September 20, 2014

Gasolina: A celebration of Pau Gasol as one of basketball’s All Time great international players


Few international players have had his measure of success in the modern era as Pau Gasol, who helped usher in Spain's golden generation and made La Roja the world's most feared basketball team outside of USA. Here's a celebration of Gasol's stellar international career.

Click here to read the full feature.

September 19, 2014

2014 Asian Games: The Complete Team India Basketball Preview


The journey - as it usually is with Indian sports - wasn't easy, and threatened to unravel into disaster as, less than 10 days before the beginning of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon (Korea), the fate of India's basketball (and a few other sports) teams hung in the balance. Luckily for the Indian athletes and hoop lovers back home, the turmoil finally ended last week and India's Men's and Women's Senior basketball squads were confirmed to participate at the basketball tournament in Incheon, set to be held from September 20 - October 4.

The 17th Asian Games - or the XVII Asiad - will be held in Incheon from September 19 - October 4, 2014. A total of 439 events from 36 sports and disciplines set to feature in the Games. The basketball tournament at the Games will be held at the Samsan World Gymnasium and the Hwaseong Sports Complex.


India's Men's Basketball team at the 17th Asian Games
  • Joginder Singh
  • Narender Kumar Grewal
  • Akilan Pari
  • Prakash Mishra
  • Pratham Singh
  • Vishesh Bhriguvanshi
  • Amrit Pal Singh (Captain)
  • Prasanna Venkatesh Sivakumar
  • Palpreet Singh Brar
  • Amjyot Singh
  • Yadwinder Singh
  • Rikin Shantilal Pethani
  • Head Coach: Scott Flemming
  • Coach: Prasad Rama Linga
  • Physiotherapist: Naved Hameed
Head Coach Scott Flemming has opted for a completely unchanged roster for Team India from the squad that performed wonders at the 5th FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan (China) in July this year. Flemming's decision is no surprise at all: this is the same Indian squad that defeated the mighty Chinese on their home soil at the FIBA Asia Cup for the first time in the nation's basketball history. Although India finished the tournament at only 7th place, they managed to scare much-favoured Asian squads like Iran and the Philippines (both of whom played at the FIBA World Cup) and proved that they were much better than their 61st FIBA World Ranking proclaimed. India will once again rely on their three most talented players - Vishesh Bhrighuvanshi, Amjyot Singh, and new captain Amrit Pal Singh - to strike fear in their opponents.

India will start the tournament in Group B of the Qualifying Round.

Asian Games Men's Basketball Groups
  • Qualifying Round Group A: Mongolia, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Maldives. 
  • Qualifying Round Group B: Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Palestine, India
  • Preliminary Round Group C: China, Chinese Taipei, B2. 
  • Preliminary Round Group D: South Korea, Jordan, A2. 
  • Preliminary Round Group E: Iran, Philippines, B1. 
  • Preliminary Round Group F: Japan, Qatar, A1.
To qualify for the Preliminary Round of the tournament, India must finish in top 2 of the qualifying round stage. India should be able to do just that: Kazakhstan are slight favourites for Group B but India should be able to defeat Saudi Arabia and Palestine. If India can beat Kazakhstan too, they will top the group. Either way, if India qualifies for the Preliminary Round, they will thrown right into the fire. Finishing top will see them in a group with Asia's World Cup representatives Iran and Philippines and finishing second will place them with Asia's top seed China as well as FIBA Asia Cup runner-ups Chinese Taipei.

The top two teams from from Groups C, D, E, and F will move on to two more groups (G and H) of round-robin games as the Quarter-Final round, and the four best from these groups will finally be in the semi-final knockout stage.

India's Men's Qualifying Round Schedule - all timings IST
  • September 20 - 12:45 PM - India vs. Palestine.
  • September 21 - 12:45 PM - India vs. Saudi Arabia.
  • September 22 - 12:45 PM - Kazakhstan vs. India.
"It has been a long wait and one with uncertainty," Coach Flemming told me as Team India readied to head out to Korea for the Asian Games, "We are very glad that we have been given approval to participate in the Asian Games. At the same time we are again battling the odds with no preparatory games and a limited coaching staff. We will again need to be overcomers and overachievers. We draw confidence from our play in the Asia Cup earlier this summer. Our team will do our best to meet the challenge ahead of us."

