Wanted: 1.2 Billion Basketball Fans
The man in the purple turban and the boy in the black Under Armour workout shirt lock eyes the moment the Skype connection crackles to life. The man wipes away tears with his handkerchief before they reach his stringy white beard. More than 8,000 miles away, his son plays the role of global teenager, ducking questions about schoolwork with a nervous smile.
The boy is a 7'1½", 300-pound basketball prodigy with size 20 sneakers. He smiles into a Webcam at a $70,000-per-year sports academy in Florida. The man gathers his wife and two other children around a crude monitor at their three-acre wheat farm in northern India, half a world away.
The Bollywood ending for the journey of Satnam Singh Bhamara will come if he's the first player from India to reach the NBA, energizing and spreading the game in his homeland the way Yao Ming did in China a decade ago. In the meantime, the only thing more daunting than the distance between his new world and his old one is how much further he's expected to go.
He has the physical tools-he casually picks up three apples with one hand, and his handshake engulfs your forearm-and strong fundamentals. He can shoot with both hands, he never brings the ball below his waist after a rebound, and he can reliably hit free throws. Dan Barto, one of the basketball workout specialists at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Satnam goes to school and trains, says Satnam should be considered among the top 15 high school sophomores in the U.S. Former Sacramento Kings coach Kenny Natt, who has worked extensively with Satnam at IMG, says that barring injury, he will "absolutely" make it to the NBA.
That would represent a quantum leap for basketball in India, where only five million of the country's 1.2 billion people play the sport. In the FIBA international rankings, India is No. 58. Members of the national team sometimes apply bug spray before indoor practices, and until recently they dodged pigeon droppings between dribbles at the team's facility.
Satnam spent his first few years living in a mud hut, and the modest brick house in which his family lives today is four miles from the nearest paved road. His father, Balbir, attended school through only the fifth grade and met his wife through an arranged marriage. Balbir is also more than seven feet tall, but basketball wasn't an option for him because he had to work on the farm. He's a former head of Ballo Ke, a village of 800 in the Punjab, where he farms wheat, sells buffalo milk and grinds flour at his in-home mill. "We have faced hard times," says Balbir. "The things I couldn't do in my life, I want Satnam to do."
Satnam didn't play basketball until age nine, when he was already 5'9" and a family friend said that someone of his size should try the sport. Soon afterward he was awarded a scholarship at India's premier basketball academy, in Ludhiana, an industrial city 60 miles from home. His family traveled by bus to visit him there. Back home Balbir drilled a makeshift goal-with no backboard-onto the side of the house. The rim droops on one side from too much righthanded dunking. There are stacks of cow chips within three-point range, and buffalo roam close enough to set high screens.
Balbir's ambitions for his son are shared in the NBA's offices on Fifth Avenue in New York City, where executives envision Satnam becoming an Indian icon and an international basketball ambassador. The NBA and IMG are eager to exploit India's dizzying demographics. "It's the largest untapped basketball market in the world," says Bobby Sharma, IMG's senior vice president for global basketball. "If Satnam's potential gets him to the NBA, that'll be good for a lot of people-especially Satnam."
The IMG Academy, where Satnam is on a scholarship paid for by IMG and its Indian partner, Reliance Industries, says Satnam turned 17 in December. Indian basketball officials also claim he's 17. But his father and other relatives say he's 18, and when pressed about his age, some Basketball Federation of India (BFI) officials stammer and avert their eyes.
Satnam arrived in the U.S. nearly three years ago not speaking a word of English. (His native language is Punjabi.) He devours cheese pizza, roots for Duke's basketball team and loves going to Wal-Mart. He conducted half of a recent interview without help from an interpreter and says his goal is to be proficient enough in English to go to college and play Division I hoops. That's as big as his vision is at the moment. "What amazed me about Satnam is that he doesn't realize he's carrying the entire country of India on his back," says Natt, who coached the Indian national team last year before moving to IMG.
More daunting than the distance between his new world and the old is how much further he's expected to go.
Injury is the biggest threat to Satnam's career, as it is with all young big men. Satnam's body is so cumbersome that a huge part of his development at IMG has been learning the proper way to run. He's progressed plenty, but the IMG coaches have limited his schedule to keep him sound.
As for his future international role, there's a consensus at IMG and back in India that he's grounded enough to handle it. "From doing the predraft stuff, you can kind of tell who chose the game and who got chosen by the game," says Barto. "He really, truly loves the game." While Satnam doesn't project to be more than an end-of-the-rotation NBA banger-think of a less athletic Omer Asik-his upside back home is enormous. He's already a fixture on the Indian national team. "Even after I retire," he says, "I want to make sure there's a young generation that continues the popularity of basketball in India."
