NBA Commissioner David Stern has made no secret of his plans to make basketball a global sport and to have the NBA captivate the largest markets in the world. China set the tone: In less than two decades, China has established an impressive basketball league of its own, featured a superstar—Yao Ming—in the NBA, become a major market for basketball, and perhaps most importantly, become a regular feature in top-level international competitions. Basketball has fast become the most popular sport among millions of fans in the country.
India has numbers in the millions and billions, too, except that most of them, on the question of sport or pastime, look toward cricket or Bollywood. Cricket, specifically, is a religion in India, a sport played at some point by nearly every Indian child in every corner of the country, in the inner-lanes of Varanasi and the beaches of Goa. There is little inclination for most young Indians to take any other sports seriously. India has won one Olympic gold medal, ever. Professional sports leagues are still a new concept in the country. Nothing except cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) has caught the nation’s imagination yet.
But things are changing: India is slowly making a mark in individual sports like boxing, badminton and wrestling, and professional leagues for futbol and field hockey have been launched in recent years. The NBA in India would like basketball to have a pro league, too, but its interests lay in promoting and developing the game in the grassroots first.
Troy Justice, the NBA’s Senior Director, Basketball Operations- International, has spearheaded the League’s efforts in India from the ground up. “The world’s eyes are on India, and the NBA realizes the immense potential of this country, its population and its growing economy,” Justice says. “Although the basketball fraternity is relatively small here, it is definitely passionate about the game.”
They’re building from the grassroots level up mainly via the Mahindra NBA Challenge, a community-based league that has launched across five major cities in India. Through other community programs and increased digital presence, the NBA has now become a bigger name in India than ever before. NBA games are shown live in India nearly every day of the week (but considering the time difference, it still requires a dedicated superfan to wake up at alien hours of the mornings to catch the games) and NBA apparel is starting to pop up between the India cricket shirts and English Premier League football jerseys in sports stores.
Of course, it would be in the NBA’s interest to identify talent from India that can one day have young Indian kids wearing NBA jerseys with an Indian name on the back, much like what the Chinese had with Yao. While India is still several steps away from having an NBA-caliber player, the country made great progress in a different, but parallel direction: A year ago, India’s most famous women’s basketball player, Geethu Anna Jose, was offered a trial with the Los Angeles Sparks, San Antonio Silver Stars and Chicago Sky of the WNBA. The 6-2 Jose is probably the greatest female player in Indian basketball history. Although the 27-year-old couldn’t earn herself a contract with the first attempt, she did manage to earn valuable experience and exposure.
Now, with Jose’s semi-success, the IMG-Reliance deal, interest from the NBA and the potential carried by the young shoulders of Satnam, India’s hoop fans have reasons to be optimistic for the future; especially when until about five years ago, basketball’s only moment of mainstream popularity in the country was a famous one-on-one game played between Bollywood superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in the hit 1998 film, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. India is a passionate country, and once the country’s billion-strong latch on to something—whether it be a Bollywood hit or a cricket star—the passion exalts it to a starry potential.
“Professional coaches are already coming here from different countries, with new, improved ideas,” Natt says. “There is great talent amongst the youth in India, and they have the skills that coaches can’t teach: tenacity and energy on the court. I have no doubt that the game of basketball will improve drastically in the future here.”
Natt’s own energy and his optimism for the future serves as an example for both administrators and players in India to follow, both off and on the court. Eventually, when all the other noises die down—the blaring Indian auto-rickshaws in the New Delhi traffic, the marching brass bands playing Bollywood wedding songs, the cheering cricket crowds and arguments in crowded vegetable markets—the only thing that Kenny Natt, and all others who live, dream and breathe basketball in India want to hear is that sound of the court again. The swishing basketball. The squeaking sneakers.
And in the end, they want to hear all those different languages cheering together for India in the unified language of hoops.
portrait courtesy of Angad B. Sodhi