Let alone a naive fantasy of ever playing for his beloved Boston Celtics, Preshit Pawar wouldn’t even entertain the notion of being one of India’s best young cagers back in December. “I really didn’t want to go to the NBA academy tryouts in Mumbai,” says the 16-year-old from Thane. “I’m not the best. I was in my school team but couldn’t make it to the nationals or even state team. My confidence wasn’t that high.”
It dipped even lower when he reached the venue of the tryouts. “I went just for the kicks, and saw all these guys… wearing jerseys and bibs. Doing things on court with such swagger and class. I thought ‘what do I do now?’”
Cut to Tuesday, and Pawar is one of the 21 prospects at the launch of NBA’s residential training centre at Jaypee Greens in Greater Noida. The players — selected through a series of open tryouts and scouting at national tournaments — will compete against top competition throughout the year and will have an opportunity to be selected for travel teams that play in international tournaments and exhibition games.
The initiative is part of NBA’s drive to expand recruitment globally and follows three academies which were launched in China last year and one in Senegal earlier this week.
The number of international players in the NBA has been on the rise for three years, with a record 113 on opening night rosters for the 2016-17 season.
India has long been the sandbox for the NBA, which has organised close to 1,500 grassroots events around the country since 2008. Superstars such as Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have come visiting. The 2015-16 season saw the viewership touch 140 million but NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum says the academy is purely about “developing elite basketball prospects.”
“This initiative is not about finding more sponsors or marketing partners,” said Tatum. “Here we have 21 of the best prospects in India. What we want to do is make sure they reach their full potential, whatever that is.”
India has produced two prospects thus far: Satnam Singh, who became the first India-born to be drafted in the NBA when the Dallas Mavericks took him 52nd overall in 2015, and Palpreet Singh Brar, who was drafted by the Long Island Nets last year before being waived. Earlier in 2015, Canada-born Sim Bhullar, became the first player of Indian descent to play in the league.
The NBA, however, is now looking beyond the freakish size template.
“The size is not the decisive thing,” says Carlos Barroca, associate vice president of NBA India’s basketball operation. “In addition to the size, we are also looking at their athleticism and skills. Being an athlete is most important.”
Jacques Vandescure, a former NBA scout who will serve as the Player Development Coach in India, adds, “Many things in basketball are a little overrated, such as the age and size of a player. You’re never too late or too short to start. With this bunch, we need to focus on the fundamentals. We are a week in, and they are already showing improvement.”
Call it placebo or the fruit of hard work, but the players too believe the week has been better than the training received over the years. “When you’re training at home and school, you’re doing a lot of things, week after week. But there’s only a little improvement,” says Pawar. “Here, they want to make sure that every individual gets to a certain level. The practice is tough. The intensity is high. And then there’s the pressure we put on ourselves.”
Amaan Sandhu, the 6’10” 14-year-old who has represented Punjab at the mini nationals, adds, “We didn’t have these facilities. And the coaches here know every little thing. I’ve already improved my shooting action.”
However, Vandescure says the bunch has something which is essential. “They are emotionally driven and are familiar with the sport. They watch basketball all day.”
After all, spending the wee hours watching NBA games is what got them hooked.
“I played cricket, but it was no fun,” says Pawar. “Then, I took a liking to LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas and wanted to try the game. Now when we’re not on the court, we are playing basketball on our Playstations and mobile phones.”
Sandhu adds: “When I first got interested, I bought the Bulls sandals, Jordan’s jersey… only branded stuff. Now I realise what those things symbolise and what it means to put them on. Now, I think twice before even touching the jerseys.”