And therein lies the tricky challenge for Satnam Singh Bhamara. Can he make it big in basketball in the U.S.? If not, can his star-obsessed country embrace the game without a Bollywood-level leading man? Basketball is still light years from threatening cricket, soccer and field hockey in popularity in India. Can the oversized teen on his father's little computer screen become Indian basketball's big ticket?
A trip through India assaults the senses. The traffic is crippling and deafening, from the cities to the villages. Lanes are mere suggestions, and kids without helmets frequently ride on the backs of motorcycles with a parent. Signs on the rear of trucks encourage the cacophony, urging passing cars to BLOW HORN. Cars, motorcycles and motorized rickshaws jostle for position in tune with the beeps, India's insistent sound track.
The modern Indian economy works the same way: in bursts and stops. Much like driving, investing in India is not for the faint of heart. But the demographics are so tantalizing that international entrepreneurs can't resist trying to exploit them. Almost half of India's population is under the age of 24, compared with one third in the U.S. "When you have this many people coming of age at the same time in any one country," says IMG's Sharma, "it's an entire cultural shift that's unavoidable."
India projects to have 12% of the world's college graduates by 2020, and by '27 the country's middle class should be double the current population of the U.S. (313 million). By '15 more than 80% of Indians will have cellphones, and 20% will be on the Internet. "I just see it as unlimited in terms of its potential," says NBA commissioner David Stern, who predicted during a visit to the subcontinent in April that an Indian will play in the NBA within five years.
Stern says, only half in jest, that he's pressuring his successor, Adam Silver, and NBA International president Heidi Ueberroth to grow the game faster in India than in other emerging markets. Nike, Adidas and Coca-Cola, among others, have signed up as the league's marketing partners on the subcontinent. India is "a top priority," Ueberroth says.
The proliferation of digital platforms on which to follow the NBA-Facebook, smartphones, games streamed on the Internet-puts the league at everyone's fingertips. While three NBA games are televised every week in India on the channel Sony SIX, league executives believe that young Indians will use the latest technology to consume the sport, a hip alternative to cricket and soccer that should grow as access to it increases. It's already very popular in high schools, particularly in the cities. "Cricket was a colonial sport," Silver says, referring to the era of British rule. "It's progressive to become a basketball fan."
Stern stares out the window of the NBA's Manhattan offices and expounds on the fertile Indian market. In 1988 he traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia, to watch the Atlanta Hawks play the Soviet national team. The crowd went crazy for pint-sized Atlanta guard Spud Webb. "I'm scratching my head and saying, I don't get it: How do they even know who he is?" Stern says. "Do they like small people here?" It turns out that pirated copies of Turkish TV reruns of the 1986 NBA All-Star dunk contest, won by Webb, had made their way onto Tbilisi television, which taught Stern a lesson in international marketing. "The conditions in India are generations ahead of that," Stern says. "It doesn't depend ultimately on whether Satnam Singh is the next Yao Ming"-he pauses and smiles-"although that would be nice."
Within the last decade, meanwhile, two larger-than-life billionaires recognized that the new India values its sporting identity and joined together to exploit it. One of these magnates dated Princess Diana, Elizabeth Hurley and Padma Lakshmi. The other has a 27-story Mumbai house with nine elevators and garage space for 168 cars. The alliance between Teddy Forstmann, the late playboy and CEO of IMG, and Mukesh Ambani, CEO of Reliance Industries and the wealthiest man in India (net worth: more than $20 billion), was strengthened through the subcontinent's first successful pro sports circuit: cricket's Indian Premier League, in which they were both driving forces.
The IPL sizzled from the moment it was launched in 2008-not surprisingly, since it jazzed up cricket. Matches that had taken a full day or even five days were squeezed into the length of a baseball game. The IPL pumped in music, added cheerleaders and dotted the stands with celebrities. Bollywood's presence and the raucous after-parties put the IPL on the gossip pages and in pop culture. Stern, who knows the sports-entertainment formula well, approvingly enunciates every syllable of "accoutrements" as he discusses the IPL. (A key to the NBA's rise in China, besides Yao, has been a local version of NBA Inside Stuff, hosted by a star of MTV Asia.)
The IPL showed that a franchise-based model can work in Indian professional sports. Within the first three seasons the league's franchise values shot from an average of $90 million to nearly $350 million-amid an economic downturn. Since then the market has cooled, but the IPL still boasts a billion-dollar television deal on Sony SIX. The league's success "builds from young India," says Man Jit Singh, Sony's CEO for multiscreen media. "[Young people] don't have time for [matches that last] five days; they don't have one day."
