India, the Next Great Basketball Superpower?

The NBA has had fans in the world's second-most-populous country for decades, but new efforts by American teams and the national squad may make the sport even bigger there.

Sim Bhuallar may be the first Indian-origin player to sign with the NBA. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

Without warning, basketball has made front pages in India. There were two pieces of news, within a few days of each other. The biggie was that the NBA now had the first Indian-origin player in its sights.

Simran “Sim” Bhullar, a 7 feet 5 inches, 163.3 kilograms, 21-year-old Canadian, the Ontario-born son of Indian immigrants, made it to the 2014 NBA draft. He was not one of 60 picked during the draft, but the next day, Bhullar signed a contract with the Sacramento Kings. He is not on their official 15-player roster yet but played for the Kings in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, which forms a pre-season tryout to size up rookies and the degrees of development needed for players to graduate from collegiate to NBA levels.

Bhullar’s presence in the draft could be just the push that the NBA has been looking for in trying to find its foothold in India, a large potential market that is big on numbers yet modest in performance when it comes to the sport. A 2011 New York Times profile of Bhullar reminded that Yao Ming, the first Chinese superstar in the NBA, was retiring from the Houston Rockets and that, “Asia is ready for its next great basketball ambassador.”

The timing for the Bhullar announcement with the Kings, though, is fortuitous. The NBA’s game in India, it could be argued, has now entered its final quarter. India’s pay-TV audience, close to 600 million, is expected to cross China’s by 2017. It is easy to forget that the NBA first came into Indian cable homes, live with Jordan and Bird, in the early 1990s, before European football. The Indian TV viewer, until then starved of world-class live sport, found themselves feasting at the high table. About two decades later, Indians make up perhaps the most spoilt-for-sporting-choice TV audience in the world. Competing with live cricket, football, F1, golf, tennis and other sport, the NBA will need to work to gain larger territory.

One person driving the effort is the same one behind the Kings’ deal with Bhullar: Sacramento Kings’ new owner Vivek Ranadive, who also happens to be the first Indian-born majority owner of an NBA franchise. With the franchise in danger of being taken out of Sacramento to Seattle last year, Ranadive was part of an ownership group that bought the Kings from their owners, the Maloof family.

Sitting courtside at the Summer League, Ranadive spoke to the NBA about his dream which he has termed "Basketball 3.0"—to make basketball “the biggest sport of the 21st century”. Fundamental to plans of such mega-expansion is the ability to generate passionate Indian interest. The purchasing power of India’s growing middle-class population is central to drive basketball into becoming as Ranadive’s described it—“the strong No.2” sport in India. In that most recent interview, Ranadive echoed the New York Times' sentiment: “What Yao did for China, we hope that players like Sim will do for India.”

Like Ranadive’s, the Bhullar story—or rather that of his parents’—has followed the familiar path of the Non-Resident Indian (NRI) success story. His parents, Avtar and Varinder, who migrated to Canada from Punjab, currently run a gas station in Toronto, and centered their uncommonly tall sons’ school and collegiate years around basketball. Sim and his 7 feet 2 inches younger brother Tanveer went to prep basketball schools first in Canada and then in the U.S. and earned athletic scholarships to play at New Mexico State University. This is where Sim made his name, winning collegiate titles and awards before making the draft and catching the Ranadive’s and the Kings’ attention.

The Sacramento Kings are the only NBA team to launch a Hindi version of their website (at an event where Shaquille O’Neal tried his hand at cricket). King’s president Chris Granger said in a statement that the new owners wanted the Kings “to become India’s home team” in the NBA.

India’s home team—the real, homegrown one—produced the other set of basketball headlines, unrelated to Bhullar and the NBA, but deeply significant. The Indian men, nicknamed the Young Cagers, beat the Chinese 65-58 in the Asia Cup, a biannual competition between the continent’s top ten teams. India is ranked 61 in the FIBA world rankings to China’s No. 12, No. 11 in Asia to China’s No.1. They made the Asia Cup quarter finals and finished seventh.  Their victory over China led Bobby Sharma, the senior VP of global basketball for sport management firm IMG Worldwide, to say this on Twitter:

Karan Madhok, hardcore Indian basketball nut, and freelance writer, sorted these two pieces of news on his blog. The Bhullar news he said, was a “game-changer” for the Indian diaspora. And what happened in Hubei, China, may be “a turning point” for the national basketball team’s program.