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Meet trailblazer Satnam Singh: first Indian to be picked by an NBA team

Shreyas Sharma | Updated on: 27 June 2015, 14:54 IST
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The man

  • Satnam Singh is 19, 7 feet 2 inches tall and has great basketball skills.
  • He hails from Ballo Ke village in Punjab, where his 7\'2\" father and 6\'9\" grandmother reside.
  • He has been in the US for the last five years, honing his craft.

The achievement

  • Satnam is the first Indian-born player to be drafted to the NBA.
  • 2011 champions Dallas Mavericks picked him in the second round of the NBA draft.
  • Satnam will get to learn from the greatest shooting big man of all time, Mavs\' German forward Dirk Nowitzki.

The impact

  • Satnam will be a relatable figure on the basketball court for the Indian audience.
  • His presence could attract more people to watch, and more kids to play the game.

Satnam Singh Bhamara has become a pioneer at 19 years of age. On 25 June, he became the first Indian-born basketball player to be drafted by the US' National Basketball Association. He was chosen by former champions Dallas Mavericks with the 52nd pick in the second round of the draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Let's state the obvious right at the outset - Satnam won't ever be India's answer to Yao Ming. As a basketball player, China's Yao was a freak of nature, while Satnam is a skilled but raw youngster with little experience of organised basketball. Expecting him to make an immediate impact on the NBA would just be wrong.

But the signs are all in place that Satnam could become a serviceable pivot, or 'centre' in the league.

Satnam is 7'2", weighs about 290 pounds and is all muscle in the traditional mould of the centre position. But his massive hands also have a soft shooting touch, adding the deeper jump-shots to his repertoire - something very few centres possess.

Not a short-term move

Having been taken by the Mavericks in the second round of the draft, Satnam's contract is non-guaranteed, meaning it's not certain that he will play immediately for the 2011 NBA champions. But his pick is not a long shot; nine of the 30 NBA teams had got Satnam to work out for them, a clear indication of his talent.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban took to Twitter to express his delight at his newest acquisition.

The Mavs are perennial playoff contenders, and as such, Satnam will have few chances to develop on the main roster. But thanks to the NBA's subsidiary Developmental League, the Mavs will be able to assign him to their affiliate, the Texas Legends, and develop his skills at a high level of competition.

In addition, if and when Satnam does get to interact with the main team, he will have the greatest shooting big man in history, German Dirk Nowitzki, and a legendary coach in Rick Carlisle, to guide him.

Humble beginnings

Satnam was born in Ballo Ke village in the Barnala district of Punjab, where his 7'2" father Balbir is a farmer. His paternal grandmother is 6'9"!

According to Satnam, it was his father's dream to play basketball, but his grandfather never allowed him to. In any case, there was barely any basketball culture or infrastructure to speak of in the country.

Satnam was discovered at the grassroots level in Ludhiana, and it was his good fortune that this happened just when the NBA had begun taking an interest in India.

NBA India head Yannick Colaco told Catch: "We've actually worked with Satnam since he was 14, when he was at an academy in Ludhiana, and he was also part of our Basketball Without Borders programme in Singapore. More recently, he went to the IMG Academy in Florida where he got a lot of exposure in terms of organised basketball."

Satnam is skilled but raw, and can't be expected to make an immediate impact on the NBA. But he has obvious talent

It was hard for Satnam to spend the last five years in the US working on his dream, but he has finally taken the first step towards realising it.

Potential impact back home

It must be recalled that before Yao became the basketball bridge between Asia and the US, when he became the Houston Rockets' No.1 draft pick in 2002, Wang Zhizhi was the first Chinese player to get drafted to the NBA.

Like Satnam, he was drafted by the Mavericks in the second round (36th pick) of the 1999 NBA Draft. Two years later, he became the first Chinese to play an NBA game.

Like Satnam, Zhizhi too is a centre, who had limited success on the American courts. But he paved the way for the likes of Yao to make it to the NBA, which resulted in a huge NBA following in China.

Satnam can potentially have the same impact on India, a country with virtually no basketball culture or infrastructure to speak of, though viewer interest in the game has been rising.

While Canadian Sim Bhullar became the first Indian-origin player to play in the NBA last year, he went undrafted and was signed by the Sacramento Kings, who have an Indian-origin owner in Vivek Ranadive, leading some to argue that the move was to attract eyeballs in India.

But Satnam is Indian-born, has got drafted, that too by a successful team with no previous ties to India, which makes a truer reflection of the Indian basketball dream. If he does play in the NBA, he will be the one Indian kids identify more closely with.

"I think he's just the tip of the iceberg. It's the first step - a big step. I actually think this will continue to motivate and incentivise even more kids to take up basketball. He's a pioneer, and this will lead to a revolution in Indian basketball," Colaco feels.

"Yes there is a weight of expectations that he'll have to contend with, but I am sure he'll be able to carry it on his broad shoulders."

Tapping into the Indian market

There's no denying the fact that India, owing to its large, young populace, is an important market for any international sport. The NBA is no different, though its stated intent is to view India not just as a market, but as a nursery. It may be a money-making business, but no one can say the NBA has not done anything to expand the sport beyond the US and Canada.

The Indian mindset, too, is such that the media makes big deals of people of Indian origin, as seen in the case of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and sundry others.

This is why Ranadive's attempts to link the Kings to 'Indianness', such as having a Hindi website, have been viewed with some amount of cynicism. The projection of Bhullar as an 'Indian-origin' player is also viewed through that prism.

But things are a bit different with Satnam. For one, Mavs owner Cuban is known to be passionate about victory and defeat, and likes to take decisions that make sound business sense but, more importantly, sporting sense as well.

Secondly, unlike Bhullar, Satnam was courted by a lot of teams ahead of the draft, indicating that there was a genuine buzz around him, given his size and skill-set.

As such, while it may open up the Indian market for the league, Satnam's selection is not a purely market-driven decision.

First published: 27 June 2015, 14:54 IST
 
Shreyas Sharma @11shreyas

When the neighbours' kids were out playing cricket, Shreyas was umpiring, owing to a disease called laziness. His love for sports never went away, though, so he settled for the easy chair outside the boundary rope and became a journalist, first with ESPN and then, for more than five years, with Mail Today. Now an Assistant Editor with Catch News, his dream is to utilise his other 'talent' and become a humourist. Please don't encourage him by laughing at his jokes!

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