad Ali of cricket.
"In cricket, he has answered our prayers for the last 24 years," Mehta says of the legend from India. The 55-year-old doctor, with practices in Gurnee and Lindenhurst, has covered four cricket World Cups for "hi INDIA," the Chicago-based weekly newspaper, including his reports from the 2013 International Cricket Council Champions Trophy in England and Wales.
But in Mehta's coverage of the recent 18th U.S. National Carrom Championship in Cleveland, the doctor modestly refers to himself as the "able ally" on the two-man team that won the national doubles championship. Granted, Mehta's playing partner, Saravanan "Babu" Chandrababu, owner of an Italian restaurant in Cleveland, did win the carrom singles championship and the prestigious D.D. Mehta Trophy (named in memory of Mehta's father), but Mehta was more than an ally.
"I took six coins and the red," Mehta says of his play during one crucial game, noting that his performance was just three shots short of perfection.
Growing up playing the game of carrom in India, Mehta now is vice president of the U.S. Carrom Association, which strives to make the game more popular in this country.
"It's very similar to pool," says Mehta, as he sets up his personal carrom board in the lobby of the new state-of-the-art Lindenhurst facility for Vista-owned Oncology/Hematology Associates of Northern Illinois, which still maintains an office in Gurnee.
Made of English birch plywood, the 29-by-29-inch carrom board is bordered by a hard frame and features a pocket in each corner. The object of the game is to use a finger or thumb to flick a wooden disc called a "striker" and knock discs known as "carrommen" or "coins" into one of the four pockets.
The nine black coins and nine white coins are worth one point each, and sinking the one red queen can earn an additional three points. The score is determined by how many of the opponent's coins remain on the board after the winner has pocketed all his coins. The most a player can score on any board would be 12 points by sinking all nine coins of his color and the three-point queen before the other team can make a shot. The lowest scoring victory could be 1-0, with the other team sinking the queen and eight coins before suffering the loss.
Competitors play until someone reaches 25 points or until eight boards have been played. In the three-day tournament, Mehta figures he and his partner played somewhere between 150 and 200 boards to win the doubles championship.
Sprinkling powdered boric acid on the table kept warm by a lamp to ensure that the discs glide smoothly, Mehta methodically places his shooter in position in the thin shooting base on his side of the table. A flick of his index finger propels his white striker into a cluster of carrommen. A white coin glides into a corner pocket as the striker ricochets into a carrom crowd, freeing another white coin from the pack and ensuring that Mehta will have no problem sinking his next shot. Players shoot until they miss, alternating turns.
"It is not just about pocketing single coins," notes Mehta, who says he has improved his defensive strategy and team play since he won tournaments decades ago. "I am better now because I've learned the nuances of the game."
An avid carrom and cricket player, Mehta's father was known for sportsmanship, but also for his will to win.
"In my house, we didn't play this to fool around. You played to win," remembers Mehta, who often did. "I was the carrom champ throughout my medical school."
Having never made the finals in his years competing in the U.S. tournament, Mehta says he didn't expect to win this year's doubles championship against the nation's elite players, many of whom immigrated here from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and other nations where carrom is popular.
"The euphoria of winning the doubles became so overwhelming that the singles became sort of a nonevent," says Mehta, who didn't do as well in individual play.
Carrom players sit in an armless chair and can't move that chair during the game. The crowd at the tournament cheers a shot or even chants a player's name, but the players must be silent. There is no talking or offering advice on a shot. A teammate can't even glance at the coin where he thinks his partner should aim.
"If the referee catches you, he gives the board to your opponent," Mehta notes.
Using his index finger for most shots, Mehta also is skilled at "thumbing" in a disc behind his base. The "scissors" flick with the middle finger often is used for a more powerful shot. "People from Sri Lanka like to play like that," Mehta says.
Treating cancer patients is a life-or-death occupation. Walking through the new facility with cancer nurse navigators Michelle Newby and Susan Richter, Mehta says his "team" tries to ease that pressure. The Lindenhurst facility at 1025 Red Oak Lane, which has an open house on Tuesday evening, includes private bays for patients receiving chemotherapy, radiation treatments down the hall, a nutrition center, and a room where patients can try on scarves and wigs, and work on their appearance while they relax. Carrom provides Mehta with an escape from the stress of fighting cancer.
"For my mental well-being, it is important to do other things. At home, I have three boards set up all the time," says Mehta, who lives in Lake Bluff with his wife, Smita. The couple's daughter, Rucha, is in her last year at Chicago Medical School, while their son, Rohan, is a senior at the University of Michigan. During the summer, Mehta hosts a three-day carrom bash.
"I invite all the top players to come to my house and play all weekend," he says.
Dedicated to cricket and carrom, Mehta now has great memories from both hobbies.
"It was one of my highlights in my career as a cricket writer to talk with Tendulkar," Mehta says. "But as far as carrom is concerned, winning the doubles has been the pinnacle of my sporting achievements."