Reportage

The Long Shot

By Adam B Lerner | 1 June 2014
john loomis
Satnam Singh Bhamara, India’s eighteen-year-old NBA hopeful, trains at Florida’s IMG Academy.

|ONE|

ON 10 DECEMBER, in the second month of the 2013–2014 high school basketball season in western Florida, the IMG Academy Varsity Blue took on the Oldsmar Christian Eagles. As IMG, one of the United States’ best sports specialty schools, stepped out onto the Eagles’ home court, the Varsity Blue coaches surprisingly did not select Satnam Singh Bhamara, the team’s centre and “big man,” to tip off. Instead, Bhamara hung back patiently, a bulky, obtrusive presence on defence. His wide-featured face, still younger than his athletic seven-foot-two inch frame, followed the ball’s movement as IMG lost the tip-off, setting the tone for much of the first half of the game.

Bhamara managed to block an opponent’s lay-up in the opening play, but otherwise seemed sluggish during the first few minutes of action. Lumbering up and down the court, he missed three consecutive shots: two lay-ups and a short floater. His coach took him out soon into the first quarter; Bhamara sat on the sidelines for most of the first half, while the rest of the starting line-up stayed on court. IMG lost the game by a narrow margin, but Bhamara did manage a personal season-best: fifteen points and twelve rebounds—impressive numbers given his limited playing time.

“I hate the bench,” Bhamara told me via Skype later that month. Speaking in a slow, heavily Punjabi-accented baritone, he complained, “I don’t know why I’m playing for only three or four minutes,” per game. He had felt similarly frustrated earlier that summer, when competing as part of the senior Indian national team in the 2013 Asia Championship organised by FIBA, the sport’s international governing body. He was unable to attend all of the team’s training sessions while in Florida, and head coach Scott Flemming played the youngest member of his squad sparingly. As the Indian team sweated its way through eight games, losing five of them, Bhamara played an average of just under seven minutes per game, while older teammates averaged as many as thirty-five minutes per outing. And despite his limited time on court, Bhamara sustained injuries that affected his training when he returned to IMG Academy in the fall for his senior year of high school.

The amount of time Bhamara has spent on the bench is surprising given his relatively high international profile. Among those interested in basketball in the subcontinent, Bhamara has had instant recognition since 2010, when he was one of four Indian boys to win a coveted scholarship from IMG Reliance, a newly formed partnership between the International Management Group Worldwide, a New York-based global sports and media company that runs the IMG Academy, and Reliance Industries Limited, India’s largest private-sector corporation. Soon after Bhamara left his basketball academy in Ludhiana at the age of fourteen to train in Florida, he became the subject of much speculation and excitement in the sports media. In December 2010, the New York Times called him “among the most promising” Indian aspirants to the National Basketball Association, the United States’s top basketball league. The next month, Karan Madhok, a blogger for the NBA and founder of Hoopistani, an influential Indian basketball blog, profiled Bhamara in the popular American publication SLAMOnline, calling him “the biggest basketball hope (literally and figuratively) for India.”

In October 2011, Bhamara erupted onto the world stage at the FIBA Asia Under-16 Championship in Vietnam. Though the Indian squad finished a disappointing tenth out of fourteen teams, Bhamara did well, scoring forty-one points in a blowout loss to Korea, and twenty-nine in a close loss to Chinese Taipei. Articles about him appeared on ESPN.com, Yahoo News and other publications. In May 2013, Sports Illustrated, the holy grail of American sports journalism, published an extensive profile of Bhamara, with the headline “Wanted: 1.2 Billion Basketball Fans.”

Driving the hype is the hope that Bhamara will return IMG Reliance’s investment in him by becoming the first Indian to play in the NBA. Investors and enthusiasts believe he could become the Indian counterpart to Yao Ming, the legendary centre who galvanised Chinese interest in basketball in the mid-2000s. In a way, the stakes are higher for Bhamara; unlike in China, which had an active professional basketball league before Yao, in India, the market for the sport remains largely untapped.

