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Basketball and India

All The Stars Are Closer

NBA is set to play it's ever games in India in 2019.
NBA is set to play it's ever games in India in 2019. (NBA India)

In boarding school in Mussoorie, I had a friend Shalomel, who was a big fan of San Antonio Spurs' center David Robinson. The Admiral. In Class 7th, Shalomel decided to write a letter to Robinson, addressed to his foundation. A real letter: pen on paper, wrapped in an envelope, with lots of postage stamps for international travel. Shalomel professed his love for Robinson's game and even added souvenirs, like Indian coins, with his message.

It was the mid-to-late 90s, I was an adolescent, and my friends in boarding school had hooked me on a new addiction: the NBA. It was this shiny, exciting thing, a delight to look at in awe, like the sky full of glittery stars systems shining over our clear Himalayan nights.

We memorised the names of the biggest stars and competed our knowledge with each other: no, not Polaris, Sirius, or Betelgeuse, but Jordan, Olajuwon, and Duncan. We watched the games whenever possible, sometimes waking up early in the morning for the live matchups. We collected and shared trading cards of players like Reggie Miller, Mitch Richmond, Muggsy Bogues, and my personal favourite: Gary Payton. We would marvel at those who could afford to buy imported SLAM magazines and fawn over the covers of Larry Johnson or Allen Iverson. We donned the persona of our favourite players in fake "All-Star" games. I took Payton, or my New York Knick favourite, Allan Houston. Only Michael Jordan was off limits: he was too good; it would be cheating.

Shalomel, of course, always chose Robinson.

We forgot about his letter, until, several months later, Shalomel received a surprise package addressed to him from San Antonio. Inside was a signed poster of Robinson himself, and a thank-you card addressed to our friend. Shalomel, of course, was overjoyed; it was one of the highlights of his life. The rest of us had our minds blown. For one day, the NBA superstar wasn't a star millions of miles away in the sky, but here on the same Earth as us, breathing the same air, relying on the same postal systems.

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In its early days of broadcast in India, the NBA was almost a non-entity, an alternative sport that only expats, hardcore basketball fans, and counterculture kids kept track of. Games were shown a couple times a week. We had never heard of the internet. Those who followed the league in India considered themselves to be part of a strange, exclusive club, where we discussed points-per-game instead of run-rates and convened in lonely solidarity in the early AM when only the chowkidaars were awake.

Over two decades have passed since then, and those star systems in the night sky have since been pulled closer to us than ever before. The NBA has grown its presence rapidly around the globe, and although it is still an underdog in the uphill battle against cricket in India, it has done enough to pave a way towards mainstream recognizability. The number of weekly games broadcast on TV spiked from two to five to a dozen per week. Games have become customised with studio shows for the Indian audience and even feature Hindi commentary.

Grassroots events have been held reaching out to more than 10 million young players to raise their interest in the sport. The league opened its first office in India, in Mumbai, in 2011. Since 2006, more than 35 current and former NBA and WNBA players have visited India on behalf of the league, including Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh, and peaking with Kevin Durant last year.

Durant was present as the league unveiled the NBA Academy India in Greater Noida, a training center for elite young players from around the country.

Meanwhile, the internet and social media have closed time and distance entirely between India and the league in North American, so Indian fans can interact with the league and its players. Nothing beats the charm of Shalomel waiting a few months to get a package from Robinson, but fans of this generation can simply tweet at their favourite stars, and, on the right day, even get a response.

In 2015, across the pond, an Indian even got drafted to the NBA, and several others have tethered around the league's peripheries. One of the league's teams-the Sacramento Kings-has an Indian-born owner. The league's interest in India spiked to include more followers than ever before, and those of us with the early morning chowkidaars now have a larger community with whom we could celebrate the game.

For decades, a growing number of Indian fans have been hollering at the NBA. Now, with India growing as a basketball-loving nation, the NBA was saying "namaste" right back.

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Earlier this week, the NBA made the announcement that shook up the Indian sports world: for the first time, India will host two NBA preseason games between the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings next year. This will also be the first time any North American league has staged games in India. The two matchups of NBA India Games 2019 will be held on October 4-5 at the NSCI Dome in Mumbai.