My Prediction: At the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou (China), India's Men finished winless, losing all five of their games. This year, circumstances and groupings are different and India should be able to notch a couple of Qualifying Round victories. India will have to use the first two games against Palestine and Saudi Arabia as their 'preparatory' games before their biggest early challenge against Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs are known to be tall and athletic, but I feel that this Indian side has enough confidence and talent now to beat them and top Group B. Unfortunately, they will have to go against Iran and Philippines in the Preliminary Round then, and only another miracle (like our win over China two months ago) will be able to see India survive for the Quarter-Finals.


India's Women's Basketball team at the 17th Asian Games
  • Akanksha Singh
  • Kavita Akula
  • Kruthika Lakshman
  • Kavita Kumari
  • Poojamol KS
  • Raspreet Sidhu
  • Prashanti Singh
  • Kokila Subramani
  • Smruthi Radhakrishnan (Captain)
  • Rajapriyadharshini
  • Jeena PS
  • Stephy Nixon
  • Head Coach: Francisco Garcia
  • Coach: Divya Singh
  • Physiotherapist: Rajesh Chavan
It's been a long time since we've seen a full-strength India Women's basketball team in action. It's been almost 10 months, actually. Garcia led India to a best-ever fifth-place finish at the 25th FIBA Asia Championship for Women in Bangkok (Thailand) last year, and India notched their first-ever Level 1 victory in the tournament, too. Since then, India's only major international exposure has been at the Lusofonia Games in January, where Garcia opted to play a younger, less experienced squad. Although several of the big guns are back in the roster for India, this team is missing some familiar faces like recent Arjuna Award winner Geethu Anna Jose and young rising star Shireen Limaye, who tore her ACL just days before the team was due to fly to Korea. Jose's Railways' teammate Anitha Paul Durai is also missing in action. India will be relying on the potential of youngsters Jeena PS and Kavita Kumari, the leadership of captain Smruthi Radhakrishnan, and the experienced Singh Sisters - Prashanti and Akanksha - in the campaign. Because they finished in Level 1 of last year's FIBA Asia Championship, India's Women have already been seeded to the competitions final round.

Asian Games Women's Basketball Seedings
  • Qualifying Round: Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Qatar.
  • Final Round: China, South Korea, Japan, Chinese Taipei, Thailand, India.
The top team from the Qualifying Round will play Korea in the Quarter-Final while the second-best team will play China. India's first game at the tournament will be a Quarter-Final clash against Japan on September 28th at 9:30 AM IST. If India win this game, they will play either Korea or the top team from the Qualifying Round in the Semi-Final. If India lose, they will be slotted in the 5th-8th place tournament.

"Our preparation for the Asian Games was not the best," Coach Garcia said, "We ran three camps but our exposure trip was cancelled even when we were ready with visas to head to China for practice games. So at the end of the day we go there [Incheon] without playing a single game. As far as I know, our opponents have been playing in international tournaments since the end of July. Also, we'll be going there without our two best scorers (Jose and Paul Durai) and rebounder (Jose) of the last FIBA Asia Championship. Days ago, Shireen Limaye, an important player in our system, tore her ACL so she won't be able to play either. But still, we expect to compete at 500 percent; we have been working very hard and although we have adversities, I believe in this group to give their best in the tournament."

My Prediction: India's Women were also winless at the 2010 Asian Games, going 0-3 in the tournament. By being seeded in the final round this year and starting in the Quarter-Final, India are ensured at least a top 8 finish. India's chances of winning that quarter-final against Japan are low since the Japanese are the reigning FIBA Women's champions. If they lose, they will have to face against other Quarter-Final losers in the 5th-8th tournament, where their biggest challenger will probably be Thailand. India proved last year that they were ready to cement their position as Asia's fifth-best women's team after the big four of China, Chinese Taipei, Korea and Japan, and I expect them to be good enough for fifth-place again this time around.

September 18, 2014

International Watch: Ranking the top 10 FIBA World Cup players outside the USA



Although the USA – the world’s number one ranked team – were an automatic favourite to be crowned champions at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, few predicted that they would achieve the feat with such relative ease, winning each game by an average margin of 32.5 points per game and continuing their 63 game unbeaten streak in international basketball contests. But don’t let the Americans’ dominance distract you from the top performers from the rest of the world, many of whom, even in defeat, used the World Cup stage to further define their legacies.