ACCORDING TO FIBA, 450 million people play basketball around the globe. This past NBA season began with ninety-two international players from thirty-nine countries, including Congo, Senegal, Montenegro and Israel, on its teams’ rosters. These have never included an Indian player. India has the largest GDP and population of any country without a professional basketball league. Its national team is currently sixty-first in the FIBA world rankings, behind Kazakhstan, the Central African Republic and the US Virgin Islands (which are home to 134,000 people: less than one-tenth the population Ludhiana).

For sixty years, basketball in India was governed solely by the Basketball Federation of India, which is endowed by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. But in 2010, shortly after its formation, IMG Reliance bought thirty years’ worth of rights to commercialise basketball in India from the BFI, as well as fifteen years of similar rights for football from the All India Football Federation. In partnership with the AIFF, IMG Reliance will inaugurate its premier initiative, the Indian Super League, this September. IMG Reliance has similar plans in the works with the BFI for a professional basketball league, the details of which have yet to be announced.

The partnership between IMG Reliance and the BFI has caught the attention of the NBA, which earned $150 million from basketball-related broadcasting and merchandising in China in 2012—a figure that grew by more than ten percent last year. In the hope of similar profits from India, the NBA opened its first Indian office in Mumbai in 2011. These efforts by both the NBA and IMG Reliance are likely to attract further investment from sports apparel brands and television companies (the NBA already has a deal with Sony Six), especially ones already working in India that could significantly expand their reach through partnerships with professional leagues.

For those who stand to gain from a flourishing basketball market in India, the central question is why a country with 1.25 billion people—approximately five million of whom currently play basketball, according to the BFI—has yet to produce players competitive in any major professional league. Indian basketball could benefit hugely from a marketable superstar to popularise the game. But without good training and tournament infrastructure in place, the odds of an Indian player being launched to international success anytime soon are slim. For now, all of this adds up to increasing pressure on the shoulders of eighteen-year-old Satnam Singh Bhamara.

|TWO|

BASKETBALL ARRIVED IN INDIA only a few decades after the sport’s inception in the United States in 1891. The first national championship was played in New Delhi in 1934, and in 1936 India became one of the founding members of FIBA Asia (a division of FIBA international, formed four years after the global body). An Indian men’s team competed in the third iteration of the Asian Championship in 1965. Since then, the highest India has ever finished in the FIBA Asia Championship is fourth, in 1975. The country never became a top-level competitor in the region, let alone the world.

Beginning in 1950, the BFI held a de facto monopoly over the game in India, with exclusive rights to organise and oversee all national teams, regional associations and players. The BFI currently monitors three arms of Indian basketball—the national men’s and women’s teams at four age-level categories; the National Championships, which feature teams representing both states and public corporations such as the Railways; and grassroots development, including school leagues, coaching clinics and recruitment drives.

The BFI’s current CEO, Roopam Sharma, is a former Air India employee, and played basketball at the college level. She was appointed to head the BFI by a steering committee in 2011, after the death of her husband and predecessor Harish Sharma, who was the general secretary for ten years and CEO for one. When I met Sharma at the BFI offices in Delhi’s Defence Colony last November, she spoke of her late husband’s efforts to “enhance the appeal and popularity of basketball.” She told me he had good relations with international basketball heavyweights, including the former NBA commissioner David Stern, whom he met on a trip to the United States in 2010. Harish and Stern worked on creating the annual Mahindra NBA Challenge, a tournament sponsored partly by the Mahindra automotive company that was held for the first time from April to September that year.

Harish was also instrumental in negotiating the BFI’s thirty-year agreement with IMG Reliance, which Sharma described as “a blessing,” and “the brightest deal any corporate could have come up with.” “The government gives you a very small amount of money,” Sharma told me, referring to the roughly half-crore rupees the BFI receives from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports every year. “Basketball,” she added, “is not a priority game.” Sharma told me IMG Reliance now contributes approximately 80 percent of the BFI’s annual budget, in addition to funding ventures such as a planned professional league. “With all the money coming in,” Sharma said, “you’re not really concerned with who’s going to take care of the finances. You’re more concerned with the development issues.”

