Morning practice has ended for the 21 elite prospects at the NBA Academy India in Greater Noida, a city in the suburbs of the capital city New Delhi. The 13- to 17-year-old young men—chosen from a competitive evaluation stage that included hundreds of players from six cities around the country—now pair up for a few minutes to stretch, cooling down after a tiring session.
There are no more sounds of basketballs bouncing on the wood court, no rims clanging, no instructions from the coaches, and no squeaking from the soles of the royal blue Nike KD 9s that the 21 young players have laced up over their feet.
It’s a state of peace rarely found in the culture that created Yoga in its never-ending quest for tranquility. India is expected to overtake China as the world’s largest population in a few years, and every hectic moment in the country is a full-court press of pressure, from competing for the highest grades in the cutthroat national examination systems, jostling for space in Mumbai local trains, to queuing up in desperate masses outside ATMs when the currency was de-monetized. We Indians are in a constant state of squeezing in together and fighting to make our space.
Which is why the first class of recruits into the Academy—launched in May as the NBA’s biggest investment in India yet—enjoy the luxury of being free from the tougher distractions of life. They are in a world of their own, a secluded lagoon of basketball, where international coaches are training India’s best young prospects to make the next big jump and inspire a nation of young Indians to be devoted to the sport.
Despite a population of over one billion, not a single Indian has played in an NBA game. In 2015, the Mavs made 7-2 big man Satnam Singh the first Indian to be drafted into the NBA, but he has since only played for the Texas Legends, the organization’s G League affiliate. Last year, Palpreet Singh Brar was drafted by the G League’s Long Island Nets but never made the roster. India has a long yet largely unsuccessful basketball history, but there is potential in the grassroots to unearth a player capable of participating in NBA basketball.
Robin Banerjee, a 6-3 14-year-old, is one of those young players with hoop dreams. Banerjee’s father owns a small printing business in Patna, Bihar, a poor state that has rarely produced basketball talent in the country. Banerjee, however, had passion and aptitude for the sport early in his life. At 12, he left Patna to attend a specialized coaching center in Varanasi, another small town in a neighboring state. Last year, he heard about the ACG NBA Jump program that scouted the best prospects for the Academy, so he traveled about 430 miles southeast all alone on a train to take part in the event in Kolkata. He and two others were chosen from among over 600 aspiring ballers. A few months later, he qualified as one of the final 21 prospects. [As of presstime, the NBA Academy was planning to invite three more prospects for a total of 24, but they hadn’t been selected yet.—Ed.]
The Academy’s location at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Center in Greater Noida is secluded from “real” India. Here, Banerjee and the other young prospects play, live in large dormitory-style rooms, eat their meals, and have access to exclusive club gym and swimming facilities. Twice a day, Banerjee takes part in training with coaches from Spain, Belgium, the United States and India.
“We practice all the time,” Banerjee says, “and when we’re done, there is nothing else to do but more basketball. There is a TV in our room where we watched the playoffs together.”
To spread the game in the grassroots, the NBA has been making inroads in India for several years. Their most concentrated efforts have come through the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA program, a strategy that has been introducing basketball curriculum to schools since 2013 and has reached over six million kids and five thousand coaches.
“No development programs can work on their own—there has to be an entire ecosystem,” says Yannick Colaco, the Managing Director of NBA India. “We had to start at the base of the pyramid, the bottom. To get kids to have fun playing basketball.”
Once the game is more ingrained in the culture, the Academy hopes to find the diamonds in the rough. India’s tussle against a large, competitive population is also the country’s undeniable advantage.
The NBA’s Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum was in India for the launch of the Academy. Tatum was previously part of Indian basketball history when he called out Singh’s name with the 52nd pick for the Mavericks at the 2015 NBA Draft. Now, he is hopeful that a successor can rise from the Academy.
“There will be a lot of divergent pathways,” Tatum told us in an interview from Mumbai on the day before the Academy’s launch. “Some kids will play at DI colleges in the US. Some will play in the G League. Some in other leagues around the world. We’re hopeful that in the next five to 10 years or so that we’ll see an NBA talent coming through.”
Potential NBA talent in India has been squandered too often. Skilled players have either been scouted too late or not provided the correct infrastructure to raise their games to be more competitive at the international level. The most poignant case is of Amritpal Singh, a powerful, 6-10 center. Amritpal is the son of a farmer, born in the tiny Punjabi farming village of Fattuwal. He didn’t know what a basketball was until he was 18 years old. By 22, he was the captain of the Indian national team, leading the group to surprising victories over China. The now-26-year-old has also played professionally in Japan and India.
Amritpal’s story can be seen as encouraging. But from another perspective, Amritpal’s case is a sobering reminder that a great number of young players weren’t getting the guidance and training at an early age to make the most of their potential.
With the Academy, there is now some hope the next generation of Amritpals can be scouted and taught the game earlier. Colaco says the Academy hopes to employ a holistic, 360-degree approach to player development with focuses on education, leadership, character development and life skills. The NBA will provide education for those selected at the public school in Jaypee Greens. The Academy has already hired a technical director to customize a future woman’s program.
There are similar NBA Academies in China (in Hangzhou, Jinan and Urumqi) and in Senegal (in Thies). India is a unique culture, however, and Tatum understands both the challenges and the opportunities that this program presents for the League’s ambitions.
“I think the opportunity is that in a short amount of time, there are kids here who have been identified through a national scouting network,” Tatum says. “What’s so positive is the level of talent we’re seeing from young kids in a market where basketball infrastructure hasn’t been great. It is a huge opportunity that we’re excited about.”
For now, the millions of young players who are beginning a relationship with the sport can have a realistic goal in mind, an aim to be among the chosen few at the NBA Academy India, to find breathing space for themselves from the cacophony of the country with the calm of basketball. For recruits at the Academy, like Banerjee, the promise is now of a brighter future beyond their wildest dreams, of earning a scholarship in a college abroad, of playing in a foreign professional league, and, of course, in the holy grail of hoops.
It’s simple, really, as the young Banerjee says: “I want to play in the NBA.”
Karan Madhok is a SLAM contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Hoopistani.
Photos via Basketball Federation of India and NBA Academy India.