Bigger Than Basketball: The Significance of the NBA India Games 🇮🇳

It truly hit me when I saw the promo on a national TV channel. A digitally altered Mumbai. Supersized balloon floats of Myles Turner and Harrison Barnes hovered over the city’s iconic skyline. Young people gathered on the streets to watch. Kids jostled for space between the kaali-peeli—black and yellow—local taxis for a view. A massive Kings flag unfurled over the excited crowds, and a Pacers banner flew overhead. A cricket player stopped in his tracks to watch, in awe. 

I watched in awe, too. 

A day later, at a family function, my Maama—uncle—asked me, for the first time, about work. 

“So, the NBA is coming here in a big way, aren’t they?”

I smiled. In India, the ‘NBA’ and ‘basketball’ are buzzwords for the youth. People of my uncle’s generation would never “get it,” we thought. The game was too niche, the League was too far away from everyday Indian concerns for any of them to bother. There were a thousand other distractions in mainstream Indian culture. 

But even he had heard about it. The Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers were coming to Mumbai for the first ever NBA India Games in early October. A mere blimp on the NBA’s calendar, a preseason exhibition between two non-contenders. But for India, a giant leap in its basketball history. The jump-ball start to a new era. 

As an Indian child in the ’90s, I knew of the NBA’s existence only in the peripheries. I’d heard of Michael and Magic. I knew that the “Chicago Bulls” meant something good. I’d seen Space Jam a half dozen times. 

But back then, I didn’t quite understand the value of the world’s greatest basketball league. No, back then, my Lord Almighty of Sports wasn’t Michael Jordan, but an un-athletic 5-5 Indian cricket player with the voice of someone who had been skipped over by puberty: Sachin Tendulkar. Like every good Indian boy, Cricket was my Bible and Tendulkar was my God. The NBA was too far away, across oceans, across continents, a sport that spoke in a different accent from the post-colonial cricket commentators, a game that moved in a faster pace than I had ever been accustomed to. 

Around middle school, however, that began to change. Space Jam helped, of course. So did the friends who brought home NBA trading cards and copies of SLAM Magazine from abroad. My school in the Indian Himalayas was obsessed with basketball, and, in every moment of our free time, that’s all we did: stand around a rim shooting baskets, talking shit. I overheard names like Jordan and Malone, and Ewing and Shaq and Kobe. I began to see more basketball games on TV in India: broadcasted live only a few times a week, and at the ungodly early morning hour, awake only with the chokidaars and the roosters. 

In 1999, the new hobby became an addiction. I followed the playoffs closely, especially because of this underdog eighth seeded team in the East—the New York Knicks—that overcame all odds and beat all favorites to make it to the NBA Finals. Sure, they got whooped by the Spurs and the duo of Duncan and Robinson once they got there, but I was already in love. Houston, Sprewell, Camby, and SLAM’s first-ever cover-star LJ had become my favorite team. 

Later, out on the courts, my friends and I would re-enact these Finals. I chose to be on the Knicks, of course, and worked day and night on my baseline turnaround fade-aways, hoping to emulate Allan Houston’s devastating midrange shots. 

Fast forward the next two decades, and my NBA fandom went in the opposite direction of the Knicks’ credibility. From over thirteen thousand kilometres away, I watched the Spurs become an annual threat, the Lakers become a dynasty, the Suns change the pace and size of the game, LeBron change everything, Kobe make 81, Iverson step over Lue, the Heatles, the Warriors, and a lot of Knicks losing seasons. At least we had Linsanity. 

For most of this time, the NBA and its biggest stars felt as alien to me as the Monstars. They were from a different world, a different time-zone, stars in the sky so dominant and charismatic that they felt almost unreal, as if they were fictional characters living in a world I could never access. They might as well have been the Avengers. Some definitely had superpowers. 

Over the years, the NBA superheroes began to feel a little more mortal. I visited the USA, attended my first game (Knicks at the Garden, of course), and later, interacted with and interviewed many stars professionally. But despite the cynicism that comes with age over most of the world’s magic, the NBA remained something pure and special. Something shudh, as we would say in Hindi. Something that, back home to us in India, was still a beautiful galaxy far, far away. 