Outside India, basketball is gaining popularity relatively quickly. According to AT Kearney, a global management consulting firm, it currently represents around 6 percent of the $480–620 billion global sports market. This is well below football and American football, which account for 43 percent and 13 percent respectively, but the NBA’s global market is growing at 5 percent every year. By some estimates, basketball is the second-fastest growing sport in India today, after football. Yannick Colaco, the NBA’s managing director for the country, told me that because basketball is “fast paced, attractively packaged and competitive—packed into an entertaining, short time-frame,” he believed it has great appeal among India’s large youth population.

Over the last few years, the NBA made significant attempts to break into the untapped Indian market. It brought more than twenty current and former NBA players to the country as ambassadors for the sport, and in 2009 it launched NBA Jam, a traveling festival of basketball and music that is slated to reach 16 cities in its 2014 edition. There have also been efforts to promote a connection to India within the league itself. The Sacramento Kings, an NBA team owned primarily by Vivek Ranadivé, a Mumbai-born IT tycoon, recently launched a Hindi version of their website, becoming the first in the league to do so. The Kings are now the most widely broadcast NBA team on Indian television, and have a corporate sponsorship deal with the  Krrish Group, an Indian real estate developer. In an announcement of the deal, Ranadivé indicated that the Kings would soon announce more partnerships “as we strive to become India’s home team.”

But the NBA’s overtures to the Indian market have failed to bring in significant returns. Even with the increased funding, new grassroots development programmes and amped-up marketing, IMG Reliance, the BFI and the NBA still need a hero who can be the face of the sport in India. When I met her last November, Sharma said that should Bhamara make it to the NBA, there would be “nothing like it” for Indian basketball. A month later, Teja Singh Dhaliwal, the secretary of the Punjab Basketball Association, told me categorically that Bhamara “definitely… will be the Yao Ming of India.”

YAO MING, who stands at seven feet and six inches, was the third Chinese player to make it into the NBA, but the first to truly excel in the league. After dominating his competitors in the Chinese Basketball Association (averaging a whopping 32.4 points per game in his final season with the Shanghai Sharks), Yao was the first player picked in the 2002 NBA draft, and went on to become an eight-time NBA All-Star. His meteoric rise to international basketball stardom sparked a tremendous increase in the sport’s popularity in China—the sports journalist Renjun Bao estimated on an ESPN blog that NBA viewership in China during Yao’s ten-year career rose from five to more than twenty percent of the population. In 2007, a match-up over breakfast between Yao and another Chinese basketball player, Yi Jianlian, drew an estimated 100 to 200 million viewers—between 7 and 15 percent of the population—in China, according to ESPN. After Yao’s retirement in 2011, his mantel was taken up by Jeremy Lin, a Taiwanese-American Harvard graduate whose breakout stretch in the NBA in 2012 was dubbed “Linsanity.” Lin became the first player to average twenty points and seven assists in his first five NBA starts. The league’s television ratings in China shot up by 39 percent that year, partly due to Lin’s heroics.

Indian basketball and corporate officials have good reason to believe that the “Yao Ming model” can be replicated. In Germany, basketball was first introduced by Allied forces stationed there after World War II, but enjoyed only a small following until Dirk Nowitzki, the 2007 NBA Most Valuable Player and an 11-time NBA All-Star, became a national sensation. Likewise Manu Ginóbili, an Argentinian star who led his team past the Americans at the 2004 Olympics (the US men’s team’s first defeat since 1992, when it began including professional players). That feat inspired roughly one-third of Argentinians—a remarkable 80 percent of the country’s television market—to tune in to their team’s 2004 Olympic basketball final against Italy. Even as he approaches retirement, Ginóbili consistently ranks alongside Lionel Messi among Argentina’s most popular athletes. And basketball is the country’s second most popular sport.

Hope for a similar boom in basketball’s popularity in India rests partially on the success of cricket’s Indian Premier League, which grew to be worth an estimated $4.13 billion within two years of its formation. Both IMG and Reliance have ties to the league. The Board of Control for Cricket in India hired IMG to help conceptualise and implement the IPL and Mukesh Ambani, the head of Reliance, purchased the IPL’s Mumbai Indians franchise at the league’s inception for a cool $111.9 million. But unlike the IPL, which capitalised on the national love of cricket and the star power of Indian and international players, any new basketball league formed by the IMG Reliance partnership will—lacking the former ingredient for success—require the latter.

