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.