Jimmy George - Indian volleyball maverick who charmed his way from Kerala to Milan

Indian volleyball player Jimmy George was considered one of the best in the world before his death in a car accident. He was the brother-in-law of Anju Bobby George.

By Utathya Nag
Picture by Sebastian George/ Facebook

Jimmy George is to Indian volleyball what Sachin Tendulkar is to Indian cricket – a literal God.

The towering 6’2” spiker from Kerala, often dubbed the God of Indian volleyball, never quite found the fame or recognition Tendulkar or even his sister-in-law Anju Bobby George, one of India’s track and field greats, got in India. But Jimmy George’s contribution towards Indian sports is just as legendary.

Jimmy George wasn’t only the best volleyball player to have ever come out of India, he was world-class during his heydays. And considering volleyball in India is a fringe sport at best, Jimmy George’s achievement seems all the more remarkable.

He also spearheaded what is considered Indian volleyball’s golden era, highlighted by a bronze medal win at the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul.

The early days of Jimmy George

Born on March 8, 1955, in Peravoor, a small town in Kerala’s Kannur district, Jimmy George was the second-eldest among eight brothers. His father Joseph George was a lawyer and his mother’s name was Mary George.

With Joseph having been a university-level volleyball player during his youth, the passion for the sport was strong in the George household. In fact, four of the eight George brothers went on to represent Kerala at the nationals.

But Jimmy was special – just like his mother Mary had intuited just after he was born. A natural athlete with a sharp mind, Jimmy George excelled in multiple sports as well as academics.

Jimmy George was excellent at academics growing up and even earned himself a seat in a Government Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram. He also represented his school and college at various sports and was a talented swimmer and chess player.

But volleyball was always Jimmy George’s true love.

Jimmy George won several accolades as a volleyball player during his school and college days and was responsible for guiding Kerala University to four successive All India Inter-University Championship titles between 1973 and 1976. He was the captain of the team in 1973.

By the age of 16, Jimmy George had already broken into the Kerala state team.

Jimmy George was also part of the Indian national volleyball team at the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran. India narrowly failed to get past the group stages at that edition but Jimmy George’s talent, even at the age of 19, was irrefutable.

By the time he was 21, Jimmy George was already an Arjuna Awardee and to date remains the youngest volleyball player to have received one of India’s highest sporting awards.

In 1976, Jimmy George quit medical college to concentrate on his volleyball full-time and joined Kerala Police. Jimmy was known for his towering jumps and ability to serve and to spike the ball.

Jimmy George – the first Indian volleyball pro

The offensive qualities soon caught the eyes of Russian coach Sergei Ivanovich Gavrilov, when he came down to India for a training camp in Thiruvananthapuram. Gavrilov advised Jimmy to turn professional.

Heeding the Russian’s advice, Jimmy George moved abroad in 1979 to play for the Abu Dhabi Sports Club, thereby becoming the first-ever Indian professional volleyball player in history. During his three-year stay at Abu Dhabi, Jimmy George was also adjudged the best player in the Persian Gulf region.

https://twitter.com/volleyballworld/status/1085975064242196480

In 1982, a huge opportunity came knocking Jimmy George’s way. Italian club Pallavolo Treviso came calling and Jimmy George answered.

One of the best volleyball leagues not only in Europe but the world, his stint in Italy gave Jimmy George the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the best from around the world. In an assembly of stars, the Indian held his ground and became a fan favourite among supporters of various clubs he represented during the six seasons he spent playing in the country.

Jimmy George’s name perhaps is still better known in Italy than his own home country in India.

The opportunity to play with world-class players also rubbed off on Jimmy George’s international career.

A man possessed at Asian Games 1986

Having finished a disappointing seventh with India at the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok and missing the 1982 edition in New Delhi, Jimmy George was a man on a mission by the time the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, South Korea rolled in.

In what is remembered as one of Indian volleyball’s finest showings ever, Jimmy George became the driving force behind leading the country to a bronze medal finish. En route to the podium, India defeated volleyball powerhouse and defending champions Japan in a match which saw Jimmy George as a man possessed.

“Jimmy George must have told each of us some 20 times that we had 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," GE Sridharan, the current coach of the Indian men’s volleyball team and former team-mate of Jimmy George, recollected during an interview with Indian Express.

PV Ramana, the father of Indian badminton star PV Sindhu, was also Jimmy George’s India team-mate during the Seoul Games campaign.

Over the course of an international career, Jimmy George also captained India at Saudi Arabia in 1985 and led the team to the India Gold Cup International Volleyball Tournament title in Hyderabad in 1986.

Jimmy George’s untimely death

For the 1987-88 season, Jimmy George signed for Italian top division club Eurostyle-Eurosiba.

However, his flourishing career came to an unfortunate and tragic end on November 30, 1987. At the age of 32, Jimmy George died in a car accident in Italy.

At the time, Jimmy’s wife Lovely was pregnant with their child. George, Jimmy’s son, was born three months later.

When Jimmy George’s body arrived at his hometown after a week, thousands attended his funeral – speaking volumes on Jimmy George’s fan-following in his home state. 

Over the years, a stadium and several volleyball tournaments have also been named after Jimmy George in his home state of Kerala.

Jimmy George, however, is more than a local hero in Kerala or an Indian volleyball maverick. He was an international star and his legacy lives on, not only in his home state but also in Italy, where he was a revered figure despite spending just six years there.

In 1993, an indoor stadium named PalaGeorge was dedicated to him at Montichiari in the Brescia province of Italy.

During the inauguration, the then-mayor of Montichiari penned an emotional letter that illustrated Jimmy George’s legacy in a nutshell.

“Jimmy George has left his high human values and morals not only in the world of sports but also in our whole community, especially among the youth. The dedication of this prestigious stadium to his name should convey a meaningful message of faith in the universal brotherhood,” it read.

“Therefore, on this occasion, I would like to express through the high officials to whom this is addressed, our feeling of appraisal and gratitude to the noble Indian people who have offered us, in the figure of Jimmy George, a shining and solid example of high universal values. The circumstances may help to build up more friendship between the two nations and can be a symbol of love and peace for all the people.”

A street near the Coletto Club, one of Jimmy’s former teams, close to the Italian city of Milan, has also been rechristened after Jimmy George.

“Jimmy was not only an incredible player but a remarkably good human being. We at the club loved him so much. He was so friendly and was full of love for his friends in Italy,” Jimmy George’s former Eurosiba team-mate Angelino Frigoni told News9live.

Frigoni recently coached the Italian youth side to the Under-21 volleyball world championship title.

Interestingly, Jimmy George’s last recorded match in India was a unique one. To honour Jimmy’s father, who wanted to watch all his eight sons play together, a match was organised in Peravoor – Jimmy’s hometown – where all the eight George brothers lined up against a Kerala select six side.

Robert Bobby George, the youngest of the siblings also appeared in the match. Robert, a Dronacharya awardee, is a former national triple jump champion and Anju Bobby George’s husband and coach.

With Jimmy in the team, the win went to the George brothers. Definitely a farewell match to remember.

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