Here are the top 10 players from the 2014 FIBA World Cup outside the USA. Click here for full feature.



September 17, 2014

After numerous voices of protest, FIBA (tentatively) relaxes Headgear rule for international basketball


It took voices of protest from in and outside India, from the Sikh and Muslim communities and from many more who chose to support the right cause, and finally, there seems to be some progress. FIBA - the International Basketball Federation - announced at the first meeting of their newly-elected Central Board that they will be tentatively 'relaxing' their rules banning players donning headgear (such as turbans or hijab) from participating in international basketball games.

FIBA.com's provides more of the news below, with details that show FIBA's steps into the right direction:

In response to the various requests received, the Central Board held in-depth discussions regarding rules about uniforms and decided to put a testing phase into place for the next two years that will consist of:
- Relaxing the current rules regarding headgear in order to enable national federations to request, as of now, exceptions to be applied at the national level within their territory without incurring any sanctions for violation of FIBA's Official Basketball Rules. National Federations wishing to apply for such an exception to the uniform regulations shall submit a detailed request to FIBA. Once approved, they shall submit follow-up reports twice a year to monitor the use of such exceptions.
- The players will be allowed to play in FIBA endorsed 3x3 competitions - both nationally and internationally - wearing headgear without restrictions, unless the latter presents a direct threat to their safety or that of other players on the court. Players wishing to take part in such competitions with headgear must ensure that a detailed request for approval is addressed to FIBA.
- FIBA will communicate with National Federations over the coming weeks on the subject of these request procedures.
The two years will serve as a test period. FIBA, through its competent bodies, will monitor these requests and their implementation from both the technical and sport development perspectives (for example in terms of manufacturing specificities, safety of athletes, look on the field of play and positive development of participation numbers in basketball within the demanding countries).
A first report will be provided to the Central Board in 2015, which will then determine whether tests at the lowest official international level shall be allowed as of next summer. A full review will be done in 2016 to take a decision on whether permanent changes to the Official Basketball Rules shall be made and implemented after the 2016 Olympic Games.

Wading through the intense wordiness above we find the the good news for Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, or players of other communities for whom the headgear is a crucial part of their religion and culture. They will now be allowed to take part in FIBA events with their headgear on just as long as the national federations submit an application asking for this exception beforehand. This rule specifically directs to India and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI): The BFI claimed discrimination when Sikh players of the Indian national team at the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan (China) and the U18 FIBA Asia Championship in Doha (Qatar) were not allowed to take part in the games unless they removed their turbans. The onus is now on India and the BFI to be at the top of their game each time and make sure to apply for these uniform exceptions in time and make sure to follow up twice a year (because FIBA doesn't want to make things too easy, do they?) to ensure that our Sikh players don't feel humiliated at the international stage again.

FIBA has set up a two year test period; hopefully, at the end of these two years, they are able to accept certain headgear as a normal part of the uniform and don't need constant applications/reminders about it. It will be great if the official FIBA rules regarding this are changed by the 2016 Olympics: not that India has any chance of participating in the basketball tournament, but there might be players from other nations who may don headgear, too.

The Sikh America Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), who share a lot of credit for bringing the turban issue to international attention, recognized FIBA's step forward. "FIBA has taken a step towards change, but this policy alteration will continue to lead to an unequal playing field," said Jasjit Singh, executive director of SALDEF, "We hope that FIBA will soon recognize Sikhs, Muslims and Orthodox Jews can freely play with their respective articles of faith, without process or paperwork and beyond their home countries. We ask all to join us as we tell FIBA to let Sikhs play freely."

Here's my personal guarantee about this issue: over the next two years, the test period will go swimmingly and FIBA will figure out manufacturing specificities etc. as they mentioned above. And soon enough, because we live in a world of large corporations that truly decide morality and culture at the commercial stage, sports-wear brands like Nike and adidas are going to start vying to sponsor athletic turbans, designed specifically for basketball, and coming fully FIBA-approved in their shape/size/design. And this train of thought leads me to believe that if LeBron James or Kobe Bryant had wanted to play in the Olympics with what FIBA had previously described as 'threatening' headgear, Nike would've changed the 'No Headgear' rule years ago.

Anyways, good step forward, FIBA. Hopefully the Indian national teams can put these distractions behind them and focus on taking even bigger steps forward on the basketball court.

