Why is there a Lack of Indian NBA Basketball Players?

There have been so few Indian NBA basketball players. Why is this the case? We explore some of the possible reasons.

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We all know the desi immigrant formula for success."

Very few Indian NBA basketball players have come through, with those who had an opportunity, failing to make it big.

There are several factors why there aren’t more professional Indian basketballers in the NBA.

Firstly, whilst basketball is growing, it remains a fringe sport in India. This is one sport which the British colonisers did not introduce in India. Basketball was a late entry to India.

Therefore, people from India are less exposed to it in comparison to other parts of the world

In addition, with very little broadcasting of matches in India, people do not have as much understanding of basketball.

There are also typical Indian narratives worldwide, which solely focus on studying. Parents only have one thing on their mind prioritising education for their children from a young age.

And with this, young basketball wannabees have no motivation to pursue anything other than higher education.

With Sim Bhullar and Satnam not making an impression in the NBA, young aspiring basketballers have no one to look up to.

Even though Indians have excelled in other fields, basketball remains untapped.

Basketball enthusiasts want to see the emergence of Indian basketball players who can successfully breakthrough into the NBA.

We look in-depth at some of the reasons why there have been so few Indian NBA basketball players, with exclusive reactions:

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Inadequate Knowledge

There is not enough awareness of basketball, particularly in India. Consequently, this is hindering the possibility of more Indian NBA basketball players.

In India, parents gift their kids a cricket bat and will not often think of presenting them with a basketball.

Many parents in India do not even know about the existence of the sport within the country.

Therefore, Indian children will grow up idolising stars such as Sachin Tendulkar as opposed to Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

Indian parents also have very little understanding of basketball and its potential.

Hence, with a very conventional mindset, parents are likely to encourage their child to become a doctor, engineer and so forth.

They feel this is a safer option. After all, there is no guarantee that everyone can make a career from pursuing basketball.

However, this form of discouragement prevents less chance to produce genuine Indian NBA basketball players.

Research also indicates how basketball is down the pecking order. A study from July 2020 shows the preference for Fantasy Sports users in India.

The study reveals that 77% follow cricket, whereas only a mere 4% have an interest in basketball. This reinforces that people may not be as familiar with the sport.

Basketball also does not receive the same level of exposure to cricket. This includes even when historic events take place.

For example, there was very less coverage of India’s famous 65-58 victory over might China in the 5th FIBA Asia Cup during 2014.

Without widespread noise about the achievements of the Indian team, it was virtually impossible to target many sports fans. This will naturally harm the development of the sport.

Amyjyot Singh from Chandigarh is a small forward/power forward for the Indian basketball team. He confirms to GQ that sports fans are not aware of basketball in India.

“People don’t even know we have a basketball team.”

With such sentiments, the future of Indian basketball players in the NBA is bleak.

Strategic interventions and shedding more light on basketball is the way forward to developing more Indian NBA basketball players.

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Resources an Issue

The fact that certain facilities remain scarce back in India is another factor impeding the progression of players.

Pune is actually one of the leading cities behind the promotion of basketball in India.

Basketballers from Maharastra’s second-biggest city have gone on to represent India at the national level.

Lalit Nahata, Vice-President of the Pune District Basketball Association acknowledges to the Hindustan Times the talent that the region possesses:

“We have a huge base of skilled basketballers in the city.”

Even though the city has had success with basketball, there are certain limitations.

Despite the huge number of players and clubs, it does not have a single professional indoor wooden court for playing basketball.

Even Nahatata emphasises the importance of having professional basketball courts to help players in achieving better results:

“Balewadi has few wooden court complexes, but they are not meant for playing basketball. For a basketball court, you need a good bounce base. Even the ball used on such courts are different.

“The weight and feel of the ball is different.”

Our players don’t even get a chance to experience the game on such a court unless they are selected in the Indian team.”

With very little investment made available for the sport, this is an ongoing problem within India.

It appears as if there is no concrete effort in producing more Indian NBA basketball players. Nahata does not shy away from the truth:

“Having a proper wooden court seems like a distant dream for us.”

Insufficient funding for basketball in India is disabling talent from becoming successful abroad. On the contrary, the sport in North America is flourishing drastically more.

Thus, it is likely to produce more Indian NBA basketball players from the USA and Canada.

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Lacking Support, Education and Ownership

The absence of support touches upon an earlier point, as there is a tendency to not take basketball more seriously. Indian culture is not highly favourable to the sport.

Sukhmit Singh Kalsi, who is from New York, USA, was a guard when playing as an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball player.

Describing his unlucky basketball experience, he exclusively told DESIblitz:

“Unsatisfied, disappointed and unfulfilled throughout my career.”

Coming from an Indian background, he highlights some of the issues, which came in the way of his basketball :

“Sports in general just isn’t something our parent’s generation emphasised. We all know the desi immigrant formula for success.”

“This is to study hard – get honours, take AP classes, excel in Math, score high on your SAT’s, and rinse, wash and repeat for the LSAT, MCAT, or GMAT.

“At least that’s what we were taught.”

The is a classic stereotype does exist in a desi household. Many people will not necessarily frown upon this because very few make can peak in sports like basketball.

However, it can be extremely difficult to juggle sports and education, especially if there is no parental and moral support.

It is a point like this, which can decrease the prospects of becoming one of the top Indian NBA basketball players. He expanded further as he mentions a lack of support shown by his parents:

“My parents would write a blank check for Princeton Review test prep courses but when it came to AAU fees?

“I would have to put together a power-point presentation and convince my older brother (who was Pre-Med) to go to bat for me.”

