Five years ago, basketball in China was in the same state as it is now in India. It was a sport that few people played, but after Yao Ming joined the NBA (the US’ National Basketball Association team Houston Rockets), the activity there has grown unbelievably,” says NBA star Dwight David Howard.
The 24-year-old Orlando Magic centre was explaining why there is hope that India may choose basketball as its favourite sport after cricket. Howard points out that making any game popular is a long-term goal. “Baseball was America’s favourite sport, but with NBA’s efforts, basketball has surpassed any other game in the country in popularity,” he says.
The 6ft 11-inches tall player, who stood several inches taller than the members of the Indian men’s national team, shot a few hoops with them while conducting a brief training session at the Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore on Tuesday. Howard spoke to the team preparing for the 16th Asian Games in China in November.
“There are a couple of players here who have some talent, maybe not to play the NBA, but certainly to play at a big stage. What’s important here is that an opportunity to play has to be created,” says Howard, who was part of the 2008 American Olympic team that won the gold medal in Beijing.
Howard also made an appearance at the Mahindra NBA Challenge, a community-based basketball league launched in Mumbai, Bangalore and Ludhiana. He travels to Delhi on Friday to launch the second consecutive NBA Jam, the league’s travelling fan event in India that features interactive basketball activities. He adds that the NBA plans to conduct basketball clinics and several tournaments across the country so that children learn the game the way they pick up cricket—right from a young age.
“I started playing basketball when I was just three years old and the game never stopped being a part of my life. I love it so much that when the NBA was looking for an ambassador to spread the game, I raised my hand,” he says.
“I have always wanted to be here. The game of basketball has made me what I am and I would love the opportunity to take the game to more people,” adds the player, who won NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award for two successive seasons.
Akash Jain, director, international development, NBA Entertainment, adds, “We plan to have a grass-roots programme by slowly growing basketball communities and creating a culture.”
A small beginning had been made, as was evident from the crowd of around 200 in Bangalore that cheered “Superman”—a title Howard earned during a Slam Dunk contest at the NBA All-Star event in 2008. After he finished shooting more baskets for press photographers, he invited people from the crowd to show him their talent on the court.
“See, there is so much hope,” he exclaimed in the middle of high fives and cheers.