Some of the sights before our eyes seem too surreal to be real, too wild for even Bollywood CGI to handle. How is any of this even possible, we ask? The colours of the NBA, Sacramento Kings, and the Indiana Pacers broadcast on the iconic Gateway of India? A floating court over the Arabian Sea near the Bandra-Worli Sea Link? NBA players in large numbers around the city?
And to top it all off… two exhibition NBA Games to be held in Mumbai itself?
With the first-ever NBA India Games set to be held in Mumbai this weekend between the Kings and the Pacers, this is a historic week for the NBA in India, and by extension, for Indian basketball. A number of people associated with the league have worked behind the scenes to make this improbability become into a possibility.
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In the lead-up to the Games, I interviewed two of the most important leaders behind the scenes for NBA India: Diane Gotua, the VP of the NBA's Global Business Operations who has served as the interim Managing Director of NBA India for most of this year; and Rajesh Sethi, the newly-hired incoming MD of NBA India. Gotua tenure ends and Sethi's begins right around these crucial games, and both executives spoke about the big games, basketball in India, and the future of NBA India.
Q. You served as the interim MD of NBA India at the most crucial time for the NBA's history in India… how have the last few months been for you?
DG: Oh, it's been a wild ride. It's been such a great experience for me. I've really enjoyed my time with the team here in NBA India. It's been a huge learning experience and also very fulfilling. The opportunity and the gift of being able to be the part of the team that brings the first-ever NBA games to India is not something that comes every day. It's really been great. I can't say that there haven't been any challenges, but at the end of the day, I think this is something I'll look back on very fondly.
Q. What is special about Mumbai in your eyes that it can play a good host to this big event?
DG: Look, Mumbai has hosted a number of international events. There are a lot of factors that we consider when we choose a location or city to host a global game. Mumbai fit a lot of the factors that we took into consideration. Our fans here are very avid as well. And so, it made a lot of sense. We also love the city's lifestyle, celebrity culture… Bollywood is huge here. A lot of our players are very excited to see the city and see what the city is all about, from food to culture to the Gateway - they're looking forward to that, too.
Q. Do you feel that these NBA India Games will be the start of a long relationship of NBA games coming to India more often?
DG: The Games are just one piece of our plan. But there are a lot of different things that we're doing as well. We started our business here in 2011-it's 2019, and we've bringing the game here for the first time. So that's something we're gonna continue to look at.
Q. This is a new challenge for you...
RS: It's fantastic, I'm very excited. I don't there could have been a better time to join the NBA.
Q. And you're being baptised by fire!
RS: Oh absolutely, but I think this fire is pretty cool [Laughs]. What we see around, what's happening in the country, the way sport is really going through a revolution, and basketball has a pivotal role to play in that. And so, here comes the NBA.
Q. What is special about basketball that more Indians can become fans of this game in the future?
RS: When I watch the game, it's all to do with speed and skill. That excites me. I get goosebumps when I see speed, skill and the sheer competitiveness in the celebration of sports like basketball. However, when I look at it from an Indian perspective, basketball doesn't really need huge investments or infrastructure… it's there .. as we all grew up in this country, each and every school has a basic infrastructure with regards to basketball... [The game] is good for your mind, good for your body, and definitely good for your future career.
Q. Parents obviously play a very important part for kids to play sport - what can the NBA do to motivate the parents that this is an important thing for their kids?
RS: I believe basketball really offers a great career globally, and definitely in India in the time to come. A beginning has been done by the NBA. So, when you look at NBA's pyramidic structure, at the base is the grassroots programme where we have reached out to 10,000 schools with close to 10 million kids with basketball.
And as we step up, we have invested in an academy out there in Greater Noida, where we have really scouted the talent and are taking the talent to the next level. We are having these kids compete in international arenas. We're giving them exposure at an early age. We are training them as well as looking at their nutrition, their development, their education, and taking them through even to the university programmes in the US.
The missing element in India is, when I look at my own kids, and I look at pushing them into sports, I really look forward to whether they'll be able to earn their livelihood off sports as a career. From that perspective, a few other sports in the country have opened up some avenues and opportunities in the form of local leagues. I think that's one element, and once that element gets plugged in into Indian ecosystem, then I think that the step next is the NBA itself. You know the average earning of the 450 players, I don't need to talk about numbers.. they are into million of dollars.
MORE: Grassroots Community Programs ahead of the NBA India Games
Q. Is the NBA working in tandem with the Federation in India - is there any push from the NBA's side to make sure that the league does happen?
RS: I think too early to comment on this. But yes, we have a fantastic relationship with the Basketball Federation of India. We do talk, discuss, and strategise on various things with regards to the development of basketball in this country. And yes, you have to show a career ladder to young kids… let's wait for things to evolve and emerge.
Q. In India, the NBA has done work in the grassroots with the Reliance Foundation, where you have future fans/players for life. You've made sure that the elite players are getting better training than anyone else in the country. And now, we're having a game in India, to make sure that the eyeballs of the casual fans turn also. What would you say is the next step after this-what's left?
RS: It's a pyramidical career journey in developing basketball. Grassroots… and taking future talent to the academy. There is a missing link of the pro league. I think the whole effort of introducing the celebration of basketball in terms of the games that are happening in Mumbai is for our people to really experience what the NBA experience is all about. Just watch this space - that's what I'll say!
For more updates and stories on the NBA India Games 2019, you can follow NBA.com's page dedicated to the historic event.