15 April 2014
The global athlete of the future comes from a small Punjabi farming village in India. A teenager with the body of a giant, he’s now in training at an expensive Florida basketball academy, where sport goes hand in hand with marketing and geopolitics.
India’s great hope is named Satnam Singh Bhamara and, in the near future, he may change the course and face of basketball. At least that’s what they’re hoping in New York, at the headquarters of the NBA, the Goliath of American basketball.
They’ve already circled a date on a calendar for him: June 2017. That’s the summer that the first Indian NBA player is most likely to make his debut among the pros. The champ is meant to help the most global league on the planet make inroads into the only remaining, ‘virgin’ market yet to be penetrated by the game invented by a Canadian doctor in the late 1800s.
With its population of 1.2 billion, India is an immense pool of potential fans, players and clients, and approximately only five million even know what a basketball is. The experiment was successful before, ten years ago, when another unknown giant, Yao Ming, opened the borders of Communist China to the NBA and large American multinationals. Ming was the son of a couple of ball players, both over 6’5”, who were brought together by the Party to bring a champion into the world.
Bhamara’s father, on the other hand, is a stately man with a purple turban and white beard who, who from the height of his seven feet and two inches also dreamt of playing basketball, once upon a time. But the Bhamara family had other projects at the time: a farm in Ballo Ke, an isolated community of 800 in northern India. There was wheat to harvest, flour to grind, and cows to be milked. Balbir obeyed and ultimately became head of the village. One of three children, Bhamara’s official year of birth is registered as 1996, but his father claims he’s actually a year older. What is certain is that by the age of nine, he was already taller than his mother.
So Balbir built him a makeshift basket and nailed it to the side of the house. Bhamara dangled from it jumping over cows. He had good aim and enormous hands that hid the ball. The villagers came to see him for fun, and the elders nicknamed him Chhotu, Punjabi for “the little one”. In 2006, the boy made his debut in Punjab’s youth league and was immediately offered a scholarship to a sports academy in Ludhiana, 80 km from Ballo Ke.
Bhamara grew quickly and when he was 13 he made the cut for the national junior team; he was their youngest and tallest player ever. There were no scouts seeking him out yet, but other things had already begun moving.
In 2009, the NBA elected Heidi Ueberroth, who ten years earlier launched NBA China, as its first president of NBA International. She immediately nominated a director of basketball operations in India, Troy Justice. Then she struck partnership deals with Nike, Adidas and Coca Cola, all of whom shared her same goal: to snag the young Indian demographic. Ueberroth called India “a top priority”. But it wasn’t just the NBA that geared up. Others sniffed out business deals and decided to invest as well. Such as Ted J. Forstmann – playboy, ex-boyfriend of Princess Diana (and Elizabeth Hurley) and CEO of IMG, the American giant in sports marketing and management. And Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India (worth €20 billion) and owner of Reliance Industries, the country’s largest corporation. In 2010, IMG Reliance, a joint venture between IMG and Reliance, signed a 30- year deal with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and announced a new league would be created, in 2015, modelled after the cricket league that IMG had helped establish in 2007.
Courts started shooting up in the slums, American coaches arrived, and a scholarship to the IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton, Florida was offered. The man to first notice Bhamara was Troy Justice, the former coach appointed by Ueberroth to drum up interest in the game from the grassroots level in India. He met Bhamara in 2010 at a try-out and was instantly bowled over. Satnam was 14, his shoes were tattered and too tight but he had a body and talent for the game that immediately struck Justice. He started working with the boy and a few days later called New York, telling them: “I have found the ‘Chosen One’”.
The IMG Reliance Scholarship came shortly thereafter, prompting the president of the BFI to say, “Come see our Yao Ming”. IMG Reliance gave Bhamara the first of its scholarships ($70,000 per year) for the champions of tomorrow and, with his father’s consent, India’s little big hope moved to America. He’s been living there for three years now: he’s learned how to run, attack the basket, and speak English; he’s discovered Wal-Mart and pizza. In a year he’ll head off to college, perhaps Stanford in California, to learn how to stay hungry and ball-crazy his whole life. “Right now I have to focus on improving and on my studies”, he said in one of the few interviews he’s given in his brief career so far.
“I’m 7-foot-2, I’m still in school and I don’t know what life will bring. Even after I retire, I want to make sure there’s a young generation that continues the popularity of basketball in India”.