Dreams—however outlandish they may seem at first—can come true! I was a 13-year-old in India when I picked up my first SLAM magazine, and as an aspiring writer and a basketball fan, it became my obsession to one day see my name in print in SLAM. Fourteen years and 100 issues of SLAM later, basketball in my own country develops as I develop professionally, and the perfect culmination of my dream comes true. India is a land of a million stories; here is just one of them.—KM
by Karan Madhok
The sounds are the same. The same squeak of sneakers rubbing against the wooden floor. The same sweekk of a leather ball swishing through the net. The same cacophony created by a dozen different balls bouncing against the floor in irregular beats.
But then the voices start and you realize that something is different. Basketball words are being used, but they are expressed in a jumbled mix of different languages: English, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, Malayalam and Marathi, too.
This isn’t a pick-up run on the East Coast or a college game in mid-America or an NBA game on the West Coast. This is a court thousands of miles of land and ocean away from those basketball havens. This is India’s Senior Men’s National Basketball squad—a select group of the best basketball players chosen from a population of 1.2 billion people—hard at practice. In the midst of these players stands their coach, an American named Kenny Natt, who has a rich history in the NBA.
Natt, who was last heard from in North America as interim head coach of the Sacramento Kings in ’08-09, cuts through the cultural and language barriers between himself and the Indian players with the one thing everyone assembled at practice can understand: basketball.
One pass, one shot and one new-to-basketball player at a time, India finds itself on the cusp of a roundball revolution, and Natt, who was appointed the national team’s head coach in May, 2011, finds himself in the middle of it all. “It has been an adjustment working here, of course,” Natt says. “But I’ve gained a lot of experience about the culture of the people here, and specifically of the basketball players.”
India is a fairly complicated country, so an adjustment period is more than expected. After all, it’s a country with some of the world’s richest people and some of the world’s largest slums. It’s a country where more people have access to telephones than to restrooms. It’s a country of over a billion people, over a million Gods and over 400 languages and dialects. It is a country with a few common threads that loosely bind all of that diversity together. Namely: the dominant Hindi film industry Bollywood, the sport of cricket and the ubiquitous cup of chai (milk tea).
It is in this complex, brilliant, chaotic and beautiful world where Natt is hoping to help make one of the world’s biggest sports a little bigger.
This is definitely new territory for the 53-year-old Natt, though he has devoted a large percentage of his life to professional basketball. As a player, he was the 30th overall pick of the 1980 NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers and spent nine years bouncing between the NBA (where he played for the Pacers, Utah Jazz and Kansas City Kings), the CBA and the World Basketball League.
After his playing days came to an end, Natt made his return to the NBA as an assistant coach on Jerry Sloan’s staff in Utah in the mid-’90s and got to be a part of the Stockton-Malone teams that reached the NBA Finals in ’97 and ’98. After that, Natt worked as an assistant and oversaw the development of a young LeBron James in Cleveland. His most recent NBA gig was with the Kings, where he began as an assistant, was promoted to interim head coach after the firing of Reggie Theus in December ’08 and served in that role until the following April.
That’s when, with his NBA story on pause, Natt decided to break from the mold. Instead of returning to some other head coach’s NBA bench, when he was offered the job of head coach for India’s National Team—a squad representing the world’s second-most-populous country but that usually finds itself ranked somewhere around 50th place in the FIBA World rankings—he jumped at the opportunity.
India has rarely performed well in Asian basketball championships, regularly outclassed by the likes of China, Korea, Japan, Lebanon and Iran. For Natt, a coach habituated with playing against the Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks and Bulls, he’s had to adjust to dealing with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Despite the different-sounding opponents and, of course, the wide talent gap, Natt hasn’t really altered his playbook. “I still run the same plays that we used to for John Stockton or LeBron James,” he says. “But there is now a different approach to my coaching to integrate the understanding of Indian players more.”
For Natt, though, it’s about much more than Xs and Os. He might have entered India a year ago with the stated task of being no more than a teacher on court, but his reach now stretches across a much larger canvas of the Basketball Federation of India. “My goal is to help advance the game from the ground up here,” Natt says. “It’s more than just teaching fundamentals of basketball now, I’ve taken an active role in the administrative side of the game here and I’m really enjoying it. I’m doing coaches’ clinics around the country to make the coaches better.”
Making Indian ball better isn’t Natt’s task alone. While he spearheads the Men’s team, the top job for the Women’s squad was handed to Pete Gaudet, who is most famous for serving as an assistant to Coach K at Duke. For the first time, India also hired a Strength & Conditioning Coach—Zak Penwell—to work with the national squads. These are signs of progress on the micro level. There have also been progressive steps taken on a much grander scale.
In 2010, the BFI (Basketball Federation of India) signed a 30-year sponsorship deal with American sports/media management company IMG Worldwide. (Meanwhile, IMG entered India in separate partnership with India’s richest conglomerate of companies, Reliance.) The IMG-Reliance bond, backing basketball in India with international sports expertise and finances, became the first hope of optimism for hoop fans in India for decades. Apart from sealing the deal for the three American coaches, IMG-Reliance started a scholarship program for talented young Indian players to enroll at the IMG Academy in Florida. Most importantly, Natt says, their presence also brings the promise of India’s first-ever professional basketball league in the near future. “Once a pro league comes, it’ll give players the incentive and motivation to make it to the big stage. Young players need to see good players playing hard and want to emulate them. We need to create a vision for the future, and create excitement for the game amongst its new fans. A league will completely change the life of players, coaches and others involved with the game. It will create jobs and help to build better infrastructure. It will ultimately improve the level of talent that makes up India’s national teams.”
Before India has its own league—before the Indian people even really care about basketball—the country has to succeed at basketball, and that is still Natt’s primary assignment. His first adventure with the national team was at the 2011 FIBA Asia Basketball Championship (ABC), held in Wuhan, China. While India disappointed by falling to a 14th-place finish, Natt returned with a greater understanding of the style of play and an optimism for the future.
“Indian players in general have a lot of finesse, although some of them—the players from the state of Punjab—are very strong and physical,” Natt notes. “Several years ago, we in the NBA used to have the notion that players from other countries were too ‘soft.’ But I’ve seen talented, strong players here and it’s very encouraging because the physicality will really help them establish the inside game. In turn, this helps the passive-aggressive perimeter players.”
India’s basketball fortunes—in more ways than one—may lie in the size-22 shoes of 16-year-old giant Satnam Singh Bhamara [see sidebar at right]. A farmer’s son turned student-athlete at the IMG Basketball Academy in Florida, Bhamara is a promising talent who stands 7-2. Indian basketball fans and the NBA both hope that Bhamara—or someone soon after him—can become India’s first star on basketball’s biggest stage.