Grappling with a language barrier in a foreign country, dealing with the awkwardness of having to wait for an English-to-Hindi translation, tuning his palate to appreciate an American sandwich for lunch over the standard fare of dal-roti in his Ballo Ke village in Punjab. Satnam Singh Bhamara’s experiences in Florida will strike a chord with any Punjabi who has travelled across the world to make a living.
All that acclimatising to a foreign culture, while chasing the ultimate basketball dream in the United States, has started reaping benefits for 19-year-old Bhamara, who stands at 7’2”.
Record 21-time NBA champion franchise Boston Celtics on Thursday invited the youngster over to their facilities for pre-draft workouts and training sessions.
Unaware of Bhamara earlier, Austin Ainge, director of player personnel for the Celtics, described him as “humongous” while talking to the New England Sports Network. The initial reaction was followed by praise for his skill.
“He’s not just tall, he’s thick. He’s a big, strong kid. Raw, but actually shoots the ball really well,” Ainge told the network. The network also reported that “there’s a chance a team could lock up his rights and allow him to continue his development overseas.”
The trials is a big step for Bhamara, who is aiming to become the first Indian to play in the NBA. (Sim Bhullar, who played for Sacramento Kings in April, is a Canadian of Indian descent).
The language problem he faces since moving to the US as a 14-year-old never allowed his grades in school — he first travelled on a scholarship to the IMG Academy in Florida — to be respectable enough for a college scholarship. And so he skipped the step and threw his name in the hat that is the NBA draft.
He is making news now, but on the social front Bhamara was seen as a quiet one. That was not only because of his naturally shy nature. “Among my friends, I’d be the one who wouldn’t talk much because we couldn’t understand each other. I had to rely on other Indian students to translate till I could pick up some words,” he recalls.
Consequently, his grades in class fell dangerously low. He wasn’t too bothered about them initially until he was initiated to the American schooling system. All of a sudden, basketball wasn’t the only priority. He now had to keep his grades up to a certain level if he wanted to continue in the sport. Extra classes were in order since he needed to comprehend the language before he could tackle the English-medium Physics, History, and Mathematics syllabi.
There was also no option of skipping classes, something he had grown accustomed to in India. “Here if someone is missing from class, school representatives go straight to their parents’ house to find out why. It was all unusual for me and took me a few months to get used to,” he adds.
Nonetheless, now that Bhamara, who has represented India at the Asian Championships, has finished school, the NBA dream is still within reach. His English has improved significantly. He’s much more comfortable conversing in the language, though his sentences are still punctuated with Hindi and Punjabi words. His food preferences have steadily adapted to what was available at the boarding school in Bradenton.
“Ghar pe sabzi ko roti ke saath khaate hai. Yahan sabzi ko bread main daalke sandwich banake khate hai,” he says. The diet has been accepted to the point that he now no longer misses his mother’s ‘paranthas’ as much.
His sartorial taste has also changed. “I’ve started wearing pants more often,” he says, instead of his usual kurta-pajama. “My size too is slightly easier to find here,” he quips.
In India, he had grown used to being followed by stares, and often cameras, due to his height. Once in a while, there would be a request to pose for a photograph. In the US though, he is asked to engage in conversations. “People ask me my age, where I’m from, about my family, how I handle myself with such a tall body. The problem is that when American people ask me that, I used to have trouble with the language because my English wasn’t too good. So I’d get nervous around people,” he recalls.
The reception at home has also adjusted toward his cross-cultural exposure. The nickname he grew up with, ‘Chhotu’, has made way for ‘Satnam’ in his village.
The Americans too call him Sat-nam, like they’d drawl out SatNav (satellite navigation). No matter what they call him, the big man sure is bleeping on the radar.
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