So far, no saviour has emerged. Both Scott Flemming and Karan Madhok told me that no Indian player had yet begun playing the game seriously enough and early enough to be destined for NBA stardom. This is likely true even of Bhamara, yet with his extraordinary natural gifts, he  still towers over his Indian competition. “For his age, he’s incredibly talented,” Madhok told me, but admitted that though he is eager to see an Indian in the NBA, he thought it was “a little bit too late for him.” A basketball consultant who had worked with the BFI told me they privately believed that Bhamara has, at best, the potential to become India’s Wang Zhizhi— the first Chinese player in the NBA, who left after five seasons and averaged just about 27 games per season—but not the country’s Yao Ming, whose dominant abilities were obvious by the time he was Bhamara’s age.

Bhamara’s ultra-tall counterparts in the United States, Europe and China often start playing regularly at the age of five or six. At every prestigious international tournament, nearly every nation fields a seven-footer with glistening potential (Asia alone has players like Iran’s Hamed Haddadi and China’s Yi Jianlian, both of whom have excelled in international play but proved unspectacular in limited NBA showings). The idea that Bhamara is exceptional simply because of the press he’s received and the untapped market he represents seems unfounded. Yet his journey thus far and the progress he has made are in themselves remarkable.

|THREE|

SATNAM SINGH BHAMARA grew up on a farm in the Punjabi village of Baloke, about seventy kilometres from Ludhiana, in a dusty brick house that now sports the village’s only basketball hoop, mounted delicately on a wall above a hardened dirt driveway. There, Balbir, his seven-foot-three-inch father, grows maize, wheat and rice, runs a flour mill, and raises dairy buffalo to support the family. Balbir, who was also once the village sarpanch, had heard of basketball in his youth but never played it. “My family didn’t consider basketball,” he told CNN in a 2012 segment profiling Bhamara—he was expected to work in the same profession as his father.

But by the time Satnam was born, in 1995, word of international superstars like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and of the enormous earning of those who made it to the world’s top leagues, had trickled into rural India through televisions and newspapers. When Bhamara was nine years old and already almost six feet tall, a family friend recommended the sport. His father read in a newspaper that the Ludhiana Basketball Academy was calling for “tall and talented” players to come train there.

The Academy, which is one of India’s best training centres, opened in 2002 with funding from a UK-based non-resident Indian. When Bhamara visited, the Punjab Basketball Association officials who run the school immediately took note. As the saying goes, you can’t teach height—the Bhamara family’s most obviously exceptional quality. Bhamara received a scholarship to live and train at the academy the following year.

I traveled to Ludhiana last December. Harjinder Singh, an incredibly tall Sikh with a beaming smile who is the Punjabi state team coach, picked me up on his motorcycle from the clock tower at the centre of town and took me to the academy. There he immediately invited me to join a scrimmage by way of introduction to the players training that day. They included several of India’s finest young athletes, some of them Bhamara’s old friends.

The boys lined up from tallest to shortest as Singh picked the teams, and I marvelled at their height; at least half a dozen stood noticeably above six feet, despite the fact that most were between the ages of fifteen and seventeen. On one of the first plays, I watched in awe as one player rushed down the court towards me and dunked for two easy points. Later, my team achieved retribution as Palpreet Singh Brar, one of the academy’s stars, turned the corner on his defender and threw down a thunderous two-handed dunk that left him hanging off the rim. Brar, a shy nineteen-year-old who measures about six feet and eight inches, was both the tallest and oldest on the court. He rose to international prominence at the 2012 Under-18 FIBA Asia Championship, where he earned the tournament’s third-best average of 21.5 points a game. After the game I asked him whether he knew Bhamara. He responded in whispered Punjabi that they had been roommates and good friends.

