NBA courts India as its next big thing

Sep 14 2010 - 5:12pm

BALLO KE, India -- Satnam Singh Bhamara stares down at his feet. At size 22, there's a lot to stare at.

The 14-year-old is already 7 feet tall and weighs 250 pounds. To say that he stands out from the other boys in this remote Punjab village, population 463, is like saying that Everest is a rather tall mountain.

After its runaway success in China, the NBA has turned its sights on India. But basketball is not terribly popular here; as one sportswriter says, "genetically, we're not inclined that way."

But what if you could find an Indian version of Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6-inch Houston Rocket center who jumpstarted the Chinese game? His signing led to lucrative broadcasting and sponsorship deals, skyrocketing apparel sales and millions more fans.

"The Yao Ming factor is crucial," said Ayaz Memon, a sports journalist.

From Ballo Ke, local scouts dispatched Satnam to a regional basketball academy where, over the last four years, he worked to develop skills to match his height, leading some to call him India's best young player. This month, the young giant will head to the IMG Basketball Academy in Florida, which is sponsored by a U.S. talent agency.

"If God keeps blessing us, one day he'll play on the Indian national team, even the basketball world cup," village elder Aatma Bhamara said, his unfamiliarity with the name "NBA" suggesting that the Americans have their work cut out for them. "He's putting our village on the map."

NBA officials say Satnam may or may not be the one, but they're determined to build a sport that was introduced to the country by missionaries in 1903, and today is played, enthusiastically if not always well, by a few million Indians (which may sound like a lot, but in a country with 1.2 billion people, it remains a niche activity).

They maintain that India, with its emerging middle class, rising disposable income and media-savvy youngsters, has the raw ingredients to take off as a basketball market.

"We see great opportunity in India," said Akash Jain, the league's director of international development for India. "Sometimes you find a diamond in the rough if you're lucky.... But our focus is long term."

Perseverance and a healthy budget -- the NBA won't disclose its spending -- will be indispensible in a country known for bureaucracy, poor infrastructure and a weak sporting culture apart from the national obsession, cricket. India won a single gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, whereas China, another developing country with an enormous population, snagged 51.

Most schools here lack sporting facilities, let alone basketball courts, with sports often viewed as an unwelcome distraction from studying.

Take Ushan, in neighboring Rajasthan state, one of India's 600,000 villages. At Ushan's one-room school, there's no toilet, no playground and no physical education teacher. Without a shower, students don't want to play sports in the heat and return to class sweaty. Most are poor and own only one set of clothes.

Girls face added cultural barriers. In those few areas boasting state basketball academies, parents balk at letting their daughters leave home to get physical training, fearing that it could ruin their marital prospects.

"It's a mind-set problem," said Teja Singh Dhariwal, head of the Punjab Basketball Assn.

The state-funded Ludhiana basketball academy, which Satnam attended, is among the best in the country. On a recent Saturday, potential recruits, several taller than 6 feet, did sprints, dribbling exercises, layups and defensive drills with reasonable skill.

To attract young prospects like Satnam, the academy advertises the sport: "Tall? Give basketball a try!" But most recruits are teenagers, a bit late to start playing if the aim is to play at top levels.

"You can teach them skills," said Sankaram Subramanian, head coach of the Ludhiana basketball academy, who honed his own game playing American U-2 pilots based in India during the 1950s. "But teaching them to think, to conceptualize, takes time."

The NBA has vowed to make basketball India's second-most-popular sport after cricket within four years, leapfrogging over soccer and field hockey.

"We're very sure it's a viable goal," said Harish Sharma, head of the Basketball Federation of India.

Last month, the NBA brought over Lakers forward Pau Gasol to lead clinics in Indian schools. It has also helped develop a community league, the Mahindra NBA Challenge, in three cities, with plans to add seven more. It is training coaches, has set up a website and last year built five showcase courts, hoping to persuade the government and private developers to build more.

"We are extremely focused on our global growth, but we are prioritizing India," said NBA marketing executive Heidi Ueberroth, Peter's daughter.

Doubters here have snickered at the system that created Yao, who was essentially bred for the game after Chinese sports officials urged his basketball player parents, China's tallest couple, to marry and create a "super" offspring. Later, he was taken from his parents and raised by coaches, then required, on joining the NBA, to give half his salary to the state.

"We're not likely to get a magic player like these Chinese freaks of nature," said Gulu Ezekiel, a cricket analyst. "It will only be popular among the Indian elites, a small percent with access to cable TV."

Supporters counter that average heights are increasing rapidly with better nutrition and that the game's simple equipment makes it ideal for the masses.

The NBA also has global buzz that could catch on quickly, they say. At the Ambience Mall in Gurgaon, near New Delhi, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard swayed his hips last month and did a couple of dunks at a portable court before a cheering crowd as pounding pop music blared.

All the while, the hunt continues for a superstar-in-the-making.

"If we find an Indian Yao Ming, I'll do a Bollywood dance," said Andrew Borman, director of the IMG Basketball Academy in Florida.

Subramanian, Satnam's former coach, said the boy has a shot at the NBA, although he lacks some of Yao's agility.

Back in Ballo Ke, Satnam stands beside his 5-foot-2-inch mother and 7-foot-2-inch father, who is immensely proud of his son, but rues his own fate.

"I wish someone had told me about basketball," said Balbir Singh Bhamara, who comes from a line of unusually tall people -- his mother is 6 feet 9. "I could've gone to America too."

Satnam, the middle of three children (both siblings are average height), said basketball sure beats farming and he hopes he can make a career of it, although he'll follow his parents' advice. He has been able to watch a few NBA games on television, he said, and his favorite player is Kobe Bryant.

Despite being one of India's hottest prospects, he's still very much the naive village boy, coaches and sports officials said, and studying has never been his strong suit. He speaks minimal English and still makes the occasional 13-hour trip to New Delhi on dingy buses, where he has to sit on the wide back seat because it's the only one big enough for him.

"He comes back to get his dirty clothes washed," said his father, a bit stooped after years of manual labor, standing beside the family buffaloes. "And to drink huge amounts of local milk."

As Satnam walks around the 600-year-old village pointing out his primary school, the general store, the bus stop, he is soon shadowed by a parade of children, like a gigantic Pied Piper.

No one else in the village plays basketball, but the 7-footer hopes to change that.

"If I really make it big one day, my dream is to come back and build the village a court," he said. "Then hopefully more people will start playing, like me."

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