When the Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers traveled to Mumbai for a pair of preseason games last October, it offered up the chance of a lifetime for NBA fans all across India. For the first time ever, actual NBA games would take place right here in India.
For the biggest of basketball fans, the opportunity to catch the action live in person raised a simple question: how bad do you want it?
For Siddarth Sharma, who has been writing about basketball in India and the NBA for nearly a decade, it was a lifelong dream to watch an NBA game live.
"When the NBA games came [to India], having covered the league for so long, it was really momentous," Sharma told NBA.com India. "I wanted to do something which would make it even more personal for me."
And so began one of the most remarkable journeys any fan has ever made for the love of the game.
The Road Trip
The NBA India Games in October 2019 will stand the test of time and forever be etched in the memory of every Indian basketball fan. It will go down as one of those iconic 'how/where did you watch it' and a "what were you doing when" moments that remain as clear as day even as the memory itself fades deeper into the past.
From thousands of Indian basketball fans, Sharma's 'NBA India Games' story sets itself apart and how.
He traveled over 2,200 kilometers (nearly 1,367 miles) from Kolkata to Mumbai on a motorbike to catch Game 2 of the NBA India Games at the NSCI Dome on October 5th.
MORE: NBA India Games 2019 leaves deep impact on 'invested' spectators
"From the East Coast to the West Coast, I have always wanted to take a road trip," Sharma adds. "Initially, it was just a road trip idea but there was never any reason to actually go that far."
The idea of a trip across the breadth of India had been in his mind since 2012 . Seven years on, the historic India Games gave him 'the reason'.
However, as October drew near, India's unusual monsoon season of 2019 forced him to shelve the plan.
The start of India's monsoon (which normally begins in late May) was delayed and stretched later than normal (September) into early October. These late monsoons had displaced millions across the country including regions along India's West coast and this forced Sharma to book flight tickets for Mumbai instead.
As late as Tuesday (Oct. 1) before the games, he was on track to fly down to the country's commercial capital.
That's when he received 'the push' to take up the challenge from an unlikely source - Cat and Raz, a couple of women who were passing by Decathlon Kolkata, aged above 50 and traveling around the world on a tandem bike.
"Since I cover social media here [Decathlon Kolkata], I got a chance to meet them. They were so joyful. They were completely unsupported, as in, there wasn't any car going along with them to support them on their journey."
"One of them said - Your just the age of my child," Sharma adds. "I'm like if I don't do it [the road trip] now, I'll regret it."
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The next morning, Sharma set-off on his coast-to-coast journey, although much later than he had initially planned.
"Wednesday was a bright and sunny day. There was a feeling that a train is running away. If I don't do it now, I'll regret it forever," he said. "So, I ended up packing, packing, packing and left Kolkata at around 10:30 AM. The original plan was to leave to 4:30 AM."
Here's a breakup of Sharma's travel log:
|Date & Day||Travel||Distance [kms]|
|Wednesday, Oct. 2||Kolkata to Bhubaneshwar||448|
|Thursday, Oct. 3||Bhubaneshwar to Vijayawada (Hotel Centre Side)||783|
|Friday, Oct. 4||Vijayawada to Pune||830|
|Saturday, Oct. 5||Pune to Mumbai||162|
Every venture of this magnitude has its set of challenges, both physical and mental.
For starters, Sharma didn't know the route. In addition, he was set for a bike journey in excess of 2,000 kilometers when he had never ridden for more than 60 on a motorbike. More importantly, the road is bound to be isolated in parts and if he needs to give time to a punctured tire or any other such mishap, he could miss the games.
There were nearly ten full months between the announcement of the games and the games itself. So, Sharma approached all of these challenges with meticulous planning.
Image above: Siddarth Sharma en route to Mumbai
"Each day, I'll just break it down into this many kilometers and focus on that," Sharma said giving an ode to Shaquille O'Neal's strategy of scoring 40 points by focusing on scoring 10 each quarter. "For planning, I looked up videos of everybody going on road trips on YouTube to see how they are riding."
The videos helped with understanding a lot of key aspects on long road trips - what to avoid, how to pack, what to wear, and so much more.
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"I had seen that ok, I need to prepare a base layer and on top of it, put some armor on, in case I fall," Sharma said before explaining the significance of either.
"The debris flying on the road, rocks coming under trucks and flying at you, bird droppings, etc. So, you need protective clothing even if you don't fall. It protects you against the wind and dust, etc. The base layer, that sticks to your skin, wipes sweat away and keeps you cool."
Image above: Siddarth Sharma's Yamaha FZ25 on which he traveled from Kolkata to Mumbai
Physically, too, he began grooming himself for the trip.
By regularly cycling 30-40 kilometers and eating healthy in the year leading up to the games, he reduced his weight from 83 kgs to 70. Sometimes, he would wear baggy clothes and ride in the heat to get used to being on the saddle.
Like any other road trip, man and machine were going to embark on this coast-to-coast journey. Having bought a Yamaha FZ25 in August of 2019, Sharma quickly put down some rubber and clocked 700 km - enough to have the motorbike ready for its first service right before the trip.