Sukhmit also believes education is the only way to go far in the NBA, stating:

“Because of this model, it is not surprising that the only lasting Indian presence in the NBA is within management.

“Sachin Gupta graduated from MIT and Stanford and broke into the league as analytics became a focal point amongst front offices.”

Sukhmit adds why Sachin Gupta is an exception:

“I mean, the dude created the NBA Trade Machine for ESPN and then went to work for Daryl Morey and Sam Hinkie. Coding and analytics!

“Tell me that’s not the most South Asian way of finessing oneself into the NBA?!”

Thus, the very little Indian influence within the NBA has either come through education and work or through ownership of NBA franchises.

Vivek Ranadivé, Chairman of the Sacramento Kings is an inspiring story in the NBA. He is the first person of Indian descent to own an NBA franchise, which in itself is impressive.

Vivek can see possibilities of the sport growing in India:

“If there was a country that was a symbol of basketball, to me India’s that country.”

Despite, there being some Indian NBA basketball players in the past, Vivek’s statement is a far cry from reality.

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Tried and Tested

Unfortunately, Indian NBA basketball players have not made a mark at the highest level of the sport.

There have been two notable entrances into the NBA from basketballers with Indian backgrounds. This includes Canadian professional basketball player Sim Bhullar.

The second is an Indian professional basketball player, Satnam Singh.

Both had everything going for them. Playing as centres, they were like behemoths, standing tall at 7ft 5 and 7ft 2, respectively.

Sim Bhullar was the first-ever ethnic Indian to play in the NBA. It was a landmark occasion when he made his debut for the Sacramento Kings in 2015.

The accomplishments of any sportsperson can often spark future generations. However, Sim Bhullar and Satnam Singh were not able to do this as they had no impact whatsoever.

There are examples like Yao Ming of China who came from an Asian background and features in the NBA Hall of Fame.

Satnam Singh was the first-ever Indian born basketballer to earn a place in the 2015 NBA draft. This was an indication to all Indians about the wind changing favourably.

There was hope for putting India on the world basketball map in the form of Satnam Singh.

But sadly, during the summer league, he only had an average of 2 points and 2 rebounds per game from 7 matches. With his performance as a player declining, he later went to appear in only 3 games with a poor return.

His statistics suggest he was not worthy of a place in the NBA, with an average of 1 point and 1 rebound per game.

But there was more behind this. He open-heartedly spoke in a Netflix documentary, One in a Billion (2016) about the pay factor in the lower leagues:

“The truth is, if you play game, then you get paid. $500 for one game.

“If you don’t play, then you don’t get paid. You’ll be empty-handed.”

“I’ve only played nine games in my time there, nine games over the last year, now calculate how much money that is.”

Sim Bhullar was also unable to break into the NBA and left after 2016. But he has done fairly well abroad in China for the Dacin Tigers and later with Yulon Luxgen Dinos.

Though one cannot deny things did not go according to plan for the two in the NBA.

For Satnam, it went really bad, as he received a 2-year doping ban from the sport in December 2020. This is after failing an out of competition test.

Such little impact cannot pave the way for more Indian NBA basketball players. There are no role models for aspiring Indian basketball players to seek inspiration from.

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Fans Verdict and Being Realistic

Many desi fans of the basketball debate this topic. They often share their views on the possible reasons for not having more Indian NBA basketball players.

Harshdeep Singh Dhillon, a student from Birmingham states there were fewer opportunities for Indian basketballers, beginning from high school level.

He exclusively talks about students from India and North America:

“We don’t get the opportunity to get into college with basketball scholarships. No Indian gets selected in basketball teams for their high school or colleges”

Onkar Singh Aujla, also a student from Birmingham is excited about the passion for the sport in Canada. He exclusively tells DESIblitz:

“We’re seeing the first generation of Canadian born Indians. They have a greater interest in basketball.”

But like Sukhmit, he is not optimistic about Indian Canadians taking up the sport, especially with no secure future:

“Immigrants who have moved to Canada to earn a life couldn’t risk going for a basketball career.

“It was too much of a risk for them to go down that route, without risking livelihood.”

No one is seriously investing the time or money to churn out more Indian NBA basketball players. This is a continuous issue that applies to both India and North America.

This stops students from entering prestigious colleges to then try and go onto greener pastures like the NBA.

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In contrast, Europe and other parts of the world have become pioneers of basketball academies, gifting young children a route to professional career opportunities.

In India, it is like a running very long distance under difficult conditions, as Sukhmit summarises:

“I kind of feel like I should mention the efforts by the NBA to spread basketball throughout India.

“I have been there and balled with the men’s Junior National team players in Chandigarh. Even though this was a while back, players from India still have a way to go.”

The fact that these players are not to the standard of those in North America isn’t shocking. Some of the aforementioned reasons explain why the skill gap is so wide.

Simply Indian basketball players are far behind to compete in the NBA. Sim Bhullar and Satnam Singh are living proof of that.

Whilst they are good players, they found it hard to advance their careers in the NBA. For things to change, the NBA needs to grow further in India, with a clear road map.

Fans will be hoping for more young amazing Indian NBA basketball players that can sustain themselves in the long run.

The likes of Ankit Hooda and Navdeep Grewal who have featured for the Ramjas College basketball team could be the future stars.

Danveer is studying BA Honours Journalism. He's a sports enthusiast with a strong passion for writing. He has strong cultural awareness about the struggles within today's society. His motto is "my words are my antenna to the world".

Images courtesy of Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group, Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports, Reuters/ED Szczepanski-USA Today Sport, NBA Entertainment, Sukhmit Singh Kalsi, Onkar Singh Aujla and Harshdeep Singh Dhillon.