American basketball player Brook Lopez, 30, along with twin brother Robin, has been part of the US’ National Basketball Association (NBA) for over a decade. Brook, who plays centre for the Los Angeles Lakers, was on his maiden trip to India earlier this month as part of NBA initiatives to popularize the game in the country. He spoke to Lounge about basketball in India, how the game is changing, and the mixing of politics and sport. Edited excerpts:

What have the last few days been like?

It’s my first trip. I’ve had a great time here. In Delhi, I got to see the grass-roots programmes for the kids in partnership with the junior NBA and ACG. They’ve done a fantastic job of building that foundation and giving kids with a dream to play basketball professionally in the NBA the tools necessary to reach that goal.

There are a few Indians in the NBA but they play in the development league. How long before we have players in the main league?

I think it’s round the corner. It’s going to take more of this continued grass-roots development where they get the right coaching, the right treatment and training. Watching the junior NBA championships, both boys and girls, the kids have a ton of talent and love for the game. So having these coaches around who can help them reach those next levels and continue to improve as they get older is critical. I think this is a great opportunity for them to harness their potential.

We hear a lot about potential but how long will it be before India can have a decent team?

I don’t know how long but I think it would be important for India to have its own professional league. Somewhere that kids and people in general can experience basketball day to day.... I know cricket is so popular. I would love to see something similar to the IPL (Indian Premier League) for basketball.

I think India has a great advantage and this is something I didn’t know about until I got here: I didn’t realize how diverse a country it is...and how different and diverse the kids are from all the states. I think diversity in body types and the way the kids are built gives India a great chance at having a lot of good basketball players.

One impression is that Indians don’t have the average height that basketball requires.

(At the academy) you had the big tall kids, the lanky athletic kids, the smaller tougher kids, there were all sorts and that really surprised me, and I think that diversity is so important. You look at a country like the US, the benefit we have going for us is that we have a diverse pool of people to pull from in whatever sport it is.

So basketball can accommodate different body types?

Absolutely. You look at how basketball has changed in the past 10 years at a professional level. It’s not necessarily just a big man’s game any more. You have a lot of small guards that are just dominating. It’s become a lot more of an outside, small-ball, fast-paced game.

China had Yao Ming, who helped popularize basketball there. Would having one or two big stars make a difference here too?

Absolutely. I don’t think that’s required to grow the game but no question that would help. It’s absolutely going to happen down the line. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that either.

The three-on-three format will debut at the Tokyo Olympics next year. How will it affect the five-on-five game?

It’s an exciting change. I think five-on-five will be the way the game goes for a long time but three-on-three adds a lot of exciting differences. Obviously, the court is going to be much more open. You look at some of the match-ups, internationally the whole world has continued to improve in basketball prowess, teams like Spain, Australia, France. It will be a very competitive field.

Last year, there was a lot of friction between President Donald Trump and hockey, football and basketball players (many athletes chose to protest against social injustice by kneeling during the national anthem, sparking a debate). What are your thoughts on athletes taking political stands?

It’s definitely a very divisive issue. I can tell you there has been a lot of dialogue in the locker room between players, between players and fans, coaches and players. There are a lot of good points being brought up on both sides. There have been things that haven’t gone right, a lot of injustices. I know a lot of people are split on how one should stand up for that. I can tell you in the locker room there are some players who believe in it and some that aren’t really for it (kneeling for the national anthem as a mark of protest). I think it’s important to show solidarity all around. I think it’s important for an athlete to use their platform to speak out for what they believe in and for those that may not have that platform and that chance to speak.

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