New Delhi: Sozhasingarayer Robinson lopes down a Chennai court, dribbling, pirouetting and dunking. The 6’8” Robinson sweats through five hours of daily practice with dreams that top his size 14 shoes: the former India player wants to play professional basketball.
New Zealand is the latest to call—“I will start negotiating with the Auckland league authorities soon”—but his decision is rooted in disenchantment. A former Asian All-Star team member, Robinson’s game impresses professional leagues overseas. New Zealand, for example, ranks 12th among the 74 basketball-playing nations.
But in India, ranked 46 with its government-sponsored state teams, Robinson is a nobody, lesser known than a minor league cricketer. To play professional ball, he must leave the country, which has no pro league.
One day, that might not be the case for India’s aspiring basketball players. Several measures are under way to step up the game in India, including an undisclosed investment by the National Basketball Association, a $3.3 billion empire that coordinates 32 teams across the United States.
Fresh from lessons learned in China, where basketball has become a national pastime, the NBA is eyeing India as its next big growth market. In November, eight NBA officials toured the country, and the same sports management firm that handles the NBA in China finalizes its India strategy this year. India’s basketball chief left for the United States last week to continue discussions on formalizing a partnership with the NBA.
In India, basketball has been played for decades, but so dismal has India’s performance been that the Central government blocked the national team’s participation at the Doha Asiad in November. For decades, Indian players—who earn no money for their game—such as Robinson have complained of indifference by the nation’s official basketball promoters, the Basketball Federation of India, which coordinates basketball tournaments among states.
Marketing efforts picked up this past June, as the Punjab government invited former NBA player Robert Reid to hold a three-day clinic for coaches. Other NBA officials scoped out the Punjab countryside for tall talent and business opportunities, from merchandising to digital broadcasts of games. Their enthusiasm rubbed off on Indian basketball representatives.
“We will take their suggestions on how a professional league can be introduced,” said federation secretary general Harish Sharma.
Last summer, shoemaker Adidas sent NBA player Kevin Garnett, a hoopster for the Minnesota Timberwolves, on a tour of India to promote the company’s limited edition KG3 sports footwear, priced at Rs8,499.
Adidas, which has an 11-year merchandising partnership with NBA, also plans to organise tournaments at the grass-roots level to garner interest in the sport, said Hartwin Fedderson, Adidas India’s marketing director. The first was held last year in New Delhi during Garnett’s visit, with 64 teams from Delhi participating. Adidas now plans to hold the tournament every year in major Indian cities.
“Neither Adidas nor NBA is under any illusion,” Fedderson said. “Building the sport in India will take time and a lot of effort, but we are taking a long-term perspective.”
Like the NBA, the US-based JD Basketball School wants to train future stars in India. Since it was founded in 1997, the school has worked with foreign governments and volunteer groups to spread basketball; it will hold its first clinic in Chennai in June. “The interest shown by sponsors, future players, government officials and multinational corporations was an eye opener,” founder J.D. Walsh said in an e-mail interview.
Walsh, 34, said he was also in touch with groups interested in starting professional leagues in India. What excited him most were India’s demographics: largely young and a growing middle class. “It is clear that cricket is by far the No. 1, but with this population basketball too can make a significant impact,” he said.
Acting on advice from NBA, India’s basketball federation last year introduced in Bangalore the first national competition among school basketball teams. A similar programme in China led to the discovery of Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets star who helped propel China to its No. 11 rank and then immigrated to the United States to similarly thrill American fans.
Since 1979, when the Washington Bullets first played the Chinese team in exhibition games, basketball has steadily increased its presence in China. Efforts are intensified as Beijing prepares to host the Olympic Games next year. Last month, NBA even announced a multi-million dollar marketing deal with a Mongolian milk producer, Mengniu Dairy Group.
“If NBA comes to India, it’s definitely big,” said Dishmit Singh Anand, 18, a member of the basketball team at the Don Bosco School in Kolkata. But he’d rather not get too excited by the development
Anand dropped out of the Bengal junior squad to focus on studies. Now he aspires for a corporate sector job. “There is no career in basketball, I would rather concentrate on my exams.”
Anand is frustrated that Indian basketball is seldom shown on the television. The game hasn’t progressed much in India and, in the absence of good competition, he can’t see how he can improve his game.
Like Anand, Tanvir Singh Logani, a Delhi Don Bosco School alumnus, doesn’t want to get too excited by talks of NBA’s proposed entry.
The University of Missouri graduate plays professionally in the Ober Liga, one of Germany’s better basketball leagues, and hopes to represent India at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. “If NBA does come, it’s going to be huge,” he says. “But for them to succeed, our infrastructure has to improve.” The Basketball Federation of India says it hopes the NBA interest will bring much-needed sponsorship funds to upgrade infrastructure and pay players adequately. “Only the NBA brand can ensure sponsor interest,” said the federation’s Sharma.
But the federation may still need to do its bit. “India lacks an established professional league and recognisable stars,” said John Kristick, the executive director for Infront Sports & Media, the sports management firm that handles the marketing affairs for NBA China. “You must improve the product before you sell it. You need a Yao Ming.”
In Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, a company called Sportz India has been linking up with the stakeholders in the basketball industry to create a fan base. Late last year, the company brought to India the Harlem Globetrotters, a New York-based squad known for its jazzy, flashy play that performs across the world for entertainment.
Sportz India’s country head Anil Kumar said he has been approached by US-based basketball promoters and players, unaware of the Indian reality, wanting to play the “Indian league.”
Coaches and trainers asked him about setting up camps, basketball management agencies have scouted Indian talent, while many want to start private leagues or expand their existing brands here, he said.
Kumar said with Indian companies looking for alternatives to cricket, basketball is ideally poised to capture a new market: besides being an upper middle-class pastime and an ideal TV sport, sponsoring the game is cheap investment.
Star basketball player Robinson, already 26-years-old, doubts all the plans will materialize in time for him. But he adds: “I never said I wouldn’t play for India. But there has to be a system, as in cricket.”