Bhamara attended the academy for five years. During that time he trained for the Punjab under-fourteen team, and for the national team in the same age group, while also attending a local school. Teja Singh Dhaliwal, secretary of the state basketball association, told me he was impressed by Bhamara from the start. “He has [had] no ego, even from childhood,” Dhaliwal said when we met in Ludhiana, but the boy’s innate athletic gift spoke for itself. At first, Bhamara was slow and his footwork cumbersome, but his size and strength were unparalleled for someone his age. It was obvious to the coaches that he merited special attention, but the academy could not afford the world-class trainers and state-of-the-art equipment necessary to develop Bhamara’s game the way academies in other countries could.

By 2010, Indian basketball officials took notice of Bhamara’s height and abilities. The BFI recommended him to be part of a three-player contingent sent to the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders camp, part of a training programme for players from around the world, in Singapore. IMG Reliance was founded just after Bhamara’s return that March. Within six months, the new partnership invited Andy Borman, the director of the basketball programme at IMG Academy, and Dan Barto, the programme’s head skills trainer, to monitor tryouts in Delhi for four scholarships each for boys and girls to train at IMG Academy. Bhamara was the most obvious choice among the contenders.

|FOUR|

IN 2009, Mukesh Ambani invited Ted Forstmann, the American billionaire who owned and ran IMG before he died in 2011, to a safari in Kenya. Forstmann recalled the trip during a speech to introduce Ambani as the winner of the 2010 Dwight D Eisenhower Global Leadership Award at a reception at the Plaza Hotel in New York. According to Forbes, Forstmann said that he and his son were terrified, with a lion “sleeping underneath them,” while Ambani exercised on an elliptical machine in his tent next door. In 2010, the friendship was cemented over a business deal; the two companies announced a joint venture “to develop, market and manage sports and entertainment in India.” (After IMG went up for sale two years after Forstmann’s death, the Indian Express reported that Ambani was among those interested in buying it).

It was easy enough for Ambani to jump into the cricket market by purchasing the Mumbai Indians, but Reliance lacked the expertise to develop other sports in India without IMG’s help. IMG Reliance’s purchase of the commercial rights for Indian basketball and football within a year of its formation was a major coup. These rights include sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, data and franchising rights, as well as the first rights to create new professional leagues in both sports with de facto access to all players on Indian national teams governed by the basketball and football federations. In exchange, IMG Reliance contributes funds and expertise to develop and market both sports in the country. Bobby Sharma, IMG’s senior vice president for “Global Basketball and Strategic Initiatives,” told me over the phone from New York that the “whole premise of these ventures is helping to expedite and enhance the maturation process of the sports and entertainment sector,” and to focus on “matching it up with the growth and emergence of the middle class.”

But some detractors, including the Supreme Court lawyer and sports activist Rahul Mehra, claimed that the partnership is Reliance’s attempt to “buy all sports in India,” and monopolise in advance what it sees as a yet unrealised market. This April, speculation that plans for the IMG Reliance-backed Indian Super League indicated the AIFF’s willingness to abandon the I-League, a football league it launched in 2007, came to the forefront when the federation’s president, Praful Patel, failed to make an appearance at the ceremony crowning Bengaluru Football Club I-League champions. Bengaluru FC, like other I-League teams, has opposed the Indian Super League. Mehra argued that the creation of the ISL at a time when the I-League is floundering, with many teams in financial straits, indicates the AIFF’s preferential treatment for Reliance. “The I-League will crumble” without AIFF support, he told me in a phone conversation.

But in the case of basketball, a sport currently without a professional league and with far less developed training infrastructure than football, a new league would provide viable athletic career options to the scores of Indian players who, when not participating in international and national tournaments, play for teams run by private and public enterprises such as the Punjab Police, Oil and Natural Gas Company, and Indian Overseas Bank. These players are considered employees of their teams’ sponsors, and are required to work in some capacity in these organisations’ daily operations. This limits the time available for training, and the salaries offered are trifling when compared to those in full-time professional leagues. In China’s top league, for instance, salaries often hover around a cap of $60,000 a month for foreign players and $44,000 for Chinese ones (it’s an open secret that these ceilings are rarely enforced). But the skill level, relative financial security and status of the average professional basketball player in China rests on the standard set by that country’s brightest international stars.

