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Basketball and India

On the rebound: India's first NBA G-League Draftee Palpreet Singh Brar

In October 2016, Brar made history, becoming the first Indian to ever be drafted into the G-League when the Long Island Nets made them their 80th pick.
In October 2016, Brar made history, becoming the first Indian to ever be drafted into the G-League when the Long Island Nets made them their 80th pick. (Getty Images)

Picture a gymnasium, wood-panelled from end to end. Sneakers squeaking over the surface. Balls bouncing against fiberglass backgrounds. Posters of NBA legends sprawling the walls, serving as motivation to the young dreamers. Coaches harking orders. Young athletes sweating, pushing, dribbling, driving past each other. These players are 32 of the best young players in the country. And now, they are here to compete for just one spot, to be granted a near-impossible dream. It's Natural Selection, the survival of the fittest, basketball style.

The year is 2016, and the venue is the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Centre in Greater Noida, the location which has since become the NBA's India Academy. Back then, however, these courts served as the host for the NBA's first-ever 'ACG-NBA Jump' programme, a talent-hunt for the best male basketball player in India in the 18-22 age range. After a three-month long search that spanned six major Indian cities and included thousands of aspirants, 32 were chosen for the final national elite training camp in Greater Noida. Judging them from the stands were international coaches and even three-time former NBA champion, Brian Shaw. The winner would be handed an opportunity of a lifetime: to be given focused training and assistance from the NBA to prepare for the NBA G-League draft.

For these last 32, you could see the pressure in their determined eyes, smell in their sweat, hear it in their triumphant exclaims after they heard a ball swish through the nets. They knew that only one of them would be chosen.

To Palpreet Singh Brar, the pressure was nothing.

*

Brar was born to a family of farmers in Punjab's Sri Mukhtar Sahib district. Until the age of 15, Brar didn't know a thing about the game.

"Basketball was a surprise for me and my family," Brar said. "In the village, we used to mostly play Kabaddi. In 2009, we saw an advertisement in the paper from the Ludhiana Basketball Academy inviting tall, young players to try out this game. I had never heard of basketball. Never seen the game until then."

And from this unexpected start, Brar climbed to greater and greater things. Under the legendary coach Dr. Subramanian in Ludhiana, he joined an army of uber-talented Punjabi players that went on to make a mark domestically and international for India, including Jagdeep Singh Bains, Satnam Singh, Amjyot Singh, Amrit Pal Singh, and Yadwinder Singh. Brar's big breakthrough came in the FIBA Asia U18 Championship in Mongolia, where he finished as one of the tournament's high scorers, sending notice back home as the next big thing in Indian basketball.

Brar was by now a bruising 6-foot-9 power forward and a mainstay in the national team. He was part of the squad that defeated Asian powerhouses China at the FIBA Asia Cup in 2014. The sky was the limit for the young man who had already defeated the odds, from a farming village to the national team.

So, by the time the talent hunt and a shot at the NBA's G-League rolled around, Brar was ready.

*

The pressure was nothing. Brar ruled that gym in Greater Noida and won the ACG NBA Jump. He travelled to Kochi for a workout and then crossed international waters-many times over-to continue his training in Houston, Texas. For the first time in his life, he had access to world-class facilities, infrastructure, and coaching. By August that year, he had impressed several G-League coaches and scouts in the tryouts in Manhattan.

In October 2016, Brar made history, becoming the first Indian to ever be drafted into the G-League when the Long Island Nets made them their 80th pick. He followed the footsteps of his fellow Punjabi Satnam Singh, who just a year earlier had been the first Indian drafted directly into the NBA and had played with the G-League's Texas Legends. The drafting was the high-point of Brar's fast-break basketball career, where he had gone from virtual unknown to Indian basketball trail blazers in four quick years.

Just a few weeks later, Brar's run finally hit a speed bump. The Nets, after training camp, cut him from their final roster before the beginning of the season. Brar had to return back home to India without officially signing a G-League contract.

"I was definitely a little disappointed at being cut," Brar said. "My weak-point was my English language communication with fellow players and coaches. The coach told me that I'm a good player but because of the language gap, my reaction time was slow. That's why they had to waive me."

Back in the subcontinent, Brar continued to find basketball avenues to suit his skills. He played in international FIBA 3x3 events, in the short-lived UBA basketball league, and of course, continued to appear for the Indian national team in FIBA Asia events and other international tournaments.

And it was with the national team that Brar faced the biggest controversy of his career-and faced a sudden, sharp fall in his heady basketball journey.

*

It began, in Brar's own admission, with minor frictions that slowly corroded the relationship between him and the custodians of the sport in the nation, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI).

First, Brar arrived to a national camp in Bengaluru with a throat infection in December 2017, and then got a fever, missing the first few days of practice. When he finally showed up, he said the coach at the time-Rajinder Singh-made him feel insulted when he was singled out and cut from the squad in front of the junior players. Team India headed to Indonesia for an Asian Games Test Event, while Brar remained in Bengaluru.

A few days later, Brar raised a complaint again, when he found unhygienic food at the players' mess at the camp. As Team India returned-winless from the event in Indonesia-Brar continued to ruffle feathers with the federation, complaining separately about the lack of facilities for the national team.

As the camp for the next major event rolled around, Brar hurt himself a little after an extra personal workout, and, despite clearance from the team's physiotherapist, he said that the coach again admonished him in front of the rest of the team. "I knew I was going to be cut, and I came late for the next practice," he said. "I was wrong for that. I was angry."

And yes, again, he was cut, bringing an end to his dream of playing at the prestigious 2018 Commonwealth stage in Australia.

Later that night, Brar was the subject of a social media post, taken by his teammate, with a caption insulting the federation. This was the last straw for the BFI, and in June, they handed a year-long ban to Brar for the derogatory post. Brar was excluded from any possibility of playing for India in international tournaments or from taking part in the federation's domestic events. Leagues like the 3x3BL in India cut ties with him, too. Less than two years after tasting the highs of his basketball potential, he was suddenly cut away from the game that had carried him up.

"I've since tried to call the BFI for a long time," Brar said. "I've sent messages. I've apologised. But they have ignored my pleas. I admit I had some fault in his drama, but it was also an overreaction from the federation, because of their big ego, the coaches and the secretary-general made it a bigger deal than it was and denied me a fair chance."

*

By the age Brar had first heard the word 'basketball', most elite young prospects are already making their mark on the game. They have already perfected their fundamentals, had access to sound coaching, and earned valuable game experience. Brar was a late bloomer, and his ascent to the top was a testimony to his skill and resilience. In a matter of years after first picking up the game, he was playing for India, outshining other domestic prospects, and flirting with the G-League.

He's still only 24.

"I haven't even touched a basketball for months," added Brar, now speaking while taking some time away with his family abroad. "But I hope to get back to the gym soon, and I hope to reach out to the federation again before the National Championships after a few months."

"I'll be losing a year in my prime, lost respect, lost financially… At the end of the day, we are like a family in Indian basketball… I hope I'll be given a chance at a comeback soon."

Hopefully, Brar's rebound to the game is as ferocious as his first shot, and he can rise up the ranks to make history once again.

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