Once the NBA opened its first office in India (Mumbai) in 2011, the pace of the game’s growth here took a mid-2000s-Suns-esque boost. NBA and WNBA players of the past and present visited multiple times a year, peaking with Kevin Durant dropping by in 2017, freshly minted with his first title and Finals MVP. 

Meanwhile, the stream had flown the other way, too, and some of India infiltrated the NBA. Most prominently, Vivek Ranadive became the first Indian-born person to become a majority owner of the NBA when he bought the Sacramento Kings. Immediately, Ranadive began to share his vision of one day taking the Kings back to his birth-city—Mumbai—for an exhibition game. 

For those of us watching and covering the sport from back here, this idea barely seemed feasible. India didn’t have the infrastructure or the market ready for an NBA game—even a mere preseason matchup. Ranadive’s vision, I had thought, was stuff of science-fiction. 

And then, the stars came within reach. 

Early in the 2018-19 season, the NBA officially made the surreal announcement: The first-ever NBA India Games would be held in Mumbai on October 4-5, 2019 between the Kings and the Pacers. One team, owned by an Indian-American. The other, interested in reaching out to the Indian market.

The news was a pataakha for us Indian NBA fans, blowing our minds like fireworks. The long-foretold day was near. 

The NBA had, of course, been holding preseason (and some regular season) games around the world for years, all over Europe, South and Central America, Asia, and the special Africa Games. In Asia alone, the League had become a preseason staple in the massive China market, as well as in Japan, Philippines, and more. 

The League’s landing in India had seemed both inevitable and impossible—before it became a reality. 

Mumbai—formerly Bombay—is the perfect choice to host the event. It is the country’s financial capital. But it is also seeped in local hoops history, featuring some of the country’s most iconic courts, tournaments and legends of the game. It’s India’s largest city, densely traffic-jammed with the country’s diverse population, and the home of Bollywood, readymade for all the drama and action that the NBA promises to present. 

Basketball existed before the NBA, and India was a colonised country and collection of states hundreds of years prior to that. But coincidence married these two histories together. The Basketball Association of America (BAA) was founded as the BAA in June 1946, and its first season was held from November 1946 to April 1947. In August 1947, India won its independence from British rule. 

Two years later, the BAA and National Basketball League (NBL) merged to form what is known as today’s NBA. During the course of the first ‘proper’ NBA season in early 1950, India’s constitution went into effect, officially forming the Republic. This was also the year that India’s own governing body—the Basketball Federation of India (BFI)—was born, and independent India’s first basketball team, captained by the late Ranbir Chopra, participated in the 1951 Asian Games. 

But ever since, India has merely remained a reserve on the world’s basketball roster, barely able to register a blimp in hoops history. While the NBA eventually became the most popular and powerful basketball league in the world, India had to settle for fragments and scratches of success. We finished fourth in the FIBA Asia Championship once, in the 70s. In 1980, our men’s team took part in the Moscow Olympics, only because the USA and a number of its allies pulled out of participating. A few of our players got to play in low-tier pro leagues around the world. In 2014, we defeated China on their home soil at the FIBA Asia Cup. 

Yet, India remained a potential pot of gold for the NBA, with its rising youth population and the prevalence of basketball around the country, albeit as a much smaller sport compared to cricket and others. The NBA continued to increase its India presence, and we had our big moment of cheer when Satnam Singh became the first Indian to be drafted—by the Dallas Mavericks—in 2015. The 7-footer never played in the NBA itself, but we felt that it was the beginning of something big. 

Soon, the NBA launched an elite NBA India Academy to hone more talented prospects and eventually take the next big leap after Satnam. 