For refreshments, energy bars were going to be a huge part of Sharma's diet during the trip but he ended up eating most of them in the brief time the trip was shelved. He finally packed up plenty of ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution) packets, three one-liter bottles and a box of peanut butter.
More: Takeaways from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's press conference at India Games
"On a trip like this, you got to watch what you eat also," Sharma explained. "So, I took a jar of peanut butter and I knew at every stop, I would get some dry butter and bread."
Love for the game
"This was an adventure I wanted to undertake. A personal journey, one of those things you want to accomplish. And to make the memory of the NBA India games stand out for me."
For Sharma, who's love affair with the sport began in his backyard in the early years of this millennium, #NBAInMyBackyard, a hashtag associated with the NBA India Games, brought back memories of his old backyard.
"My dad had a business of iron and steel, so he built a ring for me in my backyard," Sharma said. "I took a cloth and I would make a ball retriever so that I would have an incentive to shoot it and the ball would come straight back to me."
"Everyday I would spend two hours on that and then, on playing NBA Live ."
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Where it all began, childhood well spent. Homemade basketball rim with a slide retriever jugaad to avoid rocks on the ground. Murphy's law kept kicking in. #LoveForTheGame #BasketballIndia #BallIsLife #BallDontStop #NBAIndiaGames @nbaindia my backyard to seeing #NBAInMyBackyard!
In the early 2000s, there was very limited or close to no NBA games available on cable television in India and YouTube wasn't even around.
So, in the pre-NBA 2K days, playing NBA Live, the 2003 edition with Jason Kidd on the cover, became an integral part of Sharma's daily routine. As Kidd's crossovers played out on the game's main menu screen, Sharma would go out to his backyard and do the same.
"That's how my love for the game started - in my backyard and with the NBA video game series," Sharma adds.
On The Road
Despite the near six-hour delay to begin the trip and the decision to leave on an impulse, Sharma was unfazed because of the level of preparation he had undergone.
Not sure which town he would reach as the sun sets each day, he hadn't booked any hotel.
"That's where Decathlon came into play," Sharma said.
Decathlon is a French sporting goods retailer that has over 1,500 shops in 49 countries. In India, it opened it's first shop in 2009 and since has grown to a strength of 65 stores (as of Sep. 2018) all across the country.
Image above: Sharma at Decathlon, Phulnakara in Bhubaneswar
"This is sort of a crazy trip and crazy idea to begin with," Sharma said. "Now [while on the trip], if you narrate it [this trip] to anybody, they are going to say it's crazy but the one place where people understand the sporting spirit, it's over here [Decathlon]."
"I knew at every store I stopped, there will at least be a little bit of moral support."
Over the course of this trip, he stopped at two Decathlons - Phulnakara [Bhubaneswar] and Enikepadu [Vijaywada]. After covering 448 kms on an adventure-free Day 1, it was the Decathlon in Bhubaneswar, where Sharma asked for hotel recommendations nearby to spend the night.
Image above: Sharma at Decathlon, Enikepadu in Vijaywada
The road was long and Sharma learned many lessons along the way, the biggest coming on Day 2.
"While using Google Maps, I would not recommend setting it for bike," he shared. "In that, it sets you down all kinds of narrow paths."
He encountered quicksand along one such forest road-like narrow path on an exit from Hyderabad. As is the nature of quicksand, the wheel of the bike dug deeper as Sharma accelerated. He got off the bike and tried to pull it out, instead, he lost balance and that resulted in the bike falling on its right side.
"The mirror was crushed and the handlebar was bent," Sharma said. "The left hand I had to fully extend and the right one, I had to bend my elbow a bit."
That's how Sharma drove from Hyderabad for the rest of the trip to Mumbai.
"I would not recommend anyone doing something like this."
Image above: Sharma's broken right rearview mirror
In spite of the adversity, giving up was not an option for Sharma.
"If you stop, that means you have given up and if you have given up in one thing in life, that means, you can't look yourself in the mirror and say that you did all that you could," he said.
After some apprehensions during the first few hours of Day 1, he could feel his confidence growing as he drove further on Day 2 and Day 3.
"This is something I can carry with me all my life saying that okay, if I could do that, then I can do any other challenge that lies ahead."
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Staying motivated is one thing but for the body, staying hydrated and eating just enough of the right things regularly is essential as well. Sharma remained focused on taking care of himself, so, India's highway 'dhabas' were a no-no.
"In terms of eating and drinking, it was just sit on the bike and every 1.5 hours, take small sips of ORS and a little bit of an energy bar."
"In one hotel, in the night, they just shut down miraculously. They said the cook is away. After much negotiation, I got some dry bread. That's where the peanut butter came to the rescue."
Image above: Sharma's peanut butter jar
Of the 2,200 kms, Sharma is sure to have spent a majority of it on the highways. The quicksand episode aside, he did have other highway tales.
"Another reason, I bought a new bike was the old one didn't have ABS," Sharma explained. "The ABS saved me 2-3 times on the road. On one occasion, it was just one finger distance between me and a truck which just suddenly decided to stop."
