Satnam Singh Bhamara: The Big Indian Basketball Hope.
by Karan Madhok / @hoopistani
It almost seems like Satnam Singh Bhamara is asking to be doubted.
When you’re a teenager from India, 15 years and one month old, already grown to the size of a 7-1 monster, the first reaction is wonder and awe, the second is doubt. People wonder what could go wrong; they wonder what the catch is. When you’re blessed with a unique inside-outside skill set, nimble feet, soft hands and a developing shooting touch, people instead wonder what your weaknesses are. When you begin training at the IMG Basketball academy, which has featured the likes of Kobe, Vince Carter, Chauncey Billups, Joakim Noah and Kevin Martin, the doubters say that it sounds too good to be true.
When you’re the son of a poor farmer in India, a boy from a village separated a long dirt road away from the rest of civilization, who picked up his first basketball less than five years ago, you’re asking for the questionable looks. When you’re the biggest basketball hope (literally and figuratively) for India — a country desperate to make a mark in the basketball world — you’re likely to receive a cynical shrug of the shoulders. “India isn’t there yet,” they say. “The kid isn’t there.”
Not yet. But he might be. If you haven’t yet heard about him, it’s time to converge your respective focuses (or foci) on Satnam Singh Bhamara, the 15-year-old, 7-1 Indian giant, currently on a scholarship at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL and attending the Pendleton High School. He is currently in the first year of a potentially four-year scholarship until he graduates from high school.
India has been slowly growing as a basketball market, and Bhamara’s potential might be a zenith of a variety of different efforts taking place to grow the game back home.
Rewind to a year ago: The 14-year-old Bhamara was already a formidable 6-11. Back then, during India’s National Basketball Championship, a yearly tournament pitting the best state teams of India against each other, Bhamara was a wide-eyed spectator, too young to participate, watching as a man-child in a man’s world.
A year later, I meet him at the same championship in New Delhi. This time, he’s back as a famous young man in the country’s basketball circles, garnering attention from other players, media and fans. He’s a spectator again, but only because he has a limited time back in India before he flies back to school in the States. A prominent Indian referee sees him and remembers: “Satnam used to help us set up the scorers’ tables last year. We had nicknamed him Chhotu (Little One). Look at him now!”
“You can still call me Chhotu!” Bhamara jokingly interjects.
But there is nothing ‘little’ about Bhamara, not in height, nor in hype. The first time I met him was back in July 2010, when Bhamara was among 50 other under-14s who were chosen by the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) to appear for IMG scholarship tryouts. IMG, a US-based international sports and media management company, have been investing heavily into sports in India. A year ago, they formed an alliance with Reliance Industries, India’s largest and richest private sector company, and the powerhouse duo of IMG-Reliance signed various sponsorship deals with Indian sports federation. Most notably, IMG-Reliance signed a 30-year agreement with the BFI to assist, finance and promote the growth of basketball in India.
One of their first steps was to choose eight Indian youngsters among the 50 best for scholarship at the IMG Academy. From the moment he walked into the tryouts in New Delhi, Bhamara was a shoo-in.
His fascinating story begins in a little village in India’s north-western state of Punjab: Ballo Ke Village, District Barnala, population 463. The son of a 7-foot farmer, Bhamara spent his early childhood helping out his father on the farm and growing up to 5-9 when he was just 10 years old. It was then that one of his father’s friends recommended that he take the tall youngster to Ludhiana, a nearby town and a major basketball hub of the country. Somewhere lost in translation, Bhamara thought that he was going to play volleyball. He didn’t know a thing about the game when he first stepped on court.
Four years and nearly 15 inches later, he had grown into one of the finest young players in the country. After blazing his way through the Punjab inter-school and junior leagues, Bhamara began to collect his international credentials. He represented India in the FIBA Asia U16 Championships at Malaysia in November 2009. Back home, he took Punjab to the gold medal of the National Youth Championships at Trichy (Tamil Nadu, in South India) in June. He was recommended by the BFI to be part of a three-player contingent of Indian youngsters sent to Singapore for NBA’s Basketball Without Borders (Asia) camp.
It was no surprise then that he was picked by IMG’s Basketball Director Andy Borman and coach Dan Barto for the scholarship. Bhamara was at the perfect age and with the perfect potential skill set, ready to be molded into a basketball monster. To play at the highest level, Bhamara cannot count successes in small Indian championships or Asian tournaments; he had to train with and compete against the best.
But more than a basketball adventure for the youngster, it has been a strange change of lifestyle, too. Bhamara and the rest of the Indian youngsters made their first trip to North America, going to school in a whole new academic system, learning hoops in a way never been taught to them before, focusing more than ever on weight training and fitness, taking extra classes to learn English (seven of the eight, including Bhamara, were virtually alien to the language), getting used to live in a residential school far away from home, and getting used to not eating their Moms’ home-cooked Indian meals.