Can a professional basketball league in India achieve quick success on a smaller scale? Cricket is the country's religion, soccer its passion and men's field hockey its national sport. In 2010 the IMG-Reliance partnership purchased the marketing and broadcast rights to domestic basketball in the country for 30 years from the BFI. (The partnership has a similar 15-year deal for soccer with the All India Football Federation.) The projected basketball league is scheduled to debut within the next two years and promises to be even more important to the sport's future in India than the development of Satnam Singh.
"Just because we have one person in IMG who happens to be big, that's not going to mobilize what really needs to happen," says Sony's Singh, referring to Satnam. "We're going to have to build it from the ground up. It's not an overnight thing."
The NBA and IMG-Reliance will reap the benefits of each other's success, and reports have surfaced of a possible partnership between the two forces. There's also a logical packaging of NBA games on Sony SIX with games from the new Indian league. For now, though, full investment of the NBA in a foreign pro league remains tricky. "They have a multibillion-dollar brand to protect," says Sharma, who worked at the NBA for nine years. "That doesn't lend itself toward risk-taking, and doing business internationally in emerging markets by definition is risk-taking."
"It doesn't depend ultimately on whether Satnam Singh is the next Yao Ming," Stern says, "although that would be nice."
When Himamshu Dabir first visited the BFI's offices in New Delhi in January 2012, he went to the bathroom and found a pigeon on the toilet seat. That was a critical indicator for the future of basketball on the subcontinent: Even the simplest tasks can be complicated.
So imagine attempting to establish a system for identifying talented young basketball players in a country of 1.2 billion people, 70% of whom live outside the cities. Dabir, 28, grew up near Syracuse, N.Y., and interned with the NBA Coaches Association while attending the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City. Nothing there prepared him for trying to create an intricate sports infrastructure in a country in which power outages are common and hundreds of millions of people live on less than $2 a day. This overwhelming job also came with an underwhelming salary: $7,000 per year.
"For us to take the next giant step, we have to plug in the holes of the talent gap," Dabir says. "Players who should be in the system are falling through the cracks. It's going to take a few years."
Basketball has a tortured history in India, which has qualified for the Olympics only once, at the boycott-depleted 1980 Games, where the national squad finished last out of 12 teams. Since then things haven't improved much; India finished 14th out of 16 teams at the 2011 FIBA Asia Championships. Dabir, who has since left the BFI, estimates that a realistic target for India to qualify for the Olympics-which requires being one of the top four teams in Asia-is 2020 or '24, regardless of how much Satnam blossoms.
Consider that the combined population of the three nations immediately ahead of India in FIBA's rankings-Paraguay, Cape Verde and the U.S. Virgin Islands-is less than half that of Mumbai (19.7 million). India's athletic underachievement isn't limited to basketball; the country failed to win a single gold medal at the London Olympics and has only nine in its history, eight of them in field hockey.
"If they start a professional league here, that would be a very good thing," says national team veteran Vishesh Bhriguvanshi. "If we get a chance to play against better players from the outside, we can improve." The influx of money from IMG offers promise; it allowed the team to hire Natt in November 2011. Former Duke assistant Pete Gaudet then came over to coach the women's team, which is ranked No. 40 in the world.
The coaches' problems began with the baskets at the national teams' practice facility, which weren't regulation height. "It didn't matter to them [that they were] shooting on eight-foot baskets," Natt says. He also noted the players' lack of strength; only a few days before Natt was hired, a strength coach-Zak Penwell, a former UConn football walk-on-had been hired through the combined efforts of IMG, the NBA and the BFI.
Penwell eventually designed and built a resplendent basketball-specific training center, which he says is the first of its kind in India. (Ninety percent of the equipment, including power racks for athletes more than 7 feet tall, was custom-made or imported from the U.S., U.K. and Australia.) But Penwell's best work came before that, outside the weight room. One quarter to one third of the players initially couldn't practice because they were sick, so Penwell held sessions on what he calls "basic germ theory." He taught players the importance of washing their hands with soap. "My biggest victory of the first year," Penwell says, "was getting guys on the court."
The conditions at the national team's indoor practice gym, near Gandhi Stadium in New Delhi, made frequent handwashing essential. There were so many pigeons under the roof that Natt was frequently hit in the head with bird droppings. "Don't look up with your mouth open," he says.
