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OTHERS :

“Until the day before yesterday, Indian basketball did not exist. Okay, I’ll correct that. Over the last year there were only a few signs: when India beat China, when the turban ban happened and when Sim Bhullar signed for Sacramento Kings. Now, today, Indian basketball can create something from zero. There can be an explosion from zero to infinity."

Before Indian basketball nuts—and there are a sizeable number of them—begin grumbling “what the hell yaar", let’s quickly say the words above are not directed at them. It is not as if their history and legend is being erased, but I know where Gopalakrishnan R. is coming from. He speaks not to his brethren and sporting soulmates, but to the rest of us, the world outside Indian basketball. Gopalakrishnan is one of a five-man core team that runs Ekalavyas, the first and so far the only website dedicated to Indian basketball.

The last time he and I spoke was about 11 months ago, when India beat China at the FIBA Asia Cup. The silence in the time that has elapsed since then is a reflection of basketball’s “does not exist" status in our mainstream sports media.

When he says “day before yesterday", Gopalakrishnan is referring to a sudden, scrambled Friday when a major announcement flashed on newswires, tweets and television tickers. It was followed by a visual of National Basketball Association (NBA) deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announcing that with the 52nd pick in the NBA’s 2015 Draft, the Dallas Mavericks had selected Satnam Singh Bhamara. His provenance was announced as “Chawke, India", but no one in Ballo Ke village, in Punjab’s Barnala district, would fuss. The Mavericks’ general manager, Donnie Nelson, cheerily said “Namaste, everyone" at his media briefing and helpfully explained that it meant “hello in Indian". Vir Das, Kapil Sharma, there is no better time to spin out a new line of Texas-Punjab jokes.

Bhamara will start his life at the Mavericks with their D-League (D for development) squad, the Texas Legends. Of the Mavericks’ previous 30 picks over the past 17 drafts, only six players have got on to the court in an NBA game in the season that followed. So while Bhamara, 7ft, 2inches in his size 22 shoes, may sell plenty of T-shirts, the chances of him turning up on an NBA court in the coming season are remote.

Before Bhamara made it right to the top, a handful of Indians had found their way into professional basketball leagues, we hear. This history is communicated only by word of mouth. Fellow 1990s traveller V. Anand from The Times Of India reminds me that Mumbai’s Shahid Qureshi of Tatas, Bihar and India is recognized as the first Indian to have played basketball professionally, at Swedish club Akropol, in 1994. A 2000 article, Hoops, Hunger And The City, anthologized in a collection of writings on Mumbai called Bombay, Meri Jaan, shows that Qureshi even picked up a Swedish nickname: Djor, or the Bull. Shivani Naik of The Indian Express wrote in to remind me that Qureshi had played in Singapore too.

Ten years after Qureshi, there was S. Robinson of Tamil Nadu, brilliant on court, and colourful and controversial off it. Robinson played two seasons in the Iranian league for a club called Farsh Mashhad in the early 2000s.

This June, Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh, the core of the Indian team that beat China—and also the characters smack in the middle of the turban controversy—signed on to play the Japanese summer league for a club called Hyogo Impulse. They hope to be noticed by the mainstream teams in the Japanese league and sign on as professionals for the regular season.

It is, however, Bhamara’s inclusion in the NBA that could lead to a deeper Indian imprint on global basketball. The operational word here is “could". How it will do so remains blurry because Bhamara’s selection came about due to a series of fortuitous circumstances rather than the success of an exercise or even experiment that can be replicated.

In 2010, Bhamara was one of eight Indians (four boys and four girls) selected for a basketball scholarship at the IMG Academy in Florida, US. It was an IMG Reliance scholarship, part of a 30-year deal signed between IMG Reliance and the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) in June 2010 aimed at developing basketball from the grass roots up and creating a much-needed professional league in India. After the deal was signed, some professionals, including a clutch of NRIs (non-resident Indians), and assistant coaches were sent from the US to work in several capacities across the Indian game. The league, though, remains pure pie in sky.

In comparison, just four years after the All India Football Federation signed a 15-year deal with IMG Reliance, we saw the first edition of the Indian Super League. This doesn’t mean our football is better run than our basketball—cue Indian footballers collapsing in hysterics. It does, however, show that India’s basketball administration has let the zeitgeist slide past.

In his post-draft press conference, Bhamara thanked his old coaches and singled out Harish Sharma, former BFI secretary-general and chief executive officer, for special praise. Sharma had driven the BFI-IMG Reliance deal and recommended Bhamara for the Florida scholarship. His death, in early 2012, when he was 53, appears to have derailed the game’s administration.

Currently, the BFI is involved in infighting that could lead to the Indian team being banned from all international events in 2015-16. The courts are already involved. A day after Bhamara’s selection in the NBA draft, the Hindustan Times published a series of ghastly photographs showing the state of the Ludhiana Basketball Academy (LBA), founded in 2002 to identify and train tall boys and supply them to the national team. At one point there were four LBA players in the Indian squad. Bhamara spent a brief period there, but the academy has fallen into visible disrepair.

Indian basketball continues to be enjoyed in several disconnected cocoons. In its administration, marking territory has overridden the spread of the game. The landscape offered by Indian basketball today is far from one suited to produce future Satnam Singh Bhamaras. What his example could do, though, is produce an ambitious flock, ready to fly over and away from it.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Espncricinfo.

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