I remember being a teenager, arriving alone and early on the basketball court, practicing on the half-court with invisible teammates against imaginary opponents. My favourite player at that time was Stephon Marbury, and I used to imagine myself in his shoes, marshalling the New York Knicks as their point guard, hitting jumpers from every angle, spinning and swooping my way to the basket, tipping in my own misses off the backboard, hitting the game-winning shots as the buzzer sounded.
On some days, that imagined player was Allan Houston; on some, it was Allen Iverson; sometimes, it was Vince Carter. I exalted these NBA heroes in my imagination, I wanted to play like them, fulfilling far-off hoop dreams not on NBA floors but cemented Indian grounds in Varanasi or Mussoorie.
Like many of us, the top players for India have been hoop dreamers, too. Whether they came from the dusty fields of Punjab or the tropical backwaters of Kerala, they were united by their aspirations to become basketball stars. A boom in mass communication-from TV broadcasts to internet availability-has helped bridge the gap to the NBA and the WNBA for an entire generation of players in India.
I spoke to a number of past and present Team India players about the NBA/WNBA players who inspired them to fall in love with the game. Answers have been translated/edited for clarity.
Amjyot Singh (Forward, now playing his second season for the OKC Blue of the NBA G-League, formerly played in international 3x3 circuits and Japan's D-League): My biggest inspiration has been Kevin Durant. I always wanted to be like him. Offensively, he has no weaknesses.
Vishesh Bhriguvanshi (Guard, signed by Adelaide 36ers on a training contract, played pro in Maldives, UBA League, etc.): LeBron James. I have seen a lot of players who have better results than LeBron, but if you count everything like points, assists, rebounds, than no others are in the same class. The most important thing is that he can take a team with team with bad results and improve their standings. I have been following him from my childhood. I never liked any other player. Other things like his 'I Promise' School and his charity work has been so impressive. He's a living legend!
Satnam Singh (Center, the first player drafted to the NBA by the Dallas Mavericks, played with the G-League's Texas Legends, currently with St. John's Edge in NBL Canada): My favourite players have always been Shaquille O'Neil and Kobe Bryant. I play Center, so I always looked up to Shaq who played the same position. And Kobe was a great guard. The first time I saw NBA basketball it was those two players.
Shireen Limaye (Forward for India's Women's team): Sue Bird is my favourite! Because she understands the game like no one else does! I play a lot like her because she is more into assisting other people. Earlier, I used to like Elena Delle Donne, but I saw her play against Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm and instantly fell in love with her!
Geethu Anna Rahul (Arjuna Award Winner, Former India Center, played for the Ringwood Hawks in Australia, earned WNBA trials in 2011): Michael Jordan is an All-Time favourite player. I like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, too. I like Kobe because of the way he used to copy MJ, it was actually good to see. But MJ was always the best: his fancy shots, movements, the way he played was all simply superb. Lauren Jackson of the WNBA really inspired me, too: she's got good height and could play well inside and out, it was really awesome. Many tall players in India can't run fast, dribble, take threes, etc. in the way we played or grew up. So, for me, she was such an inspiration. She played like the "short girls".
Joginder Singh (Guard): Derrick Rose. Because it's a big deal for him to come back and perform so well after the injuries he had. Like me, he is a point guard, and I became a fan because he was the most explosive at that position.
Palpreet Singh Brar (Forward, former NBA G-League draft pick, winner of NBA ACG-Jump contest): Kevin Durant, because he is 6'11" and can do anything on the court: post-ups, shoot threes, handle the ball… I became a fan after his smart move to join the Golden State Warriors and become a champion.
Jayasankar Menon (Forward, former Team India captain, First South Asian player to represent the Asian "All Star" team): Hakeem Olajuwon. I liked his spin moves in the post, which I tried to imitate!
Akilan Pari (Guard): Steve Nash, for his overall game-vision and intelligence, for the way he makes it easier for his teammates to score. I remember watching a playoff game years ago when he single-handedly led his team to victory with his intelligent passes.
Divya Singh (Forward, former Indian national captain, current coach in India's national system): Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, and Lauren Jackson. Iverson and Bryant for their tremendous skills and "never-say-die" attitude. I became a fan of theirs watching them on TV in India; they are some of the greatest NBA players will always be remembered. Jackson for her amazing all-round talent. I played against her in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, and even though we lost badly, she made an everlasting impact on me. I see similarities in her talent to Elena Delle Donne; she happened to be in the University of Delaware women's team when I was a graduate assistant coach there.
Akanksha Singh (Guard and former caption of national team): Steve Nash should be everyone's favourite… his vision, how he was an outstanding teammate, his passing… He had a team-first and pass-first mentality, even though he was a great shooter himself. He won MVP at such a short height. I remember when my coach gave me some CDs of NBA point guards to watch, and when I saw him play, I was hooked to the videos like a magnet!
Barkha Sonkar (Guard, played for Hillsborough Community College in NJCAA and IMG Academy): One of my biggest favourite and most-inspirational players is Kobe Bryant, because when he was on the court, he gave his best and played his heart out. He never really tried to show off his skills: he just did what he was good at, and that's what made him outstanding. He had great basketball IQ, played with passion, and no matter what injury or sickness he was going through, he would fight through it and not allow it to stop him on the court.
Baladhaneshwar Poiyamozhi (Guard): Kobe Bryant is my inspiration because he was never afraid of anyone when he played.
Prashanti Singh (Forward, Arjuna Award winner, former national team captain): Miao Lijie. I have played against her. I find her inspiring because she is of Asian origin and made it [to the WNBA]. The second thing is, she is not very big in size compared to what we see in the NBA/WNBA, and yet she made a difference. There are many more popular and better players, but I found my inspiration in her.
Narender Grewal (Guard/forward): My favourite player is LeBron James. I read so much about his childhood struggles and how he made it. And now, at this age, he is fittest player in NBA and continues to work a lot on his fitness.
Shiba Maggon (Forward, former India captain, women's head coach, referee): Biggest inspiration for me has been Larry Bird, because he taught me that the game was about much more than scoring. He was a completely player… He had magic in his game. He could enter the court when his team was losing and change the whole game. I loved the way he handled everything and played for the team.
Jeena Scaria (Team India forward and captain): LeBron James is my All Time favourite because I think he's the best baller in the planet right now. In the WNBA, I used to follow a lot of players, like Candace Parker, Maya Moore, Skylar Diggins, Elena Delle Donne, etc. They are all such an inspiration to us. They have shown us that women can also play amazingly on the court. They can dunk, they can make buzzer-beating shots, give amazing no-look passes, have a variety of lay-up shots, etc. They proved that nothing is impossible if you really want it. And this definitely inspires me and many other hoopers.