The much-awaited debut of the NBA’s first pre-season matches on Indian soil is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable electricity in the air. The two games, which will take place on the 4th and 5th of October, 2019, will be the cornerstone of the National Basketball Association’s almost decade-long commitment to the Indian market, and to the development of the sport within the nation. A momentous occasion in itself, the two pilot matches slated to take place in Mumbai will be broadcasted in 200 countries around the world, and will also mark the first time an international sports league will conduct matches in the city.
The NBA’s association with India goes all the way back to 2011 when the company announced their intention to build over 100 courts across the nation within the following five years, as well as to increase the scope of the Mahindra NBA Challenge- the largest, multi-city, community-based basketball league in India.
In a nation obsessed with cricket, a variety of other sports have tried and failed to attract an audience. Why then would the NBA have any better luck? The rise of basketball in India owes its popularity to the relative simplicity of the sport, which doesn’t require any sort of specialised equipment, and the fact that a court can be fashioned out of almost any (mostly even) terrain- as long as there is somewhere one may hang a hoop. This gives basketball a definite advantage over sports like cricket and football, which require open fields of play.
In a 2011 interview with the Times of India, Senior Director of Development for NBA India, Akash Jain stated, “Our ultimate aim is to make basketball the number two sport in the country (after cricket). We are seeking to do that by making a sustainable grassroots program in a minimum of 10 cities in India. We are looking to do that through school-based platforms.” Almost ten years later, it looks like those promises are being met.
Almost about a decade ago, The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) estimated that a total of 4.5 million Indians play basketball. While this number was only a fraction of the county’s population of a whopping 1.2 billion people, the NBA suspected that the real number stood much higher, owing to the fact that the BFI’s statistics missed out on players who were not part of any league.
The NBA launched The NBA Academy India in May of 2017. An elite basketball training centre located at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Complex in the Delhi National Capital Region (NCR), the Academy has since scoured the nation for homegrown talent and provided a number of scholarships under which to nurture them. With an aim to build on the pre-existing foundation of the NBA’s youth development initiatives, the Reliance Foundation’s Junior NBA program prides itself on having reached over 6 million aspiring players and having trained over 13,000 physical education instructors worldwide since its launch in the year 2013.
The NBA also introduced the NBA Basketball School, targeted towards international male and female players from the ages of 6-10, as a network of tuition-based basketball development programs. So far, the number of Indian youth reached as part of The Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA Program towards the development of the sport stans at approximately 10 million. This is encouraging not just for the future of the sport here in India, but also from a global perspective.
The growth of the game in the nation relied heavily on creating a fanbase, increasing viewership, encouraging youngsters to play the sport by providing them with scholarships and ultimately, and most importantly, giving the Indian youth an example to look up to.
The era of Indian-origin players in the NBA began in the years 2014-15, when Sim Bhullar of the Toronto Raptors, became the first player of Indian descent to have played in an official NBA game. Since then, there have been three more Indian contributions to the Summer and G-Leagues, namely, Satnam Singh (Dallas Mavericks, Texas Legends), Amjyot Singh (Oklahoma City Blue, Wisconsin Herd) and Palpreet Singh (Long Island Nets). Sanjana Ramesh (Northern Arizona University), Vaishnavi Yadav (Pensacola State), Sunishka Karthik (Woodside Priory), Asmat Taunque (Lawrenceville) and Khushi Dongre (ASA College) are five players from the NBA Academies Women’s Program to play college basketball in the US. Jagshaanbir Singh, who recently committed to attending Golden State Prep, is also the first male player from the Academy to get a scholarship.
The first-ever NBA pre-season games to take place in India aim to cater to not just hardcore fans of the sport, but to casual viewers and people who have not interacted with the sport much in the past.
In an attempt to make the games even more accessible to the Indian audience, the NBA began Hindi-language commentary over their matches two years ago, in partnership with Sony. “Now 75 matches have Hindi commentary, which accounts for a quarter of our reach. Last season (2018-2019), the viewership for an NBA game was 91million,” Gotua said.
In a breathtaking effort to bring visibility to the event, the NBA created a 3D mapping visual experience, which was displayed on the Gateway of India. Amongst their other quirky promotional activities was the first-ever floating basketball court in the Arabian Sea, near the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, where NBA legend Jason Williams made an appearance.
The NBA India Games will take place on Friday, the 4th of October and Saturday, the 5th of October at the Dome, NSCI, in Mumbai. Book your tickets here!