For many young Indian hoopsters, the series appears to serve as an out-of-the-box classroom session as India’s love for the game continues to grow, prompting the NBA to expand its footprint in the country.
Recently, Viv Bhavnani, the Indian-born assistant coach of the Oklahoma City Thunders, said he believes India has the talent to be a powerhouse in Asia. âI saw it in 2012,â he said, âThe natural skill level of some players was there. Some players had very good speed and very good physical qualities. I was very encouraged by what I saw.
So what is holding India back? Not the facilities, according to Bhavani, a point with which many disagree. Bhavnani emphasizes a robust infrastructure. âThere were so many great coaches back then, and now with the NBA Academy in India there is so much more access to the sport,â he said. If basketball courts aren’t uncommon, maybe those who want a career in the game are.
Take the case of Kushal Singh, a 14-year-old from Chandauli, a small town near Varanasi in the UP. One of the country’s future basketball talents, Kushal almost lost the NBA dream. Like many others in the academy, Kushal comes from a humble background. Her father is a farmer. When he was young, his parents sent him to Varanasi in the hope of providing him with a better education. Over 6 feet tall, Kushal stood out in school and was spotted by a basketball coach who alerted the academy about a gangly youngster he had seen and had seen promising. A few months later, Kushal was spotted and brought to the academy.
It is not surprising that his parents were initially reluctant to send their son to the academy. âThey refused at first, wanting me to study instead,â he said. They only relented after being assured by the scouts that their son would have access to a better education and a chance to secure his future even if it meant not playing for the NBA. For Kushal, however, the dream is first to move to a good college in the United States to play basketball, and then to the NBA. He is convinced that he will make the cut.
Despite the socio-economic issues, NBA officials are optimistic about the growing interest in basketball in India. Realizing that it will not replace cricket as the country’s flagship sport, they know that the outlook for parallel growth is favorable. Overthrowing another sport – and by extension, another career opportunity – was never part of the plan in the first place. Coexisting in the same ecosystem has always been the larger vision.
NBA officials identify, select and shape young people. From organizing basketball clinics to setting up an academy, even having the first preseason game in Mumbai (between Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers), the NBA is certainly pushing hard in the Indian market.
BUT, WHY INDIA?
The NBA is targeting the Indian and Chinese markets, their huge populations can help move the game forward and increase viewership on European football lines – a thought echoed by Scott Flemming, technical director of the NBA India Academy. âThe main aim of the academy is to raise the level of basketball and improve India’s performance internationally in different age groups,â he said. “This will allow the game to become popular among Indians and increase its audience.”
Flemming believes it will help push an Indian into the NBA, but it will only happen once the quality of basketball improves in the country. It lists some of the talents of Greater Noida Academy that have been spotted across the country. Most of them belong to the U-14 and U-17 age group. Mention Pranav Prince’s name and a smile appears on his face.
The main aim of the academy is to raise the level of basketball and improve India’s performance internationally in different age groups.
Hailed as one of the country’s top prospects, Prince comes from Kerala. Like Kushal, he belongs to the lower middle class – the father is a taxi driver and the mother a police chief. He started playing sports when he was just ten years old. Football, unsurprisingly, was his first option, but what football lost because of its size and thinness, basketball won. Prince was selected for the academy on his second attempt and has since traveled to various NBA tournaments around the world. For now, Prince is focused on entering college programs in the United States.
The NBA has a deep and successful partnership with the American college system, with developed ties with many colleges. Like many others, Prince would like to use this as a stepping stone to carving out a career in basketball. Even if the NBA doesn’t work for him, he can still play in the many highly competitive professional basketball leagues around the world.
Other Indian junior cages promoted by NBA India include Sanjana Ramesh, Prince Pal Singh, Amaan Sandhu and many more who are making their presence felt in world academies and in the United States. Lokindra Singh, an upcoming talent from Sikar – a place that has regularly supplied India with basketball players – is also part of the U-16 squad and plays with some of the best talent in the country. The son of a military man, he says he became addicted to the game while regularly watching the NBA on television.
A trail of young basketball sensations in India
And there may be others like him. NBA India manager Rajesh Sethi believes viewership will continue to rise as the game is pushed to other parts of the country with a greater push on regional broadcast. Of the 350 games that aired live last year, 78 games had commentary in Hindi, which in turn attracted 15 million unique visitors. On the online platform, the NBA Fantasy Game has more than one million users.
The numbers seem all the more impressive as the NBA only arrived in India in 2008. Then, in close collaboration with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), a unique 3×3 tournament was designed, played in the big cities. to educate students. . In 2010, the CIB signed a 30-year contract with the IMG-Reliance group. The first step was to set up a scouting system and a basic remuneration was paid to the players.
In 2016, however, the IMG-Reliance group had ceased its activities with the BFI and the contract was suspended due to infighting between different factions of the association. Still, that didn’t deter the NBA, when it came to its plans for India. They follow the same model that most of the European football giants deploy in India: Catch Them Young.
Talent detection takes place at the local level, and training programs launched in schools have integrated play into the physical education curriculum. The junior program called the Reliance Foundation Junior NBA Training Program, was launched in 2013 and since then more than 11 million children in 11,000 schools have been trained. The screening program has helped ensure a constant flow of players into the academy. The next level is the NBA basketball schools, which are present in various cities of India, and the children pay a monthly fee for training. At the top of the pyramid is the NBA academy where 24 top talent from all over India are housed and trained.
Experts believe the need of the hour is a professional league with high recall value via TV presence. NBA India insiders are also hinting at the idea – such a venture would help increase the game’s popularity. But for now, they’re happy to nurture talent.
Time will tell if we’ll find our next NBA star. Until then, as Flemming reminds us, âEnjoy the rideâ.
The businessman who brought basketball to Indian screens
Pushing the NBA and expanding its reach around the world can be attributed to Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA. Silver recognized the NBA’s USP – the Dream Team and the larger-than-life superstars. Backed by a keen business sense, he began marketing these stars in non-NBA ports – Senegal, India, and China. As the reach grew and with it the number of viewers, a global expansion also helped create a larger talent pool for the NBA. In the 1990s, for example, less than 5% of the total players who came to the league came from countries other than the United States. In 2020, the number grew exponentially to almost 25% and talented young people in these countries suddenly had local superstars to look up to and emulate.
India was one of Silver’s first stopovers, having been named NBA commissioner in 2014. Since then, the numbers have jumped, the enthusiasm for the NBA has grown. The television audience is on the rise and online presence has also grown over the years. In the 2018-19 season, over 91 million viewers in India watched the game on the Sony channel group. A decisive role was also played by the former secretary of the Indian Basketball Federation, the late Harish Sharma, who brought the NBA to India. He is credited with partnering with the NBA and integrating the IMG-Reliance combination which made basketball a lot of money.