September 16, 2014

Shooting High


The national aspirations of a decorated girls’ basketball team

I wrote this article for The Caravan Magazine, and it was originally published in the magazine's September 1, 2014 edition.

EMRS Girls form the majority of the
 Sikkim State team. Photo: Bijoy Gurung
At sunrise on a cold February morning, 18-year-old Nim Doma swept stones and leaves off a basketball court perched high on a hillside in western Sikkim. Around her, 11 other teenaged girls, all dressed in jerseys and shorts, did the same. They worked briskly for a few minutes, then put the brooms aside. Next they picked up basketballs, and started running drills. Morning practice had begun.

Doma is the star of the “Girls of Gangyap”—the basketball team of the Eklavya Model Residential School in the small village of Gangyap, about a six-hour drive west of the Sikkimese capital, Gangtok. The EMRS squad is one of the most explosive school teams in the nation. Since 2011, it has reached three consecutive finals and won two golds in the under-19 category at the CBSE National Championship, a basketball tournament for all the 15,468 public and private schools affiliated with the Indian government’s Central Board of Secondary Education. In all three years, Doma, who plays as a shooting guard, was named the tournament’s most valuable player. The girls are so dominant in Sikkim that they have formed almost the entirety of the state womens’ team in recent years. Yet despite such success, bureaucratic hurdles mean that the Girls of Gangyap are not eligible for selection to national teams for their age groups.

Less than a decade ago, few in Gangyap even knew what a basketball was. The village is home to slightly less than a thousand people, most of whom are poor farmers from scheduled tribes such as the Bhutia, Lepcha, Limbu, Tamang and Sherpa. Basketball arrived here with Sidharth Yonzone, a self-described “die-hard” fan of the US-based National Basketball Association league who grew up partly in western Sikkim. In 2007, when EMRS was founded as a free residential school funded by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Yonzone was appointed its principal. To share his love of the sport, he started to train interested students. While the boys were more drawn to football, the girls took to basketball with great passion. Soon, Yonzone became the head coach of the girls’ basketball team. “I had to teach them basketball from scratch,” he said over the phone in March. “I must give many of them credit for learning so quickly … I guess they fell in love with it. Now, all of them are also in love with the NBA, and the WNBA”—the women’s equivalent of the NBA.

The EMRS team has made a habit of overcoming disadvantages. “We never had a basketball court other than a tiny, makeshift mud-and-stone court for six-and-a-half years,” Yonzone said. “A new court was built just last year, and the girls helped out the construction crew to build it, carrying stones, sand, cement and more.” The girls have also learned to cope with relatively taller opponents from other states. Their strength, Yonzone said, lies in speed, and in creating rapid counter-attacks. “I ask the girls to make a run whenever they can, in order to take a commanding lead as early as we can,” he said.

The team’s rapid success has caught many off guard, including Sikkim’s basketball administrators. The sport’s official authority in the state, the Sikkim Basketball Association, is not recognized by the sport’s national governing body, the Basketball Federation of India. As a result, Sikkim does not compete at BFI-sanctioned state tournaments, at which players are evaluated for national selection. Jigme Wazalinpa, a former member of the SBA’s executive committee, told me in July that when the organisation was started in 1992, its members never thought “that a time would come that our players could compete on the national level.” The SBA, he said, has been slow to promote basketball in Sikkim, and has neglected opportunities beyond the state’s borders. After a schism in 2013, a group of former SBA members formed the rival Basketball Association of Sikkim, with plans to apply for recognition from the BFI.

Back in March, I spoke to Roopam Sharma, the CEO of the BFI, about Sikkim’s status. Sharma said the organisation would welcome any application for recognition from a representative body from Sikkim. Sharma has made public promises to bring BFI-sanctioned school and college basketball leagues—part of the organisation’s collaboration with IMG Reliance, a joint venture between Reliance Industries Limited and a US-based sports marketing firm—to Sikkim and other northeast states. That would help athletes from EMRS and other schools in the region to show the nation’s top scouts what they can do.

Doma told me the present obstacles would not faze her. “I want to keep playing the game in college and beyond,” she said. “My goal is to represent my country in basketball one day.”