ON HIS FIRST TRIP TO INDIA IN APRIL 2013, former NBA Commissioner David Stern told reporters that “if you need a specific answer” to the question of how long it would take to have an Indian in the NBA, “I would say five years.” At this point, Bhamara is the only player who comes to mind as a candidate. He may not be the highest scoring player currently on the Indian national team—that title would likely go to twenty-three-year-old Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, who averaged a team-best 13.1 points per game during the 2013 FIBA Asia tournament—but for basketball insiders he may well have the greatest potential.

Widening the net to include players of Indian origin in other countries, however, raises other possibilities. The Indian community in Canada has two of its own prospects, the Bhullar brothers Sim and Tanveer (seven-foot-five and seven-foot-three respectively), who both play for a team in the top American collegiate division—the National Collegiate Athletics Association’s Division I. Though Sim has entered the 2014 NBA draft, health problems make it unlikely he will play in the NBA for any significant time. Pasha Bains, another Indian-origin Canadian, was one of the first people of Indian-origin to play top-division college basketball in the US, and is now the founder and head coach of Drive Basketball, a youth training centre in the western Canadian province of British Columbia. He told me that an Indian in the NBA would make a “huge impact” on the significant number of India-origin players in the area.

Bains, who had seen footage Bhamara slogging up and down the court and resisting leaps to challenge for loose balls or contest shots, told me he felt “the issue with him is the speed of the game.” Yet many of the Indian hoop observers I spoke with, while hedging their bets about Bhamara’s future, said that a scholarship to play elite college basketball was an accomplishable goal for him. If his English continues to improve and he stays healthy, this seems a reasonable, even likely prospect, though it might be too early yet to pass a final judgment. Only at an American university, when consistently on the court and playing against opponents who match his size and strength better than his high-school counterparts, will Bhamara’s true NBA potential become evident.

JD Walsh, a former American college basketball player who has run camps and training clinics in India since 2007, told me over email that he had hope for Bhamara, whom he met during a training session for the Indian national team in 2011. “I think Satnam is a great talent,” he wrote. “Most big guys do not grow into their bodies until later in life.” Last October in Delhi, I sat down for a coffee with Flemming, the Indian national team coach, to ask about Bhamara’s skill set. “He has great hands,” Flemming said—a euphemism for a player with surprising grace for his size—“he’s strong, he’s got a nice offensive game.” Kenny Natt, Bhamara’s coach at IMG Academy and a former head coach of the Indian national team, echoed the sentiment, mentioning Bhamara’s “soft touch on his left- and right-hand hook shots.” Both coaches hope that, with Bhamara’s innate physical talents, a college or NBA team will be able to mould him into a role player who can grab rebounds, play consistent defense, and offer second-chance points.

Unlike Dwayne Bacon, his flashier junior at IMG Academy, Bhamara is on none of his graduating class’s high school recruiting lists, which are compiled by ESPN, Yahoo Sports and others, and used by college coaches to keep tabs on future talent. More frustratingly for Bhamara, his time in Florida has been marred by injury, and his last season was brightened by only one really standout performance, in the game against Oldsmar Christian School. In May 2012, Bhamara had surgery on his left knee, which required months of extensive rehabilitation, only to injure his right knee a year later, in the autumn of 2013. Additionally, in May 2013, he had surgery on his right elbow—the result of an injury sustained during the 2012–2013 season. Natt told me that Bhamara also sprained an ankle this past February. These are ominous signs for someone pursuing a career in athletics. Flemming told me Bhamara “needs to really show that he can stay healthy and play longer minutes,” insinuating that at times the youngster’s injuries have overshadowed his talent. Natt agreed, telling me that all of Bhamara’s opportunities in professional basketball, whether in the United States or around the world, are contingent “primarily upon his good health and his ability to remain injury-free over the next two years.” For now, Bhamara’s coaches might have the young man’s best interests at heart in keeping him on the bench and advising him to take it slow.