"Pigeons owned the building," says Gaudet, and the coaches were unable to find cleaning crews to adequately address the mess. Scott Flemming, who succeeded Natt as Indian national coach in November 2012, says pigeon poop is no longer a problem. But he says the facility was so dirty when he arrived that he gave the janitors mopping lessons.
In monsoon season the players also needed to apply bug spray before practices. Sometimes it didn't matter; at times the cloud of insects was so thick, Natt says, that he had to cancel practice. "The players were running down the court," he says, "and they couldn't see."
Neither Natt nor Gaudet fulfilled his entire two-year commitment, for reasons ranging from reluctance to bring their families over to frustrations with seemingly simple but intractable problems such as keeping the court floor clean. (Natt also got a serious case of Delhi Belly and lost more than 40 pounds.)
Before coming to India, Flemming was the basketball coach and athletic director at Mount Vernon (Ohio) Nazarene University, an NAIA Division II school where he won 397 games, and an assistant for the Texas Legends of the NBA D-League. He says he's committed to staying the full two years in India and appreciates how much Natt did to make his job easier. When SI visited an Indian team practice recently, the pigeons had been cleared out, but the practice floor was still warped and had more dead spots than the old Boston Garden. Duct tape holds the hardwood together in some places, and Penwell walks the floor before every practice to make sure nothing is jutting out.
The first step for the new coach? A hard reset on the players' mentality. During his college coaching days Flemming ran a drill in which he had players knock him down as he took a charge. Flemming often picked a player pining for playing time who would take out his frustrations in the drill. With the Indian team, Flemming doubts he can run the drill. Players show such extreme respect for coaches that they never question his demands, but they don't yet have toughness inculcated into them. "I'm not sure I could find any of the Indian players who would be willing to run me over," he says.
As for the level of play, the Indian team would struggle in the middling America East Conference, against teams such as Maine, Hartford and Vermont. In Delhi, Flemming found a mix of Division I-caliber players who need constant goading to play hard and be aggressive at all times. "I feel like I'm in Hoosiers, giving them a speech every day," says Flemming. "What a lot of these guys are missing is confidence."
As for its level of play, the national team would struggle in the America East Conference.
What's also missing for the future of Indian basketball are incentives to become a top performer. Of the 20 players at a recent national team camp, none had become rich playing the game. They are a cross-section of India, a mix of Hindus, Christians and Sikhs who hail from all over the country, from the Pakistan border in the north to the tech hub of Bangalore in the south. All three married players had had arranged marriages.
Bhriguvanshi, India's captain last year, is paid to play for the Oil and Natural Gas Company (ONGC) team, which competes against other corporate squads across India. He makes between 30,000 rupees (about $554) and 35,000 (about $647) a month, well above the average national salary. The BFI also pays an honorarium of 30,000 rupees to each player selected for the national coaching camp and another 30,000 upon selection to play at FIBA international and other invitational events.
"We don't have any player who has an aircraft," says Roopam Sharma, CEO of the BFI. "Maybe the cricket stars have big bungalows or lots of money and big cars. [Basketball players] lead a very mediocre life and are not the idols the kids look up to."
Twenty-seven-year-old Srinivas Naik, a mid-level national team player, works and plays for Vijaya Bank and earns between 20,000 rupees ($370) and 25,000 ($462) a month. Unlike Bhriguvanshi, who doesn't have any work duties, Naik has to put in nearly a full day at the bank branch in Bangalore every day. He trains early in the morning, and his big perk is leaving work at 3 p.m. for afternoon practice. He plays "just for the love of the game," he says.
Few fans attend the games between the big company teams, says Rikin Pethani, 22, a national team member who works and plays for India Overseas Bank. "We walk the streets like normal people," Pethani says. The crowds typically consist of friends and family members. "People don't know what basketball is," he adds. "They think it's a waste of time."
When the hoops evangelist exited the train in Ludhiana three years ago, the basketball academy team was lined up, tallest to shortest, awaiting his arrival. The tallest, of course, was young Satnam Singh, who in his early teens had already sprouted to 6'9".
Troy Justice, 46, has been in India spreading the basketball gospel for the NBA since February 2010. He rides to work every day in a motorized rickshaw and has traversed India enough to see elephants cause a traffic jam and hear a nine-year-old boy in the slums of Mumbai tell him that he learned basketball from a VHS copy of Come Fly with Me. "Michael Jordan," Justice says with a laugh, "is the most popular player in India."