September 15, 2014

USA stamps basketball dominance with another FIBA World Cup win


Without Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, or Carmelo Anthony. Without even Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, or Paul George. On paper, the 2014 World Cup featured a younger and 'weaker' USA side. This wasn't the 'redeemed' USA side that - since their last competitive loss in 2006 - had been undefeated and dominated opponents in every international basketball tournament since. This was, what many critics called, the 'C Team', the youngest USA side since the NBA began sending professionals back in 1992.

But basketball games aren't won on paper; Team USA's so-called 'C Team' turned the 'C' into 'Championship', defending the rebranded FIBA World Cup title for the first time in their history with a dominant performance that easily blew out the rest of the global competition. Winning every game by an average margin of 32.5 points, Team USA went an undefeated 9-0 at the World Cup in Spain, capping off their wonderful tournament with their best performance in the final: a 129-92 victory over Serbia in Madrid on Sunday, September 14.

After a slow start as Serbia raced to a 15-7 lead early in the game, USA bounced back with a 15-0 spurt and never looked back. USA made the most of the shortened international three-point line, hitting 11-16 threes in the final. Kyrie Irving (26) and James Harden (23) were the chief perpetrators as Serbia had no answer for the American onslaught. By the end of the contest, eight of the 12 USA players had scored in double figures en route to the 37 point win.

This was USA's fifth gold medal at the FIBA World Cup, tying for top slot with the former Yugoslavia. They have now won 63 straight games - 45 in official FIBA events and 18 in exhibition play - and are automatically qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

USA won all of their group games with relative ease, yet, because of their slow starts and the quality of their opponents, doubts remained about the true talent of this young team. By knocking out Mexico, Slovenia, Lithuania, and then Serbia on the way to the gold, USA went on to erase all such doubts. Kyrie Irving was named tournament's MVP, but this was far from a one-man effort: the likes of Kenneth Faried, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, DeMarcus Cousins, Klay Thompson, and more came up big from game to game to keep the Americans at the head of the race.

Since breaking up with Yugoslavia, the silver in 2014 was Serbia's first ever medal at the tournament. Serbia were the competition's unlikely finalists: they won only two of their five group games to sneak into the knockout stage, and then, they suddenly found a way to turn their performances around. The Serbs blew out favoured opponents like Greece and Brazil and held on to win in a classic Semi-Final over France to reach the final.

France won the bronze medal by scraping past Lithuania 95-93 for a close win on Saturday. Led by 27 points by Nicolas Batum, France bounced back from a fourth quarter deficit to claim victory. Lithuania's high scorer was their young center Jonas Valanciunas, who finished with 25 points and nine rebounds. France, who won last year's EuroBasket, will be happy with their performance at the World Cup, especially since they were able to win a medal without the likes of Tony Parker or Joakim Noah in their lineup.

The biggest disappointment at the World Cup was the performance of hosts Spain. Featuring the likes of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Serge Ibaka, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, and Rudy Fernandez, Spain entered the tournament at full strength and seemed to have all the pieces to be the only true challengers to USA's ascent. This was perhaps the last opportunity of Spain's "golden generation" heralded by Pau Gasol to beat the USA and claim their second World Cup win after 2006. Alas, after a fine start in the group stage and the round of 16, Spain were shocked in one of the great upsets in world basketball by France in the Quarter-Final. A defensive masterclass by the French knocked out the Spaniards and ended any hopes of the dream USA-Spain clash in the Final.

Final Standings
  • 1. USA
  • 2. Serbia
  • 3. France
All Tournament Team
  • Kyrie Irving (USA) - MVP 
  • Kenneth Faried (USA) 
  • Milos Teodosic (Serbia) 
  • Nicolas Batum (France) 
  • Pau Gasol (Spain)


September 14, 2014

The New Kingdom?


With the NBA’s first Indian owner Vivek Ranadive and first Indian-origin player Sim Bhullar, the Sacramento Kings are setting their sights at conquering basketball’s next great frontier

I wrote this feature for SLAM Online, and it was originally published on their website on September 3, 2014.

Up by three points with less than four minutes to go in their Preliminary Round game against China, India were on the cusp of history. If India could hold on to their lead, it would give them their first victory over Asian giants China in over 70 years of international competitive basketball.

Held in Wuhan, China this year, the FIBA Asia Cup featured nine or ten of the top teams of the continent. China had chosen to field mostly a second-string roster for this tournament, but nevertheless, they featured many players (like 18-year-old NBA prospect Zhou Qi) who would have a role in the upcoming Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) season. The Indian national team had no basketball professionals. A win over China – weakened squad or not – would be unprecedented.