Staying away from any on-road battles with bikers, Sharma focused at the task at hand. Each day, he would ride till around 7 PM, just after sundown.
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"After 2 PM every day, I would go into fourth quarter mode," Sharma added. "Navigating in the dark is a pain."
He would then rest up, only to wake up at 2:30 AM to prepare for the next day by getting the luggage in order, eating something, and making peanut butter sandwiches for the day. He would leave at 6 AM, a short time before sunrise.
He would cover a majority of the trip's distance on days 2 and 3 - a total of 1,613 kms.
In fact, on Day 3, as the Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers played an overtime thriller in Game 1 of the NBA India Games, Sharma overshot his initial destination of Solapur to reach Pune, a town approximately just 150 kms from Mumbai.
"Now, I know I won't miss the games," Sharma said in relief.
Although he had completed more than a majority of the distance, setting up in Pune was going to be a lot tougher than the previous two nights.
"It was raining pretty hard. The [phone] battery was down to 7% and I hadn't booked a hotel yet."
He finally found an OYO Townhouse with a petrol bunk next to it in Hadapsar, Pune to retire for the night. Next morning, the day of the Games, Sharma would take off for Mumbai.
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Strong 3rd quarter with 850 km covered on Day 3, touchdown in Pune! #Kolkata2Mumbai 2000km ride for #NBAIndiaGames. Hands tell the story 😂. Original plan was to reach Solapur today, but daylight, optimism and sounds of balls dribbling & sneakers squeaking carried the #FZ25 all the way to Pune. All kinds of weather, roads and sceanic sights along the way. In time to catch @yogiferre11's buzzer beater, and of course @sacramentokings vs @pacers goes to overtime today. Thanks 🙏🏼 @NBAIndia for the story mention 😇 One more day!! #NBAInMyBackyard
The NBA experience
Once in Mumbai, at the NSCI Dome for the game, Sharma didn't want to forget any of the experience. As he took it all in, he began typing it down on a keyboard.
"The way Boomer (the Pacers mascot and the Power Pack) were dunking, jumping off the trampoline," Sharma began describing his experience.
"So even before the game started, everyone understood ok, gravity has no place in the arena right now. Then, when the players were taking jump shots, they seem to move like... I don't know how to describe it but the lighting was different on them."
"It was like [NBA] 2K come to life," Sharma added.
Image above: View from Siddarth Sharma's seat at the NSCI Dome in Mumbai
"When they [both teams] made their entrance, it was to some desi rap. I never thought I would see that," Sharma added. "When the game started, like when we run it's like we are bouncing off, but these guys, they just glide or float more than anything."
Very pleased with his seat in the arena, that gave him a bird's eye view of all the action, Sharma had numerous memories of that night to recollect.
"When the game started, another thing that stood out was every time they shoot, you don't hear that 'Thunk' on the rim. On TV, you get to hear that, so I was like where's that sound. That was one disconnect."
"There was one moment where I was like okay, I'm watching an NBA game here in person. I forgot the player's name, I think, it happened in the first half. So, he jumped to make a pass then he switched to take a shot, then again, I think, he looked to the side to make a pass. All in the air, then he heard the whistle and made the shot for an and-one."
"This is what it means - hanging in the air."
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Reminiscing the euphoria of that night, Sharma shared more unforgettable memories like the fans going quiet during free-throws, De'Aaron Fox receiving MVP chants, players waving back to small pockets of crowds after the cameras had zoomed in on them for creative chants and last but not least, Larry Bird receiving a standing ovation when introduced.
This is pure gold.- Jonathan Rego (@jonathanrego) October 10, 2019
India (basketball community) values Larry Bird over Priyanka Chopra. https://t.co/BGG47JpZ4T
'The Bigger Fans of the Game'
The opportunity to watch an NBA game live in India is enough of an incentive for any basketball fan to pack their bags for Mumbai. Sharma, however, did have more and while the chance to complete his long-awaited bike travel was a huge part of it, he did share another with us.
"Another reason I was looking forward to the trip was to be surrounded by people who love the game and people who are fans of the game."
"When he [Troy Justice] was also recognized on the floor [during the NBA India Games], I felt like "yeh to apna banda hai" [this is our dude]."
Troy Justice, currently NBA's Associate Vice-President for Basketball Operations-International and a huge figure in the development of basketball in India, was the first person Sharma interviewed when he was writing for Sportskeeda in 2010.
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"I met Karan Madhok for the first time [at the NBA India Games]," Sharma continued. "My first job was with Sportskeeda in 2010, so I had written a profile of Indian players and at that time, there wasn't a lot of information available, only his work was like the Alphabet with which I got to piece random stuff together."
Karan Madhok has been the man at the forefront of covering Indian basketball for the past decade and has been a contributor to NBA.com India over the past few years.
Before wrapping up his conversation with us, Sharma put his travel experience in perspective.
"I know that what I have done, definitely, is a good story and everything, of course, but at the same time, I would say the people who work for the game and wake up every morning before the sun comes up to train the players, coaches and everyone. I think they are bigger fans of the game than I am."
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