It's 7 AM in the morning, or 6:30, or 5. Or so early that it's still dark outside. Or so early that their eyes haven't fully opened yet. They see with half an eye open. They stumble to their TV sets or their computers or their mobiles. Their eyes open wider. Their hearts beat faster. They watch the games. They listen with muted excitement, awake only with the morning roosters, the halwaldars, and the paperboys. They dream of a world thousands of kilometres away. They relish this strange, beautiful addiction.
They are Indian NBA fans, a tribe of loyalists who have found a way to feed their passion for the game across the challenge of distance, time-zones, and the game's relative obscurity in the country. Their heroes were the Jordan and Garnett and James. In their half-awaken state of these NBA mornings, they could hardly dream that their favourite game would one day wind up on their doorstep.
But this year, that is exactly what has happened. On October 4-5, 2019, Mumbai will host the NBA India Games between the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers, the historic first time that India has ever held NBA preseason games. The league's popularity has exploded into a brave new frontier for India, and on the way, brought along a legion of new fans ready for NBA basketball in their own backyards.
A spectacle awaits #NBAGamesInIndia pic.twitter.com/5Yk0uDHF8z- NBAIndia (@NBAIndia) December 20, 2018
With the Games around the corner, I spoke to six hardcore Indian NBA fans, all of whom will travel from near and far in early October to be part of the audience at the NSCI Dome in Mumbai for this historic occasion. Each of them shared a story that represents thousands more just like them, many of whom will be in the building for the Games, and many more who will follow with their eyes wide open, celebrating the NBA's massive step forward in India.
Shashwat Mohanty, born and brought up in Mumbai, will find the action close to home. On the day that the ticket sales for the Games were to begin, he sat on his laptop for hours in advance, refreshing the page to ensure he didn't lose his chance. "I bought the tickets as soon as they went live," he said. "A lot of my friends even congratulated me for securing the tickets!"
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Mohanty, like many other Indian NBA fans, suffered the battle of the time-zones when trying to watch live games. "I used to wake up quite early for school and watched while I got ready. Naturally, the game sucked me in. I started watching vaguely when the Celtics won their title , and properly since the 2013-14 season. I obviously cherish the aspects on the court- the athleticism, the skills, etc. But the NBA is just as exciting off the court… It's truly a wonderful sport and an exciting league."
"My favourite player of all time is Kevin Garnett," he adds, "because of my fond memories of his trash-talking and screaming 'Anything is possible!' after winning the league!"
Another Mumbaikar who will be traveling locally for this historic NBA experience is Ashutosh Sangle. Sangle told me that he became an NBA fan from the time he began to understand the game of basketball itself. His reaction to the NBA bringing a game to India matched the astonishment of many other fans like him.
"I was shocked," said Sangle, whose favourite player is newly-minted Houston Rocket Russell Westbrook. "I forever wanted to watch NBA matches live, so when I heard that the game was coming to Mumbai, I waited to get the tickets as early as possible."
While being in an NBA arena-transplanted to Mumbai-will be a first-time experience for many fans, there are some who have experienced the game abroad and are now excited to have a new experience back in their homeland. One of the most-seasoned NBA fans in India is Aparna Rajkumar of Coimbatore, who has been an NBA fan for 37 years and has counted watching 21 games in front of her own eyes over the past three decades.
Rajkumar's fandom started, she remembered, from the early 80s, when her cousin would send her recorded video tapes of Lakers and Celtics in the height of their rivalry. Magic and Bird.
"One ebullient and most charismatic player caught my eye and heart," said Rajkumar. "With a smile to light up the entire stadium and with skills to enthral the basketball world: Earvin Magic Johnson. He ensured that a 10-year-old bug eyed kid thousands of miles away from the Showtime and hustle and bustle of exciting Los Angeles became a Laker fan for life!"
"I watched Magic Johnson at the Great Western Forum play his last Western Conference Finals against Portland… I've seen Kobe in his last season. LeBron, Steph, Melo, Giannis, Blake Griffin and so many more super stars."
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But after all these experiences, Rajkumar understands the value of having the NBA back their long-destined trip to India. "I was excited that we were going to host two pre-season games in India and that several thousand fans can finally get an opportunity to witness it in person," she said. "I'm going with the intention of being a total fan to Mumbai on 5th October, which happens to be my daughter Aishwarya's 21'st birthday. She is a baller as well and there's no other way we'd spend a special day than do a special sporting treat like this!"
"I do hope the NBA realizes the extent of fan base in India and gives our fans more such opportunities to enjoy the sport."
Another long-time fan of the sport is Krishnan Sreeraman from Chennai. "I initially remember watching Michael Jordan play back in 1997-98. I was not aware of basketball, but somehow, was addicted to Jordan. Then, the Space Jam movie confirmed my addiction! I've always been a Jordan fan, but now have an inclination towards Kawhi Leonard."
"I was overexcited," said Sreeraman when he heard about the NBA India Games. "To be witnessing a live NBA game is my dream. I was planning to go abroad and watch… But now I can watch one here in my homeland itself. It makes me excited, so excited that I am travelling alone even when no one is accompanying me to the match!"
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"This will be my first time watching a live match in any sport. So, I am excited to be in the electric crowd, reacting to every dunk and shot. I am also hoping I would get some chance to step into the court pre-game for some action!"
From Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, to Mumbai, young management trainee Sanket Sambhav has dreamt for years for basketball to get its share of recognition in India. Sambhav is a LeBron James fan who fell in love with the game when he was first given a chance to play for his school team in Class 9th.
"Watching a NBA game live was always at the top of my bucket list," Sambhav said, "And getting to know that it's going to be held in India, that too in Mumbai-where I now live-gave me a chill down my spine. This is the first time that I will watch an NBA game live. And I really feel very fortunate to be a small part of such a historical event that will definitely help basketball grow in India."
Sambhav added: "I have been eagerly counting days since I got my tickets for the game so I that could live that moment of watching some of the best players in the world balling and putting up a show for all the NBA fans in India. Off the court, I am looking forward to witness the NBA culture and lifestyle, be it the amazing sneakers, workouts, and the charity events. NBA Cares is something I have been truly inspired by and wish to see that as a success in India."
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16-year-old Gauri Pasbola, originally from New Delhi, will celebrate the historic event in her own special way: she and the rest of her high-school basketball team in Mussoorie will fly across the country to witness NBA action together.
"It is a dream come true," Pasbola said. "When I heard about the Kings and Pacers coming to India, I was very excited and contacted my head coach as soon as possible. Together, we were able to organise a trip for the girls' basketball team to watch the game… The team felt that this was a great opportunity to understand the game live and be able to watch and maybe meet their role models in person."
(Gauri Pasbola - #10 in the above picture)
Pasbola has been playing basketball for as long as she can remember, and idolises Kyrie Irving on-court. She hopes that the live experience will improve her own understanding of the game.
"I have never watched an NBA game live, in person, however I try to keep up with every game on the internet. I am extremely excited to watch an NBA game… this will teach me a lot more about [basketball] and will be a great experience."
Fans like Pasbola, Mohanty, Rajkumar, and more will descend from all walks of life, and all over the country, but for a few special nights in Mumbai, unite under a common banner: love for the NBA. For the growing population of NBA addicts in India, the hope is that these two games are just the first steps towards bigger, better things for the game.
For more updates and stories on the NBA India Games 2019, you can follow NBA.com's page dedicated to the historic event.