The difference between the NBA's spread in China, where it has thrived post-Yao Ming, and in India lies in the latter's lack of basketball grass roots. When the NBA sent Rob Levine to China in 1990, he found hoops everywhere from villages to urban centers. That's not the case in India. As awed as Justice was by Satnam's size and skill when they met, he most remembers Satnam's tattered sneakers. Their soles flapped with every step. By the time Satnam made it to the tryout that landed him a scholarship at IMG, Justice had special-ordered a pair of size 18 Nikes.
"It's very rare that you get the opportunity to be in on the ground floor of something that's going to be historic," says Justice. History will be made, Justice believes, through the tricky process of nurturing young talent and educating coaches. The Ludhiana players have all trained under Dr. Sankaran Subramanian, 75, the wise sage of Indian basketball coaches. Their facility is better maintained than the national team's, although when SI visited it in February, the chill in the gym created a plume of condensation with every exhalation.
Subramanian speaks five languages, received his doctorate in sports psychology in Germany and taught and coached for decades at the National Institute of Sports in the Punjab. He's also coached around the world, and he constantly studies his stacks of old UCLA and North Carolina game tapes. For all his accomplishments, though, Subramanian may someday be most remembered for his deft handling of Satnam's big body by not overworking him when he arrived in Ludhiana at age 10. "His bones are very heavy," Subramanian says from under a Yankees baseball cap. "We could not do too much." Instead Subramanian drilled the boy in fundamentals.
Some of India's most talented young players are still learning under Subramanian, who, as the only coach at the partially government-funded academy, jokes that he's also the "warden, gatekeeper and clerk." He has plenty of talent to track. Sixteen-year-old 7-footer Akashdeep Hazra came to train with Subramanian after his family saw an article in a newspaper saying the doctor was looking for tall players. Palpreet Singh Brar, a skilled 6'10" center who expects to be a national team fixture, was the third-leading scorer (21.5 ppg) at the Under-18 Asian Championships in August 2012. Loveneet Singh, one of country's top young guards at age 18, is the rare Indian player with swagger. In one recent practice he wore a shirt that read, YOU LOOK LIKE MY NEXT GIRLFRIEND.
Subramanian hopes desperately that Satnam reaches the NBA, but he's pessimistic about the future of basketball in India. He sees too little infrastructure and support for coaches. "In the U.S., the coach is the king," Subramanian says. "Here they are the servants. There's no system here."
A brain hemorrhage sidelined him recently, but Subramanian returned to work a few weeks after getting out of the hospital. "I want to die on the basketball court if possible," he says. The problem in India is finding more coaches of similar passion and knowledge. There's been some progress. One of Justice's prized proteges is Arjun Singh, 31, who lived at a YMCA in Mumbai from ages five to 16. His father left him there, and the Y gave Singh education, shelter and an accidental career path that could serve as a grassroots model for the future.
Singh began playing at 12 when his YMCA installed a basketball court. Now he's considered one of India's bright young coaches. He began his coaching career 10 years ago making 2,500 rupees (about $46) a month. His wife, Shadar, pleaded with him to quit and work any office job. Now he has six coaching jobs around Mumbai, jumping from schools to YMCAs and teaching more than 300 kids per week. He now makes more money than most teachers and national team players. He smiles broadly as he bounces around the court doing defensive slides and teaching dribbling drills. His frequent whistles mimic the sounds of Indian automobile traffic. "I think people should do what they love doing," Singh says.
One of his recent practices looked much like practice in the U.S. There was make-it, take-it during warmups; gear from Nike and Adidas; and an unhealthy devotion to the crossover dribble. Plenty was different, too: The frenetic Indian fast-break game features quick-trigger three-pointers, scant ball movement and so little defense that players are offended by physical play. There was also the distinctly Indian underhanded outlet pass, a high-risk long-distance cross between a discus throw and a cricket bowl. At the Bandra YMCA one night the passes went so high that they appeared to scrape the city's low-hanging smog.
Much of the players' on-court inspiration comes straight from David Stern's corporate plan back on Fifth Avenue: YouTube videos such as Top 10 Crossover Dribbles, which 18-year-old Shiva Razak happily called up on his smartphone. The kids in Mumbai look forward to the day when India's grass roots sprout their own NBA Internet sensations.
Within four years, in fact, the U.S. and Indian basketball worlds could meet on a historic NBA draft night. "We can grow up," says 15-year-old Samson Sandu, when asked what it would mean if Satnam's name were announced by David Stern. "We can compete in the NBA." Until then, Indian basketball will sputter along in fits and starts, one high-risk, smog-scraping outlet pass at a time.
Photo by: Bob Martin for Sports Illustrated
Credit to: Sports Illustrated