Bhamara is now in his fourth year at IMG Academy, and plans to keep training there during the next academic year. With his senior season now over, this summer Bhamara plans to play in the Amateur Athletics Union, one of the most competitive non-profit sports leagues in the United States. In his next year at IMG Academy, he will likely play for the school’s post-graduate team while studying and improving his English to increase his eligibility to join a university playing in Division I. Bhamara told me that some college coaches had expressed interest in recruiting him already. Should he receive a scholarship and play in Division I, the top college basketball division in the world, he would be the first Indian to do so.

The next year will prove definitive for Bhamara. Speaking to me over Skype from Florida last December, he described his rigid daily routine, which is far more exacting than anything enforced on aspiring players in India. He wakes up at five o’clock and exercises for two hours with specialised trainers and coaches. He then turns his attention to studying, until classes begins at the Academy’s school at 1.20 pm. Lessons are demanding: Bhamara’s giant form can barely fit into the standard classroom desks, and his English is still relatively halting. After 6.10 pm, when his lessons end, he works on his knees and any other sore spots with a physical trainer for about an hour. He then practises with his coaches and teammates, and lifts weights before getting ready for bed.

It’s a strenuous schedule for any teenager, especially for one already under so much pressure. Yet Bhamara seems to maintain a calm composure. “I care for my team, I win the games, that’s it,” he said. Still, he is conscious of the expectations and told me that he knew that if he managed to go to the NBA, basketball would become popular in India. He seemed eager to spread his love of the sport back home.

“No more cricket,” he pronounced, “just basketball.”

Adam B Lerner is a former Henry Luce Scholar at The Caravan.

|ONE|

ON 10 DECEMBER, in the second month of the 2013–2014 high school basketball season in western Florida, the IMG Academy Varsity Blue took on the Oldsmar Christian Eagles. As IMG, one of the United States’ best sports specialty schools, stepped out onto the Eagles’ home court, the Varsity Blue coaches surprisingly did not select Satnam Singh Bhamara, the team’s centre and “big man,” to tip off. Instead, Bhamara hung back patiently, a bulky, obtrusive presence on defence. His wide-featured face, still younger than his athletic seven-foot-two inch frame, followed the ball’s movement as IMG lost the tip-off, setting the tone for much of the first half of the game.

Bhamara managed to block an opponent’s lay-up in the opening play, but otherwise seemed sluggish during the first few minutes of action. Lumbering up and down the court, he missed three consecutive shots: two lay-ups and a short floater. His coach took him out soon into the first quarter; Bhamara sat on the sidelines for most of the first half, while the rest of the starting line-up stayed on court. IMG lost the game by a narrow margin, but Bhamara did manage a personal season-best: fifteen points and twelve rebounds—impressive numbers given his limited playing time.

“I hate the bench,” Bhamara told me via Skype later that month. Speaking in a slow, heavily Punjabi-accented baritone, he complained, “I don’t know why I’m playing for only three or four minutes,” per game. He had felt similarly frustrated earlier that summer, when competing as part of the senior Indian national team in the 2013 Asia Championship organised by FIBA, the sport’s international governing body. He was unable to attend all of the team’s training sessions while in Florida, and head coach Scott Flemming played the youngest member of his squad sparingly. As the Indian team sweated its way through eight games, losing five of them, Bhamara played an average of just under seven minutes per game, while older teammates averaged as many as thirty-five minutes per outing. And despite his limited time on court, Bhamara sustained injuries that affected his training when he returned to IMG Academy in the fall for his senior year of high school.

The amount of time Bhamara has spent on the bench is surprising given his relatively high international profile. Among those interested in basketball in the subcontinent, Bhamara has had instant recognition since 2010, when he was one of four Indian boys to win a coveted scholarship from IMG Reliance, a newly formed partnership between the International Management Group Worldwide, a New York-based global sports and media company that runs the IMG Academy, and Reliance Industries Limited, India’s largest private-sector corporation. Soon after Bhamara left his basketball academy in Ludhiana at the age of fourteen to train in Florida, he became the subject of much speculation and excitement in the sports media. In December 2010, the New York Times called him “among the most promising” Indian aspirants to the National Basketball Association, the United States’s top basketball league. The next month, Karan Madhok, a blogger for the NBA and founder of Hoopistani, an influential Indian basketball blog, profiled Bhamara in the popular American publication SLAMOnline, calling him “the biggest basketball hope (literally and figuratively) for India.”