The reaction to this news has sent a frenzy among the legion of Indian NBA-holics. The league has held official games overseas of US/Canada for decades, in Israel, Philippines, China, across Eastern and Western Europe, Japan, the Bahamas, Latin America, and more. China, the closest demographic market to India, has been hosting official NBA games since 2004, and now holds annual, consistent "NBA China Games" every offseason.

But China also differs in many ways. For one, it is probably the world's largest basketball market, boasting of hundreds of millions of basketball fans, and several Chinese players have played in the NBA, including the Hall of Famer Yao Ming. China also has world-class basketball infrastructure, with multiple arenas around the country that satisfy the NBA's higher standards.

In India, lower interest in the NBA didn't justify such a large-scale step in the past. And although the country has a few decent arenas-a few of which have been employed for FIBA Asia events-there was nothing to match the NBA's more ambitious needs. But, after dropping hints earlier in the year that India was close to providing the time of infrastructure that would interest the league, the NBA chose the NSCI Dome in Worli, Mumbai, for their India Games, a stadium that has hosted the Pro Kabaddi League, Bollywood award shows, and other big events in the past.

The announcement immediately cranked up the hype and excitement for the NBA in India, and over the next ten months, expect the demand for tickets for these games to rise into fever pitch. The NBA has been looking over India from afar, and when they finally arrive for their first official game here, everyone will want to be involved. Bollywood celebrities, politicians, corporate bigwigs, and of course, top members of India's own basketball fraternity.

The media attention will be unprecedented for a basketball event in India. It is unlikely, of course, to rattle the fortified structure of cricket, but these games will raise the league's statue here, so much so that, even NBA-agnostics might turn on the news in the evening and remark at how Victor Oladipo and De'Aaron Fox race down the floor, with Abhishek Bachchan-most likely-cheering from the sidelines.

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Aah, of course, there's the issue of the game itself, and the purists will want to mute all the distractions to focus on the actual talent on the floor. Since it's "only" the preseason, the game's result will matter lesser than the process itself. The two teams will be more interested in getting their squads an early run together, to see how their old faces gel with the new ones, to get into game shape, and of course, to wow a legion of fans starved of NBA action.

Neither of the participating teams are world-beaters or world-famous teams by any stretch, but the NBA's choice of bringing at least one of these franchises to India-the Sacramento Kings-makes complete sense. The Kings are the first (and only) NBA team with an Indian-born owner, Vivek Ranadive. Ranadive will fulfill his long-running dream of bringing the team to India for a game, and particularly to his hometown of Mumbai. Under Ranadive, the Kings made Canadian Sim Bhullar the first player of Indian-origin to play in the NBA.

Sacramento currently have the longest current playoff drought in the NBA but feature an exciting young team who are finally turning things around this season. Led by guard De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, and featuring this year's No. 2 draft pick Marvin Bagley, they have become one of the top scoring teams in the league. With cap space, an exciting young core, and some ambition to take a forward leap, the Kings could feature another famous face by the time October rolls around.

The Indiana Pacers, meanwhile have a much sunnier present-day outlook, as they stand third in the East. They are led by All-Star Victor Oladipo, rising Lithuanian forward Domantas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovich, and Myles Turner. They have one of the league's best defensive units, and in Oladipo, likely the biggest star at this showcase.

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Twenty years ago, back when we were still writing letters on paper and the Pacers' biggest star was Reggie Miller, my friends and I witnessed a true miracle. The Admiral's response to Shalomel. It was the closest any of us could have ever dreamt of getting to the NBA.

Now, another larger miracle is about to take place, a miracle that took many years of patient planning, grassroots growth of the game, and the efforts of so many invested in the NBA's success in India. The news reminded me of my boarding school friends, about how excited we would have been as adolescent basketball fans at the prospect of NBA games in our own country. When I was young, my little obsessions with the game sparked a lifelong love for NBA and basketball. I can only imagine the legions of young boys and girls around the country now for whom these Games will be a launchpad to get closer to the game than any generation before them.

The NBA India Games will surely open the door for many more games in India in the future, and hopefully, the country becomes a permanent offseason stop for the league like China. Perhaps some of those motivated, obsessed youngsters of this age will take their dream one step further and begin to represent India in the NBA, too.

When we were young, we only dreamt of catching those stars in the Himalayan night. The NBA India Games, however, are like a bright full-moon, illuminating the entire night sky, and changing the game forever.

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