Welcome to our Indian Basketball Pioneer series.
Each week throughout the month of April we'll be celebrating one of the pioneers of our game. The ones who helped elevate the game in our country. The ones who broke through glass ceilings and walked through closed doors. The names in the game, that should never be forgotten.
This week we highlight Satnam Singh Bhamara.
Who doesn't know the 7-foot-2 gentle giant?
A native of Balloke, Punjab, Singh put India and himself on the map when he became the first-ever Indian-born player to be selected in the NBA Draft when the Dallas Mavericks chose him with the 52nd overall pick in 2015.
"I think people may look back at that date and say, that was the tipping point of Basketball in India," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in "One in a Billion," a Netflix documentary illustrating Satnam's journey to the Draft.
Tipping point or not, it was no doubt one of the milestone moments that eventually led to the historic first-ever NBA India Games in 2019.
The NBA Draft was just the beginning
Draft night in 2015 would just be the start. Singh would go on to record multiple firsts of Indian basketball in the following years.
On the second day of the 2015 NBA Summer League, Singh became the first Indian-born player to participate and score in the Summer League as he made his debut with the Mavericks.
Singh would later make a mark in the then-NBA D League (now G League), the NBA's official developmental league. One day after being named to the roster of the Texas Legends, the Mavericks affiliate, Singh made his debut against the Austin Spurs.
In doing so, Singh became the first-ever Indian-born player to participate and score in a D League game. He finished the game with four points, three rebounds, and an assist in 10 minutes of action.
Part of his rookie year in the D League included a special matchup against Sim Bhullar, the first Indian-origin player to play in the NBA.
Singh returned to the Mavericks Summer League roster in 2016 and 2017 and played a second season in the G League in 2016-17. Time spent with the Mavericks and Legends allowed Singh to continue his development and to further grow his game in the environment of a professional franchise.
Despite returning to India in 2017, it didn't take him long to continue setting foot where no Indian had before. In 2018, Singh signed with St. John's Edge of the NBL Canada, becoming the first Indian-born player to participate and play in a professional league in Canada.
I am officially drafted into the Canadian NBL, with the reputed St John's Edge in Newfoundland, Labrador!! @stjohnsedge- Satnam Singh Bhamara (@hellosatnam) September 7, 2018
Thank you to @buntysajdeh and Cornerstone Sports and Entertainment for making this happen.
And thank you to St John's Edge! #singhisking #oneinabillion pic.twitter.com/ikSrdx1doy
Through 38 games, he would average 2.1 points and 1.2 rebounds on 54.7 percent shooting from the field as the franchise finished as runners-up. The numbers aside, the near nine months he spent with the St. John's Edge provided him with the surroundings to continue expanding his game, including sharing the locker room with a former NBA Champion in Glen Davis.
Given how early Singh was recognized, his national career was fast-tracked to a certain extent.
At just 13, Singh represented the Indian National Team in the 2009 FIBA Asia Under-16 Championship and within a couple of years, he made his debut for the senior team at the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship.
While being thrust into the national scene early no doubt helped his maturity and knowledge of the game, it came after hardly any reps in the Indian domestic circuits, something that is generally expected of debutants now.
With multiple key veterans absent during FIBA World Cup qualifiers in 2017 and 2018, Singh assumed a role as a leader of the team at just 21 and 22 years old.
Satnam Singh (@hellosatnam ) was just two assists short of his first career triple double for the Indian team in the loss against Jordan at the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers.#indiaBasketball pic.twitter.com/JTlmAAvgFI- #IndiaBasketball (@BFI_basketball) February 24, 2018
Despite being largely inexperienced and still in his early 20s in the second half of the 2010s, Singh had become the face of the Indian national team simply because of the heights he had reached with the NBA.
Introduction to Basketball
A historic accomplishment like his has a unique and special journey behind it. More often than not, there are plenty of assisting 'right place at the right time moments.
Singh's story begins at the tender age of 10 when he was standing as tall as 5-foot-9. At the suggestion of his father's friend, who, like Singh's father stood a 7-foot-3, Singh left home for the reputed Ludhiana Basketball Academy, which was then led by the famous late coach Dr. Sankaran Subramanian.
A few years into his transition entered Troy Justice, a key figure in multiple near-success Indian-NBA stories over the past decade.
MORE: Geethu Anna Rahul - India's basketball G.O.A.T
In a move to develop and grow the game of basketball in the country, Justice was hired by the NBA as the Director of Basketball Operations in India in 2010. Given the talent it harboured, Ludhiana was Justice's first stop.
It was in Ludhiana where Justice first saw a 14-year-old Singh standing close to 7-feet tall but due to the unavailability of size 18 shoes in India, Singh was forced to wear two shoes that were cut apart and sewn together by a cobbler.
"When I gave him the shoes [size 19], it was a really special moment," Justice said talking about the size 19 sneakers he sourced from back in the United States for Singh.
Stint at IMG Academy
Singh's pursuit to make a living and career in basketball received a huge boost in 2010.
IMG, a US-based global sports marketing company, teamed up with Reliance Industries and signed an agreement with the Basketball Federation of India [BFI] to provide eight scholarships - four boys' and four girls' - to prospects aged 14 and under.
"When you see a project like that here in the U.S., you just start drooling and you want to find out more. You want to find out the details of how he got here and is this kid really going to be 14 years old and we have the potential to bring him back and put him into our system," Dan Barto, head skill trainer at IMG Academy, said of Singh.
Given his height and on Justice's recommendation, Singh was an easy choice, sparking his real development once he travelled over 8,000 miles to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
It was there that Singh really developed on and off of the court.
Over five years at IMG, Singh's body transformed from one of a teenager into the physique necessary to play professional and international basketball. His personality grew from having his head down for most of the first year because of the multiple cultural barriers to walking confidently with his head held high as he graduated.
It took time but overcoming the language barrier after having close to no prior English learning, not only helped him off the court to build relationships through conversations but also turned 'blank stares' during the basketball coaching into 'an exchange back-and-forth'.
As the time came for him to move on, the college route was unavailable as the NCAA had declared him academically ineligible to attend college on a basketball scholarship. However, Singh was eligible for the NBA Draft as a fifth-year senior, making him five years removed from the start of high school class.
For IMG Academy alum Satnam Singh, all work leads to this moment. #NBADraft https://t.co/AQlQEobYt0 pic.twitter.com/0rSc94fyqC- IMG Academy (@IMGAcademy) June 25, 2015
Impact of groundbreaking achievement
Currently aged 25, Singh is serving a two-year ban by National Anti-Doping Agency after testing positive for a banned substance. He can be reinstated in November 2021, when his suspension ends.
There's is plenty more to come in Singh's as he's surely far from done. Having said that, irrespective of what he achieves going forward, the flame he set ablaze on that night in June in 2015 will burn on forever.
What once seemed impossible and just a fantasy for aspiring ballers in the Indian subcontinent, Singh made a reality.
His stepping up on the stage during the 2015 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center, put a spotlight on the basketball talent in India and its potential.
The moment played a key role in the NBA conducting a nationwide talent search the very next year, one that would give one deserving aspiring Indian baller a chance to participate in the D League Tryouts. That subsequently led to the league setting up an Academy in Delhi-NCR, one that NBA Champion Kevin Durant would visit just months after it opened.
Singh's feat was key to bridging the once insurmountable distance between India and the NBA. What he accomplishes in the remainder of his basketball career will only add to his already immortal legacy.
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