By Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY
Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard knows how to combine business and pleasure.
The personal nature of Howard's trip to India starting Tuesday? "I've always wanted to go because I'm in love with tigers," he says.
The business side? To help the NBA spur growth of basketball in a nation with an estimated population of 1.1 billion, second in the world to China.
"The biggest thing for me is sharing what I know," Howard says. "I'd say I'm pretty good at motivating and helping players get to another level."
Howard will conduct clinics, help open NBA stores and train with India's men's national team.
And, of course, see tigers.
The NBA's goal is to make basketball the second-most popular sport in India behind cricket. Encouraging signs point to that possibility, especially with the growth of India's middle class and an economy not hit hard by recession.
"It's a very big priority for the NBA," said Heidi Ueberroth, president of NBA International. "It is a long-term view, but we do expect rapid growth."
The National Council of Applied Economic Research reports India's high-income households will surpass the number of low-income households this year for the first time, with 62% considered middle class.
"Every single metric you look (at), people are looking for more entertainment options and sporting options," Ueberroth said.
Making the most of this, she said, begins with infrastructure and grass-roots efforts — providing access to courts and creating chances to play organized ball.
The NBA partnered with Mahindra, one of India's leading international businesses, to create the Mahindra NBA Challenge, a rec league for teens and adults in Mumbai, Bangalore and Ludhiana. More than 3,500 participated.
"We believe that in a country of India's size, diversity, and population, there is clearly room more than one mass popular sport," Mahindra executive vice president of corporate strategy Ruzbeh Irani said. "Basketball is the kind of sports that can flourish in communities, and if we can provide the right platform for it to flourish, there will be interest.?
The NBA's interest in India follows its efforts to popularize basketball in China. The league first played an exhibition game in China in 1979. Today, basketball and the NBA are wildly popular there.
NBA merchandise is available in 30,000 stores in China and retail sales grew by 100% in the past year, according to the league. Helping that along has been Yao Ming's presence in the NBA.
Others have benefited in China. The Los Angeles Clippers' Baron Davis and the Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett have endorsement deals with two of China's leading athletic apparel companies.
The NBA is not alone in its interest in India's basketball market. IMG Academy recently held a clinic in India and selected eight teens — four boys, four girls — to spend at least one academic year at the sports management company's property in Bradenton, Fla. Included is Satnam Singh, a 15-year-old 7-footer who plays for India's national junior team.
"They were more advanced than I thought they would be. That's not a slight. That's a compliment," said IMG's director of basketball. "Out of these eight, there's a chance a good percentage are going to be scholarship players."
In Toronto, 7-4 Sim Bhullar, 17, and 7-2 Tanveer Bhullar, 15, the sons of parents born in India, are drawing interest from Division I schools in the USA.
"The big question is: Will there be a player from India one day in the NBA?" Ueberroth said. "I always say it's not a matter of if, but when."