The announcement of the NBA India Games brought the two varying histories into confluence. A couple of days after I saw that TV commercial and spoke to my uncle, NBA-India relations took another unexpected step. At a reception event for India’s Prime Minster Narendra Modi in Houston, US President Donald Trump jokingly suggested in front of the thousands gathered that he could show up to Mumbai for the historic preseason games. A couple of world leaders had used the NBA’s moment to inflate US-India relations—and suddenly, everyone from my local samosa-wallah to my other uncles and aunties understood that this “NBA” thing—whatever it was—was a pretty big deal. 

And then, there’s the matter of the games themselves. Remember, that after all this shor-sharabaand hoopla, this is a mere preseason contest. In true sporting terms, it counts for nothing. In the absence of the injured Victor Oladipo, there will be no All-Stars on the floor. In a country where casual fans only know names like LeBron, Curry, Durant and are learning to pronounce Antetokounmpo, there is little global name-recognition that the Pacers or the Kings can offer.

Nevertheless, both these teams are going to be stacked with exciting, young players, and even the easy-preseason flow will offer a brand of basketball far higher than ever witnessed in India. Fresh out of the FIBA World Cup experience, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica, Myles Turner, Harrison Barnes, Domantas Sabonis, and Isaiah Pineiro will all likely feature at the games. Barnes is already familiar, having spent a week in India earlier in the summer to promote the upcoming contests. Bogdanovic, in particular, was one of the breakout stars of the FIBA WC, and will hopefully continue his momentum in Mumbai. 

Additionally, several other enticing players from both teams like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles, Malcolm Brogdon, TJ Warren, and more will potentially suit up in the two matchups. The Kings’ young core in particular is being slated for a major leap, and the games in Mumbai could be their first chance of stating their intent for the upcoming season. 

Expectations will be high for these games from the in-arena crowd at the NSCI Dome in Mumbai, as well as all those around the country who will watch the games on live TV; but we’ll have to remember that most preseason games are duds, rarely producing moments of magic or note, and rarely showcasing a team’s true form or shape before the start of the regular season. 

But even these “meaningless” exhibitions will mean a lot to the players who participate. They’ll get to be a part of history, and stake their flag in unchartered NBA grounds. Those Indians unaware of the NBA—my uncle-types—will hear about Fox and Turner long before James and Curry. Who knows, maybe impressionable young minds—like my friends and I—will re-enact Pacers and Kings like we did with the Spurs and Knicks twenty years ago. 

Some of the most intriguing action will take place on the sidelines and off-court. Being in the heart of the Bollywood film industry, the game is sure to be star-studded with some of the biggest Indian celebrities. Indian athletes, including national basketball players, coaches and more will be in attendance, too. Every bigwig industrialist or sponsor present will co-opt this moment for their own. And true fans are coming from all over the country to have this unlikely dream come true. 

The players and teams are going to participate in off-court charity and fan interaction events around the city. The league’s commissioner, a handful of NBA legends, and international media will gather. And Mumbai’s returning native son—Kings owner Ranadive—will get to shine in the spotlight of helping make this possible. 

It’s pretty surreal for me, personally, to see how far things have come since my childhood. NBA fandom in India had felt like a secret society, a code with which only those ‘in the know’ communicated. Living in smaller cities in India isolated me even further. Behind the hazy of the night sky, the stars were barely visible. 

But the haze has cleared away now, and the entire galaxy is shining brightly above us. Although basketball remains a smaller sport in relative terms, the NBA’s popularity is already something that a younger me could’ve never anticipated. 

Of course, the league still has a long way to go to catch up with other sporting brands, like Cricket’s IPL or even foreign football/soccer leagues like the EPL or La Liga. The media in India often talks about waiting for our own “Yao Ming Moment,” for the day that an Indian player makes an impact in the NBA, and thus, propels the market back home. India, of course, still doesn’t have its own full-time pro basketball league and our national team still isn’t making any waves in the global game. 

And yet, with the upcoming NBA India Games, we’ve taken a historic step forward. If it’s just a preseason game, if it doesn’t really matter, then it’s just about to become the most meaningful meaningless game ever. 

Karan Madhok is a SLAM contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Hoopistani.

Photos via Getty.