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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.