Meanwhile, back home in India, hardly anyone knew of this game or the tournament at all. Basketball is a niche sport in a country of 1.2 billion people – the world’s second-largest population after China – most of whom weren’t even aware if India even had a basketball team. Beyond cricket – which is India’s most-loved and nearly-exclusive national pastime – there is much ignorance among the general public about the country’s exploits in other sports. This ignorance unfortunately extends to the larger Indian diaspora across the world too, from the United States and Canada to Britain and Australia.

“Do Indians even play basketball?” many wonder.

Back over in Wuhan, the 12 Indians of the national squad were playing basketball all right. After decades of 20, 30, 40, or 50 point losses to China in the past, here was an Indian team suddenly confident to be within close grasp of the impossible. They had blown a double-digit early lead already, fallen behind to the Chinese in the second half, and then bounced back again. Now, the score read 55-52 in India’s favour, with 4:07 remaining in the final quarter.

Limited to mostly Asian tournaments over the past few decades, the Indian team had been minnows against the continent’s giants, happy to compete for participation points rather than any medals. India’s current FIBA world ranking (61) sees them trail behind the likes of the Virgin Islands and Cape Verde, two countries with a combined population of a little more than Dehradun, India’s 76th most populous city. Despite some baby steps towards recent improvement, India have also made a habit of dramatic late-game breakdowns. A late three-point lead over China, in China, felt more like a house of cards ready to collapse. 

While India tried to survive those remaining four minutes, thousands of kilometres away in the Western Hemisphere, there were a couple other Indians flirting with history. Last year, Mumbai-born Vivek Ranadive had become the first Indian majority owner of an NBA team when he purchased the Sacramento Kings. While Ranadive’s Kings struggled on court, the software tycoon focused on pushing the team’s brand off-court in his attempts to tie in his team with the country of his birth and use his unique opportunity to make the Kings into “India’s Team.”

Meanwhile, a Canadian born to Indian-immigrants in Ontario grew to become a 7-foot-5 inch behemoth and win a couple of back-to-back Western Athletic Conference (WAC) tournament MVP awards in two years at New Mexico State. This giant – Sim Bhullar – declared for the NBA draft, went undrafted, and was promptly picked up by Ranadive’s Kings for their Summer League squad. Coincidently, on the same day that India played China in Wuhan, Bhullar made his Summer League debut for the Kings against the Hornets in Las Vegas.

A month later, on the same day that India celebrated its 67th Independence Day, the Kings announced that they had signed Bhullar to a contract, officially making him the first player of Indian-origin in the NBA. With one signature, a racial barrier had been broken in the league and the Kings had taken another calculated step towards their outreach to India.

Ranadive stressed the importance of Bhullar’s cultural heritage and its influence on the Indian audience. “I’ve long believed that India is the next great frontier for the NBA, and adding a talented player like Sim only underscores the exponential growth basketball has experienced in that nation,” Ranadive said in a press release, “While Sim is the first player of Indian descent to sign with an NBA franchise, he represents one of many that will emerge from that region as the game continues to garner more attention and generate ever-increasing passion among a new generation of Indian fans.”       

Over the past year, Ranadive’s Kings have hosted Indian-culture nights, launched the NBA’s only Hindi-language website, and even released a classic video reaching out to Indian fans to vote DeMarcus Cousins into the past All Star Game. Ranadive also expressed his desire to take the Kings to India for the NBA’s first-ever exhibition game there.

Blake Ellington, an associate editor with sactownroyalty.com, spoke to me recently from the perspective of Kings’ fans about the team’s ‘Indianization’, “Sacramento is a small market and Kings fans enjoy it when the team is on national television or involved in things like Vivek's efforts to expand the NBA into India,” he said, “The Kings held a Bollywood Night last season and the fans were exposed to some elements of Indian culture, and they seemed to have a good time with it… I think Kings fans do have sort of a kinship with India now.”

Just days after his signing was made official, Bhullar joined Ranadive to headline the largest-ever ‘India Day’ parade through New York City. While two other members of the Sacramento Kings – DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay – headed off to Spain to represent Team USA internationally, Ranadive and Bhullar were globalizing the Kings by reaching out to the Indian community in Sacramento, India, and worldwide.

