Two top NBA teams, Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers, will give India its first glimpse of what basketball in the world’s greatest league looks like. For NBA’s niche followers who wake up at 6 am and look forward to the All Stars, wear loose branded vests of No 23 and baggy long shorts, swearing by LeBron James, this is as close as they’ll get to the American jamboree. The truly commercial NBA’s detour to India’s financial capital, Mumbai, was expected. But this move might not be a game-changer for the sport in a country where basketball has thrived in several pockets for years.
The quality of play in the league that attracts the best global talent has always seemed to belong to another galaxy. Indian hoopsters, trained from Russian manuals, are at least 40 years behind the NBA’s latest acrobatics. The delayed pre-dawn “live” coverage didn’t help matters. But the NBA has finally taken the big jump — though a real connect might still take years, beyond the razzmatazz of the two-day Kings-Pacers show.
Several NBA players, not the biggest names, though, have made the “India trip” in the last few off-season autumns. A few outdoor courts have been slapped with a fresh coat of bright paint, and NBA’s Academy in Gurgaon is scouting, using the most obvious Plan Of Action — find tall, groom tall. They even pushed for the exceptionally tall boy from a Punjab village, Satnam Singh, to make headlines with his brush with the Dallas Mavericks. But, one suspects that India will need wooing that goes beyond a desi token representative in the league. A strong national team doing well in Asia (like Iran, if not China) might evoke interest beyond the casual media blitz associated with the NBA jamboree spending a weekend here. Jersey sales might multiply briefly. But it’ll take a long time for NBA’s ethos to take root.