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Wanted: 1.2 Billion basketball fans
Pete Thamel
May 06, 2013
THE NBA HAS ITS EYES ON THE WORLD'S LARGEST UNTAPPED HOOPS MARKET: INDIA. AT THE HEART OF ITS PLAN IS A 7-FOOT TEENAGER FROM THE PUNJAB NAMED SATNAM SINGH BHAMARA. NEVER HEARD OF HIM? TURN THE PAGE. (NO PRESSURE, KID)
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May 06, 2013

Wanted: 1.2 Billion Basketball Fans

THE NBA HAS ITS EYES ON THE WORLD'S LARGEST UNTAPPED HOOPS MARKET: INDIA. AT THE HEART OF ITS PLAN IS A 7-FOOT TEENAGER FROM THE PUNJAB NAMED SATNAM SINGH BHAMARA. NEVER HEARD OF HIM? TURN THE PAGE. (NO PRESSURE, KID)

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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.

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