On-court, the 21-year-old Bhullar – who will be the NBA’s tallest player next season – is still a work on progress. It would be unlikely for him to get an opportunity to be anything more than a fringe contributor in Sacramento, but he has the ambitions to prove his doubters – many who believe that he was signed for business rather than basketball reasons – wrong.

Photo: Karan Madhok for Ekalavyas.com
“I just wanna get better,” Bhullar told me in an interview a few weeks ago, “I want to change my game to fit the NBA game. I want to get more comfortable with the league and prove all those who doubt me wrong. I’ll respond to [the critics] by just producing, by just doing what I do.”

Ellington believes that Bhullar still has a way to go before becoming an impact player for the Kings this season. “He isn't quick enough (at the moment) to compete with NBA-level players – we saw that on display in the NBA Summer League. He will probably get an opportunity to play on the Kings' D-League affiliate, the Reno Bighorns. This will be good experience for him and maybe with some extended playing time there he will work himself into a spot where he could get some minutes on the Kings roster… So is it cool that the Kings signed the first NBA player of Indian descent? Absolutely. Do I expect him to do much for the Kings this season? No.”

Off-the-court, Bhullar’s impact in India will be felt if he truly can become a role model to a people who need a basketball star to inspire the next generation. Indian basketball players – in India or abroad – rarely made the jump into mainstream consciousness. The best players in India’s national squad like Amjyot Singh, Amrit Pal Singh, or Vishesh Bhriguvanshi are barely recognized outside the small, core basketball circles in India. Success for Bhullar could promote the Kings and the NBA in India, and if basketball gets more popular in the country, the spotlight could also shift on the exploits of India’s own star players.

But for a brief moment in July, those star Indian players did enjoy their moment in that spotlight. India had played inspired defence to keep the Chinese at bay. And now, with a little over four minutes left on the clock, Bhriguvanshi dribbled the ball across the three-point arc. He had locked eyes with the athletic Amjyot Singh, who – aided by two picks from his teammates – found a clear lane to the rim. Bhriguvanshi lobbed the ball up high to the inside, and Amjyot caught it and slammed it down to give India a five-point lead. The alley-oop ignited the entire Indian bench, as the players screamed and threw their towels up in celebration. The home crowd were shell-shocked in silence.

India survived the last three minutes of the game with a couple more clutch plays on both ends, and when the final buzzer sounded, India had won 65-58. Head Coach Scott Flemming (formerly an assistant with the NBDL’s Texas Legends) had led India to the unthinkable: a basketball victory over China. The overall performance – capped by Amjyot’s electrifying clutch alley-oop finish – were the product of an unfamiliar, confident Indian side, a squad that casually brushed away decades of failure to announce the coming of a new India. 

For once, both mainstream and social media in India took notice, the news trended on Twitter and went viral across the nation. Only success and hype can capture the attention of the notoriously-fickle Indian audiences, and India’s success at Wuhan displayed a small fraction of basketball’s potential to Indians if it is developed and promoted the right way.

In a country of over a billion people, even that small fraction represents a number in the hundreds of thousands. It is these hundreds of thousands – or millions – that Ranadive and the NBA is counting on to turn into basketball’s next kingdom. China is famously the world’s largest basketball market, with some estimates counting around 300 million hoop fans in the world’s most populous nation. As the Chinese market gets more saturated, India presents a tantalizing new face for the sport.

“What Yao Ming did for China, we hope players like Sim will do for India,” said Ranadive at the Summer League, “I have this vision — I call it NBA 3.0 — where I want to make basketball the premier sport of the 21st century.”

While he strives hard to get in shape and improve his eventual on-court impact, Sim Bhullar’s broad shoulders will also be carrying the hopes of the South Asian (or desi) basketball community across the globe. This is a heavy burden on a 21-year-old NBA rookie who is only looking to secure his professional future and make a place for himself in the world’s toughest basketball league. But so far, Bhullar has responded to this extra responsibility with great aplomb.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Bhullar said, “I grew up in Ontario, Canada, and my parents came from India. I know that all the hard work that has been put leading up to this situation has paid out. I wanna be a role model: hopefully, I’ll get to see four or five more Indian-origin players in the NBA; that will be a great feeling!”

“Do Indians even play basketball?” they ask. Hopefully, Bhullar’s journey, coupled with the success of other Indian basketball players, can put to rest any further questions.