In October 2011, Bhamara erupted onto the world stage at the FIBA Asia Under-16 Championship in Vietnam. Though the Indian squad finished a disappointing tenth out of fourteen teams, Bhamara did well, scoring forty-one points in a blowout loss to Korea, and twenty-nine in a close loss to Chinese Taipei. Articles about him appeared on ESPN.com, Yahoo News and other publications. In May 2013, Sports Illustrated, the holy grail of American sports journalism, published an extensive profile of Bhamara, with the headline “Wanted: 1.2 Billion Basketball Fans.”

Driving the hype is the hope that Bhamara will return IMG Reliance’s investment in him by becoming the first Indian to play in the NBA. Investors and enthusiasts believe he could become the Indian counterpart to Yao Ming, the legendary centre who galvanised Chinese interest in basketball in the mid-2000s. In a way, the stakes are higher for Bhamara; unlike in China, which had an active professional basketball league before Yao, in India, the market for the sport remains largely untapped.

ACCORDING TO FIBA, 450 million people play basketball around the globe. This past NBA season began with ninety-two international players from thirty-nine countries, including Congo, Senegal, Montenegro and Israel, on its teams’ rosters. These have never included an Indian player. India has the largest GDP and population of any country without a professional basketball league. Its national team is currently sixty-first in the FIBA world rankings, behind Kazakhstan, the Central African Republic and the US Virgin Islands (which are home to 134,000 people: less than one-tenth the population Ludhiana).

For sixty years, basketball in India was governed solely by the Basketball Federation of India, which is endowed by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. But in 2010, shortly after its formation, IMG Reliance bought thirty years’ worth of rights to commercialise basketball in India from the BFI, as well as fifteen years of similar rights for football from the All India Football Federation. In partnership with the AIFF, IMG Reliance will inaugurate its premier initiative, the Indian Super League, this September. IMG Reliance has similar plans in the works with the BFI for a professional basketball league, the details of which have yet to be announced.

The partnership between IMG Reliance and the BFI has caught the attention of the NBA, which earned $150 million from basketball-related broadcasting and merchandising in China in 2012—a figure that grew by more than ten percent last year. In the hope of similar profits from India, the NBA opened its first Indian office in Mumbai in 2011. These efforts by both the NBA and IMG Reliance are likely to attract further investment from sports apparel brands and television companies (the NBA already has a deal with Sony Six), especially ones already working in India that could significantly expand their reach through partnerships with professional leagues.

For those who stand to gain from a flourishing basketball market in India, the central question is why a country with 1.25 billion people—approximately five million of whom currently play basketball, according to the BFI—has yet to produce players competitive in any major professional league. Indian basketball could benefit hugely from a marketable superstar to popularise the game. But without good training and tournament infrastructure in place, the odds of an Indian player being launched to international success anytime soon are slim. For now, all of this adds up to increasing pressure on the shoulders of eighteen-year-old Satnam Singh Bhamara.

|TWO|

BASKETBALL ARRIVED IN INDIA only a few decades after the sport’s inception in the United States in 1891. The first national championship was played in New Delhi in 1934, and in 1936 India became one of the founding members of FIBA Asia (a division of FIBA international, formed four years after the global body). An Indian men’s team competed in the third iteration of the Asian Championship in 1965. Since then, the highest India has ever finished in the FIBA Asia Championship is fourth, in 1975. The country never became a top-level competitor in the region, let alone the world.

Beginning in 1950, the BFI held a de facto monopoly over the game in India, with exclusive rights to organise and oversee all national teams, regional associations and players. The BFI currently monitors three arms of Indian basketball—the national men’s and women’s teams at four age-level categories; the National Championships, which feature teams representing both states and public corporations such as the Railways; and grassroots development, including school leagues, coaching clinics and recruitment drives.

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